Miliband must not lose control of Labour's EU referendum policy

Shadow minister Ian Austin's dramatic call for an in/out referendum next year shows how party unity is fraying.

While Westminster digested the resignation of Tom Watson, an extraordinary intervention by shadow work and pensions minister Ian Austin emerged. Writing in his local paper The Express and Star, Austin, a close friend and former flatmate of Watson's, broke ranks to call for an in/out EU referendum on the same day as next year's European elections. With no attempt to maintain any pretence of unity, he wrote:

[T]he truth is that the UK needs to decide and I would prefer it to do so more quickly. I know this isn't Labour Party policy but my view is that we should have a referendum next year on the same day as the European elections.

On the day that the Tories vote on James Wharton's private member's bill guaranteeing an EU referendum by 2017, and as they seek to frame Ed Miliband as too "weak" to lead his party, this is political gold for David Cameron. While frontbenchers, including Ed Balls and Jim Murphy, have previously hinted that they believe a referendum is inevitable (and desirable), none have gone as far as Austin. The more open Labour divisions on Europe become, the harder it will be for Miliband to mock those of the Tories. Indeed, the impression of Labour disunity has the consequence of reinforcing Conservative unity. 

The view among Labour MPs is that at some point before the next general election, Miliband will have to signal that an EU referendum would be held in the first term of a Labour government. The Labour leader has already pledged to keep the coalition's "referendum lock", which is designed to ensure a vote is triggered whenever significant powers are transferred to Brussels.

Under the 2011 European Union Act, this would be a referendum on the new treaty/powers but as Raf noted earlier this week, Nick Clegg has already signalled that, in his view, it would need to be an in/out vote. The likelihood is that Miliband will eventually do the same and, in addition, pledge to hold a referendum even if no major powers are transferred. But when this intervention comes, it will have to be at a moment of Miliband's choosing. It was the panic with which Cameron agreed to bring forward the draft referendum bill that allowed Labour to present him as a leader who had lost control. If Miliband is to avoid the same fate, he must not tolerate any more interventions like Austin's. 

Ed Miliband speaks at the CBI's annual conference on November 19, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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