Comms Officer speaks against The Gagging Law

On Friday 25th October, our Comms Officer, Rosie Rawle, was invited to speak at a public meeting in Norwich hosted by 38 Degrees. The purpose? To convince Liberal Democrat Simon Wright MP to vote against the current Lobbying Bill, also known as ‘The Gagging Law.’

The Gagging Law is a piece of legislation currently being passed through the House of Lords that aims to make political lobbying more transparent and equal in the run-up to an election. It calls for stricter spending limits on third party organisations and campaigning activity ‘which can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure electoral success.’

Below is the speech that was delivered on the night:

“Hello, I’m Rosie. I’m 22 and studied International Development at the University of East Anglia. And last year I was fortunate enough to be elected as a full-time officer at the Union of UEA Students.

Back in 2010 in the run up to the General Election, I was one of those students who had lost faith in politics. The two main parties had both established a commission on University Fees and I was a student campaigner that wanted to keep that £3000 cap- but then Nick Clegg leaned into a camera and said “We will resist, vote against, campaign against, any lifting of that cap”. And at that point I was in- I was part of an NUS campaign around the country that got first Lib Dem candidates and then others to sign a personal pledge to vote against putting up fees.

We all know what happened next, but what I want to talk about tonight isn’t the breaking of the pledge. It’s the fact that if this gagging law was in force we wouldn’t have been able to run the campaign at all. What a disgrace.

The gagging bill is an infringement on democracy, a barrier to political engagement, and an axe to an empowered civil society. And when young people are already as disengaged as they are, this would be a complete disaster for my generation.

There were two key themes that I ran on in student elections – bigger issue led campaigns to get students involved in politics, and getting the student vote out – both of which I think are intrinsically linked.

But when I talk to students voting in elections turns them off- it’s clear that the way in which young people and students first engage in politics is through issues.

We recently held a priority campaigns poll on our campus, asking students to vote for the issue that mattered to them most. Ethical Investment, Exam Timetables, A Safe room on campus, Coursework Return, and Get The Vote Out. Thousands took part – the winners had over 3,000 votes a piece…  and last, trailing behind, was Get The Vote Out with just over 700.

AND YET – we had students campus-wide discussing gender equality; the state of safety in British cities at night; how late the street lights turn off, why they turn off; how we understand ourselves as partners in our education, what we expect from education with or without fees; EVEN – the University’s ethical investment criteria, ethical banking, the thickness of ties between our institutions and fossil fuel dependence – ALL issues that lie not only within the walls of our campus –but are issues for wider society too.

That poll we had at UEA tells us a lot – that for a strong democracy, we NEED to engage students, and young people in politics through a variety of means, issue based campaigns, mass networks and organisations – that deliver a story, a focus on the content of change, rather than the process. And campaign networks, charities, and organisations like student unions, and the NUS, I think have an almighty power to do this.

Our society is stronger with coalitions and collaboration. On campus, even our student council policies spur on, or originate from movements created through organisations like the NUS. Through them, we share skills, co-ordinate, reach the media. We’ve just affiliated to the Norfolk Peoples Assembly – solidarity with others facing cuts – bedroom tax, living wage. DPAC. Save the NHS. And reaching further: a fossil free campaign that began in the USA, brought through UK organisation People & Planet… What I really don’t understand is how we could let any government break up these incredible connections.

So this gagging law significantly risks undermining our campaigns, organisations, and civil society.

The proposals are broad in scope, severe, hastily prepared and are completely removed from the way in which people relate to politics.

The law could mean that individual members of formal coalitions will also be liable for the total spend of the coalition.

It could create uncertainty for and impose burdens on civil society organisations.

With the definition of “regulated activity” broadened to cover issue based registration efforts, rallies, research, media work and staffing costs, even the Electoral Commission doesn’t know how its going to manage the process.

A bizarre addition is that their definition of “political campaigning “ doesn’t rely on the intent of the third party- the effect is taken into account even if the activity was carried out for other purposes. And that means that much of the day-to-day campaigning of student unions, NUS and many others could become subject to the new, far far lower expenditure limits in the year running up to an election. And the reporting up until these elections: non-party campaigners will be required to produce quarterly reports on any donations towards spending and every WEEK in the post-dissolution period – even if they do not receive any donations.

That’s all we need. Even less resource allocated to get students involved.

The grassroots movements are incredible on campus: just last night our Union Council made the decision to ban the sun newspaper in our outlets, hold an alternative ethical careers fair, and next week, there will be motions on ethical banking, Halal and Kosher food on campus, and a campaign to students have run naked protests for the rights of workers on the other side of the world.

We need more of that. Not less.

So I’ll tell you what I want from Simon Wright. Just like Clegg did on fees in 2010, I want him to promise to resist, vote against, campaign against any gagging of student campaigns. Only this time, I want him to stick to the pledge as well.

And I mean, if you heard the list of our campaigns, the fingers that are being pointed, I might too shy away from facing them – and delivering a gagging bill heavy handed over the dinner table, but I’d like to think the Lib-Dems are cleverer than that.”

Whilst the bill has yet to pass through the House of Lords, charities, thinktanks and bloggers have collaborated, and mobilised to oppose it’s inception. Key players in the nation-wide campaign, 38 Degrees, implore that these “draconian new rules would prevent non-politicians from speaking up on the big issues of the day.” In addition, the Electoral Commission, said: “It appears that the Government has been taken aback by the level of opposition and has spent the past few weeks on a headless chicken run. Unsurprisingly, this has resulted in amendments that mystify more than they enlighten.”

Comment below to tell us what you think of the gagging law.

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