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

Follwing Nick Clegg's speech on control orders earlier today, Councillor Mike Harris discusses how Labour got it so wrong on civil liberties.

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.

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22 Responses to “Labour needs to take a look in the mirror on civil liberties”

  1. Michael Harris

    RT @leftfootfwd: Labour needs to take a look in the mirror on civil liberties: writes @Cllr_MikeHarris

  2. William J. C. Brown

    RT @leftfootfwd: Labour needs to take a look in the mirror on civil liberties: writes @Cllr_MikeHarris

  3. matthew fox

    Nick Clegg offers the freedom to be poor, the freedom to be denied a flu jab, the freedom to be charged inflation busting increases in transport, the freedom to be denied a university education, and the freedom of unemployment.

    Free at last Nick, Free at last.

  4. Ian

    RT @jamesgraham If this view were more widely shared, I would be more optimistic about Labour's chances for reform:

  5. Éoin Clarke

    Blair’s actions have sullied the water of the civil liberties debate that it is almost impossible to have a rational debate about which liberties are sacrosanct and which we can modify to make us safer. Do we need to keep email and phone records for six months? Were plans for ID cards so crucial to the UK’s safety? Do we need to withhold evidence of water boarding or extraordinary renditions from our citizens on the grounds of national security? The answer to all those questions is almost certainly no. However, other questions linger. Does a national database that records children details such as that envisaged by Contact Point make children safer? Do CCTV cameras reduce crime? Do ASBOs and Community support officers make the elderly feel safer? Should we throw away DNA evidence that might one day be useful? Much of these questions I cannot answer.

  6. reded

    Quite right Éoin, in order to engineer a collective that keeps us all safe we must start with the children. If nothing else it will enable the state to educate out the destructive behaviour traits of bankers and prevent their kind from destroying the nations of the world.

  7. Gary Banham

    The dreadful Labour record on civil liberties was one of the things that led me to vote for the Lib Dems last May, a vote I now regret. However, today I heard David Blunkett and John Reid defend the approach of the previous government on control orders and see Alan Johnson still on the front bench. Meanwhile senior members of the Shadow Cabinet attack proposals to give prisoners the vote. Dreadful as this government is, Labour still doesn’t appear a friend to anyone who takes civil liberties seriously. Clegg, by contrast, doesn’t say a word about the kettling of demonstrators, an unlawful restriction on the right to demonstrate.

  8. Gary Banham

    RT @leftfootfwd: Labour needs to take a look in the mirror on civil liberties: writes @Cllr_MikeHarris

  9. David Marsden

    RT @leftfootfwd: Labour needs to take a look in the mirror on civil liberties: writes @Cllr_MikeHarris

  10. David Marsden

    RT @leftfootfwd: Labour needs to take a look in the mirror on civil liberties: writes @Cllr_MikeHarris

  11. AltGovUK

    RT @leftfootfwd: Labour needs to take a look in the mirror on civil liberties: writes @Cllr_MikeHarris

  12. Éoin Clarke

    Gary Banham,

    You sound like a disillusioned red indeed. Listen to what Sadiq Khan and Balls have to say they are excellent.

    Balls wants to half 28 days to 14…
    Sadiq is quite set against the surveillance state [I.D. phone tap, Emai etc etc..]

    Don’t waste your time listening to yesterday’s men 🙂

  13. Plymouth Greens

    RT @leftfootfwd: Labour needs to take a look in the mirror on civil liberties: writes @Cllr_MikeHarris

  14. Stephen Lintott

    Labour needs to take a look in the mirror on civil liberties | Left Foot Forward

  15. Ludwik Kowalski

    Some of you might be interested; it is about Socialist United States:

    M. Soltysik, one of the leaders of SPUSA (Socialist Party of the USA), was recently interviewed by M. Bonanno, as reported in an OpEdNews article:

    After briefly commenting on that interview, I wrote my own PoEdNews article:

    What follows is a summary of my article.

    1) M.S. wants us to discuss socialism without linking it with the USSR, the first socialist country in the world. I objected to this. I think Stalinism must be studied in order to avoid Soviet mistakes and Soviet crimes.

    2) Referring to capitalists, M.S. said “fat cats have had fun at the expense of the working class for way too long.” What should be done with them? Are all fat cats parasitic? Was Henry Ford parasitic? Is Bill Gates parasitic? What fraction of “his” billions is invested in “our” economy, rather than consumed? What fraction is used in scientific research? I suspect that private consumption is below 1%, including luxury homes, private jets, etc.

    Why was the Soviet agricultural system, based on collective farms, much much less productive than our own system? What should be done with American agricultural capitalists? Should they be treated as kulaks were in the Soviet Union? Who will run our airline companies, our TV stations, our restaurants and our barber shops? Why is the SPUSA program silent on this? Do you agree that the Soviet experience should not be ignored in answering such questions?

    3) The program of SPUSA, at , displays the party emblem. It calls for unity of proletarians of the world. I know this slogan very well; it was always displayed on the first page of the main Stalinist newspaper, Prawda, till 1942. What is wrong in my suspecting that the SPUSA is a Marxist-Leninist party in disguise?

    4) The party program contains this statement: “The Socialist Party is committed to full freedom of speech, assembly, press, and religion, and to a multi-party system.” How can anyone dislike such proclamations? The question is how to proceed without creating something that is much worse than what we already have in America. Similar promises were made by Lenin, in 1917, and we know what happened. How to avoid similar disasters?

    5) The program also states that “socialists struggle for the full freedom of women and men to control their own bodies and reproductive systems and to determine their own sexual orientation.” That is good. Will this struggle be easier under socialism? Those who oppose abortions will still exist. Yes, I am thinking about “freedom of speech, assembly, press, and religion” mentioned in point 4 above.
    6) What do the SPUSA leaders mean by “democratic revolution”? Speculating about the future, and trying to turn dreams into reality, are attractive but sooner or later, as before, idealists will be pushed aside, by revolutionary leaders, due to “practical necessity.” Soldiers do not win wars by discussing orders; they win by obeying orders. In my opinion evolutionary social reforms are more desirable than revolutions. Do you agree? I do not wish anyone to experience another proletarian dictatorship.
    7) Socialism as a vision of paradise on earth? Yes indeed. But not via proletarian dictatorship! My father was a communist. But he died in Kolyma, the worst corner of GULAG, at the age of 36, about two years after being arrested in Moscow. His two letters from Kolyma, to my mother and me, are in this free ON-LINE autobiography:

    This short book is based on diaries I kept between 1946 and 2004 (In the USSR, Poland, France, and the USA).

  16. Simon

    I am a Hampstead liberal. There is much to be proud in being a Hampstead liberal. Labour lost a lot of educated, social liberals, now even more disillusioned by the Lib Dem’s lukewarm commitment to equality. Time to reach out.

  17. Bryonny G-H

    RT @leftfootfwd: Labour needs to take a look in the mirror on civil liberties

  18. Anthony Barnett

    Good article. I think you should credit all those who worked to persuade Labour to change course including NO2ID, the Convention on Modern Liberty – that I co-directed with Henry Porter – and David Davis who walked out the Commons to force a by-election on detention without trial, ID cards, uncontrolled surveillance and most important the way the Commons was suborned. The Convention warned Labour in every way possible to turn back. It was quite clear that the issues mattered to people and were very important. I agree “group think” took place but the counter-arguments were coherently put. See the vids on the Convention website, for example. It was also clear that the issue would play to the electoral advantage of the two other parties. Furthermore, it brought the Lib Dems and the Conservatives closer together when it was clear that the best Labour could hope for was a hung parliament. How stupid is that?

  19. Daniel Pitt

    RT @leftfootfwd: Labour needs to take a look in the mirror on civil liberties: writes @Cllr_MikeHarris

  20. john P Reid

    Wasn’t Blunkett a stalinist, and ,weren’t peter hitchens and Eric pickles trotskyites,apart form 90 days and keeping inncoent peoples DNA ,i personally feel as labour member we got the anti terror legislation right

  21. Francis Hoar

    Excellent article. There is much more that Labour did about which they should show remorse. In particular, the paranoia they helped whip up over paedophilia, leading to the appalling situation that a CRB certificate can be issued over a suspicion of abusive behaviour towards children or vulnerable adults – whether or not the person has been investigated and even in the face of an acquittal. Once that is done, it may not be removed if the Chief Constable believes that the allegation ‘might be’ true. As it is impossible to prove a negative, this means that any scurilous allegation can – and often does – ruin people’s careers. This article should make any fair minded, just person’s hair stand on end:

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