Our nation needs lawmakers who can explain their work in simple terms, ensuring that people like you and me know what is being proposed and how it will affect us. Sadly there are far too few of these people. Too few MPs with their feet on the ground you and I inhabit, and perhaps unwilling to try to understand what we experience.
Last night I spoke at a large public meeting in Brighton on the “Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill 2013-14”. Around 300 people were present, more than at any meeting to discuss politics that I can remember for a long time. The Bill is not easy to understand, in large part because of the way that it is drafted with a great deal of the true meaning hidden in amendments to other pieces of legislation. In addition to this on the day we met the Government had announced that a number of amendments to the draft legislation were going to be made creating more uncertainty. Many of those present are involved with charities or Trade Unions who are rightfully disturbed at the likely impact on their organisations or perhaps more importantly on the ability of their organisation to help vulnerable people.
Representatives of at least three Political Parties were present (Conservative, Labour and Green) along with many people, including myself who are not members of any Political Party. Whilst the General Election is more than a year away, those Parliamentary Candidates who did speak, ensured we knew what their ambitions are. The absence of any Conservatives with one notable exception or anyone who admitted being a candidate for the Lib Dems implied that neither party wanted to engage with this group, which may have been a missed opportunity. Few people present seemed interested in the Election, but most were openly opposed to what they understand the purpose of the Bill to be. The one Conservative that did speak made clear his dislike for organisations that in his view sought to change the outcome of elections. You can read his views here. He also attempted to justify the Bill and explained that it did not affect charities in the way that many feel it does, but could not or did not attempt to articulate how it would capture the few charities that he felt were unacceptable in their actions, whilst allowing the majority of charities to continue to challenge and engage with Government. He twice referred to the Trussell Trust as an example of a charity which would not be affected, but he did not explain which charities would, or how the distinction would be made. The most disappointing element of the evening was that neither of the local Conservative MPs were present despite being invited. The date for this meeting was set some time earlier, and whilst one MP had not replied to the invitation at all a few weeks ago, another had suggested he would come if he could. In the end Simon Kirby sent a representative on the night, Graham Cox, a Conservative Councillor who some have tipped as a future leader of the group. It is clear that MPs are busy people and they cannot be expected to attend every meeting that they are invited to, however MPs are meant to be accessible to their constituents, they should engage with electors and be accountable for their decisions. I wrote to 14 Sussex MPs in the beginning of November when the Government announced it would hold a 6 week consultation period over this legislation. Only one MP, Simon Kirby was willing to meet with me (I wrote about the meeting here), and one other explained via a letter why he had supported the Bill. Three including Norman Baker MP, a Government Minister ignored my correspondence altogether.
What we need, and what is missing are large numbers of MPs who are willing to engage with constituents and residents, prepared to explain their views and to listen. There are far too few of these and Caroline Lucas is certainly one. Another face in last nights crowd was Dave Lepper who was an excellent constituency MP, prior to his retirement, as was Andrew Bowden in the neighbouring constituency before him. One of the great constituency MPs in this Parliament was Paul Goggins. I met Paul on several occasions and knew him by reputation, very sadly he died this week, after falling ill during Christmas. I am confident that had the Labour Party tried to introduce part 2 of this terrible Bill, that Paul would have been one of those opposing it, and perhaps just as importantly, he would have explained it in terms we could all understand. I mention that because as Graham Cox suggested at the end of last nights meeting, if this Bill does get passed, Labour won’t repeal it. The tragedy is that very few MPs appear to really understand the world that many of their constituents inhabit, and Governments are usually even more distant. As the family of Paul Goggins mourn his passing, Westminster is a bit poorer for his loss. Let us hope that in the General Election 2015 that many men and women will get elected who will not only ensure that their constituents are kept informed, but that the new Government will show by their actions that charities and civil society will be cherished and that rich, powerful vested interests will be curtailed in their attempts to influence our lawmaking. Sadly this Bill does not achieve either of those ambitions despite some of the warm words Graham Cox had for it last night. We need a good lobbying Bill, but this Bill does not even come close!