No. 10's Potemkin summit on internet porn solved nothing

Did it really take a choreographed Downing Street tea party to get an extra £1m for the Internet Watch Foundation?

The "Downing Street summit" is a trusty device to bump some minor item a couple of points up the news agenda. The Prime Minister doesn'’t even need to be present, as indeed he wasn'’t when Maria Miller gathered corporate internet Titans in No. 10 to declare collective horror at child pornography. 
 
It turns out the simple fact of the conversation taking place within those hallowed walls is sufficient to spur action. But what action? The assembled bigwigs - including representatives from internet service providers (ISPs), phone companies, search engines and social networking sites - pledged to boost the funds and powers available to the Internet Watch Foundation, the industry's self-regulatory body, to track down and block child porn. Agreeing to do a tiny bit more is unmistakably better than agreeing to do less. So well done Big Internet for disapproving of vile criminality! 
 
Did it really take a choreographed Downing Street tea party to get an extra £1m for the IWF (spread over four years)? And will that sum, multiples of which are routinely misplaced in the margins of Google'’s UK tax returns, do anything much at all to protect children from predatory paedophiles? The answer, each time, is surely “no”. But it has helped boost Maria Miller’'s profile at a time when the Prime Minister is known to be mulling a ministerial reshuffle. There is no doubt Miller is feeling embattled. Comments she made ahead of the summit, noting her own status as the only mother in the cabinet, have been interpreted –not exactly favourably as an attempt to secure her position. She has even had to defend  the very existence of her department from the whispered suggestion it might usefully be scrapped altogether. (When Steve Hilton was still firing off wild strategy ideas in No10 he notoriously wondered aloud if the DCMS might be downsized to a roomful of people and a website.) Miller’'s friends suspect a concerted briefing campaign to get rid of her, with a steady flow of unhelpful items turning up in newspapers and political columns. 
 
It doesn’'t take a tremendous leap of the imagination to suppose that a beleaguered minister might see some presentational advantage in striding purposefully along Downing St. as the scourge of child pornography.  Yet there is something a little dismal about the whole spectacle. Much reporting of the summit conflated two separate issues: access to illegal images of children –and children’s' access to entirely legal sexual images. It is pretty easy to get outraged about the former and to demand a crackdown; the latter appears not to have been addressed at all. What many campaigners really want  – and what ISPs resist– is a tougher regime of default filtering that means, in theory, children can’'t accidentally find themselves looking at the bad bits of the web. (Whether or not this is a good idea in theory or can even be done in practice is more complicated than it sounds– I wrote about it at some length earlier this year.) 
 
The volume and nature of readily available and entirely legal sexual images online –-  increasingly user-generated  -  is a source of massive anxiety to many parents. It is also complex issue in terms of carving out jurisdiction and apportioning responsibility for policing. It merges with the wider debate, no less tricky, about the social consequences of a more generally sexualised culture. Education is likely to play as important a part in the answer as filtering and blocking. Separately, every rational person can agree that illegal paedophile material needs to be expunged. The two problems are more distinct than is often implied in reporting. Meanwhile, neither came remotely close to being solved by yesterday'’s Potemkin summit. 
 
Culture Secretary Maria Miller leaves No. 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.