Lib Dem activists are prepared for war over the snoopers' charter

After repeated assaults on civil liberties by the coalition, the party's grass roots are angry, worried and very distrustful.

Like some political version of Schrödinger's cat, Lib Dem MPs appear to be trapped in a Westminster box, while activists stand outside, wondering if the fight for civil liberties is alive or dead within. We don’t know – but worryingly, there’s currently a hell of a stench of dead something or other coming from that direction.

Civil liberties are a touchstone issue for party members, lying at the core of why most joined the Lib Dems. And we’ve taken a hell of a battering. For example, this week our MPs voted against a set of proposed amendments in the Defamation Bill which would have made it harder for corporations to silence critics using the threat of libel. This despite the fact that it’s party policy and was proposed in the 2010 manifesto. Apparently, we’re on a promise that it can all get changed back again now it’s returned to the Lords. Although the initial reaction from the party doesn’t exactly fill, you with confidence.

A Liberal Democrat spokesman said the party would be instructing their MPs to vote with the Government. 'Unfortunately we are in a Coalition and this was one of those areas where we could not get our Conservative colleagues to agree with us,' he said

Nor does this excellent analysis of the situation from David Allen Green. And don’t forget all this is on the back of the Justice and Security Bill (secret courts, to you and me) debacle. Seven Lib Dem MPs rebelled over that Bill, fewer than the number who managed to show a bit of backbone during the rebellion over planning regulations this week. 

But what’s really keeping activists awake at night, the radioactive isotope that might release the Tory poison and kill the cat, is the new version of the Communications Data bill. You will recall, perhaps, that we were told last year, by a Lib Dem minister, no less - that :

The proposals being considered would simply update the current rules – which allow the police in criminal investigations to find out who was contacted and when – to cover new forms of technology that didn’t even exist when the original laws were made, like Skype

…and it was only when the party went stark raving bonkers that anyone in Westminster woke up and smelled the coffee.

By December, we had moved on considerably, with Nick saying, "we cannot proceed with this bill and we have to go back to the drawng board", which is about as clear as you can get and in marked contrast to his original comments.

But the grass roots party is angry, it’s worried and it’s very distrustful. You didn’t have to go through the last bill with a fine toothcomb to drive a coach and horses through its assault on civil liberties. This time , presumably, rather more care has been taken  - so activists are primed and ready to take whatever is proposed in the next Queen’s Speech apart word by word, line by line.

If the Westminster party thought the grass roots gave them a hard time on civil liberties before, just try and propose some legislation that does anything but roll back the state’s powers in this area. You haven’t seen anything yet.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

The Communications Data bill is being rewritten after Nick Clegg said the draft version was unacceptable. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.