» Politics ¦ What You Can Get Away With

viral-voting-cover-imageLike many who were raised on the optimistic visions pre-cyberpunk SF gave us, this isn’t the future I expected us to have. By now, we should all be travelling everywhere by jetpack or hoverboard, except for our holidays where we’d have to go to our local spaceport to get the rocket that would take us to hotels in orbit or the moon. We did get some parts of the future right – computer screens everywhere and phones in your watch, for instance – but those bigger parts of the vision proved either technologically impossible, or just far too impractical and complicated to supplant the old way of doing things.

If we were going to do everything on a computer – I don’t think we used ‘online’ back then – we’d definitely vote by computer when The Future came into being. After all, in what way could walking (or hoverboarding) to your local polling station to use a pencil to mark a piece of paper with your voting preference be part of The Future? No, we’d surely do that by computer, and then Robo-Dimbleby would be able to instantly announce the results on the holographic BBC.

Unfortunately, we never made it to that future, and instead we have to deal with one where secure online voting is currently about as feasible as jetpacks or hoverboards, no matter how much its advocates want to pretend otherwise. Consider this, from a security analysis of Estonia’s electronic and online voting system:

What we found alarmed us. There were staggering gaps in procedural and operational security, and the architecture of the system leaves it open to cyberattacks from foreign powers, such as Russia. These attacks could alter votes or leave election outcomes in dispute. We have confirmed these attacks in our lab — they are real threats. We urgently recommend that Estonia discontinue use of the system.

(And if you think that means just the Estonian system is flawed, go read a lot of the links here)

Security issues are a problem for online and e-voting at a basic level. This is widely known, and easily discoverable which is why reports like this one (full PDF) from WebRoots Democracy which completely ignore them are very disappointing.

We’d all like to make voting easier and increase turnout in elections, but we’d all like jetpacks too and we can’t magically make them happen just by wishing for them. The problem with this report is that it reads very much like someone claiming they have a working hoverboard because they deny the existence of gravity. The report is 86 pages long, and the first mention of security doesn’t come until page 74. Up to this point, the report has been an absolute blizzard of statistics (many of them irrelevant to the point they’re ostensibly making) and factoids, but the solitary page on security doesn’t bother to look at any evidence. There’s one footnote to the entire section, and that’s solely to confirm that the Government uses cloud storage. There’s no mention of any of the many studies into the security of online voting or reference to any experts in the field. Finally, the conclusion to the section comes:

Despite this, the public will rightly expect their vote, the bedrock of democratic societies, to be secure. This however should be a challenge for the pilot phase of an online voting roll out. It shouldn’t be something that discourages Governments from looking into online voting.

In short, online voting should be secure, so the Government should make it secure. That’s it. The fact that it isn’t secure, and no one has yet come up with a practical and reasonable way to make it even as secure as the current system is gets completely glossed over. While the rest of the report is falling over itself in its eagerness to use statistics from the big online companies, it seems that no one behind the report even bothered to look up the Open Rights Group or similar organisations, let alone contact them. This is just wishing away problems because the authors have already decided that online voting is the future, so it must be made to happen.

Just consider the myriad security issues that apply to online voting, starting with securing the device the vote is cast on and the basic question of making sure that the person logged in is the person casting the vote, not a friend, family member or party worker who’s going to ‘help’ them vote. (If you think that’s a problem now with postal voters, just imagine how much easier online voting will make it) Then add to that the problem of making sure the vote is transmitted, recorded and counted securely and accurately while maintaining the anonymity and secrecy of an individual’s vote. That is much more than ‘a challenge for the pilot phase of an online voting roll out’, it’s a series of fundamental problems that have to be addressed before you even begin to consider piloting.

I find myself wondering just who is behind this report. WebRoots Democracy have an About page on their website and a list of the various people involved, but doesn’t make any mention of how this report (which mentions surveys and research they’ve commissioned) and their other work was funded. There’s no facility for donations or memberships on their site, but someone must be paying the bills and we already know that there are several companies eyeing up the money to be made from online voting. Is this a genuine grassroots – sorry, web roots – independent report from people who want more online voting or a piece of corporate astroturfing?

Online voting might bring benefits to our democracy, and it might increase participation and turnout, but I’m always deeply suspicious of anyone who tries to sell you on an idea by focusing heavily on the positives and glossing over the negatives. It’s easy to declare that online voting should be secure, but wanting something and making it happen are vastly different things. Anyone who’s spent any time online will have seen how frequently security is compromised, even without the unique problems of verification that come with online voting, and it should be enough to give anyone a pause for thought. Trying to bounce everyone into accepting online voting by shouting “The internet’s great!” while paying no attention to the security threats behind the curtain is putting our democracy at a massive risk.

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It occurred to me today that the Liberals and Liberal Democrats have a long track record of having at least one bit of good news at general elections by making a gain from another party. Not necessarily gains overall, but at least one seat being picked up from another party.

A quick bit of research showed me that the last time it didnt happen was 1970, when the Liberal Party lost 6 seats, but gained none to replace them. Every general election since then saw at least one gain compared to the previous election.

So, I wondered when the similar points were for the other parties:

For the Conservatives it’s 1997, unsurprisingly.
Labour’s last time was 2005, as they did gain some seats in 2010.
2010 is the last time for all the main Northern Irish parties except Alliance. None of the DUP,  UUP, SDLP or Sinn Fein gained a seat, though both the DUP and UUP lost one.
Perhaps surprisingly, given what’s happened to them since, the SNP didn’t gain in 2010 either.
2010 also saw no gains for Respect and UKIP (who’ve never won a seat at a general election, of course) though both do now have MPs.
For other parties now in Parliament, 2005 was the last election without gains for Plaid Cymru and the Greens.

However, the best run of gains after Liberals/Liberal Democrats belongs to Independents, where we have to go back to 1992 to find the last time we didn’t have an independent gaining a seat. There’s been one independent gain (Martin Bell, Richard Taylor, Peter Law and Sylvia Hermon) at every election since then, but I’m not sure where they might make one this time.

In that light, the Liberal run of ten elections with gains at each does seem pretty impressive. Suggestions for the seat or seats that might make it 11 will be happily received…

labourreformLabour have launched their plans for political reform (there’s a PDF with more detail here) and at a first look, they’re not that bad. Not perfect, but definitely steps in the right direction and with a bit more coherence to them than the rather random nature of the combined authorities/city regions plans currently being scattered across the country.

The good news is that Labour remain committed to having a Constitutional Convention and are looking at how devolution within England works as a whole, not on a piecemeal basis. There’s no detail on how the convention will be made up, though, and I’d be concerned that it could turn into another top-down attempt at reform where a convention of the great and the good tour the country for some set piece events rather than a proper convention where a wider range of people get to take part.

They also commit to replacing the House of Lords with a Senate, and I’m not going to rehash old arguments about that, but would point out that they only mention removing hereditary peers from the Lords, which makes me wonder if the current appointees will be allowed to remain in place. Like with the constitutional convention, the commitment is good, but the devil is in the detail.

The promise to change the way the Commons work is interesting, especially wanting to “discourage off putting and aggressive behaviour in the Chamber”. However, that is something they’ve got the power to at least partly deliver now. Indeed, if Ed Miliband really wanted to do something dramatic at Prime Minister’s Questions, he would instruct his MPs to sit quietly throughout it, and perhaps do something really transgressive himself like asking David Cameron a question that’s a test of his knowledge, rather than his spinning skills.

Introducing a ‘public evidence stage’ for bills going through the Commons is an interesting idea, but like any public consultation it risks becoming a gimmick and a box-ticking exercise rather than a meaningful input into the process. What measures will be put in place to ensure that the public’s input gets properly considered rather than included in a report that no one pays any real attention to? Also, will the public evidence stage be limited to those who can get to Westminster, or something encouraging wider participation?

We also have a promise that “Labour will reform elections so everyone has their say”, which sounds promising, but is mostly tweaks in administration of elections (votes at 16, changes to registration and trials of online voting) and doesn’t include any commitment to electoral reform. If they truly want a system that gives everyone their say, then they can’t get that with the current electoral system. However, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, and the many Labour MPs in safe seats would be up in arms if the party started campaigning for them to have a harder time of it.

It’s good to see Labour putting forward proposals on political reform, but as we’ve seen before from Governments of all stripes, good intentions in this field don’t always lead to good outcomes. There’s more detail needed on all the proposals to make them more than just positive soundbites, and they need to be something that makes a real difference, not just a bit of PR that’ll make no real difference to the way things work. Are Labour serious about changing the way power works in this country? These proposals suggest they might be, but they need to demonstrate that commitment not just mouth a few platitudes.

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Scenes like this will not be seen in the House of Commons.

Scenes like this will not be seen in the House of Commons.

The news that Frank Lampard has apparently turned down the chance to be Conservative candidate for Kensington is perhaps unsurprising given that I’ve never heard of him expressing a political view before, and City Football Group will pay him much more to not play for somebody than he’ll ever earn as an MP. (One does wonder if he was only mentioned because he has so much in common with the seat, as both have cut all ties with Chelsea)

Those who still wish to see Parliament filled with sportsmen who’ve never expressed political views before could still be in luck as Andrew Strauss, James Cracknell and Sol Campbell have all been linked with the seat. I wonder just what it is that attracts the Tories to wealthy celebrities?

It’s curious, though, that it’s these sporting celebrities who are linked with careers in politics, not those who’ve spent much of their sporting careers campaigning, and are now retired, so would likely have the time if someone approached them. The two I’m thinking of were known throughout their careers for speaking up even in the face of ostracism, and have led global campaigns for equality in sport. They managed this while training hard with little financial support and winning World and Olympic titles, one of them even managing to complete a PhD during their career, showing the sort of dedication, campaigning experience and wide range of knowledge one would want in a politician.

So, has anyone ever approached Nicole Cooke or Emma Pooley about the prospect of using all their skills in a political career?

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The competition, apparently.

The competition, apparently.

Apparently, there’s a market – and someone at the Guardian reckons it’s at least 18 strong – for a ‘masterclass’ on live blogging at a cost of £99 for three hours.

I look at that and think ‘who is this Stuart Heritage?’ Does he have the extensive knowledge and experience of blogging that has made him the eighth most influential blogger on the subject of ‘other’? He clearly does not. Has he been nominated for a Blog of the Year award only when the field from which nominees are selected has shrunk dramatically? He hasn’t. Was he featured in print in The Blog Digest 2007? He wasn’t, but yet he still feels he can charge a quite large sum of money to those wanting to receive his blogging experience.

Well, if there’s money for old rope going around, never let it be said that I wasn’t willing to do a half-arsed job and throw something together in an attempt to get a little bit of that cash for myself. Here’s my full day seminar in the things you’ll need to know to be a political blogger as successful, influential and well-regarded as I am.

10am: Welcome, Introductions and Getting To Know You In which I spend at least ten minutes looking at a list of names, counting heads in the room and saying ‘we’ll just give the stragglers a couple of minutes’ before getting started on reading out this schedule to you, as though you’ve never seen it before. Following that, I’ll ask you all to introduce yourselves, figuring that as you’ve all come to an event about how to get other people to read your opinions, you’ll easily fill an hour between you bigging up your own self-importance and getting into pointless arguments.

11am: The basics of blogging In which I ignore the fact that all the attendees already have blogs and tell you how to start a blog, including a ridiculously detailed PowerPoint presentation on signing up for WordPress. (Note: This will be the only part of the course where I have anything resembling notes and a plan and am not desperately winging it)

11.45am: Developing your own complex and detailed political opinions: The amount of time we devote to this subject will reflect its importance in creating an interesting and well-read blog.

11.50am: Who needs opinions when columnists can have them for you? Includes important lessons on how to get newspaper pundits to tweet a link to the post in which you bravely agree with whatever they wrote that morning.

12.30: Lunch (not included in price). Attendees will be given the opportunity to learn more of the secrets of blogging if they buy me food and drink at a nearby pub.

2pm: The @loveandgarbage guide to live blogging: Special guest tutor Love And Garbage (invited, but not confirmed at time of going to press), author of many live blogs including ‘Is it snowing outside?’, ‘Is there snow outside?’ and ‘Snow’ will explain all the intricacies of this special form of blogging. As an acknowledged master of digital communication, Love And Garbage’s lessons are not to be missed (attendance still not confirmed at this time).

3pm: How to be a success at political blogging: This session will help turn you into a top class political blogger. Topics covered will include:

  • How to cherry pick polls to prove your point
  • The conventional wisdom: Isn’t the true bravery in standing up for it, not challenging it?
  • Telling people just what they want to hear – and getting them to share it
  • Building an audience through the use of partisan factoids
  • Speaking truth to power: How to tell the powerful they’re looking really good, are completely right about everything and do they have any jobs available?
  • (Some of these topics will be covered in greater depth on our full-day ‘How To Work For A Think Tank’ course – 10% discounts available to everyone who completes the blogging masterclass!)
    All topics will be covered by way of me improvising wildly based on half-completed PowerPoint presentations, and attempting to stoke arguments amongst attendees in the hopes that’ll fill some time.

    4.30pm: Close and Conclusions A chance for me to make many of the same points again, then fill more of your time by asking you all to tell us what you’ve learned on the course. Please feel free to tell us all in great detail how it’s proved you’re right about everything.

    Following the event, the tutor will retire to a nearby pub, where you will be invited to buy him drinks in the hope of learning more of my wisdom of blogging.

    The details: Attendance is just £5.50 per person, though Ryanair-style additional charges may be made for extras such as having a seat or being in the actual room where the masterclass is taking place. Location TBC, but likely to end up being whichever coffee shop has the comfiest seats and staff who are least likely to throw us out for hogging space and not buying anything. Attendees should expect to bring their own laptops, tablets, chargers, power sources and ideas to the course as none will be supplied. All guest tutors are unconfirmed at this time, and may be replaced by whoever responds to a desperate plea for help on Twitter on the morning of the event. All attendees will be given the right to design and print their own certificate of attendance. Tutors reserve the right to be more interested in browsing social media than teaching the course. All timings are subject to change, especially for the afternoon after the pub. No refunds.

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    By adding this picture, this post is now 32.9% more patriotic than it was before.

    By adding this picture, this post is now 32.9% more patriotic than it was before.

    Your starter for 10: Look at the following proposal.

    Publicly-funded infrastructure projects – including roads, flood defences and broadband cabinets – will be branded with a Union Jack plaque.

    Is this:
    A) Something a UKIP MEP pledged to their conference when he lost his notes and had to make up a policy on the spot?
    B) Actual Government policy, cooked up by Danny Alexander and Francis Maude, to ensure that neither party in the coalition can distance themselves from the stench of stupid?
    C) A Labour party proposal, launched by a grinning Tristram Hunt and Chuka Umunna holding a massive flag?
    D) A rejected plot from The Thick Of It, where Nicola finally snaps at Olly for proposing a policy of pure unadulterated ridiculousness?

    The correct answer is actually and depressingly B, and Danny Alexander and Francis Maude will be launching the policy today. According to Alexander, the flags will be attached to everything from “roads in Cornwall to broadband in Caithness”, both examples that make you ask ‘how?’ Will there be a plaque every few hundred metres on the road, just to remind you, and just how do you attach a plaque to broadband? Meanwhile, Maude predictably trumpets this as part of the ‘long term economic plan’, which conjures up an image of a future where unemployment will be solved by employing millions in designing, making and affixing flag plaques to things.

    Rejoice, citizens, and form an orderly queue at your local Office of Flag Attachment to receive your complimentary (and compulsory) full face flag tattoo to mark the taxpayer’s contribution to making you the person you are today.

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    This coveted award is won by the Spectator, who obviously weren’t paying attention to the alternative-Earth origins of the sub-editor who thought the beginning of this article made any kind of sense in our world:

    Had the public been asked, before Monday morning, to identify two MPs who stood for honesty and decency, the names Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind would have been prominent among their replies.

    Unfortunately, we are not yet able to offer guided tours to the world where Jack Straw stands for ‘honesty and decency’, but we’re assured it’s a very interesting place.

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