How Miliband can skewer Cameron on low pay today

In May 2010, Cameron declared that the living wage was "an idea whose time has come". But the PM has said nothing substantive on the subject since.

At last week's PMQs, David Cameron derided Ed Miliband as a "one-trick pony", an embittered reference to his proposed energy price freeze. But that's not a line he'll be able to use today. Miliband arrives for the leaders' weekly bout having once again set the agenda with his plan to expand use of the living wage through tax rebates for businesses. 

The Tories have been buoyed by figures showing the services sector expanding at its fastest rate since the month Tony Blair became prime minister, but so long as living standards continue to plummet, they remain on weak ground. Indeed, the more they trumpet the success of the macroeconomy, the more voters will be inclined to ask, "why aren't I feeling it?" 

If he challenges the PM on low pay today (as he surely will), Miliband could begin by recalling his declaration in May 2010 that the living wage was "an idea whose time has come". But since then, Cameron has had nothing substantive to say on the subject. The Tories' only response to Miliband's plan has been to falsely claim that it would lead to higher government borrowing (Howard Reed has crunched the numbers here). 

Unsurprisingly, the more thoughtful of Cameron's MPs are troubled by their party's seeming opposition to an idea as obviously popular as higher pay (60%, including 44% of Conservative voters, support a universal living wage even if it costs jobs). Blue collar moderniser Robert Halfon (who recently argued on The Staggers in favour an energy windfall tax) has warned: "We mustn't make the same mistake the Conservatives made ten years ago in opposing the minimum wage. We mustn’t get ourselves in the position of again being against this. That would be a disaster for the party." 

In a piece for the NS in August, Guy Opperman similarly argued: "Britain is a country in which some workers earn so little that the government has to step in and provide aid. That is the system of tax credits we have; a subsidy by any other name and a £4bn one at that. How and why did we let it become acceptable for a full-time job not to pay enough to live on? The living wage isn’t just a wonkish idea – it’s the political world catching up with many Britons’ reality...It may just be the old socialist in me but when did it become a hindrance rather than a duty for a business to look after its employees?"

Armed with quotes like these, Miliband can argue that, just as you don't have to be a Marxist to believe that the energy companies should bear a greater burden, so you don't have to be a Marxist to believe that companies can and should pay their workers more. 

Ed Miliband delivers a speech on dealing with the cost of living crisis at Battersea Power station on November 5, 2013. 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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