Cameron and #Leveson: My Dilemma

David Cameron makes a statement on the Leveson Report

The extraordinary political drama surrounding the publication of the Leveson Report yesterday leaves me with something of a dilemma.

On the one hand, I want to commend David Cameron for making a principled stand for free expression in Parliament yesterday.  This Prime Minister seems hostile to the Human Rights Act, so his words on the importance of free speech are noteworthy:

The issue of principle is that, for the first time, we would have crossed the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land. We should be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press. In this House, which has been a bulwark of democracy for centuries, we should think very, very carefully before crossing that line.

Cameron also said he was “instinctively concerned” about changing the rules on Data Protection and journalistic sources (Hansard link ), which, from a free expression point of view, is also a welcome attitude.  Some might argue that these are platitudes, but they are on record in Parliament and there is no reason why free speech campaigners should not trumpet these comments.

However, these statements are tempered by the concern that, in appearing to reject Lord Justice Leveson’s key recommendation, it seems as if the Prime Minister is undermining the Inquiry he himself set up.  This is likely to further alienate people from parliamentary politics.  Labour and the Liberal Democrats are right to ask what the point of the Inquiry actually was, if the central conclusion is summarily dismissed.  In taking an early position against ‘statutory underpinning’, Cameron has aligned himself with the newspapers, rightly or wrongly symbolised by the hated Murdochs.

The Prime Minister has also placed himself in opposition to the McCanns, the Dowlers, and Hugh Grant, which politically speaking seems an incredibly risky manoevre.  It is so counter-intuitive to the project of re-election that I am persuaded that he has indeed taken the position on a matter of principle.

I am no fan of David Cameron’s policies, and usually enjoy watching his poll numbers fall.  But I worry about a situation in which a Prime Minister loses public support because he makes statements in favour of free expression.

Pædos, Prisoners, and Cameron's Attack on Human Rights

First they came for the prisoners.

A few weeks ago, MPs voted to ignore the European Court of Human Rights. The court in Strasbourg had said that a blanket ban on prisoners voting was incompatible with human rights law, and that the British government should rectify this. Following a debate in the House of Commons, Parliament thumbed its nose at the Court, as MPs voted 234 to 22 to keep a full ban on prisoners. Our Prime Minister put blatant populism above politics, declaring that “giving prisoners the vote makes me sick” (even if that means paying £143 million in compensation from the barren public purse).

Then they came for the paedophiles.

This week, we heard that those convicted of sex offences might not have to stay on the sex-offenders register for life. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that those included on the register should be able to appeal against permanent inclusion on the list, and on Tuesday it rejected a Home Office appeal against the ruling. The Government now has to formulate a policy based on this decision. At PMQs, David Cameron called the situation “appalling”.

There are clear similarities between these two stories. Both present issues where what might be considered the popular and common-sense approach is over-ruled by judges, forcing the Government to do something counter-intuitive. Both stories will inspire tabloid frothing at judge-made law. And in both cases, there are actually good and sober reasons why the judges ruled as they did, and why we should support their decisions. In the case of prisoners voting, such a change could catalyze the reform of prisons into places that offer better rehabilitation for convicts. Moreover, if a person will be released within the lifetime of a parliament, why shouldn’t they have a say on who will be representing them once they’re out? Similar arguments exist for sex offenders: In cases where a prisoner has been rehabilitated, coming off the sex offenders register might help reintegration.

It is crucial to remember that in both cases, all the courts did was rule against an absolutist approach: No ‘blanket’ ban on prisoners’ votes; and sex offenders have the right to appeal, not an absolute right to come off the register. The best comparisons for these issues are with parole or bail – you have the right to apply for it, but you might not get it. It is left to magistrates and judges to decide, depending on the actual circumstances.

So there may well be good reasons why extending the rights of some pretty unpleasant people might improve the whole of society… but it is for the penal reform groups to advance that argument. My concern is with how both these stories have been discussed by politicians – The Prime Minister in particular. With his bully-pupit, he has set a terrible example, placing the blame with the judiciary. His comments are clearly designed to undermine the European Court, the Convention on Human Rights and its manifestation in British law, the Human Rights Act (HRA). David Cameron and his allies have never been comfortable with that document, and these outbursts are designed to soften MPs and the public into agreeing to a watered-down Bill of Rights that will make our standing as citizens more tenuous.

Everyone remembers Pastor Martin Neimöller’s famous poem, which begins “First they came for the Communists” and ends with the narrator alone, with no-one left to speak in his defence. The moral should be clear: If you don’t stand up for the human rights of others, then eventually you will lose your own rights; stand up for the rights of others, and you protect yourself. But while we remember the poem, I think we fail to relate it to the present day. Neimöller’s victims, the Jews, the Trade Unionists, and the Communists, are all inoffensive and mainstream today, so we assume we are far away from the oppression described. But what we forget is that during Neimöller’s lifetime, all these groups were among the most vilified: the rhetorical equivalent of paedophiles and prisoners today.

What the Prime Minister seems to forget, is that Human Rights laws are designed to protect the most hated in our society, not least because these people are always amongst the most vulnerable too. They are supposed to frustrate our gut reaction. They are meant to be inconvenient. That the Courts’ rulings have caused outrage is actually a feature of our democracy, and not a bug. Kudos to the 22 MPs who recognised that, and shame on the Prime Minister. By undermining the principle of human rights, he undermines us all.

Update

This was crossposted over at LiberalConspiracy.org in a more succint form.  It got a fairly good response in the comments, although Tyler makes a good point:

Voting is not a human right. As is so often confused by so many on the liberal left, it is a CIVIL right. It is thus conferred on people by the laws of the land. It is granted to an individual by citizenship, and is not unalienable or transferrable, unlike free speech etc.

If it were a human right there would be no real reason why children shouldn’t have the vote, for example…

As such, this argument that voting is some form of human right is simply the wrong one.

Mea culpa, but the central points remain intact.

Digital Elections, Digital Government

Yesterday, I went to the launch of the Orange’s Digital Election Analysis, a report by Demos Associate Anthony Painter.  A key, yet slightly depressing, conclusion was that funding matters.  The Conservatives were able to run a ‘retail’ campaign (a point agreed by Rishi Saha, their head of digital communications) whereas Labour had to plump for a more modest approach, using existing social networking tools to get people speaking and get feet on the pavement.  Meanwhile, the Lib Dems were unable to capture the wave of enthusiasm that the #LeadersDebates gnerated, because they simply did not have the digital infrastructure in place… again, due to lack of funding.

Another insight from Saha was how important Web 1.0 technologies still are.  The Tories have a 500,000 strong mailing list, which dwarves the readership of most national newspapers, and it generated several hundred thousand pounds worth of donations in only a few targeted mailouts.  Lynn Featherstone, whose website was declared the best of the MPs campaigning websites, agreed – she has spent a great deal of time building up a thick and detailed e-mailing list that helped her increase her majority on 2005.

As the report acknowledges, there was a huge expectation that digital technology would transform the 2010 election.  The fact that old media stole the (specifically the TV debates) was therefore a little disappointing.  I think the lesson here is that social media and online engagement is something of a slow burner.  The high watermark for this sort of thing, the Obama ’08 campaign, was two whole years in the making!  With such long lead times, comprehensive sites like Fight the Smears and remarkably sophisticated yet unofficial campaign videos (my favourites were Vote for Hope and Les Misbarak) could be launched, tested and tweaked.  A four week campaign doesn’t allow for similar innovation.

A lack of money can also be alleviated by a surfeit of time.  Thousands of large and successful internet communities and pressure-groups have arisen online in the past decade, which at first glance might contradict Painter’s suggestion that the Money Matters.  However, all these shoestring projects took months, if not years to grow.  MP’s like Featherstone who want to exploit new technologies need to put months, if not years into the project.  Launching a Twitter feed three weeks before election day means you can never build relationships, or gain a reputation as a trusted source of information, in time for that to pay dividends.

Digital Government

I am reading James Harkin’s Cyburbia at the moment.  The book charts how computers and networks change the way we think and interact, and how they have inspired new forms of cyber-realist art like Memento, Crash, 21 Gramms and Sweet Fanny Adams in Eden.  The new conversations that politicians are having with their constituents might be the analogous development in the world of politics.  However, these developments, which the Orange report chronicles, concern politicians, in particular politicans as representatives.  This is different from government and legislation, which still seems rooted in an earlier age.  Nick Clegg, during his leadership campaign, made this point in a speech to the SMF:

For young people don’t any longer just aspire to be in control of their lives. They expect it. They’re not waiting to be given the power to decide things for themselves. They’ve already got it. they’re already using it.

And choice isn’t something they hope for. It is something they are conditioned to – something they exercise instinctively, unconsciously, every hour of every day of the year.

Yet – and here’s the crucial point for the political community – this increasingly affluent, well educated, self confident cohort are still treated as supplicants when they knock on the government’s door.

The MySociety projects (like TheyWorkForYou, WhatDoTheyKnow and FixMyStreet) are changing this, but it ios noteworthy that these are not government innovations.  Direct.gov makes an attempt, but this is largely about administration of existing services, rather than introducing a different relationship between the government and the governed.  I have previously sketched how this relationship might look, the beginnings of a cyber-realist politics – rather than hold central records of all our comings-and-goings, the process might be entirely reversed, with each citizen granting access to our records (NHS, benefits, tax, MOT, &ct) to civil servants, should we want to take advantage of a government service.  My own ideas probably need a little refinement, but it would be interesting to know whether similar approaches are being seriously considered outside of the groovy think-tanks like Demos.

Additionally, the formal lawmaking process seems rooted in the nineteenth century.  Debates are cut-short or undermined by pathetic time allocations and the whipping process, and the actual legislation produced by parliament is all but inpentrable to the layman.  A cyber-leglislative approach, on the other hand, might see each clause and sub-clause given its own hyperlinked web-page.  Debates could be exposed via webcams and interactive archives, rather than being buried in Hansard, which even in its online incarnation is still clunky metaphor for the printed and bound document, rather than a living, interactive resource we can all access and understand.

The Orange Digital Election Analysis shows that the task of persuading MPs to modernise is already well underway.  Now for the Lords, the civil servants, and the bewigged, stockinged clerks in the Palace of Westminster.

Coalition

Welcome to our new Prime Minister, David Cameron, and his deputy, Nick Clegg.

The above image was taken in M&S a couple of weeks ago.  Then this morning, I read the Alain de Botton thinks we need a Prime Minister built on precisely these values:

But what we crave most is normality.  However much we may want our intellectuals or artists to be passionate, strange, a little deformed and prone to outbursts of joy or fury, recent experience has left us in no doubt as to the dangers of eccentricity.  We need a Prime Minister as imagined by the menswear range of Marks & Spencer.

Think local, act local?

Philip Blond’s interesting cover essay for this month’s Prospect, ‘Rise of the Red Tories’, advocates a new form of Conservatism for David Cameron, centred around the Tories’ new thinking on social issues (I’m going to be as radical a social reformer as Margaret Thatcher was an economic reformer says Cameron). Blond says the consensus that has emerged in British Politics – socially liberal-left, economically liberal-right – has failed on both fronts. The vice-versa, which would be a social conservatism alongside a leftist economy, seems a rather chilling prospect to my mind, but Blond thinks that an alternative could be to push through a full-blooded new localism which works to empower communities:

[Cameron] could start with four task: re-localising our banking system, developing local capital, helping normal people gain new assets and breaking up big business monopolies.

I suppose the emphasis on market forces (albeit at the local level) makes this a nominally right-wing policy, but with an emphasis on local, community ownership and assets, its not immediately clear to me why these ideas couldn’t be labelled left wing instead (indeed, I assume that confusion is why the article is illustrated with a graphic of Thatcher-as-Che). Yes, Conventional Wisdom would have it that a Labour Party under the Authoritarian Gordon Brown would not adopt such policies. But on the other hand, these ideas seem to be precisely the sort of wings that Hazel Blears’ Community Empowerment agenda requires, to get it off the pages of think-tank reports, and into actual communities.

Meanwhile, The Economist reports on ‘For-profit activism’, that is, harnessing the power of social networking to build-up buying power, to bend markets in favour of socially acceptable or environmentally friendly businesses.

Residents of San Francisco have been signing up enthusiastically for a new green-energy campaign called 1BOG. Short for “one block off the grid”, it aims to convince homeowners to switch to solar energy one block at a time, by organising them into buying clubs. Members get a discount on solar panels, and typically try to get their neighbours to sign up too. The city has also seen several recent examples of Carrotmobs—crowds of activists who buy everything in the winning shop in a contest between retailers to be the greenest.

As the article notes, we’ve seen these sorts of enterprises before, from the Body Shop, to Bono’s RED iPods, to Fair Trade Labelling, to the expensive soaps and hemp shirts you find in charity catalogues. Only this time, its local.

However, I would note a fundamental difference. On the national level, the kind of eco-friendly, ethical capitalism has found a niche within the retail economy. It has become successful, and crucially, normalised. On the other hand, the Carrotmobs and 1BOG seem to be one-off gimmicks. Indeed, the latter only works because a large company subsidises it as part of a marketing campaign. Its almost as if those people who are actually spending the money to make this work are participating in a leisure activity, rather than an everyday participation in a market that could sustain the local economy. We won’t be able to herald the coming of a ‘new localism’ until this sort of thing can arise and sustain itself without being shepherded by a well-meaning entrepreneur, or subsidised as part of a pilot scheme. Its not clear from these examples that this is possible.

Cameron's Speech

I thought it was better delivered than the Prime Minister’s, although that was to be expected.  The rhetoric flowed more easily too, and several of the passages could resonate with undecideds, despite being deceptions:

For Labour there is only the state and the individual, nothing in between. No family to rely on, no friend to depend on, no community to call on. No neighbourhood to grow in, no faith to share in, no charities to work in.

This looks like nonsense to me:  Labour politicians know that neighbourhoods and communities and families are important – they are where much of the state intervention is directly targeted, and the place where state agencies deliver the rest.  Regardless, the Big State meme will take hold, especially with ‘Brown-the-Control-Freak’ at the helm.

The passage where he attributes “there’s no such thing as society” to the current Government was a brave gamble, but one that I suspect will fail.  In reminding the voters of one of Thatcher’s most offensive quips, he also plants the idea that the current societal problems are the result of her destructive policies.  It is tightrope rhetoric.

However, it was here that he lost me:

This attitude, this whole health and safety, human rights act culture, has infected every part of our life. If you’re a police officer you now cannot pursue an armed criminal without first filling out a risk assessment form. Teachers can’t put a plaster on a child’s grazed knee without calling a first aid officer.

Health and Safety Culture is surely inspired by Litigation Culture.  When a child comes home with a plaster on its knee, angry parents are going to ask, not unreasonably, for a full account.  Likewise, who would not want a police-officer to consult with his superiors, before accosting someone who may be armed?  I’ve listened to several exchanges on police frequencies, where officers were considering approaching such suspects.  It takes time, but its safe and sensible.

Such legislation, however inconvenient, is inspired by an actual concern for the Health and Safety of our children, and our police officers, &ct.  I seriously doubt the Conservatives would change these laws substantially.   Its a populist platitude.

Oh yeah, and attacking the Human Rights Act is a deal breaker for this blogger.