Balls changes course on civil liberties

Shadow home secretary backs 14-day limit and admits Labour failed to protect liberty.

After Ed Balls was appointed as shadow home secretary, there were some who expressed doubts over Ed Miliband's commitment to civil liberties. It was widely thought that Balls, long seen as one of the more authoritarian members of Labour's top team, would not miss an opportunity to attack the coalition as "soft on terror".

But Ball's interview with the Sunday Telegraph, his first since becoming shadow home secretary, should go some way to silencing his critics. He reveals that Labour is prepared to support coalition plans to cut the pre-charge detention period from 28 to 14 days, and suggests that the party is prepared to consider alternatives to control orders. More strikingly, he admits that Labour lost its reputation as a party which "protected liberty as well as security".

I'm less surprised than some at Balls's apparent conversion to civil liberties. It is now widely acknowledged within Labour circles that the party too often restricted liberty without advancing security. Even the former security minister Tony McNulty -- one of those responsible for much of Labour's anti-terrorism legislation -- recently called (£) for the introduction of a 14-day limit and condemned control orders as a "clumsy tool" that should be abandoned.

On a purely political level, there is also a big opportunity for Labour to embarrass the Lib Dems. On issues such as tuition fees and spending cuts, Nick Clegg was able to claim, however unconvincingly, that the state of the public finances meant he had no choice but to change course. But on civil liberties no such defence is available to him. If, as seems likely, the coalition retains control orders -- better described as a form of house arrest -- the Lib Dems will be forced to compromise on a fundamental point of principle.

But whatever the political calculations involved, we should all be grateful that for the first time since 11 September 2001, a mature debate on civil liberties now seems possible.

UPDATE: Balls was also on The Andrew Marr Show this morning, where he fleshed out his position. He reaffirmed his support for a 14-day limit but warned that the coalition was "way too" liberal on CCTV and the DNA database. So clearly he won't be joining Liberty just yet ...

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Who will win in Manchester Gorton?

Will Labour lose in Manchester Gorton?

The death of Gerald Kaufman will trigger a by-election in his Manchester Gorton seat, which has been Labour-held since 1935.

Coming so soon after the disappointing results in Copeland – where the seat was lost to the Tories – and Stoke – where the party lost vote share – some overly excitable commentators are talking up the possibility of an upset in the Manchester seat.

But Gorton is very different to Stoke-on-Trent and to Copeland. The Labour lead is 56 points, compared to 16.5 points in Stoke-on-Trent and 6.5 points in Copeland. (As I’ve written before and will doubtless write again, it’s much more instructive to talk about vote share rather than vote numbers in British elections. Most of the country tends to vote in the same way even if they vote at different volumes.)

That 47 per cent of the seat's residents come from a non-white background and that the Labour party holds every council seat in the constituency only adds to the party's strong position here. 

But that doesn’t mean that there is no interest to be had in the contest at all. That the seat voted heavily to remain in the European Union – around 65 per cent according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates – will provide a glimmer of hope to the Liberal Democrats that they can finish a strong second, as they did consistently from 1992 to 2010, before slumping to fifth in 2015.

How they do in second place will inform how jittery Labour MPs with smaller majorities and a history of Liberal Democrat activity are about Labour’s embrace of Brexit.

They also have a narrow chance of becoming competitive should Labour’s selection turn acrimonious. The seat has been in special measures since 2004, which means the selection will be run by the party’s national executive committee, though several local candidates are tipped to run, with Afzal Khan,  a local MEP, and Julie Reid, a local councillor, both expected to run for the vacant seats.

It’s highly unlikely but if the selection occurs in a way that irritates the local party or provokes serious local in-fighting, you can just about see how the Liberal Democrats give everyone a surprise. But it’s about as likely as the United States men landing on Mars any time soon – plausible, but far-fetched. 

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