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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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.