Lord Ashcroft at the Conservative conference in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Lord Ashcroft marginals poll shows Labour would win "comfortable majority"

Survey of 26,000 voters suggests Tories would lose 83 MPs with swing of 6.5 per cent to Labour.
 

After yesterday's mixed local election results, which suggested that Labour would merely become the single largest party if they were replicated nationally (not a good position for an opposition to be in a year before a general election), Lord Ashcroft's super poll of marginal seats has raised spirits in the party. The survey of 26,000 voters in 26 Conservative-Labour battlegrounds found a swing of 6.5 per cent to Labour - "enough to topple 83 Tory MPs and give Ed Miliband a comfortable majority".

It's important to remember that this is a snapshot, not a prediction. In October 2009, a similar poll suggested the Tories would win a majority of 70. Just seven months later, they didn't win one at all. But thanks to the defection of Lib Dem voters to Labour and the defection of Tory voters to Ukip, Ed Miliband is in a strong position to become prime minister. The swing achieved by Labour in the marginals (6.5 per cent) is greater than the national average (5.5 per cent), supporting Labour's boast that it is "winning voters where it matters" (as it did in 2010 when it won a 1992 share of seats on a 1983 share of the vote).

Less happily for the party, the poll also found that just three in ten voters would rather see Miliband as prime minister than Cameron, and that nearly seven in ten trust Cameron and Osborne most to run the economy. History suggests that a significant number of this group will return to the Conservative fold once faced with the task of electing a national government, rather than expressing a fleeting opinion. But as I've argued before, the rise of Ukip and the collapse of the Lib Dems means the past may be a less useful guide to the next general election than any other.

Based on Ashcroft's findings, the Tories should abandon any lingering hope they have of winning a majority and recognise the struggle they will face merely to remain the largest party.

Here's how Douglas Alexander, Labour's general election strategy chair, has responded: "Lord Ashcroft's poll confirms that we are making real progress in seats where we need to do well and that Labour can win next year's General Election. In the year ahead we will continue to show how we can make a difference to people's lives and engage directly with voters conversation by conversation, doorstep by doorstep.”

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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