Nick Clegg at the Lib Dems' annual spring conference in March. (Photo: Getty)
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Are things really looking that bad for the Lib Dems?

According to the FT, 72% of people who voted for the Lib Dems in 2010 would no longer do so. But no one’s panicking yet.

So, according to the FT, 72% of voters who put their crosses next to a Lib Dem candidate’s name in the 2010 General Election wouldn’t vote for us now.

Fourteen months from a general election, I’d be the first to admit this is not ideal.

It’s not quite as bad as it seems; after all, the same survey reveals that a fifth of people who voted Labour last time – something of a nadir in polling terms for the party in recent general elections – wouldn’t vote for them now either. Way to go, Ed and the team.

But it’s not good. So why aren’t folk throwing themselves off the roof of Great George Street at this news?

Well, first of all we know a lot of those who supported us in 2010 voted tactically, and tactical voting comes back to bite you in the arse if you end up in coalition government. All those people who voted Lib Dem under the misapprehension we were a slightly more radical offshoot of the Labour Party and a vote for us would keep the Tories out are feeling fairly cheesed off. That ain’t changing.

But it’s no surprise. And actually, in terms of seats, losing those votes may not be the electoral disaster it at first seems. There’s a reason just 16 of the 106 top Labour targets are Lib Dem seats (and some of those seem optimistic – Bermondsey and Old Southwark for example). It’s because Labour think they stand more chance of picking up seats in Tory territory.

That’s largely because of the hidden effect of incumbency, which enormously favours Lib Dems MPs; especially those who didn’t vote against party policy on issues such as raising tuition fees for example. (All those Lib dems MPs who voted for it were voting against party policy as opposed to coalition policy; it was still party policy to abolish fees altogether, immediately, until last autumn when the policy was nuanced somewhat.) Eight of the Labour targets seats contained Lib Dem MPs who were tuition fees rebels, going some way to neutralising Labour’s favourite weapon of attack in those constituencies. And let’s not forget more Lib Dem backbenchers rebelled on fees than say, Labour backbenchers rebelled on the welfare cap.

Indeed, seat by seat analysis (like the one carried out by Iain Dale) suggests even now we’re likely to get a return on 30-35 seats as things stand in a general election. Which frankly, we’d probably take at the moment. And that’s before you factor in the 21 per cent of 2010 Lib Dem voters who at the moment are “don’t knows”, who we can attempt to inveigle back into the fold.

So is it good nearly three-quarters of voters who wanted us in government in 2010 now wouldn’t vote for us? Lord no. But no one’s panicking in Great George Street.

Not yet, anyway.

Whether they should be panicking? Well that’s a whole different kettle of fish.

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

Photo: Getty
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Mass surveillance doesn’t work – it’s time to go back to the drawing board

Lacking an answer to the problem of radicalisation, the government has confused tactics with strategy.

This week saw the release of not one but two parliamentary reports on the government’s proposed new spying law, the first from the Intelligence and Security Committee and the second from the Joint Committee on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill.

Both reports suggested the government hasn’t fully made the case for some elements of mass surveillance put forward in the Bill. But neither went so far as to ask the most important question in this debate – does mass surveillance actually work?

The proposed law, known as the Investigatory Powers Bill, looks set to enshrine almost all the government’s mass surveillance powers and capabilities in a single law for the first time. It has been touted by the Prime Minister as a vital weapon in the UK’s fight against Islamic State.

Most of the noise about mass surveillance since the Snowden revelations has predictably come from civil liberties groups. But the privacy and safeguards debate skips over the highly dubious assumption underpinning the Investigatory Powers Bill – that mass surveillance will stop terrorists.

In fact, mass surveillance is not only ineffective but downright counter-productive.

A 2009 report by the US government found that only 1.2 per cent of tips provided to the FBI by mass surveillance techniques made a significant contribution to counter-terrorism efforts. Another recent study by the New America Foundation found that National Security Agency mass data collection played a role in, at most, 1.8 per cent of terrorism cases examined. By contrast, traditional investigative methods initiated 60 per cent of investigations. Suddenly mass surveillance doesn’t seem so vital.

This is because the technology is far from perfect. As computer scientist Ray Corrigan has written, “Even if your magic terrorist-catching machine has a false positive rate of 1 in 1,000—and no security technology comes anywhere near this—every time you asked it for suspects in the UK it would flag 60,000 innocent people.”

Perversely, this lack of precision means mass surveillance can actually frustrate counter-terrorism efforts. Michael Adebolajo, who brutally murdered Fusilier Lee Rigby in 2013, was so well known to the security services prior to the attack they had even tried to recruit him as an informant. Yet insufficient monitoring later on let him slip through the net. The same thing happened with the Hebdo killers. Mass surveillance means intelligence analysts are forced to spend their time fruitlessly sifting through endless reams of data rather than carrying out the targeted monitoring and detection that’s really needed.

Counter-radicalisation experts have meanwhile argued that mass surveillance may alienate Muslim communities, making them distrustful of the police and possibly even contributing to radicalisation. In 2014, Jonathan Russell from the counter-extremism group Quilliam wrote that the “introduction of a sweeping [mass surveillance] law…will be exploited by extremists to show that the government wants to spy on its own citizens [and] that all Muslims are suspected of being terrorists.” This will set alarm bells ringing for those who know the fight against terrorism will ultimately be won only by preventing radicalisation in the first place.

And therein lies the real problem with this Bill. It’s tactics, not strategy. If we stop for a second and think about what the problem is – namely that thousands of young Britons are at risk of radicalisation – we’d never prescribe mass surveillance as the answer. It would be nonsensical to propose something that risks making alienation worse.

The trouble is we don’t have a convincing answer to the actual problem. The government’s counter-radicalisation strategy is mired in controversy. So instead a different question is being posed. Not how do we stop people from signing up to join Islamic State, but how do we gather as much communications data as possible? GCHQ have an answer for that. It’s a classic case of confusing a tactic – and a highly unreliable one at that – with a strategy actually designed to tackle the root of the problem.

Never mind our privacy for a moment. For the sake of our security, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and think of something better.

 

Andrew Noakes is Senior Advocacy Officer at the Remote Control Project. He writes about covert and unconventional methods of warfare, counter-terrorism, and human rights.