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.