Surveillance and Austerity

One of the most depressing aspects of the passing of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIP)  this week was the level of political consensus. All three major parties backed it, aside from a few mavericks in Tory and Labour ranks. Despite some excellent speeches in the Lords, it passed through there in double-quick time, without their Lordships even deeming it worthy of a vote.  It got me thinking, what else has a similar level of consensus? The obvious answer, sadly, was austerity. Ed Miliband is due to give a speech today to Labour’s National Policy Forum which, it seems, will confirm Labour’s commitment to it.

There is no alternative…

There are more parallels between surveillance and austerity than we should feel comfortable with. Our main political parties view both surveillance and austerity as ‘given’, and as though there are no alternatives even worth considering, let alone exploring in any detail. Both, we are told, are for our own good. Those who resist both, we are told, are unrealistic dreamers or worse. If we don’t embrace both, we are told, there will be disasters, and the future is bleak.

Divisive and simplistic…

Both also rely on divisive and simplistic assumptions.

The essence of the drive to welfare ‘reform’, in particular, is the idea that there are ‘strivers’ and ‘scroungers’, and that the former are being made to suffer by the latter. The former, the ‘good’ people, don’t need welfare, and won’t suffer from the results of austerity.

The essence of the drive for surveillance is that there are ‘good’ people and ‘bad’ people – and that the ‘good’ people are being made to suffer by the ‘bad’. The former, the ‘good’ people, don’t need privacy, and won’t suffer from the results of surveillance.

In neither case are the divisive and simplistic assumptions true. As anyone who studies the details knows, the majority of people on benefits are also in work. People shift from being in work to being out of work, from being in need to being able to do without it. The whole idea of ‘scroungers’ is overplayed and divisive, particularly in relation to people with disability. Similarly, the idea that ‘good’ people have nothing to hide, so don’t need privacy, is one of the classic misunderstandings of privacy. We all need privacy – it’s part of what we need as humans, part of our dignity, our autonomy. It’s a pragmatic necessity too, as those in power do not always use their powers for good – the latest of the Snowden revelations, that the NSA pass around naked pictures of ordinary people that they find through their snooping is just another example of how this works. Privacy isn’t about hiding – it’s about what we need as people.

It’s all about power

Ultimately, though, the thing that surveillance and austerity really have in common is power. They’re ways that those with power can keep control over those without it. Keep poor people poor and desperate, and they’re more malleable and controllable. They’ll take jobs on whatever conditions those offering them suggest. Surveillance is ultimately about control – the more information those in power have, the more they can wield that control, whether it’s monitoring social media in order to stop protests or manipulating it to make people happy and like particular products or services.

What we can do about it is another question. The real point about the people in power is that they have power…. and reducing that power is hard. We should, however, at least do our best not to have the wool pulled over our eyes. This isn’t for our benefit. It’s for theirs.

DRIP: normalising the surveillance state.

Yesterday’s shameful passing of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act, nodded through without amendment and without even the perceived need for a vote in the House of Lords, was not just very bad news for the UK, it was bad news for the world. The ease with which it was passed, the speed with which it was passed, and the breadth of the powers granted send signals around the world. Some of us have been warning about this effect for a long time - what we do in the UK is being watched around the world. If we, as a supposedly mature, liberal democracy believe that mass surveillance is OK, then that means that anyone could do it. Indeed, that any sensible state should do it.

I’ve been accused of paranoia by making such a suggestion. After all, this is just ‘emergency’ legislation, a mere stop-gap while a proper review of investigatory powers and data gathering goes on. Well,  within a few short hours of the passing of DRIP, its echoes were already being heard the other side of the world. Australia’s Attorney-General, George Brandis, used DRIP as an example, seemingly to help push forward his own proposals for data retention. As reported in ZDNet, he said:

“The question of data retention is under active consideration by the government. I might point out to you as recently as yesterday, the House of Commons passed a new data retention statute. This is very much the way in which western nations are going,”

This is how it goes – and one of the many reasons that the passing of DRIP yesterday was so shameful. If the UK does it, Australia does it. Then New Zealand and Canada.  Each new country adds to the weight of the argument. Everyone’s doing it, why not us? If the UK thinks it needs this to keep its citizens safe, we need it too? By the time the long-distant sunset clause kicks in, the end of 2016, every new country that’s added a data retention law to its books, however temporary, will be another reason to extend our own security services’ powers. It’s a vicious or virtuous circle, depending on your perspective.

Of course the normalisation works in different ways too. Less scrupulous nations will be able to say that if the Brits do it, so can we – and we won’t be able to claim that they’re oppressing their population, if we do the same to our own. Further, our security services will require more and more technology to do the surveillance – and the people who develop that technology will be looking for new markets. They may sell them to the Australians – but more likely they’ll find ready markets in governments with less of a tradition of liberalism and democracy. There’s a fine selection of such nations all around the world. They’ll also find markets of other kinds – businesses wishing to use surveillance for their own purposes… whether scrupulous or not. The very criminals that the supporters of DRIP like to scare us with will be looking too – there are so many uses for surveillance that it’s hard to know where to start.

Well, actually, it should have been easy to know where to start. To make a stand. To try to normalise freedom and privacy, respect for citizens fundamental rights and a willingness for open, honest debate on the subject. That, however, would have required rejecting DRIP. We didn’t do that. Shame on us.

 

DRIP: Parliament in disrepute?

I watched and listened to the parliamentary debate on the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers bill (DRIP) with a kind of grim fascination. The outcome was always inevitable – I knew that, as, I think did all opponents of the bill – but the debate itself seemed to me to be worth paying attention to. Not really in terms of the result, but in terms of the process, and in terms of the way in which parliament was engaging with the issues. There were, it has to be said, some quite wonderful speeches in opposition to the bill, and from many different directions. MPs like John McDonnell, Dominic Raab, Caroline Lucas, Diane Abbott, Pete Wishart, David Winnick, Duncan Hames, Clive Betts, Charles Walker, Dennis Skinner and of course Tom Watson and David Davis were all excellent. Indeed, as someone said at the time, the opponents didn’t lose the debate, they lost the vote.

Therein lies the problem – what was the point of the debate? The chamber was all-but empty for most of it. In the middle of the debate, I got so angry I tweeted a picture of the chamber – with a comment attached. The tweet went a bit wild…. retweeted 870 times at the last count, and included by Liberty in their summary of the debate.

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I did, however, also get some serious criticism for the tweet. Some suggested I had faked it, because I missed out the caption at the bottom. Fair enough – I was too angry to get the screen capture right, but I don’t fake things. I satirise and parody, tease and joke – but I don’t fake. For avoidance of doubt, I took another soon after, this time with the caption:

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Another criticism I received, quite aggressively, was that it was misleading to tweet the picture, and that most of the MPs were likely to be in their offices or their committee rooms, working hard, but following and listening to the debate as it was being broadcast throughout the house. That may well be true – and in no way was I suggesting that MPs don’t work hard. They do – well, a great many of them do – but at this particular moment, and on this particular issue, their attention was elsewhere, as was their physical presence.

I don’t blame the MPs for that part of it. Of course their attention was elsewhere – after all, they’d had this emergency debate foisted upon them at the last minute, and they already have busy lives and huge amounts of work to do, particularly with the parliamentary recess coming up, and with a reshuffle happening at that very moment. Naturally, MPs are distracted by the reshuffle – coalition MPs because their jobs are on the line, Labour MPs because they have to be ready to respond to the reshuffle. Naturally their jobs, their careers, their responsibilities come first.

That, though, is really where my tweet comes in. I said ‘This is how seriously our MPs take our privacy’. I meant it. They showed disrespect to the issue not just by not listening to the debate, but by accepting a process that meant that they only had a few hours of debate to listen to, and almost nothing to read or discuss about it. They accepted an unnecessary fast-tracking, effectively on trust – because they don’t really take our privacy seriously.

Frankly, I’m not convinced that they were listening to the debate – but if they were, that makes their voting even worse. If they listened to the debate and still voted the way they did, in a way that’s even more depressing than the more natural assumption that they were largely ignoring the debate and voting according to the whip. It would mean that they either didn’t understand the strong arguments against the bill, both analytical and impassioned – or they dismissed them as unimportant. Either way, it suggests they didn’t take our privacy seriously. At least, not seriously enough to think it needed proper, lengthy, public debate bringing in expert opinions and analysis. I’m a legal academic, specialising in internet privacy. I’ve written a book on the subject, and I’m one of the signatories of this open letter concerning DRIP – and frankly I haven’t had nearly enough time to properly analyse and understand this bill and its implications. We’ve only had a chance for the most basic of analyses – and if I can’t, how much understanding can MPs have of it?

As David Winnick, a veteran MP and member of the Home Affairs Select Committee put it:

“I consider this to be an outright abuse of parliamentary procedure. Even if one is in favour of what the home secretary intends to do, to do so in the manner in which it is intended, to pass all stages in one go, surely makes a farce of our responsibilities as MPs”

He’s right. It does. It brings parliament into disrepute. MPs should be ashamed of themselves.

Open letter from UK legal academic experts re DRIP

I’m one of the signatories to the letter below – not just a few, but many very serious legal academics, some of the most distinguished in the field.


 

Tuesday 15th July 2014

To all Members of Parliament,

Re: An open letter from UK internet law academic experts

On Thursday 10 July the Coalition Government (with support from the Opposition) published draft emergency legislation, the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill (“DRIP”). The Bill was posited as doing no more than extending the data retention powers already in force under the EU Data Retention Directive, which was recently ruled incompatible with European human rights law by the Grand Chamber of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in the joined cases brought by Digital Rights Ireland (C-293/12) and Seitlinger and Others (C-594/12) handed down on 8 April 2014.

In introducing the Bill to Parliament, the Home Secretary framed the legislation as a response to the CJEU’s decision on data retention, and as essential to preserve current levels of access to communications data by law enforcement and security services. The government has maintained that the Bill does not contain new powers.

On our analysis, this position is false. In fact, the Bill proposes to extend investigatory powers considerably, increasing the British government’s capabilities to access both communications data and content. The Bill will increase surveillance powers by authorising the government to;

  • compel any person or company – including internet services and telecommunications companies – outside the United Kingdom to execute an interception warrant (Clause 4(2));
  • compel persons or companies outside the United Kingdom to execute an interception warrant relating to conduct outside of the UK (Clause 4(2));
  • compel any person or company outside the UK to do anything, including complying with technical requirements, to ensure that the person or company is able, on a continuing basis, to assist the UK with interception at any time (Clause 4(6)).
  • order any person or company outside the United Kingdom to obtain, retain and disclose communications data (Clause 4(8)); and
  • order any person or company outside the United Kingdom to obtain, retain and disclose communications data relating to conduct outside the UK (Clause 4(8)).

The legislation goes far beyond simply authorising data retention in the UK. In fact, DRIP attempts to extend the territorial reach of the British interception powers, expanding the UK’s ability to mandate the interception of communications content across the globe. It introduces powers that are not only completely novel in the United Kingdom, they are some of the first of their kind globally.

Moreover, since mass data retention by the UK falls within the scope of EU law, as it entails a derogation from the EU’s e-privacy Directive (Article 15, Directive 2002/58), the proposed Bill arguably breaches EU law to the extent that it falls within the scope of EU law, since such mass surveillance would still fall foul of the criteria set out by the Court of Justice of the EU in the Digital Rights and Seitlinger judgment.

Further, the bill incorporates a number of changes to interception whilst the purported urgency relates only to the striking down of the Data Retention Directive. Even if there was a real emergency relating to data retention, there is no apparent reason for this haste to be extended to the area of interception.

DRIP is far more than an administrative necessity; it is a serious expansion of the British surveillance state. We urge the British Government not to fast track this legislation and instead apply full and proper parliamentary scrutiny to ensure Parliamentarians are not mislead as to what powers this Bill truly contains.

Signed,

 

Dr Subhajit Basu, University of Leeds

Dr Paul Bernal, University of East Anglia

Professor Ian Brown, Oxford University

Ray Corrigan, The Open University

Professor Lilian Edwards, University of Strathclyde

Dr Andres Guadamuz, University of Sussex

Dr Theodore Konstadinides, University of Surrey

Professor Chris Marsden, University of Sussex

Dr Karen Mc Cullagh, University of East Anglia

Dr. Daithí Mac Síthigh, Newcastle University

Professor Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Oxford University

Professor David Mead, University of East Anglia

Professor Andrew Murray, London School of Economics

Professor Steve Peers, University of Essex
Julia Powles, University of Cambridge

Judith Rauhofer, University of Edinburgh

Professor Burkhard Schafer, University of Edinburgh

Professor Lorna Woods, University of Essex

DRIP: a shabby process for a shady law.

[An earlier version of this post appeared at The Justice Gap, here]

Thursday’s announcement by David Cameron and Nick Clegg that the coalition was going to expedite emergency surveillance legislation is something that should concern all of us, not just privacy activists. The speed with which the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers bill (‘DRIP’) is being brought into play, the lack of consultation and the breadth of its powers should matter to everyone. There is a reason that legislation usually requires time and careful consideration – and with a contentious issue like surveillance this is especially true. This is a shabby process, for what seems to be a very shady law. And, as David Davis MP has suggested, the ‘emergency’ is theatrical, not real. The need for new legislation was entirely predictable – and politicians and civil servants should have known this.

A predictable emergency

The trigger for the legislation was the ruling by the ECJ, on 8th April, that the Data Retention Directive was invalid – more than three months ago – but the signs that new legislation was needed have been there for far longer. The ruling by the ECJ exceeded the expectations of privacy advocates – but not that significantly, and the declaration that the directive was invalid should have been an outcome that civil servants and politicians were prepared for. Indeed, the Data Retention Directive has been subject to significant challenge since its inception in 2005. Peter Hustinx, the European Data Protection Supervisor in 2010 called it:

“…without doubt the most privacy invasive instrument ever adopted by the EU in terms of scale and the number of people it affects.”

Across Europe there have been protests and legal challenges to data retention throughout its history, from 30,000 people on the streets of Germany in 2007 to the declaration that data retention itself was unconstitutional in Romania. The challenge that eventually brought down the directive began in 2013.

The signs have been there in the UK too, and for far longer than three months. The Communications Data Bill – more commonly and appropriately known as the Snoopers’ Charter – was effectively abandoned well over a year ago, after a specially set-up parliamentary committee, after taking detailed evidence, issued a damning report. At that stage, even before the revelations of Edward Snowden reared their ugly head, the need for further legislation was evident.

So why, given all these warnings, has this emergency been manufactured, and why is legislation being pushed through so quickly? Is it that those behind the bill are concerned that if it received full and detailed scrutiny, the full scale and impact of the bill will become evident and, like the Snoopers’ Charter before it, it will fail? It is hard not to think that this has played some part in the tactics being employed here. What would there be to lose by delaying this a few months?

Companies like data too…

The suggestion that if the legislation isn’t pushed through this quickly then companies will suddenly start deleting all their communications data is naïve to say the least. Firstly, it’s hardly in most communications providers’ interest to delete all that data – actually, rather the opposite. Back in 2007, Google attempted to use the existence of data retention legislation as an excuse not to delete search logs – companies generally like having more data, as they (just like the authorities) believe they can get value from it. Moreover, businesses don’t often change their practices at the drop of a hat, even if they want to. They might, however, if they’re required to by law – and that may well be the real key here. Legal challenges to specific practices by specific companies in terms of data retention may well be in the offing – but this would take time, far more time than the few days – less than a week – that MPs are being given to pass this legislation.

Fundamental Rights

The underlying point here is that there is a reason that the Data Retention Directive was declared invalid by the ECJ, and a reason that both privacy advocates and academics have been concerned about it from the very beginning. The mass collection of communications data breaches fundamental rights – and DRIP, just like the Communications Data Bill before it, does authorise the mass collection of this data. It has the same fundamental flaws as that bill – and a few extras to boot. With the very limited time available to review the bill so far, it appears to extend rather than limit the powers available through the contentious Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) rather than limit them or modernise them (see for example the analysis by David Allen Green in the FT here – registration needed), and attempt to extend powers outside the UK in a way that is at the very least contentious – and in need of much more scrutiny and consideration.

Most importantly, it still works on the assumption that there is no problem with collecting data, and that the only place for controls or targeting is at the accessing stage. This is a fundamentally flawed assumption – morally, legally and practically. At the moral level, it treats us all as suspects. Legally it has been challenged and beaten many times – consistently in the European Court of Human Rights, in cases from as far back as Leander in 1987, and now in the ECJ in the declaration of invalidity of the Data Retention Directive. Practically, it means that data gathered is vulnerable in many ways – from the all too evident risks of function creep that RIPA has demonstrated over the years (dog-fouling, fly-tippers etc) to vulnerability to leaking, hacking, human error, human malice and so forth. Moreover, it is the gathering of data that creates the chilling effect – impacting upon our freedom of speech, of assembly and association and so forth. This isn’t just about privacy.

Safeguards?

Nick Clegg made much of the concessions and safeguards in the new bill, emphasising that this isn’t a Snoopers’ Charter Mark 2, but it is hard to be enthusiastic about them at this stage. There is a sunset clause, meaning that DRIP will expire in December 2016 – but there is nothing in the bill itself to say that it won’t be replaced by similar ‘emergency’ legislation, railroaded through parliament in a similar way. Moreover, December 2016 is well after the election – and the Lib Dems are currently unlikely to still have any influence at that stage. Julian Huppert in particular, my MP in Cambridge, is in a very precarious position. Without him, it’s hard to see much Lib Dem resistance to either the Tories or the Labour Party who set the ball rolling on mass surveillance state in the Blair years.

The rest of the safeguards are difficult to evaluate at this stage – they were originally said to be contained in secondary legislation that was not published with the bill itself, but when that secondary legislation was actually released, at around 4pm on Friday afternoon, it contained almost none of what had been promised. For example, the suggestion that the number of bodies able to use RIPA was to be restricted, was entirely absent. This list doesn’t just include the police and intelligence services, but pretty much all local authorities, and bodies like the food standards agency and the charities commission – another part of the function creep of RIPA. The breadth and depth of the surveillance that this bill, in combination with RIPA, would not only allow but effectively normalise, is something that should be of the deepest concern to anyone who takes civil liberties seriously.

The shabbiest of processes

This is just one part of the shabbiness of the process. Two more crucial documents,  ‘Impact Assessments’ performed by the Home Office concerning the data retention and interception aspects of the bill, were also released – but without even a mention, so that the first that was heard of them by most concerned people was early on Saturday morning, when vigilant investigators found them all but hidden on the Home Office website. Two documents, full of technical details looking at why the laws were ‘needed’ and what the risks and benefits of the laws would be, the alternatives and so forth, pretty much hidden away. These, together with the Bill itself and the Regulations, combine to produce something with a serious level of both legal and technical complexity – something that needs very careful study and expert analysis. And to do this analysis, we are given essentially one weekend, and no warning.

How serious this is was highlighted by a brief twitter conversation between David Allen Green and MP Julian Huppert this morning:

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David Allen Green (@JackofKent) is asking a straight and direct, technical and legal question – and Julian Huppert can’t answer it. Julian is perhaps the most technically expert of the entire House of Commons – if he doesn’t understand the bill, its impact and how it changes the current situation, how much less can other MPs? And yet they are expected to debate the bill on Monday, and pass it almost immediately. This is patently wrong – and highlights exactly why parliament generally has significant time for analysis and for debate, and parliamentary committees call experts to give testimony, to tease out these kinds of answers. Julian Huppert should not be criticised for not knowing the answer to the question – but he should be criticised for supporting a bill without allowing the time for these questions to be asked, investigated and answered. They need to be.

This is an wholly unsatisfactory state of affairs. Indeed, the whole thing is highly unsatisfactory, and in a democratic society, it should be unacceptable. That our MPs seem willing to accept it speaks volumes.

——————–

The key documents can be found here:- study them if you have time!

The draft bill

The draft regulations

The impact assessment for interception

The impact assessment for data retention.

No more austerity: are protests ‘news’?

On Saturday 21st June the People’s Assembly, Trade Unions and campaigning groups held what they described as a ‘national demonstration and free festival’ to ‘demand’ an alternative to austerity. As expressed on the People’s Assembly website:

“Living standards continue to drop, forcing millions into poverty, yet the politicians remain addicted to austerity.

This demonstration will assemble right on the BBC’s doorstep and march to Parliament to demand that the alternative to austerity is no longer ignored. Join us.”

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50,000 or more people did join them, including Russell Brand, Green MP Caroline Lucas and others. And yet the result, at least as far as the BBC was concerned, was that the protest, and the alternative to austerity, was ignored. On the day, the BBC gave it no coverage at all, to the fury of the protest organisers and the radical twittersphere. Eventually the BBC did put up a cursory mention of the protest on their website, including a very short video with no commentary, but nothing of note on either their radio or TV news or current affairs programmes, at least nationally. There was coverage on some overseas media outlets (e.g. RT, Al Jazeera), on local broadcasts (so I am told) and in some of the newspapers, but nothing on the mainstream BBC, ITV, Channels 4 or 5.

Why was this? Is it a kind of conspiracy of silence – a closing of ranks by the establishment against the ‘alternative’, instructions from above or similar? Or is it, as Willard Foxton, writing in the New Statesman, put it, that:

“…the sad truth is “Lefties march in moderate numbers, again, and then go home, again”, isn’t much of a story”

Foxton’s article is well argued and, as someone who has been on many, many marches from the late 70s onward can testify, his observation ‘…that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’ certainly has some application here. And yet that too misses the point – because though the chances of a genuine conspiracy of silence are minimal, coverage of politics and news in the mainstream TV and radio stations in the UK is remarkable in its narrowness and insularity. The term ‘Westminster Bubble’ applies much more directly to the media than it does to the politicians, most of whom do at least spend a decent amount of time in their constituencies. I made a couple of flippant remarks using my  Nick Robinson Twitter parody account, @KipperNick, that seemed to resonate.

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The point isn’t that there’s a conspiracy of silence or even a whiff of corruption here. I don’t believe either of those for a moment. The point is that the BBC, and their news and politics teams in particular, really do think that Nigel Farage in a pub is news, and protest marches aren’t news. They really believe that lefties marching in moderate numbers (and yes, in the BBC’s eyes 50,000 are moderate numbers) doesn’t constitute news – and, to be frank, I don’t think they’re necessarily wrong. Those kinds of numbers go to premier league football matches every week, and we wouldn’t call that news.

Where I would argue with the BBC is what, if protests aren’t considered news, the BBC and others do consider to be news. That’s where the @KipperNick tweets come in, and why, I suspect, they got so many RTs. The BBC has a role to play, and they have to understand their power – as anyone with even a cursory contact with that ‘Mickey Mouse’ subject ‘media studies’ should know, TV news plays a significant part not just in reporting but in setting the agenda.  Through the narrowness of their coverage – their obsession with UKIP and with Nigel Farage in particular is just one manifestation of this – they can have a significant impact on politics. They can also generate great dissatisfaction and exacerbate the feeling of disconnection that many people have with both the media and the political process.

The fact that Russell Brand was the key celebrity figure at the march on Saturday should have made the point – Brand’s Newsnight performance last year was largely about this disconnection. People, and young people in particular do not feel included in the debate or the decisions about what’s happening in this country. On the subject of austerity, there seems to be almost complete consensus amongst the mainstream political parties – certainly the Tories, Lib Dems and Labour seem wedded to it, and though UKIP have said very little it would be hard to imagine that, libertarians as they sometimes claim to be, they would do anything but embrace austerity if they were ever given the chance. It’s not even up for discussion – either by the politicians or the media.

So what can those (myself included) who do not believe austerity is the solution, actually do? Organise more protest marches that will inevitably be similarly ignored to Saturday’s? If 50,000 wouldn’t get media attention, would 100,000? 500,000? Perhaps. If the protests turned violent, or became riots, that would get media attention – but would do nothing to change the minds of those behind austerity. Quite the reverse. So what else can be done? The more ‘modern’ alternatives like online petitions etc are even more useless and more easily ignored – indeed, most of the time they seem like the best way to dissipate any energy there is behind change.

The truth is, I don’t know the answer – I wish I did.  I can understand why the BBC didn’t cover Saturday’s march – but I think they need to broaden their horizons and start looking beyond the Westminster Bubble and their increasingly tired and irrelevant political programmes. If they want – and they often claim to want – young people to be more engaged in politics, then they, as well as the protestors and campaigners, need to find new ways to do their job. In the end, I agree with Foxton that the protests were not really ‘news’ – but the movements behind them, and the debates that they’re trying to put forward are certainly, in my view, politically relevant.  How can these arguments make it onto the news and into the mainstream? That is a challenge for both the campaigners and for the media. Both need to show more imagination.

 

Kids and contributions…

Aside from the owls, I found little to be happy about in yesterday’s ‘big’ speech by Ed Miliband, and the IPPR report that it accompanied, ‘The Condition of Britain’. A great deal has already been said and written about it – I don’t want to go over old ground, just to write about two specific aspects that bother me, both for what they say immediately and directly and for what they imply about the underlying thoughts both of the IPPR and of Ed Miliband’s Labour Party. The first is the attitude to young people – specifically 18-21 year olds – and the second is what looks as though it’s supposed to be Ed’s ‘big idea’, the revival of the ‘contributory principle’. To me, both are fundamentally misconceived, and betray an acceptance of the false and damaging Tory ‘striver/scrounger’ dichotomy. What’s more, this is both in the overall message – a message which some of the people behind the report have insisted has been twisted and missed by the reactions of people on twitter and in the media – and in the detail. As instructed, I’ve downloaded and read the report, and I’ve read Ed Miliband’s speech. I’m not reassured. Not one bit.

Doing it for the kids?

Perhaps the most noted part of the report is how it deals with young people. The headline recommendation reads as follows:

“For 18–21-year-olds, existing out-of-work benefits should be
replaced by a youth allowance that provides financial support
conditional on looking for work or completing education,
targeted at those from low-income families”

That’s been taken a number of ways in the media – Job Seekers Allowance for young people being removed is perhaps the most common reactions. That is not, of course, entirely true. It hasn’t been removed, but replaced by something different. The devil, however, is in the detail. There are two key words in the recommendation: ‘conditional’ and ‘targeted’. The first is the compulsion part – effectively, unless the young people take up one of the work programmes or sign up for one of the training schemes, they won’t get the youth allowance. Aside from the complications around the way young people’s lives actually work (see for example this excellent blog post by Kate Belgrave) and the deep reservations many people have about training schemes (will they be run by such estimable organisations as A4e, G4S, Serco etc?) and whether any of this would be any different from the hated coalition workfare programmes, the whole idea of compulsion betrays a belief that, fundamentally, young people are scroungers and layabouts at heart. If we didn’t force them into things, they’d spend all day in bed, watching daytime TV or taking drugs. Sadly, however, that seems to be the general approach of all mainstream political parties these days.

However, when the report is examined in more detail, it gets worse – particularly when the second key word, ‘targeting’ is considered. This is from the section on young people:

“To pay for this expansion of support for young people
in education and training, we propose targeting the youth
allowance on those from lower-income families through
a parental means test. This would involve a presumption
that 18–21-year-olds who are not in employment would be
supported by their parents where this is possible…”

First of all, even bringing in a parental means test is (or rather should be) contentious. It has a number of effects. First of all, it adds bureaucracy and stress to an already stressful situation. Secondly, it is a reminder that many young people will be excluded from the allowance. ‘Targeting’ is a nice word – but when you target, you also exclude.  Will the ‘right’ young people be excluded? It doesn’t just depend on wealth, it depends on ability to work the system, to fill in the forms and find a route through the often impenetrable language.  Thirdly, and most importantly, it makes young people even more dependent than ever on their parents. Want an allowance? You have to put your parents through a humiliating procedure. Add to the equation the presumption that 18-21 year-olds will be supported by their parents, and the reality begins to hit home. This is a policy conceived by people who assume that young people have good and supportive relationships with their parents. Some do. I’m sure those behind the report do. But many don’t. Indeed, difficult relationships between young people and their parents can contribute to problems with getting jobs. For some, the best possible thing is to be able to leave their home at 18, to be independent. Forcing young people to stay in the family home, to be even more of a burden, to get their parents to be means-tested, could well be a recipe for disaster. It’s also patronising and demeaning for the young people – when you’re 20, do you want to be treated as though you’re 12?

Making a contribution…

The other aspect of the report is, for me, even more worrying: the emphasis on the ‘revival of the contributory principle’. The idea is peppered throughout the report, and emphasised in Ed Miliband’s speech. The idea, essentially, appears to be that those who make a contribution deserve to get more out of the system. The deserve more ‘protection’. Section 8.2 of the report is headlined ” STRONGER INCOME PROTECTIONS FOR PEOPLE WHO HAVE CONTRIBUTED TO THE SYSTEM.” The question that immediately arises is what does it mean to contribute to the system? When I look back at my life so far, three periods immediately spring to mind. The first is in my first ‘career’, as an accountant, auditing big financial organisations in the City of London. The second is the year I took off, to be a full-time father after my daughter was born. The third is my time as a ‘mature’ PhD student, researching into internet privacy. In which of those three did I make the best contribution to society? Working as an accountant, being a father, or doing what was then pretty pioneering research into a subject of huge current interest?

In the terms of this report, only the work as an accountant would ‘count’ – though in my mind, with hindsight, it was the period in which I made the least contribution to society. In the report’s terms, ‘contribution’ means contributing to National Insurance. Nothing more. We’re defined as economic units in GB plc. Other contributions – from child-rearing to caring for ill or disabled relatives, from studying to volunteering to many, many other things – are not considered at all. They may be paid a little lip-service here and there, but they’re not rewarded. And it must be remembered that for every reward, in these cash-strapped times, someone else goes without. What’s more, there are a great many people who can’t make a contribution on these terms, through no fault of their own. People with disabilities, people living in areas where there is no work, people trying to keep dysfunctional families together and so forth. Young people, in particular, having already been slammed directly and slammed still further – how can you have made a ‘contribution’ when you’re only just entering the workforce?

The message here is simple and direct: ‘workers’ are valued (and only for their work), anyone else isn’t. It drives home the damaging and false ‘striver vs scrounger’ agenda. If you ‘strive’ you’re good, and will be rewarded. If you don’t, you won’t.

A sad consensus

What makes me saddest is that this isn’t just Labour. Indeed, despite everything I’ve said, Labour are still probably not quite as bad as the Lib Dems or the Tories. There’s a consensus here that seems almost unstoppable. I can’t see how it can be changed – either for the Labour Party or for the country. The consequences are painful and divisive, and likely to get worse. Ah well. At least we get owls. A shame we don’t seem to have their wisdom.

Owl statue

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tony, Boris and Ed: Getting it wrong….

The first thing the best boss I ever had told me was ‘if you make a mistake, tell me as soon as you can. That way we can find a solution.’ It’s a piece of advice that has always stuck with me – and I’ve tried my best to learn from it. I can’t always follow my own advice because, after all, I’m human. And that’s really the point. We all make mistakes – I know I’ve made some absolute stinkers, and some which have had significant consequences, though none quite on the scale of Tony Blair. The question is, what do we do about it? What can we learn from our mistakes? Over the last week or so, three of our politicians – Tony Blair, Ed Miliband and Boris Johnson have shown exactly how not to do it, in their own particular way.

tony-blairTony Blair is the worst of the lot, of course. His mistakes have cost hundreds of thousands of lives and will cost many, many more. They’ve destabilised the planet, fuelled and fostered hate and extremism, and left a mess which it’s hard to see any way out of. And yet, even now, he doesn’t do the first and most important thing: recognise that he’s even made a mistake. That’s the first lesson I learned from my boss – you have to see what you’ve done, be willing to admit that it’s a mistake, and then try to solve it. If you can’t even accept that you might have made a mistake – and that’s where Tony seems to be – there’s no chance of solving it. Indeed, Tony seems to have spent most of his career since sending the troops in trying to prove that he was right. Even now, it looks as though it’s all about that for him. He wants us to intervene militarily again in Iraq – and it’s hard not to conclude that his primary reason is to show us that we’re all wrong, and he was right all along. How many more will have to suffer for his ego?

Boris Johnson takes it to the next stage. Writing in the Telegraph, he describes Tony Blair as ‘unhinged’. It’s very hard to argue with Boris’s analysis of Tony:

“In discussing the disaster of modern Iraq he made assertions that are so jaw-droppingly and breathtakingly at variance with reality that he surely needs professional psychiatric help.”

Boris’s piece is an excellent piece of writing – he takes apart not only Tony Blair but the whole intervention in Iraq. His conclusion is excellent:

“Somebody needs to get on to Tony Blair and tell him to put a sock in it – or at least to accept the reality of the disaster he helped to engender. Then he might be worth hearing. The truth shall set you free, Tony.”

There are, however, a couple of problems with Boris’s analysis. Firstly, Boris doesn’t mention that he himself did not just vote for the invasion of Iraq, but advocated it very directly, speaking in Parliament in support of the action. He takes some responsibility for the decision, but not much. He, just like Tony, had the opportunity to listen to the people who opposed the war. He, just like Tony, could have wondered if the million+ who marched in London in opposition to the war, might, just possibly, have a point. He, just like Tony, could have wondered what the great haste to invade was, and could have asked us to wait for Hans Blix to report. He didn’t. Instead, he drummed the drums of war almost as much as Tony.

Secondly, and more importantly, he doesn’t seem to have learned the second, and most important lesson from the mistakes of Iraq. That is that we all make mistakes and we make them a lot of the time – and so we should be aware, at all times, that what we are doing might be a mistake. We should learn a little humility. We should be ready, at any time, to step back and say ‘hey, I might be wrong about this.’ Boris, like so many politicians, doesn’t seem to be able to make this step. The step of saying ‘I’m not sure,‘ or ‘I might be wrong’.

water cannonOn a very different scale, he’s involved in a decision like this right now – about buying water cannon for the Metropolitan Police. He’s pushing the purchase through, not even waiting for official approval from Theresa May. He’s not willing to listen to those who oppose the idea. He’s not willing to consider that he might be wrong. He’s not really learned the lessons of Tony Blair and Iraq at all. Now of course water cannon in the London streets are worlds apart from invading Iraq – but there are similarities in principle. Can Boris learn? It seems unlikely, because our whole political culture – and Boris is steeped in that culture – makes the idea of realising that you’ve made a mistake, being able to admit it and hence really learn from it, almost impossible. Which brings me to Ed…

Ed MilibandEd Miliband’s mistake was to pose for a photo-shoot holding up a copy of the Sun. Variants of the picture have become a bit of a meme on the internet – my version is here, but you can find many, many different versions around. Ed’s mistake(s) are not on Boris’s scale, let alone Tony’s, but they do make me wonder about how politicians work. To pose with the Sun at any time is a risky matter for a Labour politician. To pose now is particularly foolish – as Ed, or at least Ed’s advisers, should have known. It’s not just that it’s the World Cup (which was the point of the photo-shoot), but that at this World Cup the England team has a huge contingent of Liverpool players. The captain (Gerrard), the main goalscorer (Sturridge), the young hope (Sterling) to start with.  Ed’s advisers should have known that this is the 25th anniversary of Hillsborough. That the Hillsborough inquests are happening right now. That this has been the best season for Liverpool for two decades. All of this makes it not just sensitive but super-sensitive. It means that Ed’s photo-shoot was catastrophically ill judged….

…but we all make mistakes, as I said at the start. The question is what we do next. In Ed’s case, what he should have done next is make a proper apology. Not a half-arsed ‘sorry if you got offended’ apology, which doesn’t help either way, but a simple, straightforward and honest apology. To be unable to make such an apology – something along the lines of ‘sorry, I made a big mistake, an error of judgment’ – suggests that, just like Tony and Boris, Ed has not been able to even really acknowledge the mistake that he made. He just wants to ‘manage’ the situation. ‘Managing’ the situation doesn’t solve the problem. People are still upset. Their upset will come up again and again, particularly after the half-arsed apology.

In a way, it’s not about Tony, Boris or Ed. It’s about a culture where we can’t be seen to be weak. We can’t admit that we’ve made a mistake – even though we all know we make mistakes – and so we can’t really do what’s needed to solve them. I wish it were different, but even to admit that it’s a mistake not to admit mistakes is beyond our political culture it seems. That in itself is very sad.

British values?

Whenever I hear the words ‘British values’ it sends shivers down my spine – and gives me a deep sense of suspicion as to the motives of those using the words. Michael Gove’s evocation is the latest but he’s far from alone – a good deal of UKIP’s ‘appeal’ rests on some kind of a sense of ‘British values’, while Labour are just as guilty of it as the Tories.

Perhaps I’m jaundiced – and perhaps it’s something about my age – but I’m also always reminded of the excellent Tom Robinson song ‘Power in the Darkness’, which sums it up for me. The key part is this:

“Today, institutions fundamental
To the British system of government are under attack
The public schools, the house of lords
The church of England, the holy institution of marriage
Even our magnificent police force are no longer safe
From those who would undermine our society

And it’s about time we said ‘Enough is enough’
And saw a return to the traditional British values of discipline
Obedience, morality and freedom
What we want is

Freedom from the reds and the blacks and the criminals
Prostitutes, pansies and punks
Football hooligans, juvenile delinquents
Lesbians and left wing scum

Freedom from the niggers and the Pakis and the unions
Freedom from the gypsies and the Jews
Freedom from left wing layabouts and liberals
Freedom from the likes of you”

I’m sure I’m being a bit unfair on Michael Gove, but this is what springs to mind. The values specifically mentioned by Gove – gender equality, tolerance etc – are not things that I would disagree with at all. Indeed, quite the opposite, they’re very much the sort of thing I agree with. What I disagree with is labelling them as British. These are values that are held dear all over the world, and by labelling them British it feels as though they’re something that marks us out from the rest of the ‘uncivilised’ world. It feels a lot like imperialism, like our old colonial history – our belief that our empire, unlike all other empires, was actually about bringing values and civilisation to the barbarians. Teaching them how to be civilised.

Why was there any need to label them ‘British’ values at all? Michael Gove could have made exactly the same point – indeed, a stronger point – without using the word British. I know Tories don’t like the term ‘human rights’ very much, but all of those values are enshrined in the major human rights documents. In exactly that European Convention on Human Rights that the Tories appear to be planning to withdraw the UK from if they’re elected in 2015. These values are in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a UN document. There’s nothing specifically British about them at all. We Brits played a key part in ensuring these values were included in both the European Convention and the Universal Declaration, but not because we were claiming them as British. The opposite – because we believe (or at least I do) that these are fundamentally valuable. That’s the point of human rights….

Sadly we don’t seem to be living in an environment where that sort of thing can be accepted. We have to be patriotic. Gove has to compete with UKIP in staking a claim to the patriotic vote. That, to me, is very sad.

The Ballad of KipperNick

Nick RobinsonIn the run up to the local and European elections, I became increasingly frustrated by the way that the BBC were dealing with them. It wasn’t really something new so much as an accumulation of frustrations over the last few years – the way that, it seemed to me, the BBC had played a pivotal part in the rise of UKIP. Anyway, more of that later. I decided to have a little experiment. I created a Twitter account, @KipperNick – a parody of Nick Robinson, who seemed to be playing the role of cheerleader-in-chief for Nigel Farage and UKIP. The main reason was to vent a little of my anger at the BBC, but I also thought I would have some fun – and I really did. I learned a little bit too…

This was @KipperNick’s first tweet:

Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 17.10.40

I followed it with a few along similar lines – I didn’t try to hide the fact that this was a parody account. The name ‘KipperNick’ should have made it pretty obvious for a start, and the bio clearly described it as a parody. Perhaps my humour was a little dark – though I think that darkness was appropriate for the subject matter. Anyway, the little parody was pretty successful from the start – a lot of RTs (as in that case), including a couple with over 200:

Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 17.11.02

Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 17.11.15All in all, it was fun and a bit strange – I found it surprisingly easy to parrot the kind of language that Nick Robinson uses, and a lot of fun to tease him. I did wonder whether the man himself ever read the tweets – I did @mention him a couple of times – but I doubt it very much. There were, however, a couple of things that happened that surprised me. The first was that within about 10 tweets, the account was briefly suspended – I imagine someone reported me for something. On my main account, I’ve never been suspended – I’ve done over 127,000 tweets with it, and some pretty provocative – but with @KipperNick it took no time at all. I assumed at the time it was a disgruntled UKIPper… they do seem to be a bit trigger happy.

The second thing that surprised me was the number of people who thought I was the real Nick Robinson. As I’ve said, I didn’t exactly disguise the account very well, but I had a lot of people tweet at me as though I was the real Nick. Some thought I was serious about there being interviews with Nigel Farage on the hour every hour on election day. Others were seemingly genuinely angry with the BBC’s obsession with UKIP, and thought my tweets were the real thing. It wasn’t just one or two, but lots.

Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 17.30.15The trouble was, I don’t think my parody was far from the mark at all. When the BBC really did try to link a report from the French Open tennis to Nigel Farage, it was beyond the level of parody. When I posted this, people didn’t believe it – but it was the one entirely genuine post of the whole story of @KipperNick.

So what does all of this mean? Well, for me, it means that the BBC should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves – and as I listened to David Dimbleby’s increasingly nervous chuckle during the European election broadcast, I think they were beginning to feel a little of that themselves. They’re not stupid – well, I don’t think so.

The idea of putting Nigel Farage on Question Time regularly probably seemed like fun to start with – and the broadcasters do like to shake things up. Mainstream politics IS incredibly dull at the moment, with three main parties pursuing seemingly identical policies in most ways, with candidates looking pretty much identical and sounding pretty much identical. Having a ‘funny’ character like Farage on to spice things up sounds like a great idea – but the more they did it, and without serious criticism, the bigger a hole they were digging. When you add to the equation the huge amounts of xenophobia, homophobia and misogyny in the tabloid press in particular, the momentum starts to build.

The BBC is hardly blameless in other ways – and the rest of the TV industry could be even worse. The amount of ‘poverty porn’ on our screens over the last few years has been part of a larger level of encouragement of a divisive, blame-based approach to our problems. It fosters hate – and the UKIP agenda feeds directly into it. Over the last few weeks the media seems to have realised this a little, and started to scrutinise UKIP a bit more – but until James O’Brien’s interview on LBC mere days before the election, Farage had never been called properly to account either on TV or on radio. The BBC should feel thoroughly ashamed of their role in this – and there should be some serious soul-searching going on.

Mind you, I doubt very much that any is happening at all. Memories seem almost as absent as consciences in the BBC.