Is Labour preparing to compromise over Leveson?

State-backed regulation would be much the best outcome. But Oliver Letwin's proposal of a Royal Charter might just be acceptable.

It’s taken a while, but this may be the week in which we get to see the government’s proposals for implementing the Leveson report.

Labour, which had been harrying for action, has let the first month of 2013 pass, a show of patience that may be significant. Late last year Ed Miliband was warning that if David Cameron didn’t come forward with satisfactory proposals by Christmas, Labour would force a Commons vote in January on its own draft bill.

The principal clause of that bill is that a new independent regulator should be underpinned by parliamentary statute, in line with Leveson’s key recommendation. That of course the Prime Minister has explicitly rejected, thereby opening up an apparently unbridgeable gap between the Conservatives and Labour. But at IPPR’s recent Oxford Media Convention, the shadow culture secretary, Harriet Harman, softened Labour’s hard deadline and more intriguingly appeared to throw a rope across the chasm that divides the parties.

It came in response to Oliver Letwin’s idea of a Royal Charter. This plan, reflecting Letwin’s reputation for feline cleverness, would provide legal underpinning for a recognition body for the new press regulator, not via a single statute, but rather through a combination of Royal Charter and accompanying statute. It may require legislation, but perhaps of a limited nature, reducing the involvement of parliament in deciding on press regulation – a notion offensive to some critics. On the other hand, the nature of a charter is that it would mean the press couldn’t change the oversight arrangements for its own regulatory body without government approval. All in all, it would provide what might be described as underhand statutory underpinning.

For many this suggestion is way too slippery. The campaign group Hacked Off has called it "overcomplicated and undemocratic" and the Media Reform Coalition has also highlighted its dangers. But what is Labour’s view? On the face of it, Harman rejected the idea at Oxford. Labour was "unpersuaded" of the Letwin plan, she said, and given a choice between Dolly the sheep and a sheep – why not stick with the sheep. So: rejection out of hand? Perhaps not. After all, being unpersuaded is not quite the same as being unpersuadable and if the clone can be engineered to be almost indistinguishable from the real thing, maybe it will suffice.

IPPR is most uneasy about shifting on this totemic issue. In our Life after Leveson report we called for full statutory underpinning, anticipating Leveson’s recommendation, right down to suggesting that Ofcom should be the back stop regulator. We still think that this is the best arrangement and are wary of the motivations of those who oppose full legal backing for future press regulation.

On the other hand, sometimes deals have to be done in politics in order to escape from an impasse. So although any move to towards the Letwin plan in some form will inevitably get one c-word thrown at it – climbdown - it might that another is more appropriate – compromise. After all, in floating the idea of a Royal Charter, the Conservatives have shifted their position somewhat, albeit to get themselves off a hook. And let’s not forget that the BBC – generally a repository of public trust because of its high journalistic standards - is established under Royal Charter. Similar regulatory arrangements for the press fall short of the ideal, but might do the job nonetheless.

Most important, though, is that whatever system of regulation is finally established commands the widest possible public confidence. Not the least of the virtues of the Leveson inquiry was that it all took place out in the open. The public could have its say and the powerful were called to account. This full airing was vital to bring about a much needed institutional deep clean of the most stinking chambers of the press. So it is a shame, if perhaps inevitable, that the process of implementing Leveson has been characterised by closed cross-party negotiations, secret talks among editors and the discredited PCC, in zombie form, taking unto itself the task of establishing a successor body. We, the public, have been locked out again.

That needs to change. Harman’s new red line on Leveson was that the government publish the Royal Charter proposals by the end of January. A few days have already passed, but if publication is imminent we can forgive that. Thereafter, we need to see a proper process of public consultation take place. The government and indeed opposition should take full account of whether public opinion is prepared to accept anything short of Leveson in toto. Maybe it will, but the alternative needs to be explained fully and openly, and even if they are not strictly needed, a whole panoply of public forums, select committee hearings, and parliamentary votes should take place before the idea is confirmed. While we should have a hayfever sufferer’s dread of the long grass, we should also have a claustrophobic aversion to everything happening behind closed doors. Leveson in full would be much the best outcome. Something close might just be acceptable. But we should certainly resist a quick stitch-up.

Tim Finch is director of communications at IPPR

IPPR's report Life after Leveson: The challenge to strengthen Britain’s diverse and vibrant media can be read here

A protest group stages a mock burning of the Leveson Report outside the Queen Elizabeth II centre in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Tim Finch is director of communications for IPPR

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.