The Transparency of Lobbying, non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill would set a £390,000 cap on the amount any organisation, including unions and charities, could spend across the UK during elections.
The coalition government won a vote on the general principles of the bill at a second reading yesterday. The bill will now go forward to be examined further by MPs.
Angela Eagle, Labour’s shadow Commons leader, told MPs that the bill was “a sinister gag on democratic debate in the run-up to the general election”.
The NUS has said that at the 2015 general election, it wants to unseat Lib Dem MPs - including leader Nick Clegg - who backed the union’s pledge at the 2010 election to oppose higher fees and then broke it after forming the coalition.
Tom Harris, Labour MP for Glasgow South, said the bill “could only have come from the Liberal Democrats”.
He told the Commons that in 2010 “the Liberal Democrats presumably had no objection at all to a nationwide campaign by the National Union of Students targeting specific individuals to support its stance on tuition fees, but something tells me that they do not want the NUS to lead a similar campaign next time in response to their decision to do a complete U-turn on their tuition fees policy”.
He added: “That is what this bill is about. It might as well have been called the ‘Defend Liberals in Marginal Seats Bill’, because that is what it will do.”
Dennis Skinner, Labour MP for Bolsover, said: “Is there not a connection between the National Union of Students campaigning on student fees after 2010, and the Lib Dems? Some people asked me, ‘Are the Lib Dems supporting this rubbish—this gagging bill?’ and I said yes.
“That is because of their fear of 2010, which they do not want repeated in the run-up to the next general election. What a political scandal!”
Andrew Lansley, Leader of the House, said that “campaigning by third parties at the last election was not in any substantial way undertaken by charities. It was undertaken by other third parties – trade unions, companies, campaign groups, etc etc. So the idea that charities are in any way constrained [by the bill] is completely wrong.”