Abolition of criminal libel will aid dissidents worldwide

The UK's move robs despots of one of their main excuses

The slow march forward of free speech in Britain continues today as the arcane laws of sedition and criminal libel are abolished. The laws, which date from the time of the Star Chamber, were used against John Wilkes to prevent him from reporting on parliament and against Thomas Paine to punish him for his anti-monarchist Rights of Man.

They may have fallen largely into disuse since (the last sedition case in Britain was over Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses) but their symbolic force remains considerable. As Geoffrey Robertson QC observed: "This law is still used throughout the Commonwealth by repressive governments to jail their opponents. Its abolition here ensures that those governments can no longer use the excuse that they are merely following British law."

Gambia, for instance, has often pointed to UK law when defending its prosecution of individuals for sedition. Six journalists in the country were recently convicted of sedition for calling on the president to admit to long-suspected state involvement in the murder of the newspaper editor Deyda Hydara. The abolition of the laws robs despots worldwide of one of their prime justifications for libel suits.

With the move coming just over a year after the abolition of the blasphemy law, perhaps we can, for once, be optimistic about the cause of free expression.

 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Who will win in Manchester Gorton?

Will Labour lose in Manchester Gorton?

The death of Gerald Kaufman will trigger a by-election in his Manchester Gorton seat, which has been Labour-held since 1935.

Coming so soon after the disappointing results in Copeland – where the seat was lost to the Tories – and Stoke – where the party lost vote share – some overly excitable commentators are talking up the possibility of an upset in the Manchester seat.

But Gorton is very different to Stoke-on-Trent and to Copeland. The Labour lead is 56 points, compared to 16.5 points in Stoke-on-Trent and 6.5 points in Copeland. (As I’ve written before and will doubtless write again, it’s much more instructive to talk about vote share rather than vote numbers in British elections. Most of the country tends to vote in the same way even if they vote at different volumes.)

That 47 per cent of the seat's residents come from a non-white background and that the Labour party holds every council seat in the constituency only adds to the party's strong position here. 

But that doesn’t mean that there is no interest to be had in the contest at all. That the seat voted heavily to remain in the European Union – around 65 per cent according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates – will provide a glimmer of hope to the Liberal Democrats that they can finish a strong second, as they did consistently from 1992 to 2010, before slumping to fifth in 2015.

How they do in second place will inform how jittery Labour MPs with smaller majorities and a history of Liberal Democrat activity are about Labour’s embrace of Brexit.

They also have a narrow chance of becoming competitive should Labour’s selection turn acrimonious. The seat has been in special measures since 2004, which means the selection will be run by the party’s national executive committee, though several local candidates are tipped to run, with Afzal Khan,  a local MEP, and Julie Reid, a local councillor, both expected to run for the vacant seats.

It’s highly unlikely but if the selection occurs in a way that irritates the local party or provokes serious local in-fighting, you can just about see how the Liberal Democrats give everyone a surprise. But it’s about as likely as the United States men landing on Mars any time soon – plausible, but far-fetched. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.