What's fair about Private Manning's sentence?

Nicky Woolf is glad that there are still people such as Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning around.

Bradley Manning was young. Alienated by the ultra-macho culture of the US military, and horrified by what he saw the military doing. So he acted on his conscience; leaking documents to Wikileaks that highlighted systematic abuses by US military and security forces, igniting an inferno of outrage and debate in the public.

Yesterday, a military judge took less than a minute to sentence him to 35 years imprisonment for this single act; of this, he has already served more than three, much of it in solitary confinement in appalling conditions.

It sticks in the craw, doesn't it? Doesn't it feel wrong, deep down in the bone? In a nation where the average rapist – if convicted at all – serves fewer than three years, and the average time served for sexual assault is just 35 months, this man, whose crime was simply to show the public how badly their government was behaving, will not even be eligible for parole for another eight years (taking into account the three years already served). What's fair about that? How could this possibly be?

Here is the argument in favour. A government necessarily deals in secrecy a lot of the time. Diplomacy, security and good governance do need to be secretive sometimes to operate in a high-stakes world of nuclear weapons, rogue states, and terrorism. That government must inevitably then prosecute these whistleblowers, and prosecute them harshly, if the system is to stay standing. If Manning was to be pardoned, or given a lighter sentence, then it would send the message that whistleblowing of this kind is legal and sanctioned, and cause a free-for-all which would leave the security forces and diplomatic services completely unable to do their jobs. The recent leak of diplomatic cables to Wikileaks, for example, is pointed at; a diplomatic disaster which made the lives of civil servants at the cutting edge of international politics much more difficult, and maybe endangered lives in the process.

So once Manning had been caught, the US government had to prosecute him, and prosecute him harshly. That, the argument runs, is simply how the game is played.

But that is only half the story. Inevitably, a government often oversteps the line of necessary secrecy. Its culture of secrecy can often become poisonous, self-propelling; a secret world which can undermine and sometimes overrule democracy for its own survival. It may claim to be working to protect us; but what could be so terrifying that our protectors must work so often in the dark?

When that happens, as arguably it has done in recent years in the United States and Britain, it falls to a whistleblower to step forward: an Edward Snowden or a Bradley Manning who are driven by their convictions to sacrifice their lives – as Manning has done – in order to shine a light on such abuses.

The relationship between journalists and governments is by nature antagonistic. It is the role of a newspaper like the Guardian or the New York Times or the Washington Post, or indeed an operation like Wikileaks to seek out such whistleblowers; and to protect them as much as they can afterwards, sometimes by keeping their identities secret for decades. Arguably, Wikileaks failed in its duty of care in protecting Manning.

Of course, a balance needs to be struck. Newspapers like the Guardian have become extremely proficient in working out which leaks are worthwhile, and which may put lives in danger. Smaller organisations like Wikileaks have not, and some leaks have happened that, arguably, did cause damage, diplomatically if not physically. But the world has changed. Secrets are harder to keep, and once out, harder to control. Governments must move with the times, not lash out when the combination of technology and conscience leave them embarrassed and exposed.

Whistleblowers know that they will probably pay a high price for their act of conscience. It is what makes that act so noble. Who did the outrageous and horrifying treatment of Manning deter? Certainly not Edward Snowden – though he has been forced to choose exile to avoid it. Still they take a gulp, square their shoulders, breathe deeply, and blow the whistle, because they believe that what they are doing is important enough to merit that level of sacrifice.

I, for one, am glad that there are still such people around.

Private Manning. Photograph: Getty Images
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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.