Thursday, 15 May 2008

The Community Stasi

A guidance document put out this week by Hazel Blears' Department of Communities has laid out plans for community "tension monitoring", entailing snooping on neighbours and political activists, restrictions on the media, and large-scale data sharing.

All of this in the name of 'community cohesion', one of New Labour's latest buzzphrases (defined in the document (PDF) as "what must happen in all communities to enable different groups of people to get on well together"*) and clearly the latest justification for ratcheting up the surveillance of individuals yet another notch.

As the excellent Spy Blog explains, the crux of the snooping proposals is contained in section 37 of the 'Guidance'. This calls on local authorities to establish a "multi-agency tension monitoring group" incorporating a long list of public sector groups plus representatives from other sectors.

These would collect and share 'qualitative community intelligence', including data on complaints about neighbours and 'political extremism'. That includes 'low levels of trust in local politicians'. Of course, 'political extremism' means whatever the people doing the data-gathering want it to mean (as Spy Blog suggests: "Anybody who disagrees with the Labour government ?").

Do not laugh. This is how totalitarianism starts off - by gradually painting its opponents as extremists, only over time the definition of "extremists" shifts, until suddenly you are an "extremist", simply for questioning the received wisdom - for being 'ideologically incorrect', if you like.

Fabian Tassano wrote his essay 'Surviving in a Mediocracy' at the end of last year. He saw what was coming, and this paragraph from that polemic came immediately to mind as I read the 'Guidance':

"It should be obvious by now, to anyone who cares, that the principle of free speech is being gradually eroded in the West. Either by straightforward ditching, or — more subtly — by redefining it in ways designed to legitimise the prohibition of ideologically incorrect viewpoints." - Fabian Tassano
Like almost every such measure that this Government have brought in, it is wrapped in a shibboleth, but you don't have to look too far to realise how flimsy that rationale for monitoring and collecting data on potential political opponents is.

You only have to look as far as Cheshire, in fact, to see the Labour party itself throwing caution to the wind on 'community cohesion' in the pursuit of a few more votes in a by-election.

IMAGE: Adapted from Guido Fawkes

No, your eyes do not deceive you. That really is the very same political party that came up with the sinister 'Guidance', whipping up anti-foreigner sentiment in Crewe.

"One wonders what the more shrill aspects of the party's campaign will do for Crewe's community relations - but there again, it's doubtful that such thoughts are troubling many Labour high-ups." - John Harris, Guardian

Perhaps the organisers of Tamsin Dunwoody's campaign should be the first to be added to the database of contributors to 'community tension' in that neck of the woods!

Finally, for anyone preparing to shoot back with the argument that 'if it will prevent crime then the spying is justified', here's an apt quote for you to digest:

"Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." - Benjamin Franklin

Hat-tip: Patrick Vessey

* I could barely believe I'd just read this. Can the authors of these documents (aimed, surely, at local authority managers, politicians and journalists) really not do plain English without sounding like they're talking to a slow seven year old?


Kathz said...

startling hypocrisy indeed - though sometimes I wonder why I'm still startled.

Mark Wadsworth said...

Totally agreed, I covered this a couple of days ago.

The Goverment Spy said...

It's a shame you had to hide that soul-crushingly offensive Labour leaflet underneath that teensy bit hysterical and more than a little bit ideological piece about tension monitoring-it deserves a wide an airing as possible.

We'll have to have a beer soon and talk about how TM works in practice!

PS. I can see what you're up to, QT. :-)

Longrider said...

With a bit of luck, that nasty little campaign technique will backfire.

I disagree with government spy - there is much to worry about with this. When I am at home, I have very little to do with my neighbours and they with I - that's how we like it. We don't have any tension as a consequence. The last thing we are likely to want is the local council poking about in our affairs, trying to get us to be "nice boys and girls".