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Labour should care not just for human rights but our right to privacy

5 Jul

This piece was originally posted on Liberal Conspiracy at http://liberalconspiracy.org/2013/07/04/labour-should-care-not-just-for-human-rights-but-our-right-to-privacy/


This week Sadiq Khan MP signalled that Labour were re-committing to human rights.

In front of an Unlock Democracy debate in Parliament, he rightly praised Labour’s first term successes – The Human Rights Act, freedom of information and the Supreme Court. But Labour later “got the balance wrong” on citzens’ freedom and security.

Now he wants Ed Miliband’s Labour to, “stand up for the rights of our citizens – holding to account politicians and public authorities, taking on vested interests”. It was really good stuff and engaging seriously with human rights issues sets him apart from too many Labour MPs.

He has a blind spot though. In 2000, Labour passed RIPA – the major British law governing surveillance. It’s RIPA that’s behind many of Edward Snowden’s revelations over the past few weeks. RIPA lets British intelligence agencies tap the world’s Internet data as it reaches British shores. GCHQ stores all that data for 3 days and the information about where you are, who you contact and which sites you visit for 30 days.

RIPA enables the UK to share PRISM’s findings. If you use the Internet, RIPA means you’re under surveillance. Sadiq said yesterday that RIPA is “great but out of date.” (I’ll give it to him. That’s a decent soundbite.)

But he’s wrong. RIPA isn’t great. It’s letting GCHQ carry out mass surveillance on the web’s 2 billion users regardless of whether they’ve done anything wrong.

That’s a huge invasion of privacy and discourages free speech and free association. These are all human rights too.

Sadiq pointed out several times how Labour got it wrong on human rights. But despite Edward Snowden’s revelations, he still thinks RIPA is a “great” law. If Labour want to be radical supporters of human rights in Government again, they need to prepare to reform RIPA.

GCHQ shouldn’t be allowed to hoard everyone’s data with little oversight. The police and intelligence agencies would be better off targeting suspected criminals. And it’s Parliament’s job to hold them to account when they make mistakes.

It’s great news that Sadiq Khan’s pushing for Labour to regain its radicalism on human rights. But human rights include the right to privacy. It’s important Labour doesn’t forget that.

Why was Labour so quiet on the “Snoopers’ Charter”?

7 May

This piece was originally posted on LabourList at http://labourlist.org/2013/05/why-was-labour-so-quiet-on-the-snoopers-charter

“Protecting the public involves protecting all their freedoms. I won’t let the Tories or the Liberals take ownership of the British tradition of liberty. I want our party to reclaim that tradition.”

In his first speech as Labour leader, Ed Miliband made the case that his party had to rethink its approach to civil liberties. In thirteen years of government Labour had gone from being the party that passed the Human Rights Act to one that brought in stop and search without suspicion, tried to introduce 90 days’ detention without trial and contested the 2010 election with a commitment to ID cards in its manifesto.

But since Miliband’s dramatic election in Manchester two and a half years ago, he has led a party apparently struck dumb by the Coalition’s most illiberal proposals. By staying so quiet, Labour has missed a huge opportunity to redefine itself as a party of civil liberties and is letting the Lib Dems continue to paint themselves as the defenders of individual freedom in Government.

A good example is the Home Office’s Communications Data Bill, also known as the ‘Snoopers’ Charter’. Until Nick Clegg blocked it last week, the Home Office had planned to compel internet providers like Virgin, Sky and BT and web companies like Facebook and Google to record the web and email use of everybody in the country. Which websites you visit, who you email, who you speak to on social media, where you and your phone are – it would all have been recorded for the police and security services to trawl through.

Labour could have been a leading voice against the Bill and started the process of positioning itself as the party of civil liberties that Ed Miliband clearly wanted to lead. Instead, they remained silent throughout.

It wasn’t like there wasn’t enough ammunition. A cross-party committee of MPs and peers set up to scrutinise the draft Bill found the Home Office had severely miscalculated the cost of its plans, had failed to properly consult with industry and civil society groups and had paid “insufficient attention to the duty to respect the right to privacy.”

Elsewhere the Bill was variously criticised for threatening journalist’s ability to protect sources’ identity, increasing the burden on startup businesses and being technically naïve. The Treasury didn’t even sign off on the Home Office’s funding.

Labour’s reluctance to speak out against the Bill despite the cacophony of opposition outside Parliament also means Nick Clegg can now point to his veto as evidence that his party as the only one interested in defending individual freedoms – the Conservatives push authoritarian, invasive measures and Labour just sit on the sidelines. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems are helping to dismantle our legal system by passing Secret Courts legislation and trying to cut legal aid.

This may all be part of a plan to avoid committing to concrete positions two years before the next election. If so, Labour will now need to work quickly to develop manifesto policies for surveillance laws that are based on thorough consultation, are technically viable and help law enforcement agencies to monitor suspected criminals rather than the entire British population.

Those tasked with drawing up Labour’s future approach could do worse than reading a report published recently by Open Rights Group. (Full disclosure: I work at Open Rights Group.) In it, internet experts, lawyers and campaigners offer a wide variety of options available to surveillance policy makers that would protect our civil liberties and combat crime.

Whichever direction Labour decides to take, the complicated issues around web surveillance aren’t going to disappear. The way a lot of criminals communicate is undeniably changing and protecting the public will still involve protecting all their freedoms. Staying silent won’t be an option for very much longer.

Ed Paton-Williams is a campaigner at Open Rights Group and a member of the Labour party. He writes here in a personal capacity

Does Lord Ashcroft want to be the Rupert Murdoch of polling?

10 Mar

Is Lord Ashcroft trying to carve out a niche for himself as the Rupert Murdoch of polling? In recent weeks Ashcroft’s started playing hard to get with the Conservatives while flirting with Labour. The pollster has distanced himself from the Conservative Party and stopped donating to them. Considering he’s donated £10 million to the Tories during Cameron’s leadership, that’s no small development. And there are reports that he’s met with Labour’s election strategist Douglas Alexander to discuss election strategy – much to the Labour leadership’s surprise.

For decades, securing the best media coverage has been thought of as crucial to parties’ electoral success. Lord Mandelson, in his witness statement to the Leveson Inquiry offered this on the subject: “In the run up to the 1997 election, naturally I was aware of the efforts being made to secure a friendly attitude by News International towards Labour but I was more on the margins of this activity as it was conducted principally by Mr. Blair and his press staff.”

It’s not just getting positive coverage that’s important any more though. Getting the best data on policies, party preferences, voters and so on is crucial. If you’ve got rich and accurate data, you can tailor campaigns and messaging much more effectively than if you’ve got outdated and superficial data. Obama’s presidential campaigns are the best examples of high quality data-based campaigning. In the UK, the very detailed data that the Lib Dems had in the Eastleigh by-election was widely reported as one of the most important reasons for their victory and the lack of it being a cause of the Tories’ demise.

Getting better data than your opponents means doing better polling than your opponents. And Ashcroft is the individual best placed to offer the systems and funding needed to do the highest quality polling. It’s at least possible that Ashcroft’s realised that it’s at least as important that parties have good data as good media coverage and that he can position himself as the pollster that parties should try to ‘secure a friendly attitude with.’

The Leveson Inquiry concluded that Murdoch hadn’t sought political favours in return for positive media coverage. At the very least, we’re going to see accusations of parties trying to accommodate Ashcroft politically to make use of his polling in the same way that we did with Murdoch.

Ashcroft has already shown himself to be someone who gave money to the Tories when he thought they would promote policies he liked, then stopped his donations when things weren’t going his way. It’s arguable then that he’s similarly someone who’d offer his polling to parties and leaders he gets on with and withdraw it from those he doesn’t. As John McCain, Mitt Romney and the Eastleigh Tories have found out, it’s tough to win elections without the best data.

It’s important that the parties find ways of building up the detailed and rich data they need without being beholden to a particularly powerful and well-off pollster. How to do that is a question for another day but – in the spirit that when you identify a problem you should at least try to offer a solution – one way that could be done would be using their members to crowdsource the data. Members and volunteers would, I suppose, do the polling and then data analysts employed by the parties would draw out the lessons and electoral strategies. Now there’s a way to avoid the need for a Leveson-esque inquiry into the unhealthy relationship between politicians and data analysts in ten/twenty/thirty years.

Conservatives may vote Liberal in Lower Saxony. They won’t in Britain.

21 Jan

The German Liberal party, the FDP, has defied expectations in the Lower Saxony state election. Most people thought they’d continue their poor run of results in state elections. In the ten state elections in 2011 and 2012, they won the 5% of the vote necessary to win seats in just four of them. Opinion polls had consistently put them on between 3% and 5% and so there were doubts about whether they’d win enough votes to get into the state parliament at all.

In fact, they received 9.9% of the vote in Lower Saxony, up from the 8.8% of the electorate who backed them five years ago. That wasn’t enough to stop the Social Democrats and the Greens taking control of the state by just a single seat.

Nick Clegg meeting FDP Leader and German Vice Chancellor Philipp Rösler

It’s easy to spot the similarities between the FDP and the British Liberal Democrats. Both are in coalition with their country’s conservative party. Both have unpopular leaders. Both have – until yesterday – been suffering electoral losses.

I imagine many Lib Dems are hoping for a similar boost in their electoral fortunes. One Lib Dem councillor has already tweeted that the FDP’s result “gives us #libdems hope.”

It’s extremely unlikely that the Lib Dems will see electoral success in the same way as the FDP has done.

Just over 100,000 of people who voted for the FDP were “Last-Minute-Transfers” (yes, that’s what the German press are calling tactical voters) from the German conservatives, the CDU. Nearly 70% of FDP voters said they’d voted tactically and more than 90% of them said they could have also voted for the conservative CDU party.

Does this sound like people who vote Lib Dem to you? The Lib Dem leadership may be close to the Conservatives. Traditional Lib Dem voters certainly aren’t though and Conservative voters aren’t close to the Lib Dems either.

The FDP are a party of classical liberals voted for by liberals. In Lower Saxony, conservative voters also supported them in a bid to keep the CDU-FDP coalition. The Lib Dems are a party of liberals and social democrats voted for, until 2010, by social democrats. This is a generalisation, but not a big one.

It just doesn’t seem possible that huge numbers of Conservative voters are going to come to the Lib Dems’ rescue as CDU voters did for the FDP. The FDP has spent 60 years as the governing partner of the CDU and CDU voters know and trust them. The liberals in the Lib Dems have traditionally sought out social democratic voters with their policies on mansion taxes and tuition fees. Conservative voters haven’t had time to get to know or trust a liberal Liberal Democrat party and won’t vote tactically for them.

Clegg’s Call-In: Good for Politics

7 Jan

I like Nick Clegg’s plan to go on LBC 97.3 for a weekly half hour call-in to “keep in touch” with the voters. Unfashionable though it is to praise Clegg for anything, I think it’s a good thing for senior politicians and people to have conversations as much as possible. I’m sure Clegg is doing it to improve his image but I don’t mind too much if it improves his understanding of life outside Westminster and helps listeners to buy into the importance of representative politics.

The Evening Standard has a quote from a Lib-Dem saying it’s “desperate to commit so much time to this.” On the contrary, improving communication between politicians and people is one of the most pressing challenges facing British politics so it’s a very effective use of his time.

Tax Breaks for Employing ‘Domestic Workers’ are basically a Good Idea

9 Feb

This is perhaps better suited to Twitter but never mind.

David Cameron’s in Sweden for a conference on ensuring women in business are fully rewarded and is making statements supporting tax breaks for parents who pay for ‘domestic care.’  The BBC reports this as “pay[ing] someone to do the housework.” I can’t work out whether Cameron would want this to apply this to day-care too. He should.

The Labour-supporting commentator Anthony Painter criticised the proposal on Twitter saying:

I think this tax break for ‘domestic workers’ idea goes straight in the box marked ‘married couples allowance’ http://bit.ly/xwxjaK

He’s wrong to make the two comparable. The married couples allowance tried to reward people for getting married and sent out signals that other forms of family structure were wrong. Giving tax breaks for employing domestic workers does not necessarily do that but rather is a good way to encourage people to work if they want to. If it makes going back to work when you want to more affordable then that’s a good thing and to be encouraged.

The plan of course needs some extra work. I’m not sure if the very rich who employ domestic workers anyway really need the extra tax break. As I mentioned earlier, extending the plan to making day-care more accessible would be worthwhile too.

Capitalism in the Offline and Online Worlds: the Domination of Tesco, Facebook and Google

29 Sep

Nothing particularly ground-breaking here. Just some thoughts that’ve come to me in over the last few days on the similarities between the development of the domination of supermarkets in the modern retail industry and that of Facebook and Google in online social media and services. (I’m trying to take away the pressure to write something particularly insightful when I post and accept that it’s ok to make mistakes in public.)

Facebook announced this week that users of online music streaming services like Spotify will soon be share or every song they listen to to Facebook automatically, so-called frictionless sharing. I’ve used a similar service for years called Last.fm which is owned by CBS. Every song I listen in Spotify or my desktop music player foobar2000 to is sent to Last.fm, who then build a picture of my listening habits and recommend music I’d probably like. I’ve found countless new bands this way and it’s only been possible because lots of other people with similar listening habits use the service too. It’s one of my favourite web services.

Facebook has about 750 million users while Last.fm has about 40 million. Facebook is in a very strong position to become dominant in yet another aspect of online life. Facebook already offers many services within one website. which other  websites and mobile apps focus entirely on: location sharing (Foursquare and Gowalla), instant messaging (countless services), surveys and questions (Ask MetaFilter etc, Survey Monkey) and so on. A similar observation could be made of Google who have a huge array of products and services.

What strikes me about this is how similar this is to the relationship between supermarkets and independent traders. Supermarkets like Tesco offer everything from fruit and vegetables to laptops. Independent traders sell either fruit and vegetables or laptops. Speaking recently on the ‘Tesco-isation’ of Britain, the Labour leader Ed Miliband commented

I think it is a problem that people think the character of their local high street is being changed and they have no power against big corporations in this country.

In its report The Guardian made the point that

Labour…has to make a judgment on whether the big four [Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda and Morrisons] dominate simply because they are popular and more efficient, or because they can stifle competition and choice.

The same questions need to be asked about the domination of large internet companies like Facebook and Google. Is it in the interests of the online public for small companies offering specific services to be dominated by much larger companies who can offer a myriad of services?

I haven’t completely made up my mind on that yet. The concentration of shopping and online activity on companies who offer lots of services within the same site or building do seem to be the effect of the same phenomena though. I made a similar point a while ago here where I said

In the same way that small, independent shops are going out of business because customers find it easier and more efficient to go to large shopping centres to do their shopping, internet users have turned from complicated HTML sites, to slightly less complicated Myspace pages and finally to the easy-to-use Facebook to create their online identity. What both of these phenomena have in common is a societal shift towards a more market-friendly behaviour.

Supermarkets are more similar to Facebook and Google than shopping centres but my general point is the same. The effects of capitalism of companies driving towards making efficiencies by reducing costs and of increasing profits by expanding into different markets apply to the online world just as they do in the offline world. This is having effects on small internet companies just as it does to small traders on the high street.

Labour Has to Be Ready to Work with the Liberal Democrats

9 May

The news that Labour has started productively engaging with the Lib Dems is a promising development for centre-left politics. The parties simply have to work together now if they are to be in any way prepared for formal or informal collaboration against the common enemies of conservatism and neo-liberalism after the next General Election.

That the Shadow Education Secretary Andy Burnham is sending letters to Lib Dem MPs asking them to support his calls for “1. fair admissions 2. qualified teachers in schools 3. ‘face-to-face’ careers advice” at the third reading of the Education Bill on Wednesday is encouraging. Reaching out to the Coalition’s junior partners like this is significant on a couple of levels. It points to Burnham’s trust that the Lib Dems are not a lost cause for those interested in pluralist, centre-left politics. It is also a sign that some within Labour want to start building a working relationship with the Lib Dems as soon as possible, whether they are working (or conspiring as some would have it) with the Tories or not.

As Sunny Hundal at Liberal Conspiracy rightly points out, Labour’s and many others’ obsession with wanting Clegg, Cable, Huhne and Alexander to resign, fail or apologise has distracted attention from the real drivers of the government’s regressive proposals and policies, the Tories. Just as important though is that the Lib Dems need to be aware that they do have a viable choice in who they work with. Labour, the Greens and the broader left must be prepared to continue to build a working relationship with the Lib Dems to be ready to fight conservative and neo-liberal ideologies and politics both now and in the future.

Against the backdrop of NHS reforms unpopular with the Lib Dems, an article in yesterday’s Observer claims that Ed Miliband is openly calling for defections from the Lib Dems to Labour. The caption to the picture to the article states that Miliband would “welcome defectors” from the Lib Dems. I’m not convinced Miliband has actually said any such thing though. I can’t find any direct quotes in the article from Miliband clearly saying that nor am I able to find the original text by Miliband which the quotations in the article came from. [If anyone reading this finds such a text could you let me know?] The only quotations in the article which might be interpreted as encouraging defection are “They can come and work with us. My door is always open” and “Lib Dems have to work out which side they are on. Do they want to be on the Conservative side, backing the Conservative-led government, or on the progressive side? It really is time for them to make up their minds.” Miliband’s comments appear to me to respect Lib Dem cabinet ministers’ and MPs’ continuing membership of a Liberal Democrat party which could and should be able to work with Labour, the Greens and others. Again, these are promising signs from the Labour leadership. 

To publicly suggest that Lib Dems ought to leave their party would surely appear patronising, cynical and tribalistic. It assumes that there is no possibility for the Liberal Democrats to ever do good work with the Labour party in the future and that the Labour party has a monopoly on centre-left thought and action. Neither assumption would lead to a productive engagement with a party who should be an ally in the fight against the common enemy of those informed by conservative and neo-liberal traditions. There is a constructive and positive way forward without requiring Lib Dems to switch tribe. Co-operation between the two parties, the Greens and others outside of party politics allows for the broadest possible consensus against regressive, conservative and neo-liberal politics. The rest of the Labour party should follow Miliband and Burnham’s pluralist lead and treat the Lib Dems’ members and traditions with respect despite the current Lib Dem leadership’s disregard for those same members and traditions.

A caveat to all of this talk of co-operation is that it doesn’t seem possible for the most prominent Lib Dem adopters of neo-liberal economics – Clegg, Alexander and Laws – to continue to lead the party while in any formal collaboration with the Green party or a Labour party led by Ed Miliband. Clegg is electorally toxic and the light-touch economic policy espoused by him – but crucially not huge swathes of social liberals in his party – seems in direct opposition to Miliband’s and the Greens’ politics of democratic resistance to the negative effects of capital. There would surely have to be changes at the top of the Lib Dems before co-operation between the parties was formalised.

For their part, Labour needs to develop economic policies which resonate with the electorate, counter the ‘no alternative to cuts’ narrative and are convincing to other parties within the centre-left. Just saying “we’ll cut less than the Tories” doesn’t seem to do that. Building up a broader narrative based on stimulating not cutting an economy into growth is my preferred approach but I’m sure not the only way to encourage the centre-left unity necessary to oppose the Tories.

Why Class-Based Expectations of Education Need to be Undone

24 Aug

Aditya Chakrabortty writes in today’s Guardian that:

Those from the upper- and middle-classes who go to Oxbridge will do fine – as they were always going to do. But Blair’s dream of a working-class kid getting a degree that would catapult him or her up the social ladder has not come off. Instead, they’ll probably end up doing similar work to their school-leaver parents – only with a debilitatingly large debt around their necks…

the reason the Great Degree Scramble has not paid off in better jobs is because Labour did not try to provide them. That would have required nurturing new businesses and raising conditions for the most awful jobs – the sort of thing Blair and his party emphatically did not do…

Up until the mid-90s, Switzerland – one of the richest and most industrialised nations in the world – sent only 10-15% of students off to get a degree. But it made sure the others had apprenticeships with actual businesses and vocational training. There must, surely, be a lesson in that.

Chakrabortty is absolutely right to argue that Labour failed to do enough to improve working conditions or to provide enough in the way of vocational training. They emphasised the virtues of a university education without doing enough to say why work-based training was worthwhile. But Labour’s aims of increasing working class access to university were admirable despite their questionable means (top-up fees) of achieving those aims.

Critics of the explosion in university applications rarely appear to expect anyone other than the working classes to be the ones who should stop going to university. Chakrabortty follows this trend when he unquestioningly contrasts the failure of the working class students to profit from their university education with the continuing ability of upper- and middle- class graduates to enter highly-paid or highly-valued work. He seems to write with an underlying assumption that it’s normal and right for middle- and upper- class A-Level students to go to university and for working-class students to move into vocational training.

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38 Degrees’ Strategy is Spoiling the Potential of Email

10 Aug

I wrote in May (twice!) about the problems involved with 38 Degrees offering its users the ability to email MPs without having to write their own message. At the time the Labour MP Tom Watson was complaining about receiving  1700 identical or near-identical emails about PR. Now, a request from Dominic Raab, the Conservative MP for Esher and Walton, that 38 Degrees remove his email address from their system due to being overwhelmed by emails has provoked outrage from the campaign group.

Raab’s argument that it’s impossible to deal with huge amounts of identical emails is completely understandable. Yes, the taxpayer does pay his wages and should be able to expect him to read and reply to correspondence but this correspondence surely has to be original and unique to warrant his attention. Email, when used in the right way, does have the potential to be a highly useful tool for those without the time or money to lobby MPs. But it’s a huge waste of time and money to have Raab and other MPs’ staff trawling through thousands of indistinguishable emails from 38 Degrees users. Indeed, 38 Degrees’ strategy is proving to be counterproductive in that it is obviously forcing MPs to spend more time working out the logistics of reading the emails and less time actually acting on the issues dealt with in the emails.

38 Degrees’ strategy is not beyond reform. I provided 38 Degrees with a reasonably detailed set of proposals for altering their system back in May. I got some positive feedback from their team but they don’t seem to have changed their strategy in the months since then. One proposal was to ensure that emails sent to MPs are written by individuals and not by the campaign organisers. This is easily achievable by not providing a pre-written message for users, automatically ensuring originality. It would of course still be possible to offer a series of style tips and campaign points to assist the website’s users

There are several advantages to writing original emails (and letters) to MPs. They get a reply from the MP and maybe from a government minister. They provide useable evidence of their constituents’ feelings for MPs to cite in parliamentary debate. They also show an individual’s strength of feeling on an issue in a way that adding your name to a message written by the campaign group doesn’t.

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