Labour's lurch to the lynch and the challenge for progressives

This week's New Statesman leader examines New Labour's approach to tackling the terror threat.

It matters that John Reid may run for the Labour leadership. It matters, not because he might win - the chances remain remote - but because of the effect his possible candidature is already having on the body politic. The government is engaged in a Dutch auction of toughness, where human rights and a sense of proportion are sacrificed in the name of combatting terrorism, and the forces of sanity are derided as naive or dangerous.

The Home Secretary waxes lyrical about locking up more people and building more prisons to accommodate them; about moving the probation service further away from social work to focus on its penal role; about allowing councils to evict anti-social residents and to fine parents of rowdy kids.

Would that it were only him. Now Gordon Brown seeks to gazump his arch foe, vowing that the nation's security will be safe only in his hands. He wants to be the figurehead in the government's second attempt to increase powers of pre-trial detention of terrorist suspects to 90 days.

The positioning is transparent - the leader-in-waiting has been told he cannot alienate the tabloids; he cannot allow Reid to open up a flank on law and order; and it does no harm to portray the Conservatives as posh softies, out of touch with the concerns of "real" people. Labour's lurch to the lynch poses problems for progressives who care about civil liberties. Everyone is alert to the threat of a new terrorist spectacular. The issue is not whether to respond to this grim reality, but how.

Two recent reports cast important light on the matter. The joint Lords and Commons Committee on Human Rights accused ministers of making unfounded assertions to hide failings in the system, and of disseminating myths about the Human Rights Act. The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, meanwhile, said the government had further damaged community relations in its actions and rhetoric and had increased state powers exponentially while avoiding oversight of them. "This is an administration that finds it hard to stand up to populist pressures," the report said. "The hostility to the judiciary is unfounded and constitutionally illiterate." Amen to that.

The more ministers are criticised by the great and the good, the more they convince themselves they are on the right track. Reid believes that depictions of him as a headbanging Glaswegian are nothing more than class snobbery. If so, he has ample opportunity to change that image. He argues that his policies are more variegated than portrayed, pointing out that his attempts to persuade judges not to jail people for petty crime are not being reported. If so, one might have thought a media savvy operator such as Reid could change that too.

Reid concedes the need to analyse why it is that Britain is such a violent country, and why it is that European states that adopt a more subtle approach to criminal justice seem to end up with fewer criminals. But he says such work will have to wait. One might have thought that this question should be asked, and answered, urgently.

Instead, Britain is being treated, in the tenth and final Queen's Speech of Tony Blair's rule, to yet more law and order bills - now branded Reid's "serenity" and "security" agenda. Contrast this with the government in 1997: then the agenda promised freedom of information and strengthening human rights.

As for Brown, he appears to be jumping on to each punitive bandwagon as it comes along. The not-guilty verdict against the leader of the British National Party does require a thorough examination of our whole approach to race and religious hatred. It does not require knee-jerk responses such as the one the Chancellor provided.

The New Statesman does not fall into the category of ultra-libertarian. We are fully versed in the terrorist threat. But before our ministers sign away our remaining rights, they should be reminded of some statistics. In Britain, about 6,500 deaths in the past year were alcohol-related; the figure for drugs was 1,500. More than 3,000 people were killed on the roads, while the Health and Safety Commission is investigating over 200 workplace fatalities. The terrible bombings of 7 July 2005 killed 52 people.

On wealth, capitalists and communists

This week we call for nominations for Person of the Year, the man or woman who, in your opinion, has done most for the good of humanity during 2006. On page 24, where a few NS friends get the ball rolling, we find proof that humanitarianism comes in many guises. Their choices include an abrasive comedian, a poet and the second-richest man in the world.

The latter is Warren Buffett who, after a lifetime acquiring a fortune, announced last June that he would give most of it away, starting with $30bn to the richest man in the world, or rather to the effective Gates Foundation, whose philanthropic work has already saved more than a million children. Buffett believes it a disgrace to die rich, supports swingeing inheritance taxes and has said that billionaires should leave their children enough to do anything but not enough to do nothing.

Which leaves us wondering if he has any advice to give Anita Halpin, chair of the Communist Party of Britain and suddenly richer by £20.5m after the sale of an important expressionist painting once owned by her German grandparents. She may be entitled to thousands more works from their former collection, which is bad news for the public galleries where many are now displayed. And a great moral dilemma, surely, for the head of a party traditionally antagonistic to inherited wealth.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Missing presumed tortured