What will happen to the Illiberal Party?

Ed Miliband makes progressive noises on civil liberties

If the Labour Party had won the general election, the UK government would now be moving on to the final imposition of a deeply flawed national ID Card scheme.

It was only the Labour Party's defeat that prevented this calamity from occurring.

Indeed, on that issue as for many others, it would be more accurate to describe the Labour Party after 2001 as the Illiberal Party. It was not the first period in office of an Illiberal Party: Pitt the Younger and Lord Liverpool presided over similar administrations either side of the Napoleonic Wars. But this Illiberal administration was perhaps the worst of the modern age.

And presumably every delegate at the Labour conference campaigned and voted for the re-election of this Illiberal Party. Had each of these delegates had their way, the Illiberals would be continuing their relentless assault on domestic civil liberties. Policy would still be made at New Scotland Yard and walked across Victoria Street and down Strutton Ground to the new Home Office. Prison would still be "working" and Ken Clarke would still be in business.

Now Ed Miliband, in his first leadership speech, appears to be telling his party members that they were wrong to be so illiberal for so long and in so many ways:

"My generation recognises too that government can itself become a vested interest when it comes to civil liberties.

I believe too in a society where individual freedom and liberty matter and should never be given away lightly.

The first job of government is the protection of its citizens. As Prime Minister I would never forget that.

And that means working with all the legitimate means at our disposal to disrupt and destroy terrorist networks.

But we must always remember that British liberties were hard fought and hard won over hundreds of years.

We should always take the greatest care in protecting them.

And too often we seemed casual about them.

Like the idea of locking someone away for 90 days - nearly three months in prison - without charging them with a crime.

Or the broad use of anti-terrorism measures for purposes for which they were not intended."

These are fine sentiments: an overall admission that the government of which he was a member just went too far.

To say such things must be a good start. Former ministers can and sometimes must disown their own periods in office - one thinks of Thatcher moving on from Heath's economic policies after 1975 - and it may well be that Miliband is signalling such a break.

It may even be that Miliband will seek to attack the Coalition on civil liberty issues from the Left. If so, that would be refreshing contrast to the awful precedent of Tony Blair's years in opposition, when as shadow Home Secretary and Labour leader he continually attacked the Major administration from the Right and got plaudits from the tabloids for doing so.

However, one must read carefully what Miliband says. He admits to excess; but it is less clear what he thinks to be appropriate. When he states "the important things we did like CCTV and DNA testing" is he saying that the surveillance society is the one we shoud live in? Is he commending the routine holding of DNA of suspects, declared to be illegal by the European Court of Human Rights? Is he actually saying anything progessive at all?

The truth is that the Labour Party - with the honourable exceptions of Roy Jenkins and others who moved onto the Liberal Democrats - has never "got" civil liberties. In a similar way the Conservatives have never really "got" the Welfare State. They may mean well and say sometimes what others want them to say, but their hearts and minds are just not engaged.

These reservations apart, at least Ed Miliband is making the right sort of noises. And all those at the Manchester conference - who only months ago were urging us to re-elect their Illiberal Party - now seem to like these noises. So let's see how those noises convert into detailed progressive criticism of Coalition policy.

 

David Allen Green is a writer and lawyer. His Jack of Kent blog was shortlisted for the George Orwell Prize in 2010. He blogs for the New Statesman on legal and policy issues.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad