The new Lib Dem plan to win electoral reform

The use of proportional representation for elections to the Lords could revive the debate.

One overlooked reason why the Lib Dems are so desperate to secure House of Lords reform is that it would revive the debate around electoral reform. The likely use of proportional representation (PR) to elect the second chamber (as proposed by the government) would allow Nick Clegg to portray the Commons as a less legitimate body and argue for reform to bring it into line with the Lords.

The party president Tim Farron has already argued that "Members elected in a different Chamber by the single transferable vote will have greater legitimacy than those elected to the Commons on a system of first-past-the-post" (see p. 14 of the joint committee report on Lords reform).

As Lib Dem blogger Mark Thompson recently pointed out, it is important to remember that the public did not reject proportional representation last year. They rejected the Alternative Vote, a system that, in some circumstances, can prove even less proportional than first-past-the-post.

Indeed, the No2AV campaign observed:

There are strong principled arguments for and against PR, and it's a debate worth having. The Alternative Vote, however, is a step backward rather than a step forward. AV combines the weaknesses of both systems; it isn't proportional – three out of the last four elections would have been more disproportional under AV

Whether or not the inclusion of a proportional option on the ballot paper would have changed the outcome, it is undeniable that the public have not been consulted on this point.

Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

Can Trident be hacked?

A former defence secretary has warned that Trident is vulnerable to cyber attacks. Is it?

What if, in the event of a destructive nuclear war, the prime minister goes to press the red button and it just doesn't work? 

This was the question raised by Des Browne, a former defence secretary, in an interview witht the Guardian this week. His argument, based on a report from the defence science board of the US Department of Defense, is that the UK's Trident nuclear weapons could be vulnerable to cyberattacks, and therefore rendered useless if hacked. 

Browne called for an "end-to-end" assessment of the system's cybersecurity: 

 The government ... have an obligation to assure parliament that all of the systems of the nuclear deterrent have been assessed end-to-end against cyber attacks to understand possible weak spots and that those weak spots are protected against a high-tier cyber threat. If they are unable to do that then there is no guarantee that we will have a reliable deterrent or the prime minister will be able to use this system when he needs to reach for it.

Is he right? Should we really be worried about Trident's potential cyber weaknesses?

Tangled webs 

The first, crucial thing to note is that Trident is not connected to the "internet" we use every day. Sure, it's connected to the main Ministry of Defence network, but this operates totally independently of the network that you visit Facebook through. In cyber-security terms, this means the network is "air-gapped" - it's isolated from other systems that could be less secure. 

In our minds, Trident is old and needs replacing (the submarines began patrolling in the 1990s), but any strike would be ordered and co-ordinated from Northwood, a military bunker 100m underground which would use the same modern networks as the rest of the MoD. Trident is basically as secure as the rest of the MoD. 

What the MoD said

I asked the Ministry of Defence for a statement on Trident's security, and while it obviously can't offer much information about how it all actually works, a spokesperson confirmed that the system is air-gapped and added: 

We wouldn't comment on the detail of our security arrangements for the nuclear deterrent but we can and do safeguard it from all threats including cyber.

What security experts said

Security experts agree that an air-gapped system tends to be more secure than one connected to the internet. Sean Sullivan, a security adviser at F-secure, told Infosecurity magazine that while some hackers have been able to "jump" air-gaps using code, this would cause "interference" at most and a major attack of this kind is still "a long way off". 

Franklin Miller, a former White House defence policy offer, told the Guardian that the original report cited by Browne was actually formulated in response to suggestions that some US defence networks should be connected to the internet. In that case, it actually represents an argument in favour of the type of air-gapped system used by the MoD. 

So... can it be hacked?

The answer is really that any system could be hacked, but a specialised, independent defence network is very, very unlikely to be. If a successful hack did happen, it would likely affect all aspects of defence, not just Trident. That doesn't mean that every effort shouldn't be made to make sure the MoD is using the most secure system possible, but it also means that scaremongering in the context of other, unrelated cybersecurity scares is a little unjustified. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.