at Liberal Democrat Conference in Gateshead,
11th March 2012. (4m07s)
…in which the Liberal Democrat party is introduced to CCDP and Government interception, and unanimously approves amendments with the intention of putting a complete stop to it.
On thursday Matthew D’Ancona published a piece in the London Evening Standard:
The Coalition must hold its nerve over digital surveillance
If the Government is to protect its citizens from those who wish them ill, it must extend access to web technology
Popular governments listen to reasoned debate and respond accordingly with measured amendments to their original proposals. Unpopular governments perform “yet another embarrassing U-turn”. Popular governments consult; unpopular governments capitulate. The context of the shift matters more than its content.
Bluster and inaccuracies aside (“It may surprise you to learn, for instance, that the proposals would create no new powers”) what particularly got me was his headline:
The Coalition must hold its nerve over digital surveillance
…and I thought: what does he mean by that? Who has been briefing him? What subtext is he echoing?
It could simply be a fortitudinous call to arms – that the Government absolutely must do this, specifically and perhaps especially because hundred thousand person petitions have sprung up on the Internet and areas of cyberspace the size of Wales are now dedicated to CCDP and Interception news coverage – and basically that the voting public must be reigned in to acquiesce to sensible Westminster and Home Office demands, for their own good and for the sake of the children.
But there is another perspective:
Perhaps it is literally the Coalition that must hold its nerve – having declared CCDP to be be a joint project it must be seen through else disaster could befall the entire coalition Government?
The issue is that the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party are in (or are accessory to) power, whereas the grass-roots Liberal Democrat organisational party are not; however unlike any other major political party the LibDems grass roots are in charge; what motions are passed at the Liberal Democrat party conference become policy.
Where this gets embarrassing for Clegg and the Parliamentary Party is that when CCDP leaked last weekend the party machine came out spinning its response with choice quotes from LibDem junior Home Office minister Lynne Featherstone:
The current proposals have one aim and one aim only: to maintain the capability of our law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute dangerous people. Where there is no business case for Communication Service Providers to gather this data, the government will provide financial and technical assistance to allow it to be collected on companies’ local systems.
At spring conference 2012, in Gateshead, the Liberal Democrats passed a conference motion calling for the following safeguards to put into place to protect peoples’ privacy:
[… details elided …]
We believe these safeguards to be in place already with the current proposal and will not support any legislative changes without these measures.
…and making that claim was the big mistake; because only days before, as Lynne notes, Liberal Democrat activist Jenny Woods stood on stage at the conference and flatly and specifically named CCDP as a threat to civil liberties, calling it a black-box white elephant with an eye-watering cost … and all of the Liberal Democrat civil-rights Twitterati knew about this speech because they were immensely proud of its having come from one of their own.
The amendments proposed were framed as putting a complete stop to CCDP and its kin, were voted upon and approved unanimously. They are now meant to be dogma.
The Coalition’s misreading of this situation – though perhaps better characterised as a betrayal of liberal principles at behest of political interest – led rapidly to some of the finest political comedy of recent years when a cadre of LibDem SpAds and spindoctors ran into a wall of infuriated and informed LibDem activists who were weaponised with transcripts of Nick Clegg’s interviews and a firm belief that LibDem party leadership is subordinate to LibDem policy.
I apologise to Richard Morris for quoting at length, but this is just really too good not to share. My italics:
2. The call started badly. The general view of the SpAds seemed to be – as is so often the case – that we simply don’t understand. Position 1 was that the press reports are wrong, there are simply no agreed proposals to discuss. When it was pointed out that the Home Secretary had written a piece in The Sun that morning telling everyone how much the new powers were needed, this was abandoned.
3. Next we were told that there will be no new central database. As was again pointed out, this is disingenuous – with ISPs required to hold data for up to two years, there will be a multitude of non centralised data bases. It’s also a Red Herring – it’s any increase of powers in this area at all that we object to.
4. Next we were told Nick – 48 hours after the event – had been in the media that day telling people he was firmly against these plans. Despite the fact that we were all looking at the transcript from his World at One interview in which he most certainly did not say that at all. These being the plans we’d been told earlier didn’t actually exist.
5. There was a clear desire from the SpAds to persuade us that this was a messaging problem – lots of mea culpas and ‘with the benefit of hindsights’. Undoubtedly, there has been a messaging problem – Nick should have been on the airwaves first thing Sunday Morning saying ‘over my dead body‘. But the real problem is that the party really didn’t seem to get that its not how the message is conveyed that is the problem – we, as a party, do not want these powers extended. Full stop. That’s not messaging. It’s philosophy.
6. At one point one SpAd asked the ‘rhetorical question’ of the group ‘are you saying there’s no way in which we should be extending the current powers to cover other forms of technology’. He seemed genuinely non plussed when he got a chorus of ‘yes’ comments. Not so rhetorical after all…
7. Finally, no one on the call seemed to understand that the party is expecting the coalition agreement to deliver powers like these being reduced – actively. We would like legislation put forward in the Queens Speech, agreeing how this can be rolled back. We don’t want an ‘extension of the status quo’. We want action to reverse the status quo.
Perhaps this is payback for the NHS Bill debacle – that now the grassroots are squarely planted on their home turf of civil liberties they are not going to yield ground for their leadership to barter it away… and there’s the problem. Nick and friends have to keep their organisational party happy and that party does not want CCDP; but the Home Office – and by extension quite a few Tories, Ministers and Civil Servants – do want CCDP and will not brook opposition.
If the Home Office are denied the funding and toys that they have desired for so long – through three Prime Ministers and innumerable Home Secretaries – they will not be happy; less so if they perceive that this is due only to the “principles” of unwashed hordes of the Liberal Democrat membership.
The coalition might not bear the strain.
 Other than, for instance, to require communication service providers to log information that they currently do not bother with, just in case the Government wants it.
 Home Office. Funny, that.
 Useful index of relevant posts