Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Where does Labour now stand on civil liberties?

A firm and unequivocal commitment to standing up for civil liberties will not win Labour the next election. But, they should make one anyway.
If there’s one issue which the party badly lost its way on, it was this one. Too quick to kowtow to a hysterical and unforgiving right wing press, the party passed a whole series of regressive and disproportionate pieces of legislation, mostly in the fight against terrorism. In some cases, laws which were pitched as necessary counter-terror measures soon became hijacked by nosey and over-zealous councils.
Last week’s fascinating study by the Fabian Society brought to focus Labour’s new-found appeal to ex-Lib Dems. Three-quarters of ‘Ed’s converts’ hail from the coalition’s junior partner, apparently more left-wing than either Labour or Lib Dem voters from 2010.
In order not to squander this support, Labour should dangle a civil liberties promise under their noses. This means moving beyond Ed Balls’ admission that the party skewed the balance between liberty and security. It is after all still a bread and butter issue for Lib Dems, something which unites and galvanises many of its members and MPs.
The dilemma Labour has is that whilst it flirts with its new allies, it still needs to speak to its traditional, working class base. According to Andrew Harrop this could define the party’s strategy for the next three years:
“Labour still has a long way to go to develop ideas and language that appeal both to lower income communities and left liberal voters, who now make up two distinct ‘core’ constituencies for the party. These blocs can be brought together on economic issues, but Miliband faces a real challenge in defining a social agenda that motivates both blue-collar voters and social liberals.”
In other words, the party could find itself pulled in two directions.
Let’s be clear, safeguarding civil liberties will capture few headlines. It’s not one of the public’s most pressing concerns. One could argue that it’s merely an issue for the chattering classes. It’s more about perception, but perception is everything in politics. Unfortunately, in almost every poll, the public have sided with laws which trample on civil liberties in exchange for assurances over their safety.
The debate in favour of protecting the public has been skilfully, but simplistically, framed in terms of those who are ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ on terror. The battle to be crowned ‘the party of law and order’ never ends. The moment the Tories get a sniff that Labour is starting to speak the language of the ‘appeaser,’ the right wing attack dogs will be unleashed, painting Ed Miliband as someone who’s more concerned with the human rights of terror suspects than the rights of terrorism’s victims.
It is therefore vital that the party lead from the front, taking the fight to the government. In opposition, the Conservatives pledged to turn the tide back towards liberty, and published a pamphlet, Reversing the Rise of the Surveillance State, where they vowed to take an axe to  the UK’s ‘mammoth databases’ and the excessive details it stores :
“A Conservative government will take a fundamentally different approach. We believe that your personal information belongs to you, not the state.

Except, a couple of months ago, ‘Snooper’s Charter’ entered the political lexicon to decry government plans to track everyone’s email, text, Facebook and internet use. It was left to groups such as Liberty and Big Brother Watch to lead the charge against these proposals. The response from the opposition bench was muted at best, perhaps still conscious of the fact that the previous Labour government failed to cover itself in glory on this very issue. In fact, if it sounded like something they would have introduced themselves, that’s probably because it was.
Comfort should be taken from Ed Miliband’s leadership victory speech and his remark that Labour had appeared "casual" about civil liberties, professing that he wouldn’t let the Tories or Lib Dems "take ownership of the British tradition of liberty". Two years on, there may still be a feeling within the party that they are standing on dodgy ground, unable yet to convincingly oppose such ideas.
If this isn’t something which resonates with the public, why waste time pursuing it? Because it goes to the very essence of what it means to be a liberal. And because many of these liberals have decamped over to Labour and should be rewarded. Where Andrew Harrop’s research comes unstuck is in his assertion that a large proportion of ‘Ed’s converts’ have permanently settled:
“Intuitively this stands to reason, since a largely left-leaning group has few other places to turn.”
Taking any voters for granted, least of all swing ones, is fraught with danger. Many could decide that staying at home is preferable to voting for either party. An unambiguous, genuine, commitment to undo some of the harm of the past should be enough to satisfy new friends.
It’s also the right thing to do. Ed Miliband has already demonstrated that he’s not afraid to take on certain sections of the press. He’ll need plenty of ammo if he is to win this latest battle. But first he needs to convince the liberal left that he’s also on their side.

This article was first published by Shifting Grounds on Tuesday 22 May 2012

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