Ed Miliband speaks to journalists outside his house in north London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour gains in target seats offer party cause for hope

The party is on course for its best result in London since 1998 and has won in some key general election targets.

Today did not begin well for Labour. A Ukip surge in Rotherham saw Nigel Farage's party gain nine seats and knock out the Labour leader and deputy leader. In Thurrock, the party's number two general election target, Ukip gained five seats and deprived Labour of overall control. Serial rebel Graham Stringer took to the airwaves to declare that Ed Miliband lacks "an immediate appeal to the electorate" and described the party's campaign as "unforgivably unprofessional". The narrative quickly became one of defeat and disappointment.

But as the day has continued, the picture has improved for Labour. The party made dramatic gains in London, winning the Conservative fortress of Hammersmith and Fulham ("David Cameron's favourite council") along with Merton, Croydon and Redbridge, and is on course for its best result in the capital since 1998. Sadiq Khan, who ran a radical and energetic campaign, will rightly enjoy plaudits for the performance. Taking Cambridge (another general election target) from the Lib Dems was another early success.

Ukip's gains in the north are notable, insofar as they show Farage's party replacing the Tories as the de facto opposition in some areas, but they tell us little about the general election result. There is no prospect of Ukip winning safe Labour seats next year. What matters, as Labour strategists emphasised in advance, is how the party peforms in its general election targets.

Labour hasn't done well enough to justify hopes that it will achieve a majority at the general election. It failed to take must-win councils such as Swindon and Walsall, and suffered a swing to the Tories in the bellweather seat of Gloucester. But it has performed well enough to suggest that it will be competitive in 2015. For the first time in 14 years, Labour has won control of Amber Valley after Ukip split the Tory vote, while also topping the poll in target seats such as Lincoln, Harlow, Cannock Chase, Stevenage, Hastings (where the Labour group is now the largest ever) and Crawley.

The national projection from Sky News puts Labour on 308 seats, 18 short of a majority and not where the party needs to be at this stage (although Lord Ashcroft's 26,000 sample marginals poll, released tomorrow at 1pm, will be a better guide). Given the likely swingback to the Tories before May 2015, Labour needs to be on course for a majority now if it is to be confident of victory. But if the party can draw the right lessons from where it has performed well, most notably in London, it could still win in 2015. For a first-term opposition, that is not a bad position to be in.

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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