The news that Labour MP Tom Watson has resigned from his position as Ed Miliband’s general election coordinator has provoked a lot of reactions – some surprise or even shock, some sadness, even some glee. From one particular perspective, however, Ed Miliband’s loss could be our gain: he could be crucial in the fight against internet surveillance. Indeed, if Labour win the election in 2015 – and despite the problems that the Labour Party have, that’s still a distinct possibility – he could be our only hope.
The Labour Party has a lot of problems over internet surveillance and privacy, as it has over many civil liberties issues. Under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown its record was pretty disastrous, from the attempted introduction of ID cards to the ‘Interception Modernisation Programme’ that was the precursor to the Communications Data Bill – the ‘Snoopers’ Charter’. Surveillance seems to bring out the worst of the Labour Party’s authoritarian tendencies – and the ‘war on terror’ makes this even worse. A whole series of Labour Home Secretaries, from David Blunkett to Alan Johnson, succumbed to these tendencies in increasingly depressing ways – and in direct contradiction to the idealism that brought about such things as the Human Rights Act.
Labour badly needs to change this position – and beneath it all, I think many people in the Labour Party realise that. Sadiq Khan, the Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, recently said that:
“I believe our rights as citizens are under attack, and that it falls to Labour to be the defender of these rights.”
Khan is right – but he needs to realise that one of the many ways that our rights as citizens are under attack is through the internet surveillance programme – both the legal plans built into the Snoopers’ Charter and the practical ones that seem to have been in action for a while by GCHQ through their Tempora programme and through their cooperation with the NSA’s PRISM. Labour, if they are to be, as Khan puts it, the defender of our rights, needs to find a way to reposition itself as opposed to internet surveillance.
That’s where Tom Watson comes in. In his resignation letter he says the following:
“I wish to use the backbenches to speak out in areas of personal interest: open government and the surveillance state, the digital economy, drones and the future of conflict, the child abuse inquiries, the aftermath of the Murdoch scandal and grass roots responses to austerity.” (emphasis added)
Tom Watson gets it. He understands the internet – and he understands privacy. He has spoken out about the Snoopers Charter already (see here, for example) and though the current anti-surveillance climate after the PRISM revelations means that it’s not coming back very soon, as I’ve blogged before these measures have a tendency to re-emerge. This will – and it will need to be fought. As a back bencher, Tom Watson will have both the time and the opportunity to go against the authoritarian grain of Labour’s policies over surveillance. He can be a voice – and a strong and powerful one – that helps explain the reality of internet surveillance, its impact on people, and the ways in which it infringes our rights, not just theoretically but in practice. Labour has not had such a voice in its party over recent years – and it shows. The other main parties do have such MPs – David Davis for the Tories, Julian Huppert for the Lib Dems – and those MPs were crucial in the fight against the Snoopers’ Charter, raising awareness amongst their fellow MPs amongst other things.
…and awareness matters. One of the key characteristics of MPs when dealing with these issues, sadly, has been that they simply don’t understand the internet. Helen Goodman MP, the Shadow Minister who seems to be the most regular spokeswoman for the Labour Party on internet-related issues has demonstrated time and again that she simply doesn’t get it (see this blog by Terence Eden for an example). That level of lack of understanding is all too apparent pretty much every time internet surveillance is mentioned. If we are to get sensible decisions – sensible rights-based decisions – that ignorance has to be overcome. Talking from the back benches, lobbying from the back benches, Tom Watson has a chance to change that, and to drag the Labour Party into the internet age. It may not be a great chance – the level of ignorance is immense, and the vested interests in the security lobby of such Labour heavyweights as John Reid are pretty powerful – but it is still worth a try.
Help us, Obi-Wan Tom Watson, you’re our only hope….