Miliband needs to change the subject

To be heard on the economy again, the Labour leader should talk more about public services.

So Ed Miliband has made another speech on the economy. This time the focus was an attack on the government's fiscal strategy. (My colleague George Eaton looks at the arguments in more detail here) This time there was a bit less of the broader, moralising language about the need for more responsible, non-predatory capitalism that has been the main feature of the Labour leader's rhetoric recently. The idea, it seems, was to set up next week's autumn statement as a test for the Chancellor. Can he show that his deficit reduction and debt containment plan is working? (Ed wouldn't be asking unless he was fairly sure the answer is "no".)

As I wrote in my column this week, Labour is still struggling to win the big macroeconomic argument about how best to balance the need to stimulate growth and show responsibility with public money. Ed Balls feels vindicated in his judgement that cutting hard and fast would choke off the recovery, making it harder to generate the revenue needed to shrink the deficit. But voters were persuaded by George Osborne's simpler analogies of household finance - we are in debt, so we must not spend. (No-one has found a way to turn Keynes's paradox of thrift into a nifty slogan, although Miliband's line about not being able to pay off the credit card without a job is a decent attempt.)

My suspicion is that people are simply not yet ready to listen to Labour at all on the economy. One shadow cabinet minister described the problem to me recently in psychological terms. The electorate's view of who is to blame for the mess we are in is affected by "cognitive dissonance" - the phenomenon that leads people to ignore evidence and arguments that challenge a position in which a prior emotional investment has been made. In other words, having been persuaded that Labour should not be trusted to run the economy and accepted that someone else should have a go, voters do not want to feel rebuked for choosing poorly.

That will change over time, since people will also always end up blaming the current administration for their pain. But no-one can say how quickly that will happen. Whatever the two Eds say about what should have happened, austerity is now the fixed backdrop to the economic debate. They need to find a way to move the conversation forwards to a discussion about who has the better ideas for treating people fairly and looking after them when there is no money to spend. That means no longer postponing difficult choices around public sector reform. The party needs an account of how it would get the right outcomes when simply spending more isn't on the agenda, thereby tackling also the tricky issue of how much money was "wasted" between 1997-2010 and how much "invested." In that respect, Labour has a certain advantage in that voters trust the party to care about services.

I am told that Miliband intends to tackle this question in the new year. That would probably coincide with a difficult period for the government as an inevitable winter crisis stirs up popular anger about bungled NHS reforms. If Miliband can come up with a compelling story about how it would get "more for less" in public services, the Tories would be vulnerable to the charge of being reckless and heartless cutters and Labour would be more credible on the deficit. It isn't yet remotely clear what that story might be though.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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7 problems with the Snooper’s Charter, according to the experts

In short: it was written by people who "do not know how the internet works".

A group of representatives from the UK Internet Service Provider’s Association (ISPA) headed to the Home Office on Tuesday to point out a long list of problems they had with the proposed Investigatory Powers Bill (that’s Snooper’s Charter to you and me). Below are simplified summaries of their main points, taken from the written evidence submitted by Adrian Kennard, of Andrews and Arnold, a small ISP, to the department after the meeting. 

The crucial thing to note is that these people know what they're talking about - the run the providers which would need to completely change their practices to comply with the bill if it passed into law. And their objections aren't based on cost or fiddliness - they're about how unworkable many of the bill's stipulations actually are. 

1. The types of records the government wants collected aren’t that useful

The IP Bill places a lot of emphasis on “Internet Connection Records”; i.e. a list of domains you’ve visited, but not the specific pages visited or messages sent.

But in an age of apps and social media, where we view vast amounts of information through single domains like Twitter or Facebook, this information might not even help investigators much, as connections can last for days, or even months. Kennard gives the example of a missing girl, used as a hypothetical case by the security services to argue for greater powers:

 "If the mobile provider was even able to tell that she had used twitter at all (which is not as easy as it sounds), it would show that the phone had been connected to twitter 24 hours a day, and probably Facebook as well… this emotive example is seriously flawed”

And these connection records are only going to get less relevant over time - an increasing number of websites including Facebook and Google encrypt their website under "https", which would make finding the name of the website visited far more difficult.

2. …but they’re still a massive invasion of privacy

Even though these records may be useless when someone needs to be found or monitored, the retention of Internet Connection Records (IRCs) is still very invasive – and can actually yield more information than call records, which Theresa May has repeatedly claimed are the non-digital equivalent of ICRs. 

Kennard notes: “[These records] can be used to profile them and identify preferences, political views, sexual orientation, spending habits and much more. It is useful to criminals as it would easily confirm the bank used, and the time people leave the house, and so on”. 

This information might not help find a missing girl, but could build a profile of her which could be used by criminals, or for over-invasive state surveillance. 

3. "Internet Connection Records" aren’t actually a thing

The concept of a list of domain names visited by a user referred to in the bill is actually a new term, derived from “Call Data Record”. Compiling them is possible, but won't be an easy or automatic process.

Again, this strongly implies that those writing the bill are using their knowledge of telecommunications surveillance, not internet era-appropriate information. Kennard calls for the term to be removed, or at least its “vague and nondescript nature” made clear in the bill.

4. The surveillance won’t be consistent and could be easy to dodge

In its meeting with the ISPA, the Home Office implied that smaller Internet service providers won't be forced to collect these ICR records, as it would use up a lot of their resources. But this means those seeking to avoid surveillance could simply move over to a smaller provider.

5. Conservative spin is dictating the way we view the bill 

May and the Home Office are keen for us to see the surveillance in the bill as passive: internet service providers must simply log the domains we visit, which will be looked at in the event that we are the subject of an investigation. But as Kennard notes, “I am quite sure the same argument would not work if, for example, the law required a camera in every room in your house”. This is a vast new power the government is asking for – we shouldn’t allow it to play it down.

6. The bill would allow our devices to be bugged

Or, in the jargon, used in the draft bill, subjected to “equipment interference”. This could include surveillance of everything on a phone or laptop, or even turning on its camera or webcam to watch someone. The bill actually calls for “bulk equipment interference” – when surely, as Kennard notes, “this power…should only be targeted at the most serious of criminal suspects" at most.

7. The ability to bug devices would make them less secure

Devices can only be subject to “equipment interference” if they have existing vulnerabilities, which could also be exploited by criminals and hackers. If security services know about these vulnerabilities, they should tell the manufacturer about them. As Kennard writes, allowing equipment interference "encourages the intelligence services to keep vulnerabilities secret” so they don't lose surveillance methods. Meanwhile, though, they're laying the population open to hacks from cyber criminals. 


So there you have it  – a compelling soup of misused and made up terms, and ethically concerning new powers. Great stuff. 

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