How well does Labour need to do in the Corby by-election?

The party needs to win a majority of at least 12 per cent to match its current national poll lead.

Barring some dramatic upset, Labour will win today's Corby by-election (triggered by the resignation of Louise Mensch), gaining a seat from the Conservatives for the first time in this parliament. But winning alone isn't enough. A slender victory would prompt fears that the party still isn't where it needs to be if it's to stand a chance of winning the next general election. Thus, while Labour requires a swing (the rise in one party's vote added to the fall in another's and divided by two) of just two per cent to overturn the Tories' majority of 1,951, it needs a swing of at least five per cent to put it on course to win a national majority in 2015 and a swing of eight per cent to justify its average opinion poll lead of nine points. The latter would see it take the seat with a majority of around 12 per cent. 

To win Corby: Labour needs a swing of two per cent.

To win a majority in 2015: Labour needs a swing of five per cent to put it on course to win a majority at the next general election.

To match its national poll lead: Labour needs a swing of eight per cent to match its average national poll lead of nine points.

Polling by Lord Ashcroft in the constituency has suggested that Labour will easily exceed this benchmark. His final survey gave the party a lead of 22 points (with Labour on 54 per cent and the Tories on 32 per cent) and showed a swing of 12.5 per cent from the Tories to Labour.

Labour, naturally, has downplayed Ashcroft's findings, insisting that Corby will be "a very tough fight" in an attempt to ensure its supporters turn out. Ed Miliband reminded party workers last week that the party thought it had won in 1992 but ended up losing to the Tories by 342 votes. While history isn't likely to repeat itself today, anything less than a resounding victory in this mid-term electoral test will force Labour to ask why it isn't doing better.

Update: As the commenter below points out, there are two other by-elections today, in Manchester Central and Cardiff South and Penarth. Labour currently holds both seats by majorities of 10,430 and 4,709 respectively and is expected to retain them.

In addition, the first ever police and crime commissioner elections are taking place in 41 police authority areas in England and Wales. You can read my guide to the elections here.

Ed Miliband is hoping Labour can win a seat off the Conservatives for the first time since he became leader. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Mass surveillance doesn’t work – it’s time to go back to the drawing board

Lacking an answer to the problem of radicalisation, the government has confused tactics with strategy.

This week saw the release of not one but two parliamentary reports on the government’s proposed new spying law, the first from the Intelligence and Security Committee and the second from the Joint Committee on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill.

Both reports suggested the government hasn’t fully made the case for some elements of mass surveillance put forward in the Bill. But neither went so far as to ask the most important question in this debate – does mass surveillance actually work?

The proposed law, known as the Investigatory Powers Bill, looks set to enshrine almost all the government’s mass surveillance powers and capabilities in a single law for the first time. It has been touted by the Prime Minister as a vital weapon in the UK’s fight against Islamic State.

Most of the noise about mass surveillance since the Snowden revelations has predictably come from civil liberties groups. But the privacy and safeguards debate skips over the highly dubious assumption underpinning the Investigatory Powers Bill – that mass surveillance will stop terrorists.

In fact, mass surveillance is not only ineffective but downright counter-productive.

A 2009 report by the US government found that only 1.2 per cent of tips provided to the FBI by mass surveillance techniques made a significant contribution to counter-terrorism efforts. Another recent study by the New America Foundation found that National Security Agency mass data collection played a role in, at most, 1.8 per cent of terrorism cases examined. By contrast, traditional investigative methods initiated 60 per cent of investigations. Suddenly mass surveillance doesn’t seem so vital.

This is because the technology is far from perfect. As computer scientist Ray Corrigan has written, “Even if your magic terrorist-catching machine has a false positive rate of 1 in 1,000—and no security technology comes anywhere near this—every time you asked it for suspects in the UK it would flag 60,000 innocent people.”

Perversely, this lack of precision means mass surveillance can actually frustrate counter-terrorism efforts. Michael Adebolajo, who brutally murdered Fusilier Lee Rigby in 2013, was so well known to the security services prior to the attack they had even tried to recruit him as an informant. Yet insufficient monitoring later on let him slip through the net. The same thing happened with the Hebdo killers. Mass surveillance means intelligence analysts are forced to spend their time fruitlessly sifting through endless reams of data rather than carrying out the targeted monitoring and detection that’s really needed.

Counter-radicalisation experts have meanwhile argued that mass surveillance may alienate Muslim communities, making them distrustful of the police and possibly even contributing to radicalisation. In 2014, Jonathan Russell from the counter-extremism group Quilliam wrote that the “introduction of a sweeping [mass surveillance] law…will be exploited by extremists to show that the government wants to spy on its own citizens [and] that all Muslims are suspected of being terrorists.” This will set alarm bells ringing for those who know the fight against terrorism will ultimately be won only by preventing radicalisation in the first place.

And therein lies the real problem with this Bill. It’s tactics, not strategy. If we stop for a second and think about what the problem is – namely that thousands of young Britons are at risk of radicalisation – we’d never prescribe mass surveillance as the answer. It would be nonsensical to propose something that risks making alienation worse.

The trouble is we don’t have a convincing answer to the actual problem. The government’s counter-radicalisation strategy is mired in controversy. So instead a different question is being posed. Not how do we stop people from signing up to join Islamic State, but how do we gather as much communications data as possible? GCHQ have an answer for that. It’s a classic case of confusing a tactic – and a highly unreliable one at that – with a strategy actually designed to tackle the root of the problem.

Never mind our privacy for a moment. For the sake of our security, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and think of something better.

 

Andrew Noakes is Senior Advocacy Officer at the Remote Control Project. He writes about covert and unconventional methods of warfare, counter-terrorism, and human rights.