Ed’s detoxification of Blair-Brown authoritarianism welcome news

Ed Miliband’s leadership speech was a strident attempt to detoxify the Labour brand from the widely perceived authoritarianism of the Blair–Brown years.

Michael Harris is a Labour councillor in Lewisham and the public affairs manager for Index on Censorship

“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.

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12 Responses to “Ed’s detoxification of Blair-Brown authoritarianism welcome news”

  1. John Green


    I would hardly call Ed Miliband’s speech “strident”. I think the word you are looking for is low-key. Not much energy and no passion. However, the blame for this bland effort must lie mainly with his team of speech writers.

    He is right to distance himself from New Labour. However, it was less the choice of policies that lost the party 5 million voters but more the lies and incompetence that characterized the last 13 years. The dreadful infighting carried out by a bunch of very unattractive people within the New Labour coalition was destructive. Hazel Blears described it last night at a fringe meeting as “wicked and malicious”.

    Milliband must redefine his party and differentiate himself from other party leaders. Describing himself as the new young generation is simply playing catch-up to Cameron and Clegg. His claim that his “values” are younger “values” than those of Cameron is ludicrous.

    Still, it’s a start.

  2. Dr Shibley Rahman

    @TheSpiderplant FYI (no interest in 'converting' you, pls note) http://bit.ly/acjVui

  3. Spidey

    OK am scared. I really liked this article too http://bit.ly/dfDVeD

  4. Dr. Shibley Rahman

    Labour’s record on civil liberties in the last term was atrocious.

    An improvement in this area is critical for us to re-build trust with potential left-wing voters.

    Dr Shibley Rahman
    Primrose Hill (Holborn and St Pancras)

  5. Mr. Sensible

    All well and good, but whilst I think 90-days detention was a mistake, we have to keep 28 day detention and-or control orders.

    Because, as plots get more complex, I really don’t think we want a situation where the police have to release or charge without evidence.

Comments are closed.