Labour as the party of civil liberties? We won't be fooled that easily

It is the Liberal Democrats that have secured the return of the freedoms curtailed by Labour.

Oh Sadiq. How could you?

Over here in the Lib Dems we’re used to you, ahem, 'borrowing' our policies. So now Labour is in favour of a mansion tax, a 2030 decarbonisation target, a reduction in the voting age to 16 and the removal of Winter Fuel Payments from the wealthiest 5% of pensioners? All this seems terribly familiar stuff. Because they’re policies and proposals championed by the Lib Dems.

And you’re probably cursing the fact you didn't make a promise of free school meals as well. Although I’m reminded of my favourite Oscar Wilde anecdote; hearing a friend utter a fabulous witticism, Wilde whispered to his companion, "I wish I had said that". "Oh don’t worry Oscar", replied the friend – "I’m sure you will…"

Surely, imitation is surely the sincerest form of flattery.

But now, Sadiq, you’ve gone too far by claiming Labour, and not the Liberal Democrats, is the champion of civil liberties. How quickly you must think we forget. Let’s review what the Convention of Modern Liberty said about civil liberties in its review of Labour from 1997-2009:

- 60 new powers introduced across 25 Acts of Parliament breaking pledges in the Human Rights Act and Magna Carta, all to reduce civil rights.

- 28-day detention without charge (And I seem to recall you wanted 90 days – 90!)

- Stop and search at airports without reason

- Control Orders

And what was the other thing you wanted to do? Oh, that’s right – introduce National Identity Cards. Words fail me.

Compare that to the Lib Dems in government. An end to child detention in immigration cases. The blocking of the Snooper's Charter. Ending the storing of DNA of innocent people. Reform of the libel laws.

Labour could have done any of this. But you didn’t. And even on our one Achilles' heel, secret courts, the grassroots in the Lib Dems have done their job – and the leadership have accepted their mistake. Only this week, conference rejected proposals for technologically impractical internet filters. What’s Labour’s policy on this? I don’t think you have one. Presumably you’re waiting for us to decide ours first so you can pinch it.

The Labour Party is many things. But claiming to be the party of civil rights? Now, that is a taking a liberty.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

 

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper speaks at the Labour conference in Liverpool in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.