Has Clegg sent Norman Baker to stop the return of the Snooper's Charter?

It looks like the Deputy PM may have known that the security services were about to make another play to bring the Communications Data Bill back.

Nick Clegg has been on something of a drive to rehabilitate his civil libertarian credentials in recent months after the Secret Courts debacle (my word, definitely not his), nuking the Communications Data Bill, reversing the party’s position on Secret Courts, and securing numerous compromises over the Lobbying Bill.

But the latest step – putting Norman 'conspiracy theory' Baker into the Home Office seemed, for many non-Liberal Democrats, a step too far. "Did the Freemasons stage the moon landings? If so, new Home Office minister Norman Baker will find out…" and "Norman Baker is a green-ink crank – Theresa May will be furious with Cameron and Clegg for appointing him" are two of my favourite reactions from recent days.

Leaving aside the fact that driving Theresa May to distraction seems a perfectly acceptable reason for appointing him, Norman Baker, as many will testify, Norman Baker has been an effective and admired minister at Transport and he’ll do a brilliant job in the Home Office. But – and I’m going to be a touch 'conspiracy theorist' myself now – could there be another reason for Norman’s appointment?

There has been disquiet in recent weeks among the Lib Dem grassroots about the lack of vocal outrage in the parliamentary party about the Prism and Tempora revelations, which presumably went some way to 'helping' Nick make the decision to make a change at the Home Office. But could it also be that Nick knew that the security services were about to make another play to bring the Communications Data Bill (aka the Snooper's Charter) back to the table?

How else to interpret the words of the new head of MI5, Sir Andrew Parker, when he said last night?

"Retaining the capability to access such information is intrinsic to MI5's ability to protect the country. There are choices to be made including about how and whether communications data is retained. It is not, however, an option to disregard such shifts with an unspoken assumption that somehow security will anyway be sustained. It will not. We cannot work without tools."

It looks like the debate about the rights of the security services to retain data about UK citizens is going to start all over again. And if it is, I, for one, feel happier knowing I’ve got a green-ink using, card carrying conspiracy theorist sitting in the Home Office. And, I guess, so does Nick Clegg.

Good luck to you, Norman.

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

New Liberal Democrat Home Office minister Norman Baker. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.