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The Lib Dems' failure to defend our rights means Labour is now the party of civil liberties

From the lobbying bill to secret courts and legal aid, too often Nick Clegg's party have been the lobby fodder the Tories need to deliver their attacks on our freedoms.

Nick Clegg with Danny Alexander at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.

With the Liberal Democrats' ever-weakening claim to be the party of civil liberties, the last seven days are a new low. Just last Tuesday, not a single one of their MPs opposed the party of the government’s draconian Lobbying Bill that muzzles charities and campaigners. Seemingly happy with the chilling effect the proposals will have on civic society’s contribution to our democracy, they trooped through the lobby in support. What’s more, it’s a Lib Dem minister leading on the Bill.

And just 24 hours later, I almost choked on my cornflakes at reports in the Guardian that the Lib Dems will repeal legislation on secret courts. What’s astonishing is that this is an Act of Parliament their MPs voted in favour of, and helped put on the statute books, just five months ago. Having spent 11 months involved in that bill, I was pleased at the stance taken by last year’s Liberal Democrat conference, asking their MPs to support Labour in opposing the worst excesses of the proposals. Unfortunately, the party leadership refused.

Having met many Lib Dem members, I know this issue caused considerable anger, with some resigning in disgust. On secret courts, the Lib Dem leadership suffered one of only a handful of annual conference defeats since 2010. And this is symptomatic of a growing divide between the grassroots and their MPs. Many Lib Dem supporters will see last week’s newspaper reports on secret courts as a stunt to head off another confrontation at their conference. Looking at the issues up for votes at their conference, I doubt whether Lib Dem members, activists or supporters have been fooled.

The Lib Dem leadership desperately spin that they are a moderating influence on Tory excesses. But in areas of justice and the constitution, tumbleweed blows through the party's benches when it comes to areas of policy that should be core to their beliefs. Lib Dem MPs happily supported government changes to individual electoral registration that could see millions of eligible voters losing their vote. They voted to reduce the number of MPs by a figure designed only to benefit the Tories. And they’ve barely made a squeak on the dismantling of access to justice – cuts to legal aid - and the curtailing of judicial review. Their silence on weakening freedom of information through ever more public money in the hands of private companies beyond the scope of the legislation is deafening.

Of course difficult decisions are faced on a day to day basis, as Labour knows well. Getting the balance right between what is in the interests of protecting the public and what upholds the rights of all of our citizens is something on occasions we got wrong. The Lib Dems never missed the chance to moralise on this when Labour was in government, yet have jettisoned any semblance of a truly liberal position in many areas at the first prospect of a ministerial car and grand office. It’s left to Labour to champion legal and constitutional protections our citizens need in a healthy democracy and it’s a shame we couldn’t do this together in Parliament.

The Lib Dems must learn one very big lesson – that the Tories cannot be trusted with civil liberties and our constitution. The Tories have shown themselves a majoritarian party, seeking the eradication of criticism and challenge, curtailing checks and balances and putting themselves beyond the rule of law. Just last week we saw the smear on charities by Chris Grayling. Their idea of democracy is if you’re not with us, you should be muzzled, snuffed out, or put back in your box.

But politics isn't a battle of ideas if you gag those you don’t agree with. This isn’t a democracy Labour believes in – nor, I suspect, Lib Dem members. Labour recognises that we are stronger as a nation through checks and balances that hold to account those in positions of power, including governments and public agencies. Enormous value flows from flourishing campaigns, charities and civic organisations and their mass-membership participating in politics. All of these are crucial to the lifeblood of a modern democracy, not threats.

Of course, I welcome the Lib Dems agreeing with Labour in defending the Human Rights Act, and membership of the European Court of Human Rights. But I’m afraid that on many issues, the mere association with the Tories is enough to tarnish their liberal veneer. They are the lobby fodder the Tories need to deliver their attacks on our constitutional rights. 

And so it falls to Labour to defend our citizen’s rights and stand up to powerful vested interests, be them economic, in the media, or political. Ed Miliband has made it clear that we won’t tolerate abuse by elites, monopolies, or those with concentrated power. To those turning their backs on the Lib Dems on civil liberties issues, this doesn’t leave you without electoral options. On the contrary – under Ed Miliband’s leadership, it’s Labour that can now lay claim to the mantle of defender of our citizens’ rights.

Sadiq Khan is the shadow justice secretary (with special responsibility for constitutional and political reform)