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24 October 2012

Why Clegg should kill the Communications Data Bill

No one gives the Lib Dems credit when they merely win concessions.

By Rafael Behr

No one loves the Communications Data Bill currently making its way through parliament. Legislating to increase the state’s power of surveillance over citizens’ private communications is not the kind of thing that brings people into politics. Young idealists, fired with ambition to make a better society, with well-thumbed editions of Orwell on their shelves, do not anticipate forcing internet service providers to hoard copies of messages posted on social network sites so police and security services can sift through them for evidence of terrorist activity and other nefarious plots.

It is, however, just the kind of thing that politicians end up doing once they are in power. They have hair-raising conversations with security services and imagine what the consequences would be if a terrorist attack (or other nefarious plot) were perpetrated on their watch that might otherwise have been prevented with a data communication bill. Opponents – those whose Orwell editions are more recently thumbed – call it the “snoopers’ charter”.

One remarkable feature of this particular (and fairly predictable) augmentation of state power over the digital realm is that it belongs to a genre of illiberal measures that, under the last Labour government, united Lib Dems and many Tories in righteous indignation. One of the easiest areas of mutual understanding between Clegg and Cameron in coalition negotiations was their joint distaste for what liberals and liberal-minded Tories decry as just the kind of statist authoritarianism you might expect from a left-wing government. In fact it turns out to be just the kind of run-of-the-mill statism you might expect from any government. 

Some Tories continue to be squeamish about the bill. Lib Dems hate it with passion. Protecting civil liberties is something that Nick Clegg’s party sees as integral to its identity. Having sacrificed so much for the sake of coalition already, Lib Dems are terrified of appearing to sell out one of their few remaining conspicuous points of principle. The bill’s passage into law has already been delayed because of resistance by the junior party in the coalition. It is now the object of scrutiny by a special parliamentary committee. Clegg has told his party that the law won’t go ahead if Lib Dem concerns about privacy, proportionality and liberty aren’t addressed. Writing in the New Statesman earlier this year, Richard Reeves, Clegg’s former chief strategist, suggested the bill was better off dead.

The alternative is that it is mangled and rewritten at Lib Dem insistence. Clegg might then stand up and say his party had saved the nation from a terrible piece of legislation, helpfully amending it to neutralise the dangers. The only reason for taking that route would be to avoid allegations of wanton obstruction. In the past, Clegg has resisted vetoing Tory measures for fear that doing so would make coalition in general look like a recipe for deadlock. That was, in part, his motive for whipping his MPs behind NHS reforms (and, indeed, the famous acquiescence to raising tuition fees).

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That approach has generally failed. No one gives the Lib Dems much credit for concessions they have extracted, while blame is heaped on them for facilitating a Conservative agenda. It was partly frustration at having marched so many times through the voting lobbies behind distasteful Tory measures that made Lib Dem MPs so determined to force their coalition partners to back House of Lords reform. It was also fury that Tory MPs refused to do so that made Clegg kill Conservative plans to redraw parliamentary constituency boundaries in their favour.

That was just the kind of raw obstruction that Clegg had previously hoped to avoid in coalition. It was also very popular in his party. One of the most problematic features of Clegg’s image in the country, according to focus groups, is the perception that he is pushed around by the Tories. (The irony there being that Tory backbenchers think he is far too powerful.) “Spineless” is the charge that the Lib Dem leader most needs to rebut if he is to recover any of his standing in public opinion. Above all, that requires periodically slapping down Conservative policy. The Communications Data Bill is a ripe target. Many Tories hate it anyway. It runs against much of what the Lib Dems purported to stand for before coalition. It doesn’t have much bearing on the economy. All things considered – aside from the rather crucial question of whether it would actually facilitate the fight against organised crime – it is hard to see why Clegg would do anything other than kill it.    

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