Rifkind of the ISC…

Sir Malcolm Leslie Rifkind, KCMG, QC, MP, former Defence Secretary, former Foreign Secretary, distinguished member of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet, long standing member of parliament, has become ensnared in a ‘cash for access’ scandal. This has many implications – and many different angles to examine, from his claim that it would be ‘unrealistic’ to expect an MP to live on £67k per annum onward – but the one that may be the most important is his role as Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, the ISC. The ISC is the only parliamentary body that oversees the activities of the intelligence services – MI5, MI6 and GCHQ. It is a body that is made up only of people personally nominated by the Prime Minister, and given the nod by the leader of the opposition – and until last year, it operated effectively in private. It has had one public session (about which I have written before) in November last year, and it wasn’t exactly impressive – it felt rehearsed, and scripted, the heads of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ having been given details of the questions beforehand.

In practice, therefore, there is an enormous amount of responsibility on the ISC, and on its chair in particular. What they do is largely behind closed doors – so we have to trust that they do a good job. The latest events for Sir Malcolm Rifkind make that seem very doubtful. I have met Rifkind – I sat next to him at the ‘Round Table’ events as part of the ISC’s inquiry into surveillance – and I have to admit I liked him. He was charming, affable, a good listener, clearly intelligent, and in some ways what appears to be a consummate politician. His experience is enormous, his ability to ‘manage’ meetings very impressive – but does that make him suitable for the key role overseeing the UK’s intelligence services?

He does not have the technical knowledge or understanding of the technology – he made that entirely clear from the start of the Round Table discussion, asking for the most basic information and demonstrating some critical levels of technical ignorance. He does not have the legal understanding either – he admitted to me directly that he didn’t understand RIPA – the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act that is central to the governance of surveillance in the UK. So what is left? His ‘gravitas’, his position as a ‘safe pair of hands’. And that, importantly, is what is now compromised. He is supposed to represent us – and from what we have seen about his ‘cash for access’ scandal, it seems pretty clear that his main representation is of himself. He was duped by a fake Chinese company, set up by journalists, for the chance of making money. What he said may (it has yet to be confirmed) be within the parliamentary guidelines, but in this context that cannot be nearly enough. Being Chair of the ISC is a huge responsibility – and it has huge sensitivity.

It isn’t just personal issues that are at stake, but national security to: just imagine the possibilities if the fake Chinese company had been a cover for Chinese Intelligence rather than journalists from Channel 4 and the Telegraph. It is almost a classic trap – the sort of thing that has been played out in many thrillers. Some thrillers, these days, would have had Rifkind compromised by people within the intelligence services, so that they can bend him to their will – but I don’t believe that is the real risk here. Rather, it shows inappropriate priorities – when priorities are particularly critical.

There is another side to this that should be deeply concerning. This kind of thing matters because companies – specifically companies involved in the development and supply of surveillance technology – are part of the problem with surveillance. They want to promote surveillance so they can be paid to develop and implement technology here that can then be exported elsewhere – there is a ready market for surveillance systems all over the world, particularly to the more oppressive and autocratic of governments. These companies can lobby, can manipulate, can bamboozle people without the technological knowledge or understanding to appreciate the risks. And Rifkind fits the bill.

I don’t believe it is just Rifkind that is the issue here – though the idea that he could remain as Chair of the ISC after this is frankly deeply disturbing – but our whole system of oversight of intelligence. Depending on individuals, particularly individuals appointed through a system which is rife with patronage and inside connections, just doesn’t work. It creates vulnerability – and destroys the possibility of accountability. It needs root and branch reform – the involvement of technical experts, civil society and the judiciary, not just politicians and civil servants. Will it happen? It seems unlikely. Eventually Rifkind will probably fall on his sword, but nothing more will change. If only it would.

UPDATE: 10:15 February 24th: Rifkind has stepped down as Chair of the ISC, though he remains a member of the committee.

10:30 February 24th: Rifkind will also be stepping down as an MP in May

The Snoopers’ Charter: Shameful Opportunism

The news that four peers are trying to bring back the Snoopers’ Charter – in its last incarnation the Communications Data Bill – is depressingly predictable, but perhaps even more shameful than other attempts at legitimising mass data gathering and surveillance. It displays shameful opportunism that seems to plumb new depths – and in a number of different way

1     Bringing it in based on an event

It is a bit of an axiom that reactive law – knee-jerk law – is a bad idea. Law by its nature needs to be considered carefully, not passed in the heat of a moment. The more oppressive and ill-considered of ‘counter-terror’ legislation, however, seems to tend to be done this way all too often. The USA-PATRIOT Act (whose long name, the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act is worth a read in itself) is perhaps the best known example, but the Data Retention Directive worked just the same way, passed in the wake of the 7/7 bombings in London, and even making reference to those bombings in its preamble. That this directive was declared invalid by the Court of Justice of the European Union last year should give pause for thought. The CJEU said that the directive “entails a wide-ranging and particularly serious interference with the fundamental rights to respect for private life and to the protection of personal data, without that interference being limited to what is strictly necessary.” Authoritarian legislation, passed in haste, takes a long time to overturn. Even now, the repercussions are still being felt

2     Bringing it in based on this particular event

Hanging legislation on a hideous event is one thing – bringing it in based on this particular event, the Charlie Hebdo shootings, is even worse, as a careful examination of this event should have revealed not that more mass data gathering and surveillance is necessary, but rather the opposite. As I have written before, the shootings in Paris damage rather than enhance the case for mass data gathering and surveillance. The perpetrators were known to the authorities – they didn’t need to be rooted out by mass surveillance. The authorities had stopped watching them six months before, because, it seems, of lack of resources, resources that might have been available if a targeted rather than mass surveillance approach had been taken. This is part of an almost overwhelming trend – the killers of Lee Rigby and the suspects in the Boston bombings were also known to the authorities. There was no need for mass data gathering and surveillance to stop them – so to use this particular event as an excuse for bringing back the Snoopers’ Charter is particularly shameful.

3     Trying to rush the legislation through

It is almost never appropriate to rush legislation through – but sadly this is also all too familiar. Last summer, Parliament brought itself into significant disrepute by rushing through the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIP) in a matter of mere days, with no real time for scrutiny, no opportunity for independent expert analysis, and no real opposition from any of the main parties. This is not the way to legislate – it wasn’t right then, and it wouldn’t be right now.

4     Doing this in the midst of investigations and legal challenges

The one saving grace in DRIP was that it was intended to give breathing space, to allow proper, detailed and careful consideration to the many issues involved in surveillance. At the same time, there are a series of reviews over surveillance legislation in process – from the Intelligence and Security Committee and by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation to start with. Moreover, DRIP itself is subject to legal challenge. To try to pass much more comprehensive and far-reaching legislation even before these reviews have been completed and their reports scrutinised, and before the legal challenges even make their way into the court room, is also deeply shameful – prejudging the results of those reports, and, in effect, disrespecting all those involved.

5     Doing this in the face of a clear CJEU ruling

What is perhaps even worse, is that on the face of it the planned legislation flies directly in the face of the CJEU ruling on data retention. The ruling was strong, clear and direct – but does not seem, on immediate reading of the legislation, to have been taken into account at all. Of course this may be wrong – but as the new legislation only appeared yesterday, and is planned to go before the Lords on Monday, there has not been time for proper, detailed analysis – and nor has there been any kind of explanation or reconciliation presented. This again highlights the point of taking time over legislation – and going through proper, detailed procedures.

6     Using a highly dodgy political method

The method which has been chosen to try to introduce this law is, to put it mildly, somewhat doubtful. Rather than a full Bill, the four peers have tabled an amendment – 18 pages of additional clauses – to an existing bill, the Counter Terrorism and Security, which has already gone through most of the processes necessary before becoming law. It’s like slipping in an entirely new law just before the first law is passed – it makes a mockery of parliamentary process, and in effect disrespects the whole of parliament.  Describing it as trying to sneak in the Snoopers’ Charter by the back door may even be too kind.

7     Ignoring the committee

The original Communications Data Bill was subject to analysis by a full parliamentary committee – and that parliamentary committee came out with a highly critical report, a report which ultimately led to the abandonment of the Bill.  By trying to bring it back now, seemingly virtually unchanged, the peers proposing the amendment are ignoring the committee and its findings – and as a consequence ignoring the whole process of parliamentary scrutiny.

8     Doing it at this time, in the run up to the election

To try to push through legislation like this in the run up to the election is in itself highly dubious tactics. Politicians have their minds on other things – and many of them may care much more about being re-elected than about whether the details of legislation to be passed are a good idea or not. Whether they ‘look’ good is what matters, and whether that makes them more electable. Right now, in the light of the anger and fear resulting from the Charlie Hebdo shootings, to oppose something that might make people safer, will be difficult – and may hinder the electoral prospects of MPs. This kind of thing has happened before – the way that the Digital Economy Act was passed in 2010 springs to mind – and again makes the timing of the bringing forward of the amendment feel very wrong

Why are they doing it this way?

The whole process – all these layers of opportunism – should make the alarm bells ring. This is a hugely significant piece of law – not just in terms of what it does but in terms of what it signifies, in terms of what kind of society we want to be living in, what kind of an internet we want to have. If we are going to make decisions like this, we should make them in careful, considered ways, weighing the evidence and seeking expert opinion. That’s the idea behind the parliamentary committee system, and the time it takes to bring laws in through normal procedures.

Why, then, are these procedures being avoided, and why are these underhand methods being used? It is hard to escape the conclusion that it is because those pushing it are afraid that if it is given the appropriate amount of time, of attention, and of scrutiny, then it will once again be defeated, as it was the last time around. In the cold light of day, do we want to live in such a surveillance society? I’m not sure – but I do think that trying to make those decisions in this way, in the heat of the moment and without the opportunity to give proper thought and proper scrutiny, is a disastrous way to proceed. Those behind it should be ashamed.

Dear Labour supporters…

As a long-time Labour voter who has since joined the Greens, and is still not absolutely certain which way to vote in the General Election, I keep finding myself saying the same thing on Twitter when discussing the election. Rather than repeat myself so many times, I thought I’d put a few of the standard questions and answers down here for reference. Just so you don’t have to ask me again and again, directly….

“Vote Green, get Tory”

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told this. Firstly, in my constituency that simply isn’t true. The Tories don’t really have a chance here – and anyway, if they did (and I’ll be watching the polling closely) I would almost certainly vote Labour. Secondly, we can’t just be cynical about this – if we think only in those terms, we’d never get the kinds of changes that brought the Labour Party into existence in the first place. Elections aren’t just about the immediate short-term result. If you want real change – and I would hope most progressive (not to say radical) people do want real change – we have to think in longer terms, and in deeper ways.

Vote Labour, get Tory Policies

Thirdly, this brings up the next argument. Right now, it looks as though – for many of the issues that matter to me – a more accurate statement would be ‘vote Labour, get Tory Policies’. Yes, I know the policies over the NHS are different, and I know the austerity wouldn’t be quite as harsh, and I know the bedroom tax would be repealed, but that’s not enough for me. The appallingly xenophobic immigration policy is near identical, Gove’s ‘reforms’ to education seem to be being embraced by Tristram Hunt, the authoritarian civil liberties policies (not to mention counter-productive puritanism on things like internet filtering/censorship), and the overall acceptance of the false ‘scrounger/striver’ (including regular reference to punitive measures or use of coercion on benefit claimants) dichotomy is tantamount to Toryism.

Yes, I agree on the NHS, but given the amount of apparent denial among Labour ranks about PFI and so forth, I’m not fully convinced. When I see Labour’s unwillingness to be brave in relation to rail renationalisation, and the tentative nature of the opposition to the privatisation of the Royal Mail, I’m even less convinced.

And yes, I know that Labour’s austerity wouldn’t be as ‘bad’ as the current Tory austerity – that just makes Labour ‘ordinary’ Tory, and the current Tories ‘extreme’ Tory. And yes, I know that the lesser of two evils may be the ‘better’ choice in the end, but have we really come to that point? I hope not.

How NOT to get Green voters back…

Overall, my interactions with Labour supporters have reinforced the feelings that made me join the Green Party in the first place. I’m accused of stupidity by some, of being too posh by others, of not understanding how politics works by more – the whole ‘vote Green, get Tory’ idea suggests that I haven’t thought it through. It’s an insult to my intelligence – and to my understanding of politics. I’ve been told Greens are just sandal-wearing middle-class hand-wringers. Again, not true – and insulting. Do you really think that insulting people will make them like you more?

How TO get Green voters back…

Well, a starting point would be an acknowledgment of why people feel abandoned by the Labour Party. For me, there was one pivotal moment – when Liam Byrne effectively supported (by abstaining) the retrospective legislation on Workfare, something which even now does not seem to have been acknowledged to have been a mistake. There have been other ‘facepalm’ moments when I’ve been reminded that the Parliamentary Labour Party is not on the same page as me. I know lots of excellent people in local Labour Party politics, but it’s still very hard to see how local activists get their views into the national arena. It’s hard to see any comprehension of why people might be upset – instead, when there’s a mention of something good, it’s almost always immediately matched by something appalling and retrogressive. An attack on David Cameron for not being nasty enough over immigration. An absurdity like the ‘oath’ for teachers. More support for internet censorship by Helen Goodman.

That’s why I felt the need to go elsewhere. I don’t think Labour wants to listen to people like me. Maybe I’m a dinosaur. Maybe I’m an extremist. Maybe I’m too focused on particular issues. If I felt, however, that there was even a decent chance that Labour might change on some of these things, that they might not feel the need to ape Tory/UKIP xenophobia, that they might be willing to be a touch braver, a touch more radical – then I’d be much more likely to vote Labour, even to rejoin Labour.

If, on the other hand, I get the same, tired arguments and insults, that’s likely to do precisely the opposite. Every time I’m told ‘vote Green, get Tory,’ my heart sinks for Labour – and I’m less likely to vote for them.

Prime Minister Ed?

Don’t get me wrong, I very much want to see Ed Miliband in number 10 – but I want to see an Ed Miliband not shackled to Tory policies, wedded to a Tory agenda. Right now, for me, the best way to do that seems to be, counterintuitively though it may seem, to support the Greens. How else can I tell Labour that I want a more radical, more left wing agenda? I’m very glad there are people within the Labour Party fighting to make Labour more radical – but to me, it feels as though Labour needs pressure from outside as well as inside. If pressure only comes from inside, it’s easy to ignore – and has been ignored, to a great extent, for the last few years. If, however, Labour feels as though it’s losing members, voters and supporters, then it has to react. The question is how it reacts. By insulting and patronising, or by listening and (possibly) changing. I know which one I want – and which one is likely to work on me.

 

Politicians of the year…

‘Inspired’ by The Times nomination of Nigel Farage, here is my wholly biased, evidence-free and not exactly serious set of ‘politicians of the year.

Politician of the year: Caroline Lucas
Honourable mention: Dennis Skinner

For sticking to her principles (hell, for even having principles in the first place!) listening to debates and generally being a good human being – something far beyond the reach of most MPs, Caroline Lucas took this award with relative ease – though Dennis Skinner’s NHS speech towards the end of 2014 took the breath away.

Liar of the year: Iain Duncan Smith

Extensive research has yet to find anything that IDS said in 2014 that was actually true. Full reviews of Hansard as well as of all his official speeches have failed, but close friends believe he may have been honest when telling the time once in late October.

Villain of the year: Chris Grayling

For his sadly partially successful attempts to destroy our justice system, Chris Grayling is my villain of the year. Hardly any aspect of the system has not felt his malign touch – what he has done to legal aid is nothing short of criminal, whilst probation and the prisons have been hit horribly and his judicial review plans are hideous. He’s been beaten many times in the courts, but his viciousness lumbers forward all but unabated.

Disappointment of the year: Yvette Cooper

Yvette Cooper had a real opportunity to change the authoritarian direction Labour has been heading since Blair’s embrace of the so-called ‘War on Terror’, and make Labour once again a party that understands the importance of civil liberties. Sadly she’s done pretty much precisely the opposite, seeming to want to ‘out-tough’ Theresa May, to love the surveillance state and out-Farage Farage on border controls. Sad, and totally unnecessary.

Failure of the year: Michael Gove

From leadership contender and the Man Who Would Save Education, Mr Gove has suffered a sacking, been stuck in the Commons toilet and been revealed to be a thoroughly incompetent Chief Whip – losing votes he should have won, having MPs defect just after having lunch with him. The world’s smallest violin is playing the world’s saddest song…

Racist Dog-whistler of the year: Nigel Farage

There are many awards that Nigel Farage could win – ‘Best Actor’ for his impersonation of an anti-establishment figure, despite being as establishment a politician as they come, right down to the employment of his family and full-scale exploitation of expenses rules – but the racist dog-whistles are his real forte. ‘You know the difference’ he told James O’Brien once. Yes, Nigel, we know the difference. And we know exactly what you mean.

Tragic figure of the year: Julian Huppert

Julian Huppert was one of the heroes of the commons in the way he was pivotal in the defeat of the Communications Data Bill – the snooper’s charter – but he went from hero to zero in 2014 by allowing himself to be used by Theresa May to ‘legitimise’ the passing of DRIP. That episode – the act was passed in mere days – was one of the most shameful in parliament’s recent history, and Huppert didn’t just fail to prevent it, he helped make it happen. It didn’t need to, and Huppert’s role in it was simply tragic.

Authoritarian of the year: Theresa May
Dishonourable mentions: David Blunkett, Hazel Blears

For her desire to bring back the snooper’s charter, preferably with all its powers strengthened and made less accountable, for her love of secret courts, and for all-round authoritarianism – and I’m not making this up – Theresa May is a shoe-in for the Authoritarian of the Year award. David Blunkett is past his prime, but still brings back memories of 90-day detention – while Hazel Blears’ supine efforts on the Intelligence and Security Committee make her seem positively starry eyed in the face of authority. Still, neither are a match for Theresa May!

The Mary Whitehouse Award for Puritanical Nanny of the year: Claire Perry
Dishonourable mentions: David Cameron, Helen Goodman

Fairly stiff competition for this award, but Perry wins in for her championing of ineffective, over-blocking Internet filtering systems. Cameron came close by championing of Perry, and Goodman would have loved to have had the chance. Perry, Cameron and Goodman would also have been in the running for the ‘technologically incompetent politician of the year’ award if it were not for the fact that more than 95% of MPs reached world-championship levels of technological incompetence.

Curate’s Egg of the year: Simon Danczuk

Danczuk is a quintessential Curate’s Egg: brilliant in relation to child abuse, abysmal over welfare and even worse about immigration. Tirelessly seeking out the truth about child abuse – but accepting the worst and most damaging of myths over ‘scroungers’ and strangers.

Cock of the year: Penny Mordaunt
Dishonourable mention: Brooks Newmark

It was a close run thing between Penny’s speech and Brooks’ Paisley pyjamas, but Penny’s cock was calculated whilst Brooks’ was essentially a cock-up, so Penny has the edge. She is the cock, rather than just having one.

Peacock of the year: Keith Vaz

Want a quote? Ask Keith. Want a photo? Ask Keith. Want to meet a Romanian at Luton Airport? Ask Keith. You ask for it, Keith will do it, and shake his tail feathers too.

‘The wrong tie’ award for MPs representing the wrong party: Danny Alexander
Dishonourable mention: Tristram Hunt

Danny Alexander just pips the rest of the Lib Dems and pretty much the entire Labour Front Bench for this critical award. He’s a Tory’s Tory, and if it wasn’t for the fact that his constituency is in Scotland he would probably have defected years ago. Tristram Hunt attempts to emulate Alexander’s Tory imitation, mostly by channelling mid-period Michael Gove, but doesn’t have Alexander’s sheer shamelessness in following Tory policy to the finest detail. Nice try though.

The Bulldog Award for persistence: Tom Watson

Not content with taking on Murdoch, Tom Watson is still pursuing the historical sexual abuse cases with patience and persistence – let’s hope 2015 finally starts to see some results.

…and finally…

The Clegg Award for broken promises: George Osborne

Osborne has shown a knack for missing every target he sets himself. He hasn’t quite matched Clegg for direct promise-breaking, nor has he managed an apology, let alone an auto-tuned one, but his record for missing targets is nothing short of remarkable.

Welcome to ‘Great’ Britain?

I’ve just finished a visit to Burma – Myanmar – a place I last visited in 1991. That visit was one of the most important of my life – a truly cathartic experience, one from which I emerged in many ways transformed. Even now, more than twenty years later, it remains one of the most important times of my life.

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Many things have changed in Burma since 1991: the rapid political and economic changes in the last few years have seen to that. There was nothing like the high-rise buildings that are sprouting all around the centre of Yangon back then – nor the almost overwhelming levels of traffic. The stultifying bureaucracy and feeling that almost anything would be blocked or forbidden has also mostly gone – arriving at Yangon airport was just like arriving at almost any other international airport.

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Some things, thankfully, have not changed. The gorgeous light at dawn and dusk. That characteristic aroma, mixing spice and dried fish, salt and chilli. The shining golden pagodas poking up from between the buildings in town and the green forests and jungles in the countryside. The immense feeling of time – the lack of hurry, the lack of urgency. And, most importantly, the wonderful welcoming nature of the people. Even back in 1991, when Burma was in the grip of one of the most murderous and oppressive military dictatorships in the world, that was the thing that I noticed most about the country. Everywhere I went, people welcomed me with smiles and open, interested questions. With tea and tamarind, a seat and some shade. Not out of desperation, or a chance of relief from oppression – but a simple, honest, human welcome.

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The same was true this time. The people were without exception great – we travelled a fair bit, staying in a variety of places, and met a lot of people. The same (British) friend who I visited back in 1991 was again my host – now married to a Burmese artist, and with a half-Burmese daughter – and we met a wide variety of people, from former political prisoners to Buddhist monks and a Catholic nun who runs an hospital for women and children living with HIV. We went to local restaurants and bough food from street stalls. We visited pagodas and other sites. We took taxis – and in every case the people were friendly, open, and smiling. The day before we left, one old tax driver asked us where we were from, and when I said England he smiled even wider, and said ‘great country’.

That set me thinking – was the old taxi driver right? Is our country great? When we prepared to leave Burma, and I read that The Times had named Nigel Farage ‘Briton of the Year’, I really started to wonder. Coming up to the end of 2014, I think The Times may be right – Nigel Farage may well be the ‘best’ representative of what Britain has become. His party, UKIP, shows quite how far we’ve fallen – and quite how sad and desperate a state we are in. Where the Burmese show welcome, openness and happiness we display the opposite: hostility, xenophobia and closed-mindedness.

And there’s no reason for it. Britain isn’t ‘full’. Immigrants have next-to-nothing to do with all the various problems we face. They didn’t cause the financial crisis. They don’t impose upon our creaking health service – quite the opposite, they’re what keeps it alive. It’s not immigrants who keep rents high and wages low – or even contribute to those high rents and low wages. The exploitative economy and dysfunctional housing market are nothing to do with them. They don’t make our benefits bill higher – again, quite the opposite, they’re contributors, not a burden. .And yet, as Farage and UKIP’s ‘rise’ shows, we do our very best not to make them welcome. The reverse. We blame them for things we shouldn’t. We believe the lies we’re told and assume and expect the worst – all Romanians are thieves, all Muslims either terrorists or terrorist sympathisers and so on. We elect an MP who openly advocates forced repatriation. Our ‘major’ political parties play the same xenophobic tune, effectively accepting that immigration is a ‘problem’ and failing to challenge the lies and misinformation that underpin that belief. Rather, there’s a race to the bottom – let’s see who can be the most xenophobic, the most unpleasant, the most full of viciousness and scapegoating.

Seeing Burma again, meeting Burmese people again, reminded me how much we’ve lost. How much humanity we’ve lost. How much grace, how much humility, how much openness we’ve lost. We’ve forgotten how to make people welcome. I hope that in 2015 we can start to remember again. Sadly I doubt it very much.

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Photo of the author by Htein Lin.

Labour and torture…

One of the immediate effects of reading some of the Torture Report last night was a feeling of deep anger. My memories of 2003 and protesting against the planned invasion of Iraq came flooding back – and my anger towards Tony Blair in particular and the Labour Party in general came flooding back. I tweeted about it a bit last night and this morning – and though most people seemed to agree with me, a number seemed to think I was being unfair. After Polly Toynbee’s suggestion yesterday that we should ‘ignore the flaws’ of the Labour Party, having this particularly huge flaw shoved in my face seemed a touch ironic. So am I unfair to be angry with Labour? The people suggesting so seem to have a three main complaints:

This wasn’t Tony Blair – or even the UK. This is about the CIA.

It’s certainly true that the Torture Report is about the CIA’s activities – but the UK is not unconnected. Firstly, the UK was involved in the CIA’s activities, helping with rendition at the very least, and turning a blind eye to other things. Secondly, anyone who imagines that the UK is totally innocent of similar actions seems to me to be deeply naïve – the fact that we don’t know for sure may well have as much to do with our secretive and seemingly ineffective forms of oversight. A report like the Torture Report is almost unheard of in the UK. We have the odd whitewash from time to time, but nothing more. What’s more, Blair made the UK complicit in the whole ‘war on terror’ – and the torture was part of that.

Tony Blair didn’t know what was happening

For that to be true, he would have to be a complete fool – and that’s one thing I would never accuse him of. What’s more, over a million of us warned him.

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I was on that march – and we weren’t just saying ‘don’t invade Iraq’, we were saying ‘don’t go into bed with the most reactionary and objectionable US president in living memory.’ We may not have known the details – details confirmed by the Torture Report – but we knew who and what Bush was, and what joining him implied. Blair must also have known – and if he didn’t make the obvious inference about things like torture, then as I wrote before, he would have to be a fool. And he isn’t a fool.

Tony Blair isn’t the Labour Party

No he isn’t – but he led the Labour Party, and a very significant number of the current crop of MPs voted for Blair and Bush’s war, effectively voting for this torture. Some of the ‘big figures’ who actively supported the war are still very much part of the party – names like David Blunkett and Jack Straw spring to mind, but there are others. More importantly, the current Labour Party seem to be very much carrying on Blair’s agenda. Yvette Cooper seems to be almost as much an authoritarian as the rest of them!

 

So yes, I do blame Labour. And yes, I think that’s fair – and until Labour makes a proper break from the past, and shows that it understands what went wrong, or even that it was wrong, I will continue to blame Labour.

#Establishment?

Two seemingly very different stories have been dominating the left-wing UK political scene on Twitter over the last week or two. The first is the remarkable success of the #CameronMustGo hashtag, the second the Trumpton UKIP saga. They’re very, very different things – and on the surface seem not to have very much in common – but there are strong connections between the two, connections that suggest some interesting things about how social media, and Twitter in particular, can work.

The #CameronMustGo hashtag is still trending (as I type this) after two weeks and more than a million tweets, in the face of a whole series of derogatory articles in the mainstream media (as I discussed here), and reactions from disdain to rage. To get a hashtag to trend isn’t easy at the best of times, and to get it to trend for this long is nothing short of remarkable – indeed, the disappointment last night when (seemingly briefly) the hashtag dropped off the trending list almost made me laugh, but had a serious point. Getting the hashtag to trend has given groups of people a sense of power – a sense that they can have at least some impact, albeit only in the virtual world of Twitter, when they otherwise feel so powerless in the face of a seemingly overwhelming establishment.

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The UKIP Trumpton phenomenon seems very different. The initial UKIP Trumpton account was a parody account, one of many such accounts on Twitter – I run a parody account myself, @KipperNick – but until a few days ago it had just a small following. It was funny, particularly for people of a certain generation (including myself) who grew up watching programmes like Trumpton, Camberwick Green and so forth – but it wasn’t earth-shattering, until it started to be attacked by UKIP MEP David Coburn for being ‘fake’. That started a twitter storm, one that has raged ever since. @Trumpton_UKIP now has 18.9 thousand followers, more than twice David Coburn’s number, and has spawned a whole range of related Trumpton accounts, as well as a wide range of attacks from UKIP supporters, some suggesting that it shouldn’t be allowed to use the word ‘UKIP’ in its name, others invoking (more than a touch dubiously) intellectual property law. The more the attacks come, the more the parody thrives – and the more attention it gets, from the mainstream press, and even from TV and radio.

So what’s the connection between the two, apart from being attacks on right wing politicians? Well, first of all, they both emerged from small, humble roots – the people behind the initial #CameronMustGo hashtag and the @Trumpton_UKIP account are ordinary Twitter users, not part of political parties or backed by the mainstream media. Both took root through the grassroots of twitter – yes, the #CameronMustGo hashtag was taken up by official Labour Party people, but the mainstay was (and remains) much more ordinary twitter users. Both thrive in the face of (at least partial) mainstream attacks – indeed, the attacks seem to make them stronger. Both use humour – even a brief look at the #CameronMustGo stream shows that a fair proportion of the tweets either are or use jokes as their basis, while the Trumpton accounts are based almost entirely on humour. And they’re funny. Very funny at times.

Both, too, seem to have caught the ‘establishment’ on the hop – and for all its protestations, UKIP is very much part of the establishment. Whether it’s UKIP or the Tories, the BBC or the mainstream press, the social media is something that they can’t quite get on top of. It’s not as controllable as they want it to be – and it challenges their control over the ‘message’. The Labour Party shouldn’t get complacent either – the wrath of Twitter is as likely to turn upon them as it has on the Tories and UKIP. If they try to use the people of Twitter as their political tools, they can expect a backlash. If there’s one thing #CameronMustGo and Trumpton has shown, it’s that it’s the people that count, not the parties. And long may that last.