Keep calm and carry on

Alistair Brown, 22.10.2014
Why museums should keep campaigning despite the lobbying act
The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014, also known as the lobbying act, which came into force on 19 September 2014, has been subject to lengthy debate over the past two years.

The government’s plan to reduce the amount that third sector organisations can spend on campaigning activities in the run-up to elections was widely denounced as an attempt to gag the voice of charities at a key point in the political cycle, while doing nothing to regulate the influence of corporate lobbyists.

The new law was passionately resisted by third sector organisations as diverse as the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Amnesty, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and Hacked Off.

But it has relatively little attention from the cultural sector, perhaps because cultural organisations have assumed that the legislation isn’t directed at them. So is there anything for museums to be worried about?

In the vast majority of cases, the answer is no. However, there are three ways that I think the act could be damaging for museums that want to be more assertive in their educational and campaigning roles:

Firstly, the act sets a maximum campaigning spend by an organisation (or groups of organisations) within a single constituency when they are campaigning on a topic that is likely to influence the outcome of an election.

Imagine for a moment that the proposed cuts to local cultural sector services (remember Newcastle?) becomes a major election issue within a constituency. Local cultural bodies could find themselves in conflict with the law if they ran or supported a campaign to maintain those services, and would be forced to collect evidence on how much they were spending.

Secondly, if a museum were to support a national campaign – probably in cooperation with other groups – its spending could also be covered by the act.

Spending on things like press conferences or media events, transport in connection with publicising a campaign, the production or publication of election material, canvassing and market research (including the use of phone banks), or public rallies and public events, are all covered by the act.

While few museums are likely to be spending on phone banks, they might provide space for public events that could be considered to be taking sides.

The act is not the end of the world, but it is likely to be a pain in the behind for those affected by its regulations.

It requires a high degree of monitoring and reporting on campaigning activities, which often descends into the farcical - the Electoral Commission stated recently that public communication via Twitter and Facebook would need to be monitored, and the costs of such activity reported.

But the third reason that I’m worried about this legislation is that it might put museums off any sort of campaigning in the first place, which would be a terrible shame. Most forms of campaigning are not covered by the act, and it only applies to those that are directly related to an election.

The vast majority of campaigning work in museums will be unaffected – particularly where that involves public education about contemporary issues, or providing a forum for public debate.

For example, the fantastic work by the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool would not be regulated under the legislation.

So don’t be too concerned. Continue to be bold in the ways that you engage in contemporary debates.

And if you do have concerns about it, get in touch with us here at the Museums Association or check the guidance on the Electoral Commission’s website.

Follow Alistair on Twitter @acbrown511


Links

Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014

Electoral Commission guidelines for non-party campaigners


NCVO guidelines

Comments

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Anonymous
MA Member
30.10.2014, 18:33
The fault with the new legislation is that it does not include corporates and lobbyists. Perhaps another government will choose to level the playing field. However, it is right that single issue pressure groups with big bank accounts shouldn't be allowed to spend what they like, when political parties have to account for every penny. Charities aren't really accountable to anyone and the Charity Commission is one of the most toothless lumberingly ineffective quangos on the government payroll (and there is quite a lot of competition for such accolades.)