Email surveillance: the political fallout begins

Front pages condemn "snooper's charter", while both Tories and Lib Dems speak out against the bill.

"Snooper's charter will cost YOU £2bn," screams the Daily Mail's headline this morning. The Times goes with the slightly more sober "New law on snooping puts Tories in turmoil", while the Guardian's angle is "Lib Dems threaten rebellion over plans to extend email and phone call surveillance".

Yes, today was another morning of almost universally bad headlines for the coalition, this time over plans to expand the type of communications data stored by telephone and internet providers. Under the proposals, internet service providers would retain details of every phone call, email and website visit for at least a year.

While the government is adamant that this will not mean access to the content of messages, merely to data about them, there are question marks over where the line will be. Moreover, it is a significant ramping up of state power from a coalition led by two men who both promised to tackle excessive surveillance while in opposition.

According to the Guardian, senior Liberal Democrats are threatening to rebel, and are seeking clarification from Nick Clegg's office over whether the legislation would allow the intelligence services to access the content of communications without a warrant from the Home Secretary. "No expert I've ever spoken to can see how this could possibly be done without great expense and without allowing access to the actual message that was sent," said Julian Huppert, the Lib Dem MP for Cambridge.

Meanwhile, the Times (£) quotes several Conservatives taking issue with the plans. Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested that David Cameron was being hypocritical, and warned of the possible international ramifications: "The government ought to remember why it favoured liberty in opposition. The powers it creates may in future be used by less benevolent administrations." David Davis said it was "an unnecessary extension of the ability of the State to snoop on ordinary people", while Dominic Raab warned of the risk of fraud.

The Home Secretary Theresa May is out defending the proposal this morning, writing in the Sun that it will help to tackle organised crime and terrorism ("Whole paedophile rings, criminal conspiracies and terrorist plots can then be smashed.").

But as the raft of negative front pages and comment pieces shows, this is another media battle that the coalition is losing. Yesterday, I blogged on reports that Tory MPs are frustrated that government policies are not being communicated properly to voters. Today, as ministers fail to articulate an effective response to the Information Commissioner's comment (contained in a previously restricted briefing note) that "the case for the retention of this data still needs to be made", that worry seems justified.

Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has defended proposals over extending email surveillance. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.