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.
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle