Labour and the ‘Snoopers’ Charter’…

The draft Communications Data Bill – dubbed, pretty accurately in my view, as the ‘Snoopers’ charter’ – has already been the subject of a great deal of scrutiny. I’ve blogged about it a number of times, as have many others far more expert than me. My own MP, Lib Dem Julian Huppert, will be on one of the parliamentary committees scrutinising the bill, and has spoken out about aspects of the bill with some vehemence. David Davis MP, Tory backbencher and former minister, has been one of the most vocal and eloquent opponents of the whole idea of the bill. His speech at the Scrambling for Safety conference a few months ago (which I blogged about here) was hugely impressive. I’m sure he will keep up the pressure – and I’m equally sure that there are a significant number of Tories and Lib Dems who will have at the very least sympathies for the respective positions of Davis and Huppert.

But what about Labour? No Labour MPs even appeared at the Scrambling for Safety conference – and very few have said anything much about it even since the draft bill was released. Tom Watson MP, one of very few MPs who really ‘gets’ the internet, and one who really understands privacy, has of course had one or two other things on his mind…. but what about the rest of them? All we’ve heard is cautious and even supportive noises from Yvette Cooper, and little else. That, for me, is deeply disturbing. It’s disturbing for two reasons:

  1. If we’re going to defeat this bill – and we need to defeat this bill – then we’re going to need to get the Labour Party on board, and not just because they’re the ‘opposition’.
  2. More importantly, because the Labour Party SHOULD oppose the kind of measures put forward in this bill, if they’re really the party of the ordinary person, if they’re in any sense a ‘progressive’ party, y’d if they’re any sort of a ‘positive’ party.

This second point is particularly important. I’ve blogged before about the problems that all our political parties have over the whole issue of privacy, but the issues for the Labour Party are particularly acute – and the challenge is particularly difficult. In order to take a positive and progressive stance on the Snoopers’ Charter, they need to make a break from the past. They need to recognise that all the anti-terror rhetoric that surrounded the invasion of Iraq and its repercussions was misguided at best – and deeply counter-productive at worst. They need to somehow acknowledge that mistakes were made both in approach and in detail. Can they do this?

It’s always hard for a politician to make a real break from the past – accusations of U-turns, of ‘flip-flopping’, of being indecisive and so forth abound, and politicians are often deeply scared of appearing ‘weak’. Moreover, the Labour Party, as I discussed in my earlier blog, can been very afraid of appearing not to understand the ‘harsh realities’ of the world. They want to appear tough, to be able to make the ‘tough decisions’ – and not to let the Tories be the ‘party of law and order’, and of ‘security’. The scars of the unilateral nuclear disarmament policies of the 80s are still not really healed.

…and yet, I think there might be a chance. Even now, with the infighting over the ‘Progress’ organisation, the soul of the Labour Party is in some ways being reforged. That could open up opportunities and not just old wounds – an opportunity for the Labour Party to assess what it actually stands for. If it makes the decisions that I hope it does – that it’s a party for ‘little people’, a party for ‘freedom’, a party that looks forward rather than back, and a party that understands the modern world, that understands young people – then it could be willing to take a positive stance over the Snoopers Charter.

The snoopers charter is an inherently repressive and retrograde piece of legislation, both in approach and in detail. It sets out a relationship between state and citizen that is not the kind of relationship that a progressive, liberal and positive political party should take – and it works on the basis of an old kind of thinking, an old kind of fear. That should be the bottom line. I hope we can get the Labour Party to understand that.

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