Labour could outflank the Lib Dems on electoral reform

The next Labour leader needs to be bold about PR.

Today's Queen's Speech, outlining the 18-month legislative programme of Britain's first coalition government since the Second World War, is likely to include a promise of a referendum on voting reform as part of the proposed parliamentary reform bill.

Nick Clegg and his Lib Dem colleagues in the coalition cabinet will be spinning the referendum pledge as a great victory for the party. But, of course, the referendum will be on the Alternative Vote (AV), and not on a fully proportional system, which the Liberal Democrats have campaigned for since time immemorial (and to which they were committed in their own manifesto). Plus, their Conservative allies in government are free to campaign against AV during the referendum campaign.

So -- surprise, surprise! -- Nick Clegg has been reaching out to his scorned lover, the Labour Party, as he begins his personal campaign to convince the electorate of the need for electoral reform. Here is the Deputy Prime Minister on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday morning:

No one should be surprised that, as a Liberal Democrat, I passionately believe that our electoral system at the moment doesn't work and it can be made fairer, so that people's views are more prom-- . . . you know, are better reflected in the House of Commons. That's of course what we'll campaign on. And yes I will be reaching out to people from other parties -- not just the Conservative Party but the Labour Party as well -- saying if you believe in a different kind of politics, when it comes to a referendum, let's all join together to try and argue the case for change.

The Labour Party has two options. Either it can junk its own manifesto commitment to the Alternative Vote, in an act of petulance, and join the Tories in campaigning against change, thereby embarrassing, isolating and "punishing" the Lib Dems for their alliance with the Conservatives. This might be the preferred strategy of an instinctive first-past-the-poster like Ed Balls.

Or it can be much bolder than it has been in the past, ditch its tribalism and conservatism on electoral reform, and (belatedly) push for out-and-out proportional representation, in the form of AV+ (as recommended by Roy Jenkins back in 1998). At a stroke, Labour would seize the constitutional high ground, attract disillusioned Lib Dem voters into the fold, outflank Clegg, Huhne et al, and exacerbate tensions inside the Con-Dem coalition.

This is the view of the former home secretary Alan Johnson (why are you not standing, Alan??), writing in Sunday's Observer:

The new government is committed to a referendum on a new voting system. It will contain two options -- the current first-past-the-post system and the Alternative Vote. It will be the first time in the history of our democracy that its citizens will have a say in how their votes are translated into political power.

What possible argument can there be against adding the recommendation of the Independent Commission on the Voting System, AV+, as a third option? It retains the constituency link, extends voter choice and is broadly proportional.

Johnson adds: "I will certainly be making the case within my own party to submit legislative amendments to that effect."

Brothers Miliband -- are you listening to AJ? Please do so. You, your party and your country have much to gain.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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