The Lib Dems must not accept the snoopers' charter

If the bill increases interference in our everyday lives, the party must walk away.

Seeing as it's only seven short days since the worst set of election results since, well, last year, it’s been a pretty good week for the Lib Dems, thanks to a Queen's speech that’s not so much yellow-tinged as basking in an all-encompassing golden hue.

And while Conservative commentators may not like it much, there is an apparent acceptance that for the next year at least, we will see a programme in government very much driven by a Lib Dem agenda.

Which is why so many Lib Dems are feeling quite chipper, already embracing the prospect of the 2015 general election campaign, now that the Daily Mail has written our campaign  poster for us. And as a Lib Dem activist who has called for a distinction to be drawn between the separate policies of the two parties in government from day one – I never wanted us to be seen as "Tory Lite" – I can be nothing but delighted about this.

But can I wave a warning flag?

Over all others, there is one very obviously Tory bill in The Queen's speech. It’s the Communications Capability Development Programme (CCPD) - or the snoopers' charter to you and me.

It’s only a draft bill rather than a full bill because of the almighty fuss Lib Dem activists made when this first came up. And I can’t say that I hate the proposals as they stand – because I’m told they haven’t even been re-written yet. But I’m also told that when we see them in draft form, we’ll most likely detest them.

Which is why, led by the inestimable Julian Huppert, we’ll fight them, amend them, twist them, change them and turn what’s likely to be RIPA Double Plus on first publication into RIPA lite by the time we’ve finished.

At which point we’ll need to make a decision.

This is exactly the process we went through with tuition fees and the NHS reforms. And we made bad proposals better. By which time we were to seen to own them, and thus got the blame for some pretty unpopular policies – that truth be told, we still didn’t like, but for some reason felt we had to support. If it wasn’t for the omnishambles Budget hitting Conservative support, the local election results this year would not have been noticeably different to last year, with NHS reforms playing the role of tuition fees and the Tories sailing blithely on.

So I’m not going through that again. This time we’ll fight, amend and twist the CCPD proposals. And when we’re done we must take a step back. And if the legislation rolls back interference in our everyday lives, then we’ll pass it with a glad heart. And if it doesn’t, regardless of how many hoops we’ve jumped through, we must walk away.

I don’t need a snoopers' charter hung round my neck.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference.

Will Clegg fight the bill? Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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