Why Clegg should kill the Communications Data Bill

No one gives the Lib Dems credit when they merely win concessions.

No one loves the Communications Data Bill currently making its way through parliament. Legislating to increase the state’s power of surveillance over citizens’ private communications is not the kind of thing that brings people into politics. Young idealists, fired with ambition to make a better society, with well-thumbed editions of Orwell on their shelves, do not anticipate forcing internet service providers to hoard copies of messages posted on social network sites so police and security services can sift through them for evidence of terrorist activity and other nefarious plots.

It is, however, just the kind of thing that politicians end up doing once they are in power. They have hair-raising conversations with security services and imagine what the consequences would be if a terrorist attack (or other nefarious plot) were perpetrated on their watch that might otherwise have been prevented with a data communication bill. Opponents – those whose Orwell editions are more recently thumbed – call it the “snoopers’ charter”.

One remarkable feature of this particular (and fairly predictable) augmentation of state power over the digital realm is that it belongs to a genre of illiberal measures that, under the last Labour government, united Lib Dems and many Tories in righteous indignation. One of the easiest areas of mutual understanding between Clegg and Cameron in coalition negotiations was their joint distaste for what liberals and liberal-minded Tories decry as just the kind of statist authoritarianism you might expect from a left-wing government. In fact it turns out to be just the kind of run-of-the-mill statism you might expect from any government. 

Some Tories continue to be squeamish about the bill. Lib Dems hate it with passion. Protecting civil liberties is something that Nick Clegg’s party sees as integral to its identity. Having sacrificed so much for the sake of coalition already, Lib Dems are terrified of appearing to sell out one of their few remaining conspicuous points of principle. The bill’s passage into law has already been delayed because of resistance by the junior party in the coalition. It is now the object of scrutiny by a special parliamentary committee. Clegg has told his party that the law won’t go ahead if Lib Dem concerns about privacy, proportionality and liberty aren’t addressed. Writing in the New Statesman earlier this year, Richard Reeves, Clegg’s former chief strategist, suggested the bill was better off dead.

The alternative is that it is mangled and rewritten at Lib Dem insistence. Clegg might then stand up and say his party had saved the nation from a terrible piece of legislation, helpfully amending it to neutralise the dangers. The only reason for taking that route would be to avoid allegations of wanton obstruction. In the past, Clegg has resisted vetoing Tory measures for fear that doing so would make coalition in general look like a recipe for deadlock. That was, in part, his motive for whipping his MPs behind NHS reforms (and, indeed, the famous acquiescence to raising tuition fees).

That approach has generally failed. No one gives the Lib Dems much credit for concessions they have extracted, while blame is heaped on them for facilitating a Conservative agenda. It was partly frustration at having marched so many times through the voting lobbies behind distasteful Tory measures that made Lib Dem MPs so determined to force their coalition partners to back House of Lords reform. It was also fury that Tory MPs refused to do so that made Clegg kill Conservative plans to redraw parliamentary constituency boundaries in their favour.

That was just the kind of raw obstruction that Clegg had previously hoped to avoid in coalition. It was also very popular in his party. One of the most problematic features of Clegg’s image in the country, according to focus groups, is the perception that he is pushed around by the Tories. (The irony there being that Tory backbenchers think he is far too powerful.) “Spineless” is the charge that the Lib Dem leader most needs to rebut if he is to recover any of his standing in public opinion. Above all, that requires periodically slapping down Conservative policy. The Communications Data Bill is a ripe target. Many Tories hate it anyway. It runs against much of what the Lib Dems purported to stand for before coalition. It doesn’t have much bearing on the economy. All things considered – aside from the rather crucial question of whether it would actually facilitate the fight against organised crime - it is hard to see why Clegg would do anything other than kill it.    

Nick Clegg speaks at the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

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What does it mean for Ukip if it loses in Stoke-on-Trent Central?

The party’s prospects are in question if it fails to win over the “Brexit capital” in Thursday's by-election.

“The Only Way Is Up!” blasted through a hall in Stoke-on-Trent Central on a damp Monday evening earlier this month. It was the end of a public Ukip meeting, in which Nigel Farage and his successor and by-election candidate Paul Nuttall made their rallying cries to an audience of around 650 supporters.

But even then, a fortnight ago, the note of triumph in the dance classic was tinged with uncertainty. “We’ve won the war, but we’ve yet to win the peace,” Farage admitted to the sympathetic crowd. And while this message is supposed to make Ukip’s fight relevant even in the context of Brexit-bound Britain, it betrays the party’s problem: the battle that was its raison d'être is over.

Failing fortunes

Since then, the party has had more to contend with. Its candidate in the Labour seat has been caught lying about having “close personal friends” killed at the Hillsborough disaster. This comes on top of a number of other false claims, and an investigation into whether he falsely registered his home address as being in the constituency.

After these scandals – and a campaign seemingly unable to turn out apathetic voters (which I covered a couple of weeks ago) – Ukip’s chances in the West Midlands seat look worse than expected.

Initially the main challenger to Labour, Ukip is now being predicted for third or even fourth place in the seat, behind a Tory party that essentially stood aside to give Nuttall room, and to focus on a concurrent by-election campaign in Copeland.

It’s in Labour’s interest for the campaign to continue looking like a close Labour-Ukip fight, in order to keep hold of tactical voters. But both the Conservative and Lib Dem campaigns are feeling more buoyant.

“We are relatively confident that Ukip are not going to win, and that is quite a change,” the Lib Dem campaign coordinator Ed Fordham told me. “That has actually relieved lots of voters of the emotional risk of letting in what they perceive to be an unpleasant, far-right option . . . and voting for who they would like to represent them.”

One local activist chirped: “It will hopefully be a terrible result for Ukip.”

So what will it mean for Ukip if it loses?

Great expectations

Ukip has a lot riding on this seat. Farage called the by-election “absolutely fundamental” to Ukip’s future. Its new leader, Nuttall, took the risk of running as the party’s candidate there – riding his reputation on the by-election.

This created a lot of hype about Ukip’s chances, which the party has privately been trying to play down ever since. Even before the scandal surrounding Nuttall, he was emphasising that the seat had only been Ukip’s 72nd target, and told me he had taken a gamble by running for it. “The way it’s being written up as if this is the one – it wasn’t,” he insisted.

But Stoke-on-Trent, where 69 per cent voted Leave, has been labelled the “Brexit capital”. According to political scientist Rob Ford, the author of Revolt on the Right who has been studying Labour’s most Ukip-vulnerable seats: “It should be a pretty favourable seat for them, pretty favourable demographics, pretty favourable [negative] attitudes about the EU, very high Brexit vote there and so on.”

In other words, if Ukip can’t win here, against a weak Labour party, where can it win?

Struggle for seats

Brexit is central to Ukip’s by-election campaign. The party has highlighted Labour’s splits over Europe, pointed out the Labour candidate Gareth Snell’s Remainer credentials, and warned that the government needs to be held to account when negotiating Britain’s exit.

But Ford believes this rhetoric is unlikely to work, since the Tories are already pursuing a “hard” Brexit focused on immigration control. “A difficulty for Paul Nuttall and Ukip is that people are going to say: why would we vote for you when we’re getting what we want from the government? What’s the point right now?” he said. “I can have all the Brexity stuff, all the immigration control stuff, but with none of the incompetence and serial lying about Hillsborough – I think I’ll take that!”

So if rerunning the EU referendum doesn’t work, even in such a Brexit-heavy seat, this means trouble for Ukip elsewhere in the country. A Ukip councillor in a top Ukip target seat with similar demographics to Stoke believes it’s “crisis time” for the party.

“It is very sad to say, but Ukip has lost its way,” they told me. “It’s still a strong party, but after losing Nigel, it’s lost a little of its oomph. The new gentleman [Nuttall] has been silly with the comments he’s made. That’s a big worry in some regards. You need to be a people person. It’s a serious situation at the minute.”

If Ukip can’t prove it can win parliamentary seats – even in favourable by-elections – then it will be difficult to prove its authority as a political party come the general election.

Leadership lament

Should Nuttall lose, Ukip’s leadership will come into question. Again. During a tumultuous time late last year, when the favourite Steven Woolfe left the party after a physical altercation, and Diane James quit the leadership after 18 days, commentators asked if Ukip was anything without Farage.

When Nuttall eventually took over, the same voices warned of his threat to Labour – citing his northern and working-class roots. It’s likely this narrative will change, and Farage’s golden touch pondered again, if Nuttall fails to win.

But rather than panic about its national leader, Ukip must look carefully at those who commit to the party in local campaigns. On the ground in Stoke, running Nuttall as a candidate instead of a local Ukipper is seen as a mistake.

“I don’t know why they did that,” one local activist for an opposing party commented. “If they’d run Mick Harold, they would’ve won. He’s a Stokie.”

Harold, the deputy chair of Staffordshire County Committee, and chair of Ukip’s Stoke-on-Trent Central/North branch, won 22.7 per cent of the vote for Ukip in the constituency in 2015. He insists that he stands by his decision to step aside for Nuttall, but does highlight that Ukip should increase its vote share.

“If we’re increasing our percentage share of the vote, we’re still moving forward and that’s how we’ve got to look at it,” he told me. “I got 22.7 per cent in 2015. I would think this time we’re going to certainly get somewhere around the 30 per cent mark.”

Would it have been more likely to achieve this with Harold as candidate? “Whatever happens, happens, we’ve just got to move forward,” he replied. “If you’ve made a mistake, you move on from it.”

I have heard similar misgivings from local activists in other parts of the country – people who have achieved impressive results in local elections and the general election, but haven’t had much thanks from the national party. “We need to get professionalised now,” one such campaigner said. “Because we’ve got grassroots people who are not career politicians [doing all the hard work].” They say their local party is fed up with leadership being dictated by “personal grudges” at the top of the party.

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As I’ve written before, I don’t think this is the end of Ukip. Once Brexit starts to bite, and it’s clear immigrants are still needed to fill jobs, there will be resentment enough to make space for them again. But losing Stoke will highlight the challenges – of purpose, leadership and local organisation – that the party will need to overcome for its next stand.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.