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The government has partially retreated on the #gaggingbill

by Nigel Stanley     September 7, 2013 at 9:59 am

In the news cycle, late Friday afternoon is reserved for embarrassing admissions, U-turns and other things you want to say as quietly as possible.

That explains the timing of the government’s announcement that they are making significant amendments to what has become known as the gagging bill. To quote from the Cabinet office press release:

‘After discussions with the NCVO and others, and in order to make the point as clear as possible whilst maintaining the reforms to electoral law, we now propose to revert to the situation as set out under existing legislation, which defines controlled expenditure as expenditure “which can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure electoral success”.’

Of course careful examination of small print will be necessary and this is a quick initial response, but it looks like a significant retreat. No-one has ever said that activities such as the TUC Congress or a TUC demonstration need to be regulated under current law that uses this existing definition. The worry with the Bill’s original wording was that it no longer tested just the intent, but had a vaguer definition which included subjective judgements about an activity’s effect.

But this change does not make the Bill acceptable. Part 3 still wraps unions up in unnecessary red tape, breaches the privacy of trade unionists and may impact industrial action ballots – already about as legally regulated as it is possible to get.

Part 1 that supposedly regulates lobbyists does no such thing. Its only purpose in life seems to be to tick a box in the coalition agreement.

And Part 2 still limits what the majority of people would see as legitimate campaigning by non-party groups, even if they are not things the TUC does as we would need a political fund so to do.

There were always three objections to Part 2. The first – the vague and broad definition of what counts as “for electoral purposes” – appears to have gone. But that leaves sharply reduced limits (up to 70 per cent) on what third parties can spend both nationally and in constituencies. And in toxic combination with that, more activities will have to be costed and put towards that cap. At present obvious election campaigning such as leaflets and adverts count against the cap, the Bill will include many more activities, policy work, rallies, transport and even media work. Staff time involved in these much less easy to define tasks will have to be fully costed too, as this counts against the cap, even though political parties do not have to count the cost of their staff time against their much bigger cap.

Most people see limits on big money in elections as a sensible way of stopping them being bought. But the government has made no case for the new limits and definitions, and they will have a big impact on broad and popular campaigns with a clear electoral focus such as work to reduce support for extremists and possibly local campaigns such as those for or against infrastructure investments. Yet the Cabinet Office are clear that the new caps will stay:

It is important to reiterate that the Bill will still bring down the national spending limit for third parties, introduce constituency spending limits and extend the definition of controlled expenditure to cover more than just election material, to include rallies, transport and press conferences.

My reading of the Bill has always been that it was meant to smuggle in a surgical strike at trade unions and campaigns that the coalition parties fear under cover of pretend lobbying rules. But it was so badly drafted it brought together a huge civil society alliance. Today’s climbdown restores the Bill to its original intention, and it should still be withdrawn.

As TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady says today:

“The poor drafting, muddled justification and expert condemnation that brought together perhaps the biggest ever coalition in public life made this retreat inevitable.

“But the problems with this Bill have not gone away as it still limits campaigns against extremist parties, breaches the privacy of trade union members and fails to open up lobbying. If ministers think that opposition will now melt away, they have another think coming.”

The new Lobbying Bill will criminalise even basic campaigning by Trade Unions

by Nigel Stanley     August 19, 2013 at 3:04 pm

Proposals in a bill slipped out as Parliament broke for the Summer, and due to be debated as soon as MPs return, will gag the TUC, trade unions and every campaign group in the country in what can only be seen as a “chilling attack on free speech”.

The Transparency of Lobbying, non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill will make organising the 2014 annual TUC Congress or organising a TUC national demonstration in the 12 months before the 2015 General Election into criminal offences.

The Bill does this by making three changes to the regulation of campaigning by non-party organisation in the 12 months before a general election – breaching these will become a criminal offence:

  • Changing the definition of what counts as campaigning – at present only activities designed with the intent of influencing an election result are regulated. The new Bill will instead regulate activity that may affect the result of an election. As any criticism of government policy could affect how people vote, this will severely limit any organisation’s ability to criticise government policies in the run up to an election – not just unions, but charities, NGOs and local campaign groups.
  • Reducing the spending limit for third party campaigners to £390,000 – the amount that third party campaign groups can spend in the year before an election will be reduced by more than half to £390,000.
  • Including staff time and office costs in expenditure limits – currently only the costs of election directed materials, adverts and activities are regulated. The Bill proposes that staff time and other costs should now also be included in the limit. £390,000 may buy a lot of leaflets but any major event involves significant staff time.

The notes on clauses for the Bill have more detail of how it would work.

The 2014 TUC Congress for e.g., or a national demonstration would not just take the TUC over the annual limit but each member union as well. But political parties’ own conferences happening in the same month would be given an exemption in election spending limits.

Organisations that campaign locally face even tougher challenges. Spending has to be allocated under tough limits by constituency. Every penny of spending will have to be tallied and reported – this will severely limit campaigns such as those run by Hope Not Hate against the BNP, or local grass-roots campaigns such as those against hospital closures or road building.

It is an open secret at Westminster that this rushed Bill has nothing to do with cleaning up lobbying or getting big money out of politics. But it has been drawn so widely that its chilling effect will be to shut down dissent for the year before an election.

Even though the restrictions on third party campaigning make the Bill a constitutional measure, there has been no consultation process or cross-party talks.

Today we’re seeking an urgent meeting with Cabinet Office Minister Chloe Smith to protest at the way this damaging Bill is being rushed through without the proper consultation.

Of course not everyone agrees with TUC views and policies, but we expect there is going to be a very wide revulsion at this outrageous attack on freedom of speech.

a longer version of this blogpost is at the Touchstone blog.

Are we at a ‘tipping point’ on the government’s cuts? Not exactly…

by Nigel Stanley     November 21, 2012 at 9:10 am

The Royal Society of Arts have commissioned an interesting poll from IPSOS-MORI on attitudes to spending cuts.

There are certainly some interesting findings but perhaps not the one they lead with in their press release. This starts:

People’s attitudes towards cuts to public spending and reduced living standards may be reaching a ‘tipping point’ with high concerns about the future effect on themselves and their family, an RSA commissioned survey suggests.

But to be a tipping point something has to have changed.

YouGov have been tracking whether people expect “to suffer directly from cuts in spending on public services such as health, education and welfare” since just after the general election with the question asked at least once a month.

I’ve put the percentage who agree into the graph below. It’s about as close to a horizontal line as you can get in a tracking poll – if anything there is a very slight decline, though not one I’d see as significant.


So not much of a tipping point here.

But enough smart-alec debunking, the poll does have some interesting findings too.

I regularly look at the YouGov trackers. To summarise (and probably over-simplify) these, majorities think the cuts are too deep, too fast and being applied unfairly. But a majority say the cuts are necessary – 55 per cent to 27 per cent in their most recent poll this month.

But the RSA asked about this in a different way. While YouGov give a simple choice betweenwo opposed positions, IPSOS-MORI have a more nuanced choice giving respondents a five way choice of strongly agree, tend to agree, neither agree nor disagree, tend to disagree and strongly disagree. Crucially they add a position in the middle.

Doing this gives a slim majority to opponents of the cuts 39 per cent to 35 per cent – rather different from the YouGov finding. Both are reputable polling companies so this does show that changes in in wording can make a difference.

In probably the most interesting and valuable finding – as I’m not aware anyone else has asked this question – the RSA work also shows that people do not understand the scale of the cuts to come. This is what I would have put upfront if I had been writing the release.

To quote their release:

The poll showed that thirty-eight per cent of people currently have no idea what proportion of the Government’s spending cuts have been carried out so far. The results showed that half of people believe a higher proportion of cuts have been carried out than is actually the case (51% think 20% or more of the cuts have been carried out so far) Figures from the IFS predict only 12% of the cuts to public services will have been by end of 2012

When asked if they are worried that government and public services will do too little to help people in the years ahead, sixty-nine per cent agreed and only nine per cent disagreed.

This is to be the first of a new series of tracking polls – where the same questions are asked periodically. This is very welcome. Even though question wording does make a difference, if you ask the same question repeatedly the change over time can tell you how opinion is moving as there will be the same question bias in each poll.

But as ever, read the full data and not just the press release. And it’s probably time I updated my YouGov tracker posts.

Reading the British Social Attitudes Survey through different ‘frames’

by Nigel Stanley     September 18, 2012 at 11:45 am

The great danger with something as wide-ranging as the British Social Attitudes Survey is that people look for the results that confirm what they already think – what psychologists call confirmation bias.

We saw that in coverage, with some highlighting support for higher public spending but others leading on ‘tough’ attitudes on welfare and immigration.

The other temptation is to try to construct a coherent world view and describe this as ‘what the public think’.

The truth is much more complicated – because people are much more complicated than these approaches suggest. Few of the interesting questions in the survey have such overwhelming majorities that there are not a significant number of dissenters. We do not know whether the people on the majority side of questions tend to be the same people, or whether they are more randomly distributed between winning or losing arguments.

And as anyone who has sat through a focus group knows, most people do not have a coherent set of beliefs about the world and every policy issue. Most people don’t find the need to think deeply about issues that do not affect them directly and often have very imperfect knowledge. If they did follow issues in detail the precise wording of poll questions woud not matter so much.

One helpful concept is George Lakoff‘s theory of framing. He argues that people usually do not make decisions or strike attitudes purely through rational choices but by a more slippery process based on emotion, metaphor and language. Here’s a piece from the New York Times which explains this at a journalistic level. Lakoff argues that much of politics consists of competition between liberal and conservative frames (using these words in the US context, not as Clegg v Cameron).

Almost everyone uses a mix of these, although most people tend to use one more than the other. People in the centre are those therefore with the least fixed framing, rather than those who make the most rational choices.

I have observed people in focus-groups switch frames. One minute they echo conservative scrounger rhetoric, the next complain how tough it is for an unemployed relative to live on their benefits, but with the former completely influencing their political views.

But framing is still a very useful way to think about the British Social Attitudes Survey. I read its results therefore as a competition between progressive and conservative frames for the issues it covers. So we can see that conservatives have very successfully framed the welfare debate as about scroungers and abuse.

This chart tracks those who think unemployment benefits are too high less than those who think they are too low. (I’ve extrapolated data for two years when the question was not asked.) And don’t forget the real value of unemployment benefit has fallen considerably over the period covered by this graph.

The next graph (which comes from the BSAS website) however shows how unsuccessful conservatives have been in the UK in arguing for a smaller state.

The argument is between those arguing for more spending and those who say keep it the same – and there has been a slight shift in the progressive direction in the last year.

F_Welfare _1.1

I am not sure there are any flip conclusions from all of this for progresive campaigners. Shifting views on welfare is hard. Prejudice against claimants runs deep and is emotional. There are similar views on immigration (though wrong to see as racism, other than for a minority).

But while the government wants to frame all economic questions through the lens of deficit reduction, they are not succeeding.

Yet thinking about these attitudes in terms of frames can be helpful for campaigners. The challenge is always to get more people to view more issues through the progressive frame – and a good test for any action or argument is whether it helps achieve this.

a longer version of this post is at Touchstone blog

Why ‘union turnout’ is no excuse to attack strike action

by Nigel Stanley     November 28, 2011 at 8:30 am

Government supporters are busy playing the ‘union turn-out card’ in advance of the TUC Day of Action on Wednesday.

They say that few union members voted for a strike. Non-voters can be assumed to oppose the action, therefore the strike is illegitimate, or so they argue.

This is based on choosing a few bad facts that suit the argument.
continue reading… »

Even a tax-cut goes against Osborne’s economic narrative

by Nigel Stanley     August 4, 2011 at 5:05 pm

Most readers will wince every time they hear a minister talking about ‘maxing out the nation’s credit card’.

Those of us old enough to remember can hear the direct echoes of Mrs Thatcher’s housewife’s purse, which she used to justify what in retrospect look like quite mild cuts in spending.

Yet this simple narrative has worked for the government…until now.
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How the UK could pay for its demographic “time-bomb”

by Nigel Stanley     July 27, 2011 at 11:02 am

Many of the headlines generated by the Office for Budget Responsibility’s recent report concentrated on the challenges of the demographic “timebomb” – the fact that we are living longer.

There will be undoubtedly be extra costs, but there is no need to give in to right wing calls to slash spending.
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Boris Johnson’s undemocratic attack on the right to strike

by Nigel Stanley     June 30, 2011 at 3:59 pm

London Mayor Boris Johnson has renewed his call for industrial action ballots only to be valid if the turn-out is more than 50%.

Superficially that might sound just a bit democratic, but the reality is that it is simply about erecting a hurdle that will make official strike action extremely hard to achieve.

Let us take a hypothetical workforce of 1,000.
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Cuts to back-office jobs will still affect frontline police officers

by Nigel Stanley     March 31, 2011 at 11:22 am

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary yesterday published their analysis of what constitutes a front-line police job.

And politicians of all parties like to say that they will defend front-line public service jobs by cutting the back-office bureaucrats. But this division is a nonsense.
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Polls show public back decent public sector pensions

by Nigel Stanley     March 11, 2011 at 9:02 am

Here’s a fascinating poll commissioned by Prospect on public sector pensions that has not received the attention it deserves.

By more than five to one, the British public says the average public sector pension should be increased to at least £10,000, a YouGov poll for the Prospect professionals’ union has revealed. Only 11% of people say public servants should get less than £10,000.
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