Digital Economy Bill: It's the numbers, stupid

Mar 28, 2010

Since my previous post on the Digital Economy Bill, Cory Doctorow has written another post, this time accusing Lib Dem MPs of “stand[ing] back” and allowing the Digital Economy Bill to proceed to the “wash-up”, the Parliamentary process by which bills that ran out of time before the dissolution of Parliament are nodded through. Now, I worship at Cory’s altar as much as any other geek, but I think he’s wrong on this.

As I said in my previous post, the government has the numbers to do what it likes so long as it retains the support of its own back-bench MPs. If they have the support of the Tories, government bills are virtually unsassailable. This is how ID cards, the DNA database, 28-day-detention-without-charge and, for that matter, the Iraq war have been approved by Parliament. The Lib Dems voted against them, which is about as much as you can do when Labour outnumbers you 7:1 and, with Tory support, 10:1. (If you’re wondering how the Lib Dems are that badly outnumbered despite getting 22% of the votes at the last election, you’ll want to consider how the electoral system works). The Lib Dems aren’t “standing back” as there’s actually no real way of stopping the government once it has decided to do something.

Worse, by saying that the Lib Dems are supporting the Labour/Tory consensus, Cory is letting the real culprits off the hook: the massed ranks of Labour back-benchers, with whom true power and responsibility lies. The Lib Dems have repeatedly called for further scrutiny and debate on this issue: David Heath first called for the second reading of the Bill to be held urgently, and Don Foster has made it clear that the Lib Dems are against the web blocking provisions and against the use of disconnection as a punishment for file-sharing - through negotiation, Lib Dems have already ensured that further legislation will be required before anyone gets disconnected, and that this must follow at least a year of studies considering alternatives, and a full consultation process. Since that legislation will have to occur on the other side of the general election, after which the current government may have either lost office or be forced into power-sharing with the Lib Dems, there’s a fair chance that disconnection will never happen.

Now, it’s certainly possible to push further. The clauses relating to disconnection and web blocking could be dropped from the Bill before it is passed. But it is not in the power of the Lib Dems to make this happen, due to the aforementioned Parliamentary arithmetic. We can be pretty sure that the Lib Dems will be voting against the Bill when it comes up, but we can also be pretty sure that they’ll lose due to Labour’s back-benchers supporting the government. Tom Watson is an honourable exception, but he doesn’t seem to have the support of many of his Labour colleagues.

There’s one final roll of the dice, though. Because of the rapid speed at which the government is pushing the Bill through, it has to go forward as part of the “wash-up” process. This is normally reserved for uncontroversial legislation that simply ran out of time before the election, but Labour have rarely stopped to worry about procedural niceties. In the wash-up, the parties come to an agreement about what to allow through, then - as I understand it - hold a series of votes which are effectively formalities, nodding legislation through. There is a chance that Labour can be spooked into dropping the controversial clauses in order to get the Bill through wash-up, or risk losing the whole package. This can only happen if Labour are worried about their own support on the back benches, which means that this is where pressure should be directed. I honestly can’t understand why Cory is putting the emphasis on the actions of the 60-odd Lib Dem MPs (many of whom have publicly said they’ll vote against the Bill anyway!) when there’s 400+ Labour MPs, many of whom are in very marginal constituences and will have to take complaints from their constituents, particularly those raised in an organised manner, very seriously right now. And if we want to put real pressure on them in Labour/Lib Dem marginal seats, it might be worth mentioning that, actually, the Lib Dems are the [relatively] good guys in this, and Labour are the party which created this Bill and are forcing it through Parliament.

So far as I can tell, the Lib Dems are doing about as much as they can. It’s not enough to stop the Bill, because there’s not enough Lib Dem MPs to do that. Follow the numbers and you can see where the battle over this bill is really being fought.