As Home Secretary, Theresa May has made her mark through tough targets, harsh policies and ideas that go against public opinion. Her most recent target is the police federation and earlier this summer she threatened to reform the organisation unless they agreed to change.
May has targeted popular social media websites like Twitter and Instagram and wants, in essence, a new communications data bill that will give police and security services the power to access these websites and emails. However, such a bill was blocked previously by the Liberal Democrats in 2013-who instead called for better checks and balances on the protection of civil liberties- with Nick Clegg and other senior figures including Tim Farron supporting judicial oversight of state surveillance. This leads to a clear dilemma for the Conservative party; only a majority Tory government would be able to pass the proposed plans, which in 2013 had broad support across the party.
But has her recent announcement to push for greater internet surveillance powers gone too far, and what effect, if any, will it have on the party’s already broken relationship with the Liberal Democrats and going into 2015?
Theresa May’s announcement only serves to highlight the differences in core values between the two parties; whereas Conservatives see the state’s role as an enforcer, the Liberal Democrats believe it should be more of an enabler, with individuals having the power to control their own lives. Previously the Liberal Democrats have opposed Conservative plans to bring in tougher sentences for multiple knife crimes and new immigration checks-showing how different their two views about society are. The incompatibility of the two party’s attitudes towards individual liberty means it is all the more crucial the Conservatives do not find themselves in a coalition again if they are to pursue policies such as May’s.
It is the potential evolution of the state into an ever present Big Brother figure that concerns activists about greater internet surveillance powers. The principal objections have come from privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch, with acting director Emma Carr pointing out that private companies do, on the whole, comply with requests by police for communications data. The group’s call for an independent review into current surveillance legislation is something the Labour Party seems, from a speech Yvette Cooper made in March, to agree with, calling for “stronger safeguards and limits” on surveillance to “protect our privacy.” Both Labour and the Conservatives calling for reform further highlights how important the protection of freedom will be during the 2015 campaign.
The issue for all three parties is obviously divisive and for May is one of “life and death”. However whether her plans will be popular with the electorate going into the 2015 election is another matter altogether. With the Liberal Democrats student support base almost undoubtedly lost following the tuition fees fiasco, it has been suggested that it is this core group who will decide the election- who are also the primary users of social media. This, coupled with the communication data bill’s failure last year, means putting May’s plans into action is by no means guaranteed and certainly ambitious.
What can be learnt from May’s previous battles with human rights groups and the Supreme Court is however controversial or challenging plans are, they will be pushed through right until the very end and one might suspect the same fate befalls these surveillance plans. Regardless of the outcome, the announcement cements the Conservative party’s move back towards authoritarianism and heralds a fight between the major parties as to what extent our freedom should be protected, and by whom.