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.

Ed’s detoxification of Blair-Brown authoritarianism welcome news

Written by Michael Harris on . Posted in Articles, Labour

Free Speech Is Not For Sale

This article was originally published on Left Foot Forward, during the Libel Reform Campaign’s lobbying of Labour party conference.

“I won’t let the Tories or the Liberals take ownership of the British tradition of liberty; I want our party to reclaim that tradition” – Ed Miliband’s leadership speech was a strident attempt to detoxify the Labour brand from the widely perceived authoritarianism of the Blair–Brown years.

It’s not an original opinion to stress that Labour’s record on civil liberties was patchy at best. There was a schizophrenic schism between big ideas such as the Human Rights Act and the Equalities Act, and then a knee-jerk reactionary impulse especially when it came to the detail of legislation.

So the party that embedded Strasbourg jurisprudence into UK law via the Human Rights Act (a progressive act hated to this day by the Tories), also attempted to bring in 90 days’ detention, locked up asylum seekers including children, and restricted the right to protest in Parliament Square.

Jack Straw embodied this in 2000 with his dyspeptic gut-reaction to the judiciary when it argued against him abolishing the right to trial by jury with his attack on “woolly minded Hampstead liberals”, whilst in the same speech defending the Human Rights Act. Triangulation failed – simultaneously sending scores of small ‘l’ liberals to the Liberal Democrats, whilst those we were attempting to court abandoned us (especially C2/DE voters).

Our attempts at populism fell at a significant hurdle: they weren’t popular. Public support for ID cards fell from around 85% per cent of people backing ID cards (MORI) in the weeks after 9/11 to under half by late 2008 (ICM). Support for 90 days’ detention fell to just 20 per cent of voters by November 2005 (ICM), yet as unpopular as this was, Gordon Brown went back to this issue in Parliament in a bizarre Pavlovian moment of reaction.

It was great to see Ed distance himself from this yesterday: but we must always remember that British liberties were hard fought and hard won over hundreds of years. We should always take the greatest care in protecting them. And too often we seemed casual about them. Like the idea of locking someone away for 90 days – nearly three months in prison – without charging them with a crime. Or the broad use of anti-terrorism measures for purposes for which they were not intended.

As Ed develops a clear narrative that endorses civil liberties, it would be good to see a strong Labour position on reforming our libel laws to protect free speech, protecting the right to protest and freedom of association, prison reform, and looking again at anti-terror legislation. Ed’s speech was a good starting point for Labour to revalue where we stand on civil liberties, and a call to those who left our party over our authoritarianism to come back home.

Take to the Tweets – trade unions and twitter

Written by Michael Harris on . Posted in Articles, Labour

Mike Harris public affairs consultant

This article first appeared in the Autumn edition of ForeFront magazine.

Last June, hundreds of thousands of ordinary Iranians took to the streets in the aftermath of Iran’s disputed presidential election. It used to be hard (and slow) work to organise street protests, with activists using underground samizdat printing presses at great risk to themselves, and their families. But now, in the new social media age, a single tweet (message via Twitter) can inform hundreds, if not thousands, of activists where to meet. More importantly, tweets can be hard for the authorities to trace.

Trade unions have an essential role to play in civic society. Now more than ever, members of trade unions in both the public and private sector face unparalleled challenges to their livelihoods. So, how can social media make a difference?

I manage the Libel Reform Campaign a coalition between English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science. We aim to change our libel laws which currently allow global corporations accused of appalling practices in third world countries to silence their critics using the High Court in London. We’ve used social media to great effect – 52,000 people have signed our online petition with 38% of them visiting our website via Facebook and Twitter.

The most important thing to remember when attempting to use social media to communicate a message is that prefix, ‘social’. Social media relies on the trust individuals place in the communicator of the message. Stephen Fry has 1,638,105 followers on Twitter simply because people like him. In this format he has serious clout: a single one-off tweet by Stephen Fry drove 1,918 people to our website.

It may be the case that corporations or trade unions aren’t ideally suited to a media like Twitter (who wants to follow PepsiCo?) – but individuals are. Rather than holding a monolithic Twitter account to push out messages, unions need to encourage everyone from the general secretary through to shop stewards to activate an account. How many people read every union email they receive? But if colleagues and friends are twittering a message from my union I’ll engage and take action. But – social media isn’t a panacea to falling participation and membership of your organisation. Whereas it can engage people quickly in your campaigns, the social element is key: you need a core of active people. Our campaign worked because we embraced this ‘social’ element with pub meetings, debates in Parliament and regular get-togethers. Twitter users met for the first time over a pint and could get involved in our work. We embraced spontaneous action by others.

For unions, social media is an opportunity especially in workplaces with low trade union density. A few highlynetworked individuals can drive membership throughout an organisation. The CWU’s Pat Carmody unionised a north London call centre, staffed by many temporary staff, against the best attempts of the management to prevent him. As nearly all the mostly young staff had Facebook, a Facebook group was set up. As each call centre worker joined the group their friends on Facebook were notified, which in turn drove fellow call centre workers to join – especially as it was the only Facebook group for their workplace. Social events – there’s that word again – were organised (paid for by the union) with live music and food which brought yet more people into the fold; nearly all of whom have never been a member of a union before. Social networking works at a micro level. For unions to embrace it they must think about why they want to use it, but also who is best placed to communicate their message. The union man Lech Wałęsa struggled against the odds to maintain his illegal strikes against the authoritarian regime in Poland. Modern struggles are now easier thanks to these transformational technologies; but you still need individuals to drive change.

■■ Mike Harris is a public affairs and media consultant and a member of Unite and the CWU.

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.