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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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.