I blogged a few months ago about the various moves the UK’s Conservative government has put in place that seek to cement its ability to govern without effective opposition. Since then there have been various developments, including the entirely predictable loss of a million voters from the electoral rolls. Some of those names may be restored, but they will have been absent from the register at the moment used to calculate the size of constituencies with the consequence that MPs from leafy affluent places will represent populations much smaller that poor post-industrial ones. Restrictions on trade unions are steaming ahead (including “reforms” that will deprive Labour of most of its funding), and plans to repeal the Human Rights Act are still on the way.
This morning’s atrocity involves government plans to prevent charities and the voluntary sector from using any funding they’ve received from government to lobby for changes in policy or expenditure. The proposal is the result of lobbying from the right-wing think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs. Charities won’t be completely silenced. If they have funds that are raised from private sources then they can use these for advocacy. It isn’t clear from the reports whether funding from sources like the Big Lottery or local government (what’s left of it) will be covered. The effect of these restrictions will be that there will be fewer voices advocating for the poor and dispossessed in areas like housing, mental health provision, or policy towards refugees and asylum seekers. Charities who point out the effects of benefit sanctions on welfare claimants or the conditions in immigration detention centres may find that they are under a duty to demonstrate that the salary of their talking head on radio or TV didn’t come from public funds. Meanwhile, the corporate sector, being “private” can lobby away all it likes.
Of course ministers don’t like being told about the effects of their policies. But good government, as opposed to good politics, requires that they find out what those effects are. And that means they need independent people to tell them. And it means that the voiceless need advocates to counter the lobbying of corporate-sponsored think-tanks and lobbyists. In other areas of policy, the government is keen the vaunt the “independence” of those who advise them, frequently mentioning this as a feature of, for example, the Migration Advisory Committee, a body consisting of economists appointed by government, who answer questions set by government, according to criteria devised by government. There, “independence” has a legitimating function for policy. What the UK government doesn’t want is independent voices who give it accurate information about the effects of its policies. It wants the public conversation to be dominated by supine journalists fixated on the Westminster narrative who work for private media conglomerates. The voices it wants are those who don’t care about the people who don’t matter. When the consequences are horrendous, ministers will probably complain that nobody told them.