All campaigners will need to learn lessons from the CBI's Scottish crisis

Posted on 29/04/2014


The CBI’s epic PR fail on Scottish independence has grabbed the headlines.

But the real news will be in the outcome of the Electoral Commission’s decision on whether the CBI was right to register as a campaigner in the referendum. This decision will have far-reaching consequences for all campaign organisations.

On the surface, the Scottish independence referendum is a unique vote. The Electoral Commission has designated “lead” campaign organisations but said that all groups who are campaigning one way or the other must register with them.

The CBI claims that it is politically impartial – as its royal charter requires – and that it represents the views of (most of) its members. But in the Scottish referendum it is almost impossible to separate politics from the campaign – and as all campaigners should know, there is no such thing as an apolitical campaign.

So the CBI’s case has wider implications. It said it was registering with the Commission so it could continue business as usual during the campaign and continue to represent its members while complying with regulations during the period. However, the legal advice the CBI now quotes is that business as usual is the prime reason why it does not need to register.

Therefore, all campaigners across the UK need to watch carefully for what the Electoral Commission decides in the CBI case.

If the Commission decides that the CBI, in fulfilling the wish of its members and arguing for a No vote (which it clearly is), is acting as an interested party, has a ‘political’ motive and does need to register, then it will set a precedent which could impact all campaigners for elections now and in the future.

So should campaigners hope that the Commission rules the CBI doesn’t have to register then?

On the surface, this would send the signal that it is fine to conduct business as usual during election campaigns – including taking an active stance on controversial issues and using staff time and funds to promote this view.

Yet giving the CBI a clean bill of health will suggest that any firm or pressure group can spend as much time and money as it wants to fulfil a ‘political’ aim during the time of a vote. The days of Stagecoach boss Brian Souter’s help for the pro-Section 28 lobby and more recent cash for tobacco receptions will pale into insignificance if referendums and elections can be bought by the best funded campaign.

Whichever way the Commission rules, it will be another chapter in the role money plays in politics – and will have implications for all campaigners in the future.

This post is opinion and should not replace formal legal advice. Image courtesy of the Scottish Government on Flickr.