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.

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)

Nick Clegg with Danny Alexander at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.
Sadiq Khan is MP for Tooting, shadow justice secretary and shadow minister for London.
Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses