Cameron prepares to go to war with the trade unions

Is the Prime Minister planning a Thatcher-style assault on organised labour?

There was once a time when David Cameron was keen to win over the trade union movement. He became the first Conservative leader in more than a decade to meet the TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber and even appointed a union emissary -- the former Labour MEP Richard Balfe -- to spearhead secret negotiations with "the brothers".

But this was in 2008, when Cameron still spoke cheerily of "sharing the proceeds of growth" (the Tories, as much as Labour, failed to see the crash coming) and was still committed to Gordon Brown's spending plans.

Now, as he prepares to implement a series of savage cuts, in which some departments will be cut by up to 33 per cent, Cameron is planning to make Britain's strike laws -- already some of the most restrictive in the western world -- even tougher.

Today's Times reports: "Ministers have held confidential talks over changing union strike laws as the government prepares plans to shed up to a million public-sector jobs."

The changes under discussion include raising the proportion of workers required to vote for a strike before it takes place. As things stand, only a simple majority of voters is required but the government is considering introducing a minimum turnout threshold of 40 per cent.

The Times's Sam Coates adds: "The government is also under pressure from senior business figures to change the rules to replace striking workers with agency employees, to reduce the time before they can be dismissed without reballoting from 12 to eight weeks -- and even to make unions legally liable for the consequences of strikes."

It is understandable that Cameron wishes to avoid a wave of strikes, but he should do so by making a persuasive case for cuts rather than changing the rules of the game. Downing Street may say that the coalition has "no plans" to change strike legislation, but that's the same formulation as Cameron used when asked about a possible VAT rise.

That the Tories are in coalition with the Lib Dems, who have never had much affection for the trade unions, in many ways makes a Thatcher-style assault more achievable. But for now, I'd say the coalition has enough on its hands without triggering a war with the unions.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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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