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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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