Monday, 1 May 2017
Government's gagging law restricts discussion.
Last Saturday I attended a day conference on "A progressive, sustainable and social future" splendidly organised by the students of Leeds Beckett University. Clearly the conference was planned long before the calling of the general election, but the fact that it took place at the beginning of an election campaign made it all the more relevant.
But not necessarily more effective.The concurrence of events had the unfortunate effect of stifling the discussion.
The contributors included representatives of such as Global Justice Now (formerly the World Development Movement, of which I regard myself as a founder member), Jubilee Debt Campaign, War on Want, Friends of the Earth, and many locally based campaigning organisations.
Most are charities, and as the result of one of the more inept pieces of Conservation legislation, if during an election campaign they say anything that could be interpreted as being for or against a particular party, then their "comments" could be charged to the expenses of the relevant party and, I believe, they could also lose their charitable status.
The initial purpose of the legislation was the perfectly reasonable and highly desirable attempt to control the activities of "lobbyists" representing organisations with their own agendas unduly, and often in secret, influencing the government. Indeed David Cameron had presciently predicted that lobbying, after the "cash for questions" and MPs' expenses scandals, was the the next big scandal waiting to happen.
However, the general consensus is that, far from limiting the activities of big business (eg the Murdoch press, the fracking industry), their access to ministers and civil servants appears to continue much as before, and the main effect of the legislation is to tie the hands of campaigning organisations.
Many of the speakers in the workshops stressed that they were limited in what they were able to say, although most succeeded in conveying their meanings via. figurative nods and winks. However, I suspect it is not beyond the bounds of possibility for "spies" to infiltrate similar conferences and "report infringements" to their masters.
This curb on public discussion is not an isolated case. A report issued last month, listing the level of press freedom in 180 countries, showed that the UK had slipped by 12 places in the last five years, to 40th out of 180 countries.
Shame on us.
In contrast to the gloomy devaluation of British standards mourned above, on 1st May 1840, Britain was at the cutting edge of progress by introducing the world's first postage stamp, the famous Penny Black.
And, exactly 20 years ago, on 1st May 1997 Labour won the largest post-war majority of any party, it was sunny, and, even though we Liberal Democrats suffered a net loss of one, we all thoght things could only get better.