The Twelve Days of Corbyn

On the first day of Corbyn

The media gave to me

Some preening by Polly Toynbee

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On the second day of Corbyn

The media gave to me

Two caustic Cohens

And some preening by Polly Toynbee

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On the third day of Corbyn

The media gave to me

Three John Manns

Two caustic Cohens

And some preening by Polly Toynbee

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On the fourth day of Corbyn

The media gave to me

Four Hilary Benns

Three John Manns

Two caustic Cohens

And some preening by Polly Toynbee

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On the fifth day of Corbyn

The media gave to me

Five – Tony – Blairs

Five Blairs 2

Four Hilary Benns

Three John Manns

Two caustic Cohens

And some preening by Polly Toynbee

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On the sixth day of Corbyn

The media gave to me

Six Rentouls ranting

Five – Tony – Blairs

Four Hilary Benns

Three John Manns

Two caustic Cohens

And some preening by Polly Toynbee

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On the seventh day of Corbyn

The media gave to me

Seven Hodges’ hating

Six Rentouls ranting

Five – Tony – Blairs

Four Hilary Benns

Three John Manns

Two caustic Cohens

And some preening by Polly Toynbee

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On the eighth day of Corbyn

The media gave to me

Eight Behrs-a-baiting

Seven Hodges’ hating

Six Rentouls ranting

Five – Tony – Blairs

Four Hilary Benns

Three John Manns

Two caustic Cohens

And some preening by Polly Toynbee

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On the ninth day of Corbyn

The media gave to me

Nine Hymans snivelling

Eight Behrs-a-baiting

Seven Hodges’ hating

Six Rentouls ranting

Five – Tony – Blairs

Four Hilary Benns

Three John Manns

Two caustic Cohens

And some preening by Polly Toynbee

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On the tenth day of Corbyn

The media gave to me

Ten Danczuks drivelling

Nine Hymans snivelling

Eight Behrs-a-baiting

Seven Hodges’ hating

Six Rentouls ranting

Five – Tony – Blairs

Four Hilary Benns

Three John Manns

Two caustic Cohens

And some preening by Polly Toynbee

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On the eleventh day of Corbyn

The media gave to me

Eleven John McTernans

Ten Danczuks drivelling

Nine Hymans snivelling

Eight Behrs-a-baiting

Seven Hodges’ hating

Six Rentouls ranting

Five – Tony – Blairs

Four Hilary Benns

Three John Manns

Two caustic Cohens

And some preening by Polly Toynbee

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On the twelfth day of Corbyn

The media gave to me

Twelve Byrnes-a-burning

Eleven John McTernans

Ten Danczuks drivelling

Nine Hymans snivelling

Eight Behrs-a-baiting

Seven Hodges’ hating

Six Rentouls ranting

Five – Tony – Blairs

Four Hilary Benns

Three John Manns

Two caustic Cohens

And some preening by Polly Toynbee

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Notes from the IP Bill Committee session

I was one of the panel of academic witnesses before the specially convened Draft Investigatory Powers Bill Select Committee on Monday 7th December. It was my first time before a Parliamentary Committee and I have to admit I was a little intimidated: from queueing up beneath the statue of Oliver Cromwell to walking through what CP Snow referred to as the ‘corridors of power’. It’s a cliché, but there really is a corridor off from which the Committee Rooms are reached – it has a little of the Alice in Wonderland about it, but the thing that I noticed the most whilst waiting to be called was that almost everyone seemed to be a bit lost. In relation to the Investigatory Powers Bill that might be more than a little appropriate.

The panel I was on was pretty intimidating too, from Professor Ross Anderson, one of the best computer science brains on the planet, Professor Sir David Omand, former head of GCHQ, Permanent Secretary at the Home Office and then Permanent Secretary and Security and Intelligence Co-ordinator in the Cabinet Office under Blair, and Professor Mark Ryan of Birmingham University, another highly distinguished computer scientist. It really was intimidating at first – feeling the weight of the place, the seriousness of the subject and the crucial part that a Parliamentary Committee is supposed to play in the process of scrutinising and passing laws. And as the chair of the Committee, Lord Murphy of Torfaen said in his opening remarks, this bill was crucial – perhaps the most important bill in this parliamentary session.

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Once the session started, though, I found the level of intimidation diminished rapidly – because, in part at least, it was impossible for me not to become immersed in the discussion. It is easy (and often appropriate) to be cynical about our parliamentary process, but seeing it first hand, in this committee at least, it was clear that enough of the members of the committee really wanted to learn, and really wanted to understand the issues, that there was at least a chance that their scrutiny would have some kind of effect. The initial questions, which had been set out before the session, were reasonably good, but the follow ups and the discussions that arose were much better.

The choice of witnesses was interesting: having Ross Anderson at one end of the panel and Sir David Omand at the other end created an interesting dynamic from the start. Sir David seemed to have a particular role in mind from the start – a ‘reasonable’ voice, confirming that everything was OK, that the Bill, as it was written, was clear, balanced, fair and ‘world-leading’. As a number of people pointed out to me after the event, you could tell whether you’d made a good point by the speed and vehemence with which Sir David responded. There were a few key moments on that score, and I hope there is proper follow up on them.

The first is the Danish ‘session-logging’ experience – the nearest equivalent to the proposed ‘Internet Connection Record’ idea in the new Bill – which resulted in around 7 years of wasted money, time and effort, providing almost no help to the police at all, before it was abandoned. When I mentioned it, Sir David interjected immediately that the Home Office was planning to do it very differently. It would be interesting to know how they are doing it differently. I suspect that further investigation could convince the Committee that the problem wasn’t (and isn’t) the technical implementation but the fundamental approach. Session logging didn’t work in Denmark not because the Danes don’t have our technological expertise, but because it’s a fundamentally flawed approach.

The second was the idea that communications data is less intrusive than content – as all the other three member of the panel know, that might have been true once, but it’s no longer true. The intrusion is different, but it isn’t less. Indeed, because of the possibilities for analysis, the greater difficulty in disguising and the increasing ability to use for profiling, it is likely that the balance will shift very much the other way, with communications data being much more important and more intrusive than content.

There were many other things covered – but we had far less time than we needed to explore them in as much depth as we needed. That’s why I shall also be taking up the invitation of the Committee to submit written evidence as well as oral – and why I would seriously advise others to do the same. I was lucky enough to be on a panel – but the written evidence will be even more critical. This Committee, it seemed to me, wanted to learn and should be given the opportunity. Do take it up! Written submissions will be accepted until 21st December. To submit, follow the link here:

http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/joint-select/draft-investigatory-powers-bill/publications/written-evidence-form/

The video of the session can be found here:

http://videoplayback.parliamentlive.tv/Player/Index/80ee52fd-8719-4a57-85a3-f64ad9567559?audioOnly=False&autoStart=False&statsEnabled=True

Hollow Labour….

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

Many people, I suspect, know the last stanza of The Hollow Men far more than the first.  “This is the way the world ends” it goes, “This is the way the world ends, This is the way the world ends, Not with a bang but a whimper.” I found myself re-reading the poem today, ‘inspired’ by the Labour leadership contest. It was that last stanza, one of the best known and most quote pieces of poetry in recent times, I suspect, that made me think of it. No-one wants to go out with a whimper rather than a bang – least of all those interested in politics. And yet that seems to be what the ‘sensible’, ‘serious’ and ‘grown-up’ people seem to be suggesting for the Labour Party.

When I look at the contest, when I listen to the candidates, I don’t see anyone who I can realistically imagine winning a general election. The portrayals of Liz Kendall as a Tory are cruel and unfair in many ways, but they do hit at the heart of her approach – she seems to be saying that the Tories have won the big arguments, so we need to accept that and move on. Cooper and Burnham are bland and unconvincing – George Eaton’s description of them as ‘centrist blancmange‘ seems hideously and horribly apt. None of them get close to inspiring anything – it seems impossible most of the time to imagine them even inspiring themselves. That brought me back to the first stanza of The Hollow Men. Cooper, Burnham and Kendall seem very much to be hollow men and women, whispering together in dry voices, as quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass. Labour Party meetings under their leadership might as well be rats scrabbling about over broken glass in dry cellars.

That’s where Corbyn comes in. His appeal is not hollow, it’s not dry, and he’s not whispering. His is the sort of voice that’s used to shouting in village halls, chanting on protest marches, even reading poetry at festivals. And that, though he has pretty much no chance at all of winning a general election, makes him appealing. The Labour Party, if it’s going to be led by as uninspiring leadership as Cooper, Burnham and Kendall have shown in the contest so far, is dying – and to many supporters, if they’re going to die, they’re not going to go down without a shout. If the Labour world is going to end, let it end with a bang, not a whimper.

The thing is, no-one has to be a member of a political party. No-one has to be an activist. No-one has to give their time, energy and more to a cause – so if you want your political party to have members and activists, you need to inspire them – and boring, ‘centrist’ policies are very difficult to make inspiring. For Labour activists, this may even be more true than for other parties – though it would be a classical mistake for Labour supporters to imagine they’re the only ones with vision, passion and dreams – and when Labour loses that sense of inspiration, it loses those activists. The catastrophe in Scotland was in part driven by this – activists stopped being active, members let their memberships lapse, while the SNP gained both members and activists in droves, and their ‘ground game’ was key to their success. If Labour wants to recover – in Scotland as well as in England and Wales – it needs to find that inspiration. The fact that the new Labour leadership election is one-member-one-vote, though seen by some as a weakness in that it allows activists ‘disproportionate’ power, should be seen as a strength, as it should require leadership candidates to inspire those members…

…and that, right now, is why Corbyn is succeeding and the others are failing. They seem to have forgotten what activists do, what inspires them – why they became activists in the first place. The latest move, to abstain over the Welfare Bill, shows this all too well. It may be ‘sensible’. It may be ‘grown-up’. It may be ‘good politics’ in the parliamentary sense. What it isn’t, however, is inspiring. It looks far more like a whimper than a bang.

Those campaigning against Corbyn may well be right – indeed, I suspect they are – that he can’t win a general election, and that electing him as leader could spell the end of the Labour Party. Unless, however, one of the others raises their game – in an inspiring way – that may not matter. They need to show something to Labour Party members, something that makes them say ‘yes’, not give dry, insincere applause. They need to reach out with something to the activists, because Corbyn has offered them something better than they do. It may be the end, but there’s a vestige of hope there too.

And even if it is the end, Corbyn offers a better end to the Labour Party than they do. He offers a bang, not a whimper. No-one wants a whimper.

Messages on mugs: deaths in the Med

Immigration remains a key topic in this election – and not just on the lips of UKIP.  All the main parties are part of what is effectively a consensus on immigration: that immigration is essentially ‘bad’. It’s that consensus that leads to the hideous inhumanity that makes it somehow politically acceptable to let people drown in their hundreds. It shouldn’t be like that, if we have any humanity left.

The Tories and Lib Dems, who passed the Immigration Act 2014, have both been fuelling this message. Amongst other things that act – in many ways the most xenophobic piece of law in recent times – brings into action an increasing need to ‘check’ people to see if they’re illegal immigrants or not. Doctors, landlords, bankers etc etc are expected to check people’s papers to see if they’re what might loosely be called ‘the right kind of people’. That in itself fuels a process that suggests that some people are better than others. It’s not just immigration that is essentially ‘bad’: it’s the immigrants themselves.

Screen Shot 2015-03-30 at 07.34.32

Labour are far from innocent. They abstained on the Immigration Act 2014, and have taken on the whole ‘immigration is bad’ agenda in a big way. The infamous ‘controls on immigration’ mug isn’t an accident: it’s part of an overall agenda, accepting the ‘immigration is bad’ view, despite the strong moral, economic and cultural evidence to the contrary. Anti-immigrant feeling is strongest where there are fewest immigrants, migrants claim less in benefits than natives and make net contributions and so on and so forth, but somehow that is not worth arguing for. Instead we have three parties all pandering to the prejudices fuelled by UKIP and certain elements in the press. We have what ultimately amounts to a dehumanisation of immigrants. They’re not people, they’re migrants. They’re not men, women and children, they’re migrants, and a drain and a strain on resources.

Slap that message on a mug, make a pledge here and a statement there. We need to keep ‘them’ out. They’re ‘flooding here’ (humans don’t ‘flood’ anywhere, only migrants). Better cut their benefits (even though they don’t actually claim many). Better to stop them coming (over) here.

That kind of an approach leads in only one direction – to a place where Katie Hopkins can call migrants cockroaches. A place where letting men, women and children drown in their hundreds is acceptable.

We need to rethink this from top to bottom. And yes, that means everyone involved in fuelling the myths. Whatever Labour strategist came up with the ‘five pledges’, let alone that hideous mug’, is part of the same story. They’re part of the spectrum that leads to calling people cockroaches and setting the gunboats on them. All the pious statements in the last couple of days by politicians – notably Lib Dem and Labour politicians – should be viewed in that context. You’re part of what brings this inhumanity to bear. Part of the problem.

Storm in a tea-cup?

Screen Shot 2015-03-30 at 07.34.32I have to admit, I was one of the ‘lefties’ upset by the ‘controls on immigration tea cup’ over the weekend. Maybe I got too upset – some Labour stalwarts said it was a ‘storm in a tea cup’, others that I was missing the point in a number of ways. Maybe the fact that I’m married to an immigrant makes me extra-sensitive to this kind of issue – or perhaps it makes me more aware of the impact of the UKIP agenda really is.

Others told me ‘it’s just one of the pledges, we do mugs for all the pledges’ – to which I say that’s the bigger, and even worse point. Why is controlling immigration one of Labour’s five pledges at all? To start with all the evidence suggests that immigration isn’t really a ‘problem’, except in the false agenda driven by the likes of UKIP and the Daily Mail. ‘Health tourism’ and ‘benefits tourism’ are scare stories with no basis in fact – migrants use the health service and benefits system less than average, and indeed are critical for the success of the NHS. Migrants contribute more to the economy than they take out of it. They don’t even have an effect on local wages and jobs – the evidence as it is gathered and analysed is increasingly clear. No surprise, then, that anti-immigrant feeling is stronger in places with fewer immigrants, who haven’t experienced the reality of immigration to see that the scare stories are just that: scare stories.

I was even told yesterday that the five pledges aren’t actually Labour’s priorities, just pledges – but be serious, it’s all about the message. These are five simple message to be put on post cards and billboards as well as mugs. Of course they’re intended to show Labour’s priorities – which is why having ‘controls on immigration’ on one is so disappointing. Labour could have chosen any number of alternatives. Here are the original five:

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Now I’m not wildly happy with any of them except the third – the first one smacks a little bit of austerity, the second uses that overused and exclusionary phrase ‘working families’, and the last is ultimately pretty meaningless – but it’s the fourth that’s the real problem – so here are seven alternative suggestions for pledge number four, some of which are based on actual Labour policies.

1: Build more homes

Build 200,000 genuinely affordable homes every year – we have a real and growing housing crisis, and it’s not caused by immigration but by a dysfunctional housing market and not enough building. Labour knows this – why not talk about this rather than dog-whistling for education

2: Make education work for everyone

Michael Gove (and now Nicky Morgan) have done huge amounts to damage the education system, to lower teachers’ morale, to shift scarce resources from where they’re needed to where there are already enough schools – Labour will repair that damage, support teachers and help rebuild the education system after five years of destruction

3: Make tax fair!

For too long have tax avoiders and tax evaders – whether they be individuals or companies – been able to make ‘little people’ pay more than they can afford while they, the tax avoiders and evaders, find ways out. Labour will tighten the rules, make sure those that who can afford it do pay their share, and make the whole tax system fairer.

4: Control energy prices

Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze was a very popular policy – and Labour have promised a complete review of the energy market. Let’s do it, and make sure that the energy companies no longer have the scope to take advantage of consumers.

5: Nationalise the railways

Labour has been making tentative steps towards this seemingly popular and effective policy – why not go the whole hog, and shout about it too!

6: Restore access to justice

The damage to our legal system – and particularly to our legal aid system – by Chris Grayling has been one of the most devastating of any area of government. On the anniversary of Magna Carta (and all the myths around it) surely access to justice can be made into a message that hits home?

7: Protect the vulnerable

Yes, I realise this isn’t popular in the days of acceptance by Rachel Reeves of the scrounger/striver agenda, but shouldn’t Labour be the party that does protect vulnerable people? Isn’t that part of the point? From the Bedroom tax to the WCA, from the leaked £12 billion planned cuts, vulnerable people and their carers have been hit hideously hard by this government – surely Labour can take a stand and protect them!

 

Better messages?

Wouldn’t any of these seven look far, far better on a mug than ‘controls on immigration’? Aren’t the underlying issues – housing, education, tax, energy (and cost of living), transport, justice and social security – more important than immigration, particularly when immigration is actually beneficial not harmful? I haven’t dared suggest ‘Civil Liberties’ on a mug, as that would clearly be pushing Labour too far, but why not one of these?

Sadly, I think we know why not. This really is dog whistle politics, and pandering to racism and xenophobia – which is why I was upset in the first place. A storm in a tea cup? Perhaps. But tea cups matter, as do the messages on them.

A shout out for the Open Rights Group!

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 10.04.26Today is #DigitalRightsMatter day – and yes, I know there are days for many things (including, despite the complaints from some, an International Men’s Day (November 19th)). I’m usually fairly cynical about these days – but they do serve a purpose – to focus minds on significant issues, and hopefully to find ways to actually do something about them. In this case, the issue is digital rights – one close to my heart – and the thing to do is to support the Open Rights Group (ORG).

I should say, right from the start, that I’m on the Advisory Council of ORG so I have something of a vested interest – but I’m only on the Advisory Council because I think what ORG does is of critical importance, particularly right now. Never has there been a time when digital rights have been more important, and never has there been a time when they are more under threat. We use the internet for more and more things – from our work to our personal life, from our political activism to our entertainment, from finding jobs to finding romance. Indeed, there are pretty much no parts of our lives that are untouched by the internet – so what happens online, what happens to our digital freedoms and rights, is of ever increasing importance.

Now is when we need them

The threats that we face to our freedoms are growing at a seemingly exponential rate. Surveillance is almost everywhere, and the political pressure to increase it is frightening. Censorship, the other side of that authoritarian coin, is growing almost as fast – from more and more uses for ‘web-blocking’ to ‘porn’ filters that hide vastly more than porn, from critically important sex education websites to sites that discuss alcohol, anorexia and hate speech. David Cameron talks about banning encryption without seemingly having any idea of what he’s talking about – or the implications of his suggestions.

This last point highlights one of the reasons ORG is critically important right now. Politicians from all the mainstream parties seem to have very little grasp of how the internet works – and they reach for ‘easy’ solutions which get the right headlines in the Tabloid press but are not only almost always counterproductive and authoritarian but actually encourage the perpetuation of damaging myths that will make things continue to get worse. The media, left to their own devices, also have a tendency to look for easy headlines and worse.

That’s one of the places that ORG comes in. It campaigns on these issues – current campaigns include ‘Don’t Spy On Us’ dealing with surveillance, Blocked! which looks at filtering, and 451 Unavailable which tries to bring transparency to the blocking of websites by court orders. It produces information that cuts through the confusion and makes sense of these issues – and tries to help politicians and the media to understand them more. And it works – ORG representatives are now quoted regularly in the media and when they make submissions to government inquiries they’re the ones who are given hearings and referred to in reports.

They do much more than this. They help with court cases working with other excellent advocacy groups like Privacy International – the current challenge to the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIPA) is just one of many they’ve been involved in, and these cases really matter. They don’t always win – indeed, sadly they don’t win often – but they often force the disclosure of critical information, they sometimes bring about changes in the law, and they raise the profile of critical issues. ORG are also part of the critical European organisation EDRi who bring together digital rights groups from all over Europe to even more effect.

Now is when they need us

ORG, like other advocacy groups, regularly punches above its weight. It doesn’t have the massive resources of the government agencies and international corporations whose activities they often have to campaign against. There are no deep pockets in ORG, and no massive numbers of staff – they rely on donations, and on volunteers. That’s where #DigitalRightsMatter day comes in – ORG is trying to find new members, get more donations and find access to more expertise. Can you help?

ORG’s joining page is here

Their blog about #DigitalRightsMatter day is here

I would encourage anyone to consider joining – because Digital Rights really do matter, and not just on #DigitalRightsMatter day.

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