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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Is it true that a PR firm full of Blairites is orchestrating the Labour coup?

Portland Communications has been accused of conspiring against Jeremy Corbyn. It's not true, but it does reveal a worrying political imbalance in the lobbying industry.

The secret is out. The Canary – an alternative left wing media outlet – claims to have uncovered the story that the lobby missed. The website has discovered “the truth behind the Labour coup, when it really began and who manufactured it”.

Apparently, the political consultancy and PR firm Portland Communications is “orchestrating” the Labour plotting through its extensive network of Blairite lobbyists and its close links to top media folk. Just when we thought that Tom Watson and Angela Eagle might have something to do with it.

Many Canary readers, who tend to be Jeremy Corbyn supporters, have been lapping up and sharing the shock news. “Thank you for exposing this subterfuge,” said Susan Berry. “Most helpful piece of the week,” enthused Sarah Beuhler.

On Twitter, Mira Bar-Hillel went even further: “It is now clear that @jeremycorbyn must remove anybody associated with Portland PR, the Fabians and Lord Mandelson from his vicinity asap.”

The Canary's strange, yet popular, theory goes like this: Portland was set up by Tony Blair’s former deputy communications chief Tim Allan. On its books are a number of Labour types, many of whom dislike Corbyn and also have links to the Fabian Society. The PR firm also has “countless links to the media” and the BBC recently interviewed a Portland consultant. Err, that’s it.

The author of the piece, Steve Topple, concludes: “The Fabians have mobilised their assets in both the parliamentary Labour party, in the media and in the sphere of public relations, namely via Portland Communications – to inflict as much damage as possible on Corbyn.”

To be fair to Topple, he is right to detect that Portland has a few active Blairites on the payroll. But on that basis, the entire British lobbying industry might also be behind Labour’s coup.

Rival lobbying firm Bell Pottinger employs paid-up Blairites such as the former prime minister’s assistant political secretary Razi Rahman and his ex-special adviser Darren Murphy. Bell Pottinger also has former News of The World political editor Jamie Lyons.

Are Rahman and Murphy also telling docile Labour MPs what to do?  Is Lyon busy ensuring that his old mates in the lobby are paying attention to the Labour story, just in case they get sidetracked or don’t fancy writing about the official opposition imploding around them?

And what about Lodestone Communications, whose boss is a close pal of Tom Watson? Or Lexington Communications, which is run by a former aide of John Prescott? Or Insight Consulting Group, which is run by the man who managed Andy Burnham’s recent leadership campaign?

Having tracked down the assorted Blairites at Portland, Topple asserts: “It surely can be no coincidence that so many of the employees of this company are affiliated to both Labour and the Fabians.”

Indeed it is no coincidence – but not in the way that the author suggests. Since the mid-1990s, Labour lobbyists have tended to come from the pragmatic, Blairite ranks of the party. This is largely because Labour spent the 1980s ignoring business, and that only changed significantly when Blair arrived on the scene.

Whisper it quietly, but Portland also employ a few Tories. Why don’t they get a mention? Presumably they are also busy focusing on how to destroy Boris Johnson or to ensure that Stephen Crabb never gets anywhere near Downing Street.

What is certainly true is that Corbynites are incredibly hard to find in public affairs. As one experienced Labour lobbyist at another firm has told me: “I know of nobody in the industry  or indeed the real world – who is a Corbynite. All of my Labour-supporting colleagues would be horrified by the accusation!”

David Singleton is editor of Public Affairs News. He tweets @singersz.