The comment by Martin Niemöller regarding the way in which the Third Reich gradually removed from society all of those who they disliked and who were opposed to them is far too serious to use in a superficial way, but there can be no doubt that within many settings, challenging people or organisations in power can have negative implications for those doing the challenging. This is particularly insidious where those being challenged have power over people unable to remove themselves from the setting. When the Nazis “first came for the Socialists and then the Trade Unionists …….” there was nowhere for these people to flee.
Silencing critics is something that Political structures try to achieve in many ways. The decision by the coalition to silence charities if they speak up for or against candidates or parties or their policies in the year before a General Election is an extension of the law that has existed for many years barring charities from Party Political activity at any time. The challenge is where the Political Party publish their manifesto in the few weeks before the election itself and choose to include a policy which charities have been campaigning about for some time. If a Politician then decides that the charities must stop their campaigns to avoid any risk of legal challenge, it will be hard for the charities to disagree.
When the Euro Sceptic John Redwood MP spoke at a Conservative Party fringe event this week his target was not charities. It did not need to be because he along with all of his coalition partners had already resolved that charities would be silenced through the so called Lobbying Bill which became law in January. Instead Mr Redwood was focusing on businesses, specifically those that were in favour of the UK remaining an active member of the European Union. He explained: “If they don’t understand that now they will find those of us organising the ‘get out’ campaign will then make life difficult for them by making sure that their customers, their employees and their shareholders who disagree with them – and there will be a lot who disagree with them – will be expressing their views very forcefully and will be destablising their corporate governance. This is absolutely crucial that these people get this. That it will be deeply disruptive to their businesses, and maybe even to their own tenure of their jobs, if a chief executive with a handful of shares thinks he can put the voice of a multi-national corporation behind a highly intense political argument in one country in which they operate. It would be extremely foolish and we must make sure they have to pay a very dear economic and financial price were they to try that ill-judged thing.”
I have written in this space on a number of occasions about actions taken by current Government Ministers to overrule decisions taken by Local Government, even though the local decisions are supported by local people. This is not something that is unique to the coalition Government, sadly previous Governments have track record on this sort of behaviour. However as we approach a General Election we will be told that we can hold our Government to account. This is not easy as each of us gets one vote to select our local MP and local Councillor. That is not an easy way of holding a Government or a Council to account. However there are other ways of measuring support for the Political Parties that want to form a Government. In the next few months our Broadcasters will need to decide how to allocate airtime to Political Parties in the period prior to the election. Historically they have decided on the basis of the number of MPs that the party has managed to get elected in previous elections as well as the number of candidates fighting for seats. That is primarily a measure of the past. What is just as relevant is the number of people who currently pay a subscription to support their party of choice. The Conservative Party has less than 150,000 members, Labour has around 200,000 members. This must bring into question the point at which they have greater access than some of the less well known parties that find it hard to gain publicity. Will the National Health Action Party be denied access to the broadcasts, just because they have never fought a previous election, or should their membership be the measure?
It is clear from my own experience of fighting an election that the main parties will fight robustly to maintain their dominance, even in elections where Independent candidates are very successful such as the PCC elections. A Government that has produced the Lobbying Bill and given John Redwood his platform to challenge businesses clearly cannot be trusted to decide whose voices are heard. We need a new way of protecting free speech.