The civil liberties fight isn't over

The Lib Dem grassroots haven't accepted that there's nothing to worry about.


I’ve signed the activist’s letter on the "snooping bill". I’ve taken advantage of the conference call with SpAds to express my disgust. I’ve told Nick to pull his finger out. I’ve cheered as Lib Dem backbenchers make their feelings plain. And I’m delighted that when asked about these plans our President, Tim Farron promised, "we are prepared to kill them – I mean to be absolutely clear about that – if it comes down to it".

So I should be happy that things have been stopped in their tracks. But I’m not. I’m still livid.

And what’s made me, and the rest of the party so angry – other than the proposals themselves - is the fact that no one in the centre "saw this coming". That it’s "taken everyone by surprise". What, really?

As one (terrific) Lib Dem blogger put it,

Civil liberties are at the heart of what it means to be a Liberal Democrat. Our support for them is almost what defines our party: the reason why many talented people joined us rather than seek an easier path to public office through Labour or the Conservatives.

And he’s right. It’s why there has been an almost visceral reaction from every single member up and down the land to the news that these proposals were even being discussed. It’s why we were so flabbergasted to hear that we should "wait and see" what these proposals were, while David Davis was out waving the flag for civil rights.

While I’m thrilled that the plans have seemingly been halted, I’m now very wary of phrases like "watered down", "compromise" or the rather, ahem, tautological "support for any new security measures dependent upon us getting more privacy not less".

To carry on the vogue for Big Brother themes just now, it seems to me that there is a lot of scope for Doublespeak in all this.

I’d rather we just stuck to the coalition agreement:

We will implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties and roll back state intrusion.

No quid pro quo’s there, no compromises, no "watering down" of proposals, certainly no "if it comes to it". We’ve promised to roll back state intrusion. Not letting MI5 track what everyone’s doing on their X-box.

So, let’s be clear. While we’re thrilled to hear that (to quote Tim again)…

If we think this is a threat to a free and liberal society then there would be no question of unpicking them or compromising, this just simply must not happen.

…the grassroots haven’t accepted that there’s nothing to worry about. We’re just standing here, with our arms crossed, waiting to see what happens next.

And it had better be legislation that makes the country a more liberal place to live, not less.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference.

Liberal Democrat party president Tim Farron has threatened to "kill" the "snooping bill". Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.