Nigel Farage speaks at the UKIP spring conference in the Riviera International on February 28, 2014 in Torquay. Photograph: Getty Images.
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UKIP is a threat to Labour - but not in the north

Miliband's northern fortresses are safe but Farage's party could prevent Labour winning southern and eastern marginals off the Tories in 2015.

After initially being viewed as a threat to the Tories alone, much has been written recently about the challenge UKIP poses to Labour. The academics Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford, whose book Revolt on the Right: Explaining Public Support for the Radical Right in Britain is published next week, have studied this issue more than anyone else. As they point out in today's Guardian, it is wrong to view the typical UKIP voter as a retired colonel enraged by EU directives and gay marriage. Rather, the party draws much of its support from working class voters (many of whom voted Labour in 2005 before defecting to the Tories in 2010) alienated by the collapse in living standards and the lack of good jobs. Goodwin and Ford write: 

Don't think of Ukip as just a party; think of them as a symptom of far deeper social and value divisions in Britain. Farage is winning over working-class, white male voters because they feel left behind by Britain's rapid economic and social transformation and left out of our political conversation; struggling people who feel like strangers in a society whose ruling elites do not talk like them or value the things which matter to them.

This should ring loud alarm bells on the left. In a time of falling incomes, rising inequality and spending cuts, such voters should be lining up behind the party that traditionally stood for social protection and redistribution. Instead, they are switching their loyalty to a right-wing party headed by a stockbroker and staffed by activists who worship Thatcher. Those who are getting hit hardest by the crisis and austerity are turning not to Labour, but to Farage for solutions.

They and others point to UKIP's impressive by-election performances in Labour-held northern seats such as South Shields, Rotherham and Middlesbrough as evidence that Ed Miliband, as well as David Cameron, should be looking nervously over his shoulder. It is indeed impressive that a party many dismissed as irrelevant after its failure to win a seat in 2010, has become the de facto opposition in parts of the north. But as far as 2015 is concerned, none of this matters. If UKIP does win any seats (and it may not), they won't be in the north. At worst for Labour, its huge majorities will be reduced to merely large ones. More likely, UKIP will struggle to repeat its by-election performances (which are a poor guide to general election outcomes) and Miliband's party will increase its dominance. 

Goodwin and Ford suggest that the real threat to Labour (assuming it wins power) will come in 2020 when the party will face "an ageing population; straining public services; high migration from poorer EU states; persistent inequality; and the economic and fiscal overhang of the worst crisis for 80 years", and when UKIP "will be a known alternative". But this argument involves many too unreliable assumptions. UKIP would almost certainly suffer from the return of the Tories to opposition (nearly half of its supporters voted Conservative in 2010) and the replacement of Cameron as leader. It will struggle to maintain momentum if and when Nigel Farage (who has pledged to resign as leader if the party fails to win a seat in 2015) steps down, and will have to work for decades, not years, before it can dream of taking seats off Labour. 

It's for reasons like these that some Labour supporters dismiss the alleged "threat" to the party as non-existent. But this view is similarly mistaken. UKIP is a threat to Labour's election chances, but not in the way most people think. Rather than Miliband's northern fortresses, the seats to watch are the Tory-held marginals in the south and east of England (Lincoln, Ipswich, Thurrock, Northampton North, Harlow, Norwich North) that Labour needs to win to achieve a majority. As psephologist Lewis Baston has noted, "In some of them, where either Ukip is exceptionally strong or there is a close contest between the Conservatives and Labour, Ukip topped the poll in 2013. In others, such as Ipswich, the Ukip surge of 2013 seemed to reduce Labour’s lead over the Conservatives." 

The danger for Labour is the possibility that Tory defectors could return home in 2015, while Labour defectors stay put. By successfully appealing to the working class voters Miliband needs to win, UKIP could create a split in the opposition vote that allows the Conservatives to hang on. Forget 2020 and fantasies of UKIP replacing Labour as the northern party of choice, the two are locked in a struggle right now that could determine whether Miliband enters Downing Street at all. 

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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