Nick Clegg, leaves his home in west London on May 23, 2014, a day following local council elections. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The worst night yet for the Lib Dems - but Clegg will survive

Clegg is unwilling to fall on his sword and the party isn't prepared to force him out.
 

In a competitive field, last night was the worst the Lib Dems have suffered since entering the coalition. The party lost all but one of its 11 MEPs and finished in fifth place behind the Greens. That Nick Clegg fought a spirited campaign, hailing the Lib Dems as the "party of in" and taking on Nigel Farage in debate, makes the result all the more painful. Those in the party who called in advance for his resignation will feel vindicated.

But my sense is that Clegg is likely to live to fight another day. Lib Dem grandees such as Paddy Ashdown and Ming Campbell, who could have told him that the game was up, have moved swiftly to shore up his position in media interviews this morning. The rebellion is still limited to just two MPs - John Pugh and Adrian Sanders - and just 283 members (0.66 per cent of the membership) have signed the petition calling for him to go.

With Clegg unwilling to fall on his sword, he would have to be forced out, and there are few Lib Dem MPs with an appetite for regicide at this stage of the electoral cycle. Vince Cable, the most plausible caretaker leader, has no intention of wielding the knife and other potential replacements, such as Tim Farron, are wisely biding their time until after the general election. Far better to begin the hard work of reconstruction after May 2015 than to take over a party heading for its worst election result in more than 20 years.

Then there is the fact that for all the Lib Dems' woes, they have an increasing chance of holding the balance of power in another hung parliament (with their vote holding up well in some Tory-facing areas). So long as Clegg is able to dangle that prize in front of his party, he will have the momentum he requires to stay in the job.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.