Why do we let the Tories define the terms of the discussion?

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Jonathan Calder has a good post arguing that the Draft Communications Bill goes against the Coalition Agreement, with the implication that it should be terminated now, not be something that floats around there in the hope that Lib Dem activists can improve it.

While I share Jonathan’s perspective, I’m concerned that yet again, the Liberal Democrats have been outfoxed behind the scenes. I’m sure someone will now try and tell me that Nick Clegg did wonderful things by ensuring this is a draft bill, rather than a final one, and so has to go through extra scrutiny and amendments first, but I’m afraid that’s just a minor concession. The main argument – on whether there needs to be a Communications Bill at all – has been lost. Yes, there are changes need to the system set up under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), but this Bill has a much wider scope than just reviewing and amending RIPA.

I do welcome the fact that Julian Huppert will be on the committee discussing and reviewing the draft bill, but let’s not get too carried away. No matter how wonderful and amazing Julian is, he’ll only be one member of that committee, which means all our wonderful liberal ideas can easily be outvoted and ignored by the Tory-Labour majority who’ll be more concerned with ensuring that the police can have the powers they demand to fight terrorist paedophiles, or whoever the scary monsters using the internet for nefarious purposes are that week.

The key issue is that we’ve let the terms of the debate be set and so the argument will not be over whether regulation and monitoring of internet communications is necessary, but what form that regulation and monitoring should take. It’s the same process that happened with the Health and Social Care Bill – rather than sticking to the idea of ‘no top down reorganisation of the NHS’, we then let ourselves wander into an argument over how it should be done. I also suspect that the Tories played us very well over that, coming up with an initial extreme position that we’d then negotiate down to something they found perfectly acceptable, but that we’d then argue were ‘very real concessions’. Because we’d then agreed to having the debate over what changes were necessary, we were then committed to supporting these changes we’d negotiated, despite how unpalatable they might have been twelve months before.

I fear we’re going to have the same process on the Communications Bill. This original proposal will be amended and changed into something that seems more reasonable, when compared to the original proposals. However, it’ll be something that if we were to be offered it now, we’d turn it down flat, but after months of negotiation, obfuscation and various smoke screens, the hope is we’ll have forgotten that. It’s a classic use of the Overton window, using an extreme proposal to shift opinion in that direction, then presenting something that would have seemed unreasonable originally as a sensible compromise.

Sometimes, politics is about compromise and coming to agreement on something that might not be all that either side wanted, but sometimes it’s about sticking to your principles and not wandering away from that. This is a bill that needs to be killed, not amended, then we can start from scratch on changing the draconian rules that are already in place.

UPDATE: You should go read this post on Contrasting Sounds that skewers many of the proposals included in the bill, and manages to make my point in less than a paragraph:

Already as a party, the Lib Dems have missed an opportunity to anticipate the content of the bill (despite plenty of Lib Dem activists anticipating the content of the bill), and therefore laying out some red lines. The inclusion of Clause 25 regarding the postal service proves just how little influence we’ve had to date on the actual substance of Conservative and Home Office intentions. Already we’re going to have to spend political capital just getting back to the starting line. That’s slightly worrying. Why is it surprising that the Tories – a secretive, authoritarian party – want to pass a secretive, authoritarian surveillance bill?