Speech to the Oxford Union – “Democracy is for sale”

At one of my first visits to the Union I heard Denis Norden – a great script-writer – begin his speech as follows:

“I have just come back from 6 months on Capri;  I was finishing a novel;  I am a slow reader …….”

In a debate a few months later I argued that, although the black arts of the advertisers were getting ever more sophisticated, we could still choose NOT to be persuaded.

Both these long lost experiences are relevant to tonight’s debate:  first, my contribution will have NOTHING to do with fiction, all solid fact;   secondly, I will argue that the tools of the persuaders – and the huge sums of money at their disposal – have developed to a level which now threatens Western democracy.

But first it is my pleasure to welcome our two very famous guests from the US.   Some would say infamous.  Not me !

James Bopp Junior is described as a “conservative lawyer”.  In American parlance that means something a good deal further to the right than anything we experience here:  for example, he has spent more than 30 years fighting limits on campaign spending, and he has campaigned vigorously in the Republican Party against any recognition of LGBT rights.  In this bastion of free speech we will listen with interest to his views.

Floyd Abrams seems more complicated to me.   My research has revealed an unsurpassed expertise in all aspects of the First Amendment, but this appears to have taken him in a variety of directions, when pursuing the libel laws in the USA.  For example, anyone who takes on the Daily Mail – presumably the UK paper – must have considerable virtue.  But did he win? = I think we should be told.

I confess that – when I read of his successes – I was as disappointed as I was surprised that Mr Abrams was not on our side.

Whatever the rest of us lack in legalese these two giants will undoubtedly make up for, with mind-boggling complexity.

By contrast my case is startlingly simple:  our democratic processes are now more than ever influenced by the investment of a very few millionaires rather than by small contributions by millions of ordinary citizens.

An analysis of the private individual funding of the EU referendum campaign a year ago shows that the vast majority came from less than a dozen MEN !

And that did not take into account the hidden contributions, now under investigation by the Electoral Commission.

The Commission is examining “whether one or more donations – including services – accepted by Leave.EU was impermissible.”   This focuses on the contribution of a company owned by US billionaire Robert Mercer, a friend of Arron Banks, Nigel Farage and various key allies of Donald Trump.

Undisclosed donations of free services are, of course, illegal under electoral law.   The tangled web of services providing so called “psychometric profiles to target swing voters” played a big part in the referendum campaign, and “won it for Leave” according to Arron Banks.

I haven’t time to follow all the detailed exposure by Carole Cadwalladr in the Observer, but it is all on the record.

In any case, Mr Bopp can probably explain why such a shadowy figure as US billionaire Robert Mercer – having previously concentrated on attacking “Pro Choice” groups and helping the Trump campaign – should take such an expensive interest in Brexit.   He has been hired by Mr Mercer in the past.

Another American involved, who claims to have been the author of the notorious “take back control” slogan, is Gerry Gunster.  His Washington PR firm boasts that they directed the Leave campaign to run a campaign free of facts but playing on voters’ emotions, such as fears of immigrants.  Again, their very expensive assistance was bank-rolled by Arron Banks.

By now you may be wondering about those vicious attacks on foreigners – such a President Obama – who dared to give upfront advice on the choice in our referendum.

That brings me to the 2015 General Election – and indeed, right up to date with the current campaign.

Two years ago the Conservatives raised and spent more than all the other parties put together.  Despite the fondness of Len McCluskey for Jeremy Corbyn (to the tune of several millions of pounds) Theresa May will almost certainly do this again this year.  She has already benefited from many hundreds of thousands of pounds from oil company bosses.

However, the worst scandal has been the way in which this money has been spent.   The secrecy surrounding donations has been overtaken by clandestine election expenditure.

Since 1883 it has been illegal to pour unlimited money into constituency campaigns – it was rightly seen as rich men buying seats and MPs.  At every one of the elections I contested I was warned by my agent that if we overspent by just a few pounds we could end up in an Election Court.

All parties, in recent General Elections, have tried to find ways round these stringent limits, by use of the relatively much more relaxed restrictions on their national expenditure.  In 2015 both the Conservative and Labour Parties targeted swing voters in less than 100 marginal seats with unsolicited material of all sorts, using mailshots, social media, call centres and local paper advertising.

While all the parties were careful to avoid mentioning the local candidates’ names this was within the letter, if not the spirit of the law.

However, the Conservatives overstepped the red line with their deployment of staff and activists to some of these seats, explicitly campaigning to secure the election of specific candidates.  While those candidates were able – justifiably – to claim that the national Party had reassured them they were NOT liable for the cost or its reporting to the Electoral Commission, the Conservatives were fined the heaviest allowable amount for failing to declare £275,000 of relevant expenditure.

Both the Commission, and subsequently the Crown Prosecution Service, after the police investigations, concluded that “the Conservative party’s spending return was incomplete and inaccurate”.  They reported that this spending should have been recorded as relating to the local constituency campaigns.

Significantly, Theresa May’s presidential campaign is once again in the hands of Lynton Crosby (from Australia) and Jim Messina (from the US);   once again antipathy to the interference of foreigners in our politics seems selective.

Incidentally, it was Mr Messina who claimed that the Tories spent £30 million on the 2015 campaign, when the national permitted limit was just under £20 million.

So, once again our democracy is being bought, in a semi-secret auction.

Since that previous debate, to which I referred earlier, the “hidden persuaders” have become ever more elusive and yet even more persuasive.

This is the dire threat to our democracy that my Private Member’s Bill, which received a Second Reading in the Lords on 10th March, seeks to address;  I will hope to re-introduce it in the new Parliament.

Mr President, your prescience in selecting this topic for debate, suggests that you alone knew that the PM was about to perform a U-turn on her firm promise not to exploit Labour divisions with a snap Election.

Meanwhile, on both sides of the Atlantic, freedom of speech is anything but free, and is becoming VERY, VERY, VERY EXPENSIVE.

I urge you to support the Motion.

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