Clegg impresses on libel reform

Deputy PM announces a series of measures to curb Britain’s “chilling” libel laws.

It's not the vote-winner the Lib Dems badly need but Nick Clegg's comments on libel reform today are some of the most impressive we've heard from a British politician. In his speech on civil liberties (a full transcript of which can be found here), the Deputy PM promised to provide publishers with a new statutory public-interest defence, clamp down on libel tourism and reform the system of "no win, no fee" litigation, which can make it prohibitively expensive for publications to defend themselves.

Clegg said: "The test of a free press is its capacity to unearth the truth, exposing charlatans and vested interests along the way. It is simply not right when academics and journalists are effectively bullied into silence by the prospect of costly legal battles with wealthy individuals and big businesses."

Britain's libel laws, as the NS has noted before, have become a international embarrassment. So feared are this country's laws that the US Congress last year passed new legislation to counter the threat posed by libel tourists in the UK.

American newspapers including the New York Times, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times had threatened to abandon supplying the 200-odd copies they make available for sale in London because they could no longer risk losing millions of dollars in a libel action that they would never face under US law.

The "no win, no fee" system was created with the honourable aim of providing the poorest with access to justice, yet it has left small publishers unable to defend themselves. Research by Oxford University shows that the cost of fighting a libel action in England is 140 times greater than the European average. Jack Straw's libel reform plan, which would have capped lawyers' success fees at 10 per cent, fell victim to the parliamentary "wash-up".

But Clegg's reforms, which will be included in a draft defamation bill in the spring, are not sufficient. London has become the libel capital of the world, not just because of the sums claimants can win but because it is easier to win a case here than in any comparable democracy. Only English libel law places the burden of proof on the defendant, meaning the odds are stacked against authors and publishers from the start.

The government should shift this burden from the defendant to the plaintiff as a matter of priority. But if Clegg can deliver on his aspiration to turn English libel laws from an "international laughing stock to an international blueprint", we'll have at least one thing to thank the Lib Dems for.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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