Labour rebels attempt to block Straw libel reform

Labour MPs attempt to thwart plans to slash success fees for British libel lawyers.

One of the few positive developments in recent months has been Jack Straw's belated support for libel reform.

In a plan first trailed to the NS, the Justice Secretary promised to reduce lawyers' success fees from a maximum of 100 per cent to 10 per cent. Significantly, he confirmed that the measure could be introduced before the election through secondary legislation.

Action in this area is long overdue. Research by Oxford University shows that the cost of fighting a libel action in England is 140 times (yes, you read that right) greater than the European average.

But last night Straw's plan was thrown into doubt after Labour MPs blocked the measure at committee stage. The guilty men were Tom Watson, Peter Kilfoyle, Chris Mullin and Jim Sheridan. The Tory MP Julie Kirkbride also voted against the passage of the law.

Coincidentally, Watson recently received "substantial damages" after suing the Sun over claims that he was involved in the McBride email smears scandal. He was represented by the law firm Carter-Ruck, which is lobbying fiercely against libel reform.

The Labour rebellion means that the measure must now return to the Commons after the Easter recess. It can be passed without a vote, but if any MP objects it will return to the House the next day for a full parliamentary vote.

The "no win, no fee system" was created in 1995 with the honourable aim of providing the poorest with access to justice, yet it has left small publishers unable to defend themselves and has discouraged original stories and investigative journalism.

It will be a scandal if this opportunity for reform is missed.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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RMT poised to rejoin the Labour Party

The transport union is set to vote on reaffiliation to the party, with RMT leaders backing the move.

Plans are being drawn up for the RMT (the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers) to reaffiliate to the Labour Party in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s significant gains in the general election, the New Statesman has learnt.

The union, which represents tube drivers and other workers across the transport sector, was expelled from the Labour Party under Tony Blair after some Scottish branches voted to support the Scottish Socialist Party instead.

But the RMT endorsed both of Corbyn’s bids for the Labour leadership and its ruling national executive committee backed a Labour vote on 8 June.

Corbyn addressed the RMT’s annual general meeting in Exeter yesterday, where he was “given a hero’s welcome”, in the words of one delegate. Mick Cash, the RMT’s general secretary, praised Corbyn as the union’s “long-term friend and comrade”.

After the meeting, Steve Hedley, assistant general secretary at the RMT, posted a picture to Facebook with John McDonnell. The caption read: “With the shadow chancellor John McDonnell arguing that we should affiliate to the Labour Party after consulting fully and democratically with our members”.

The return of the RMT to Labour would be welcomed by the party leadership with open arms. And although its comparably small size would mean that the RMT would have little effect on the internal workings of Labour Party conference or its ruling NEC, its wide spread across the country could make the union a power player in the life of local Labour parties.

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

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