Libel reform: the way forward

Straw's plan to cap success fees is a good start

Jack Straw's announcement of plans to cut the amount lawyers can charge in "no win, no fee" cases by 90 per cent is welcome and long overdue.

It was in an interview with Jason Cowley for the NS that Straw first promised to introduce a "radically reduced cap" on grossly inflated success fees. Our leader in that issue called for a 10 per cent cap on fees that at present can reach 100 per cent of costs, a demand that the Justice Secretary has now matched. Straw is determined to leave office with a reputation as a reforming secretary of state, and the changes are set to be made through secondary legislation in April or May.

Introduced in 1995, the "no win no fee" system was created with the honourable aim of providing the poorest with access to justice, yet it has left small publishers unable to defend themselves. Research by Oxford University shows that the cost of fighting a libel action in England is 140 times greater than the European average.

But while reducing the cost of cases is a necessary reform, it is not the only amendment our libel laws need. London has become the libel capital of the world, not just because of the sums claimants can win, but because it is easier to win a case here than in any comparable democracy. Only English libel law places the burden of proof on the defendant, meaning the odds are stacked against authors and publishers from the start. Any future government should shift this burden from the defendant to the plaintiff as a matter of urgency.

It should also provide publishers with a stronger public-interest defence against legal action; prevent foreigners from suing in the British courts unless they can demonstrate that they have suffered real harm in this country; and end cash damages in all but the most severe cases.

Labour's record on civil liberties is not a proud one, but on libel it has, belatedly, rediscovered some of the radicalism that attracted so many in 1997. Straw deserves credit for the abolition of sedition and criminal libel last year and for his latest proposals. But bolder action is now needed. Britain's shameful libel laws require nothing less.

 

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Shock Wales YouGov poll shows that Labour's Ukip nightmare is coming true

The fear that voting Ukip would prove a gateway drug for Labour voters appears to be being borne out. 

An astonishing new poll for the Cardiff University Governance Centre and ITV Cymru shows a historic result: the Conservatives ending a 167-year wait for an election victory in Wales.

The numbers that matter:

Conservatives: 40 per cent

Labour: 30 per cent

Plaid Cymru: 13 per cent

Liberal Democrats: 8 per cent

Ukip: 6 per cent

Others: 3 per cent

And for context, here’s what happened in 2015:

Labour 36.9 per cent

Conservatives 27.2 per cent

Ukip 13.6 per cent

Plaid Cymru 12.1 per cent

Liberal Democrat 6.5 per cent

Others 2.6 per cent

There’s a lot to note here. If repeated at a general election, this would mean Labour losing an election in Wales for the first time since the First World War. In addition to losing the popular vote, they would shed ten seats to the Tories.

We're talking about a far more significant reverse than merely losing the next election. 

I don’t want to detract from how bad the Labour performance is in a vacuum – they have lost 6.9 per cent of their vote on 2015, in any case the worst election performance for Labour in Wales since the rout of 1983.  But the really terrifying thing for Labour is not what is happening to their own vote, though that is pretty terrifying.

It’s what’s happened to the Conservative vote – growing in almost every direction. There is some direct Labour to Tory slippage. But the big problem is the longtime fear of Labour MPs – that voting for Ukip would be a gateway drug to voting for the mainstream right – appears to be being realised. Don't forget that most of the Ukip vote in Wales is drawn from people who voted Labour in 2010. (The unnoticed shift of the 2010-5 parliament in a lot of places was a big chunk of the Labour 2010 vote went to Ukip, but was replaced by a chunk of the 2010 Liberal Democrat vote.) 

If repeated across the United Kingdom, the Tory landslide will be larger than the 114 majority suggested by the polls and a simple national swing.

As I’ve said before, polls are useful, but they are not the be-all and end-all. The bad news is that this very much supports the pattern at elections since the referendum – Labour falling back, the Tories losing some votes to the Liberal Democrats but more than making up the loss thanks to the collapse of Ukip.

The word from Welsh Labour is that these figures “look about right” at least as far as the drop in the Labour vote, though of course they have no idea what is going on with their opponents’ vote share. As for the Conservatives, their early experiences on the doorstep do show the Ukip vote collapsing to their benefit.

One Labour MP said to me a few days again that they knew their vote was holding up – what they didn’t know was what was happening to their opponents. That’s particularly significant if you have a “safe seat” but less than 50 per cent of the vote.

Wales has local elections throughout the country on 4 May. They should provide an early sign whether these world-shaking figures are really true. 

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

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