There could hardly be a bill more deliberately mis-named and more cynically drafted than the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill published 4 days ago. It is riddled with more holes than a colander. It discriminatorily singles out trade unions for attack even though they are clearly a campaigning organisation, not an organisation that employs lobbyists. It flourishes the extraordinary loophole that professional lobbying firms will be free to keep their clients secret, despite promising transparency in Whitehall, provided they limit their meetings to special advisers and mid-rank officials and will only have to reveal their clients if they meet ministers or permanent secretaries. Another obvious flaw is that the new so-called lobbyists register will also exclude companies, e.g. those in financial public relations, whose lobbying activities constitutes only a small part of the business. Then there is the question of what lobbying means at all under the terms of the bill when it is clear that Lynton Crosby, the Tory party’s electoral guru and PM’s adviser, has had conversations with Cameron about plain cigarette packaging when his firm, Crosby Textor, works for tobacco giant Philip Morris Ltd, yet that doesn’t count as lobbying.
So this is Tory camouflage to allow their lobbyists to carry on untroubled as before. But even though trade unions are irrelevant to the lobbying industry, this most viscerally partisan of governments could not resist having yet another swipe at them within the contours of a bill that the unions fall outside. The bill prejudicially limits the amount trade unions and other registered ‘third parties’ can contribute directly to general election campaigns, reducing it by three-fifths from £988,000 to £390,000. At the same time the bill also proposes, equally irrelevantly to its main purpose, that unions will be forced to undergo annual audits on the size of their membership. There has been no public consultation on either measure not any previous suggestion that such measures should be included in a bill clamping down on lobbying. Neither measure was included in the coalition’s programme or the government’s mid-term review.
This is a profoundly biased and jaundiced bill, deliberately introduced on the very last day before the parliamentary recess in order to minimise any counter-attack. It makes a pretence of registering lobbyists while manifestly (and deliberately) failing to do so – rather in the same way that the government has introduced the GAAR as a pretence that it is cracking down on corporate tax avoidance whilst limiting its reach only to a small fraction of tax avoidance. But the real objective of this nasty little bill, whilst giving political cover to the Tories for allowing secret lobbying to continue unabated, is another blatant attempt to weaken and marginalise the unions and thus the Labour Party. Yet not a word about the £25bn a year the Tory party get from hedge funds and the banks which makes them the biggest lobbyists of all.