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Labour needs to take a look in the mirror on civil liberties

Written by Mike on . Posted in Articles, Free expression, Labour


I have recently written a chapter on libel law reform for Alex Deane’s excellent book on civil liberties in Britain available from Amazon here.

After Nick Clegg’s speech on civil liberties on Jan, I wrote this piece for Left Foot Forward:

This morning, Nick Clegg made a speech on civil liberties, the sound of the left gloating as the deputy prime minister stumbled over control orders drowning out his critique of Labour’s authoritarian instinct; Mike Harris, a contributor to Big Brother Watch’s ‘The state of civil liberties in modern Britain’, reports

The gloating is an instinct I remember well when I worked for a Labour MP as our government attempted to bring in 90 days’ detention. Even my meagre bag-carrying at the time made me feel complicit in something immoral. Labour friends would shrug their shoulders in bars as we discussed where it all went wrong: the party who had Roy Jenkins as home secretary also managed to accommodate former Stalinist John Reid.

But Labour was possessed by a group-think that imagined the civil liberties agenda was a minority pursuit by a radical Hampstead fringe; that to be in favour of protecting liberties against baser gut instincts was, in itself, a sign of moral weakness: of political frailty.

The reference to John Reid’s Stalinism is deliberate. Many of our friends in the Labour movement’s politics arose not from Methodism but Marxism. Their vision for government was not as a regulator or provider of goods, but as a totality, the State as the rational omnigod. As Francesa Klug said at last year’s Compass conference this

“… intellectual tradition never really saw the problem with the state – provided it was in the right, or rather left, hands.”

It was Ed Miliband’s dad, Ralph, who warned socialists of the danger that the state had it in the potential to be an oppressive force in ‘The State in Capitalist Society’. Whilst Labour did much in government to make Britain more tolerant, we also made painful mistakes.

Clegg opened his speech with a powerful salvo, which is worth reading:

“Ed Balls has admitted that, when it comes to civil liberties, Labour got the balance wrong. Ed Miliband has conceded that his government seemed too casual about people’s freedom.

“But there was nothing casual about introducing ID cards. Nothing casual about building the biggest DNA database in the world, and storing the DNA of over one million innocent people.

“Nothing casual about their failed attempts to increase the time a person can be detained without charge from what was then 14 days up to 90; something Labour’s new leader voted for.

“They turned Britain into a place where schools can fingerprint your children without their parents’ consent… Where, in one year, we saw over 100,000 terror-related stop-and-searches, none of which yielded a single terror arrest.

They made Britain a place where you could be put under virtual house arrest when there was not enough evidence to charge you with a crime. And with barely an explanation of the allegations against you. A place where young, innocent children caught up in the immigration system were placed behind bars. A Britain whose international reputation has been brought into question because of our alleged complicity in torture.”

In the last year of a Labour government, 1,000 children of asylum seekers were imprisoned. Yet, as a party there is no mea culpa. Many of the myriad special advisers and ministers who advocated ever more authoritarian powers are still in place. I still hear, “they aren’t talking about it in the Dog & Duck”, as a catch-all phrase that is fairly sinister.

People don’t focus on their human rights until they are taken away. The majority of Belarusians are currently getting on with their lives in Europe’s last dictatorship. It’s the 28 in solidarity confinement in a KGB prison in downtown Minsk for whom human rights are important.

There’s no doubt that Nick Clegg’s attempt to demonise Labour today was political posturing. He ignored Labour’s introduction of the Human Rights Act; that Labour were in office after the talismanic episode of 9/11; that civil liberties are dependent in a democracy on public support (which often wasn’t there). But rather than receiving Nick Clegg’s speech with jeers, Ed Miliband needs to reappraise the party Labour ought to be.

As I wrote before for Left Foot Forward, Labour is toxic to many of the people it ought to be a natural bedfellow of. Many Muslims in places like Oldham East and Saddleworth voted Liberal Democrat not just because of Iraq, but because they felt victimised. Many of the much-derided ‘Hampstead liberals’ are some of the five million votes Labour lost between 1997-2010.

Newspapers that ought to be on our side turned against us. It’s no coincidence that it was a liberal party, the Liberal Democrats, who opposed our authoritarian streak who made the largest electoral gains in 2005 and 2010. And it’s a surprise that we didn’t take this lesson on board. For Labour to win the election in 2015, we need to take a look in the mirror.

Public Affairs consultancy especially for charities

Written by Mike on . Posted in What I do

Rt Hon Jack Straw MP at the Libel Reform Campaign parliamentary lobby

As a charity or social enterprise, engaging in a public affairs campaign shouldn’t seem daunting. Government is there to listen. In an increasingly competitive sector, it’s important your organisation is heard.

89up Ltd is a public affairs and campaigns consultancy especially for charities, NGOs and social enterprises.

89up was founded in 2014 by Mike Harris, the former Head of Advocacy at Index on Censorship alongside 15 associates from the worlds of journalism, public affairs, campaigning and public relations. 89up has now grown to a team of 7 with 18 associates and projects in 4 countries.

Harnessing Celebrity Support: an interview with Mike Harris

Written by Mike on . Posted in Articles, Blog, Free expression

ifex mike harris

Harnessing Celebrity Support: an IFEX interview with Mike Harris

This was originally published as a briefing on campaigning for partner agencies of the International Freedom of Expression eXchange: The global network for free expression.

England’s libel laws have been condemned by the UN Human Rights Committee for seriously hampering free expression, and for good reason. Among other major issues, the legislation doesn’t put the burden of proof on claimants to show statements are indeed false; there is no cap on the amount one can sue for; and there is scant mention of the public interest in the legal text. It should come as no surprise that foreign corporations and businessmen choose to sue for libel in the United Kingdom (UK), where they’re likely to get a favourable result. The practice is so common it has its own moniker: “libel tourism.”

It should also come as no surprise that UK-based IFEX member Index on Censorship has launched an all-out war on the anti-free expression aspects of the legislation. With celebrities enlisted and Twitter employed as its most powerful weapon, the organisation teamed up with English PEN and Sense About Science to launch the Libel Reform Campaign in December 2009 (

Included among the campaigns supporters are comedians Stephen Fry and Shazia Mirza, fiction writer Monica Ali, physician and renowned columnist Dr. Ben Goldacre, and poet and novelist Sir Andrew Motion.

“Comedians understand freedom of expression, a lot of comedians use risqué comedy so it’s a very easy issue to get them interested in,” says Index on Censorship’s Michael Harris, the public affairs manager of the libel reform campaign. When looking for big names to get behind libel reform, the groups focused on those who were most likely to be affected by repressive libel legislation: writers, editors, artists, broadcasters and even scientists whose research could “libel” corporations.

Organisations should choose celebrities who are truly passionate about the cause, says Harris, but they should use their time strategically and be careful not to ask too many small favours. Instead, organisations should prioritise their promotional needs so that celebrities can focus on the big, important events.

“You need to feel it out, get an idea of how much time they have to give,” says Harris. “You don’t want to ask too much.”

Using Twitter as part of the campaign ensured that celebrities could have a big impact with a miniscule time investment. Big name supporters like Fry and others have sent tweets to their followers that encouraged them to go to the libel reform website, attend fundraising events and sign the libel reform petition. By linking to reports or columns, the celebrity tweeters can also educate their fans about the issue. Through piggy-backing on the fan base of celebrity twitter accounts, the campaign has managed to attract around 50,000 supporters, a level of public support that wouldn’t have been possible without the social networking tool, says Harris.

Not only can Twitter reach hundreds of thousands in a matter of seconds, it isn’t confined by geography. “At our campaign events, we’ve spoken to people from all over the country,” says Harris. “A lot of the times we’ve been quite London-centric in our campaigns but with Twitter, users can be anywhere in the world.”

Twitter has its drawbacks, however. People receiving tweets are often on the go and may not be able to concentrate on much more than a single tweet’s 140-character limit. If your organisation needs people to devote their time and attention by, for example, writing a letter or attending parliament, Twitter may not be the best promotional tool. Instead, Harris says, “Twitter is very good at getting people to do a single action – click here, think about this, do this.”

Harris also underlines the importance of hosting events where tweeters, bloggers and technophobe free-expression advocates alike can meet in person. When fellow supporters meet each other, they become further galvanised and are more likely to work together on the web. “People will pass on messages far more readily if they have that real, social connection with the person who is posting something,” says Harris. Recognising this, the campaign hosted a series of “pub discussions” that brought together long-time free expression activists, tweeters and new recruits. “People get a stronger emotional involvement with the campaign when they meet other advocates,” says Harris.

To compensate for Twitter’s disproportionate focus on the young and tech-savvy, the campaign also employed different methods to reach out to non-tweeters. Celebrities were asked to publish opinion articles in major newspapers that outlined the necessity of libel reform (sometimes these columns were ghost-written by the organisation). Public figures on board with the campaign talked about libel reform in their blogs, on the radio and on TV. The campaign also held several events, including a panel discussion on how the laws impact documentary films, and a star-studded comedy evening that raised £15,000 pounds (approx. US$23,000).

Thanks in no small part to the work of Index on Censorship, English PEN and Sense About Science, England’s three major political parties now support libel reform, and in early April, the Justice Secretary Jack Straw said the government would change the libel laws. Among other reforms, he promised that claimants can’t argue that damages have been “multiplied” when a statement is re-published on websites, blogs and picked up by other publications; procedural changes will address the “libel tourism” problem and action will be taken to somewhat reduce the heavy legal cost on defendants. Many more reforms are required to ensure England’s legislation no longer puts free expression rights in jeopardy at home and abroad, but these recent developments mark major progress. Look out those hoping to silence detractors in London courts: comedians, activists, writers and tweeters aren’t about to back down.

Election 2010

Written by Mike on . Posted in Articles, Blog

From SpoonFed Comedy:

Finally, the election campaign is nearly over. No more sleazy headlines, billboards, slogans, television debate analysis or hysteria over the word ‘bigot’. No more Peppa Pig (seriously, whose idea was it to involve a cartoon pig in the election?).

You’ve registered, you’ve cast your vote and now all that’s left is the waiting game. And what a slow, dull waiting game it is. Pie charts, swingometers, David Dimbleby in high def. It’s not really worth staying up to the crack of dawn is it? It’s lucky then that political campaigner and events organiser Becky Luff has come up with a much better alternative.

Teaming up with climate activist and musician Deborah Grayson and human rights lobbyist Mike Harris, Becky is organising a special election night comedy marathon at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club. The nine hour gig will featuring live performances from some of the best comics on the circuit, video link-ups with parties across the country, an all-night bar, DJs, dancing and full TV coverage of the results.

“The first few hours will be stand-up and music and then at around midnight when the results start to come in we’ll be focusing more on coverage”, said Becky. “We’ve got Robin Ince and Martin White coming down with Thom Tuck (The Penny Dreadfuls) and Terry Saunders hosting. Sara Pascoe, Tom Allen and Guardian columnist Ben Goldacre will also be there and at about 4am we’ll be linking up to Josie Long who’s currently in New Zealand for their comedy festival. We’re also using Skype to chat to mind-reading comic Chris Cox in Australia. Hopefully he’ll be using some of his powers to predict the results.”

As well as hearing amusing commentaries from comedians across the world, there will be live links to politicians waiting for the results and apperances from campaign pundits giving their take on the elelction so far. Downstairs, DJs will be playing a special election-themed playlist and there will even be an ‘Outrage Rooom’ where people can watch Sky news results as they come in and get appropriately hot and bothered.

The Working Men’s Club doors open at 8pm and the performances are due to start at 10pm. There’s plenty of entertainment organised to fuel the party too (apart from the all-night bar) with scavenger hunts, competitions and tasks for the audience to keep everyone going till the early hours.

You can also order in your own takeaway, make some electoral bets with the BGWMC’s very own Tic Tac man and get some issues off your chest in Speaker’s Corner. For any troopers still there at 6am, Becky will be taking a team down to Westminster to welcome in the new government.

So hung parliament, schmung parliament. Whatever happens, at least you can have a bloody good laugh at the outcome.

Tickets are £8 in advance and £5 after 2am.

On open primaries

Written by Mike on . Posted in Articles, Labour


Over at Labour-Uncut, a new blog launched by former Labour MP Sion Simon, a counter-debate is opening on the future direction of the Labour party (and wider, the British Left).

The siren voices of the left are calling, and party members seem to be sleepwalking into a position where Labour retreats from the center-ground of British politics. It’s not hard to see why—with the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties firmly encamped upon the mythical “center” of the British political spectrum, there is little space for the official opposition.

John McTernon, Tony Blair’s political secretary, and Benjamin Wegg-Prosser the Director of Strategic Communications for Blair, argue here and here that such a move would condemn Labour to another long spell in opposition.

McTernon says a fascinating thing:

We lost, not amongst the 29% who voted Labour or (generously) the 10% of voters who pay the levy or join the party. We lost among the middle-ground decent folk of Britain. If we were serious we’d let voters in Brighton, Redditch and Redcar choose our next leader.

Sadly, he doesn’t follow his brave thought through to its logical conclusion: the open primary. Labour’s membership is sensible but narrow. The Electoral College is comprised of one third MPs, one third party members, with the final third given to the trade unions. A series of primaries, across the country, would give ordinary people the opportunity to participate in a debate that is much-needed: What sort of Labour party do the British people want?

The other problem with relying on our membership is that it feels like time for a counter-revolution. Thirteen years of power have been hard work and challenging. Personally, I’ve felt deeply uncomfortable about a knee-jerk authoritarianism on civil liberties. Opposition on the other hand is comfortable. We could end up tearing up popular policy positions in search of a new identity—the cult of a “new politics“—that leads us to mirror the existing administration or hold contrary views for their own sake. Without a grounding in public opinion we could repeat this exercise for some time.

The Tories picked Cameron because they were desperate for power. They knew they had to compromise their narrow agenda for a broad platform fit for a government. We need a similarly broad agenda. This can only come from an intelligent debate within Labour but also a serious engagement with the electorate. To do this, selecting our next leader and their platform in a series of open primaries is a necessity.

Progress has a written consultation on open primaries here.

A public affairs, campaigns and government relations consultancy for charities and NGOs

Written by Mike on . Posted in ltd

Public affairs tailored for your organisation

As a charity or social enterprise, engaging in a public affairs campaign shouldn’t be daunting. Every government will listen when you make your case well. In an increasingly competitive sector, it’s important your organisation is heard and makes an impact.

mjr harris ltd is a public affairs and campaigns consultancy especially for charities, NGOs and social enterprises. Since 2009, the company has effectively lobbied and campaigned with a number of high-profile successes including the Libel Reform Campaign (which culminated in legislation), the WageConcern campaign and advocacy and PR support for Farms Not Factories.

Whether a major international campaign, or a smaller niche public relations strategy, mjr harris ltd will be able to help you maximise your impact.

For more information, or an informal meeting, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Case study: The Libel Reform Campaign

mjr harris ltd was brought in to support and develop the public affairs strategy for the Libel Reform Campaign, a coalition of Index on Censorship, English PEN and Sense About Science. The campaign has been acknowledged as one of the most successful UK advocacy campaigns in recent years. Working with 100 organisations and 60,000 supporters, it put the impact of libel laws on free speech at the heart of mainstream debate. The need to reform the libel laws in England and Wales was recognised by all three main political parties and entered the new coalition government’s agreement. With this commitment to a Bill, the campaign continued its pressure on parliament, with on-going support from mjr harris ltd. Finally, the campaign secured the Defamation Bill which completed its passage through Parliament to become the Defamation Act in April 2013. The Act came into force on 1 January 2014, greatly enhancing freedom of expression.

A selection of our clients