Louise Haigh: Tory response to terror attack shows they don’t get digital tech

Louise Haigh

As a party and a movement we know only too well, over almost two centuries, how the power of the state can be used to smear and corral ordinary people who have fought for their class and community.

But somehow a myth has built up that there is a contradiction between civil liberties and campaigning to right historic wrongs on the one hand and law and order on the other.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. A rich seam of practical politics on this agenda runs through Labour and our time in government. This is perhaps best symbolised by Jim Callaghan; a working class prime minister who was an advisor to the Police Federation during opposition and passed acts as prime minister which toughened criminal laws and gave the police a payrise they richly deserved.

Under the last Labour government our words on law and order were matched with action and police numbers reached levels no previous Tory government came close to. It was a sign of how we knew instinctively that a well-resourced and accountable police force keeps our communities safe.

Law and order is a Labour tradition and a Labour issue. But that doesn’t mean we are not in favour of reform.

We must ensure that our police are properly accountable and that the right checks and balances are in place. In the 1980s, the police came too close to becoming an arm of the state; police authorities were sidelined and the confusing tripartite relationship between chief constables, police authorities and the home secretary meant that too much power, and political control, sat in the latter’s hands.

Labour didn’t have an answer on accountability so instead we centralised everything. Setting KPIs from Whitehall meant that resources and day-to-day operations were directed by politicians rather than senior police officers and it enabled a leadership culture that was more about box-ticking than it was about tackling crime and policing communities.

It took often catastrophic events to lead to police reform.

As a former special constable in the Met Police, I can attest to the fact that our training was replete with concern for diversity and equalities. I am confident that the police have come an incredibly long way from the days when institutional racism permeated the police force, but we still have much work to do and recent progress with body-worn cameras, proper crime reporting and justification of the use of force is welcome.

But in the years since we were last in power, what has happened on the law and order front is truly unprecedented. Violent crime has risen, neighbourhood policing has collapsed and the crucial link between communities and police so vital for intelligence to fight terror has shrivelled. The Tories shamefully accused the police of “crying wolf” over cuts but now we see the reality; the wolf is at the door.

As a result, some people feel nothing less than under siege in their own communities. Labour needs to be vocal in its opposition to the cuts and in ensuring police have the powers and the protections to be able to tackle these issues.

But other fundamental changes have also taken place, thrusting the civil liberties and accountability agenda firmly back into the spotlight: the internet and its omnipotence is raising questions about our rights and freedoms in the digital age.

The response to the Westminster atrocity earlier in the year, when Amber Rudd claimed that banning end-to-end encryption could have enabled our intelligence services to prevent it – because the attacker sent a WhatsApp message moments before the incident – was revealing.

It was a vivid example of a government failing to understand emerging technology and, through knee-jerk reactions, reaching a conclusion which threatens our liberties and security. You simply cannot create a “back-door” encryption key only for the good guys.

Our individual rights are now so closely intertwined with our digital rights that we have to guard against heavy-handed measures from a government which scarcely understands the internet and which could, perhaps unwittingly, create a regime chilling in its scope and ability to reach into the private lives of law-abiding citizens.

In order to meaningfully protect the liberties of law-abiding citizens though, it is not enough just to guard against the reach of the state. Corporate access to private information must also be used in a clear and publicly accountable way.

It’s very tempting to transfer this function to the social media companies. We rightly tell Facebook and Google that they should take more responsibility for the content that is promoted on their platforms but if excessive liability is placed on intermediaries, companies end up taking on censorship and surveillance functions without sufficient transparency, accountability or public oversight. In doing so, we run the risk of creating a privatised police state.

Just as we hold the police accountable in their use of force, so must we do so in the use of data and any violation of our privacy. To do otherwise questions their legitimacy, which must absolutely be sustained as without it, we fail the fundamental test of the British model of policing – the ability to police by consent.

Louise Haigh is MP for Sheffield Heeley and shadow policing minister. She has contributed to Fair and Free: Labour, liberty and human rights, published by the Fabian Society in partnership with the Labour Campaign for Human Rights, and supported by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust.

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