Nick Clegg: "it's not obvious what one can do in a way that is consistent with our legal obligations". Photo: Getty
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Nick Clegg: “It’s not obvious” what the UK can do legally on new terror powers

The Deputy Prime Minister admits that effectively stripping suspected terrorists of their UK citizenship is difficult in terms of Britain’s legal obligations.

David Cameron announced to the Commons yesterday, when discussing strengthening Britain’s anti-terror legislation, that the government would continue talks on preventing Britons fighting with Islamic State (formerly known as Isis) returning to Britain, alongside additional powers to seize passports of suspects. This was a softer line than was being briefed over the weekend, which suggested the Tories in government’s strong intentions to introduce new measures to effectively strip suspects of citizenship.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, although obfuscating on the BBC’s Today programme this morning, did hint that this plan would be too difficult to achieve within the international law to which the UK is bound.

Discussing the proposals related to suspects’ passports, he admitted: “At the moment, it is not obvious what one can do in a way that is consistent with our legal obligations. The prime minister, quite rightly, said we are not going to do anything which clashes with both our domestic and international legal principles and obligations.”

He then went on twice to point out that it is already possible for the authorities to confiscate individuals’ passports temporarily under the Royal Prerogative, and suggested that this existing mechanism was enough, saying “I don’t think it’s controversial” to propose confiscating suspects’ passports, “as we already have the Royal Prerogative”. He said it would give the “police and security agencies and others” a “window” of opportunity to investigate certain figures attempting to return to the UK, and arrest them if necessary.

The Lib Dem leader added that, “as a country of the rule of law”, which the UK upholds “unlike these barbaric, medieval types in Isil”, it would only legislate “in keeping with our best domestic traditions”.

However, Clegg was a bit stronger on how Britain could be led into military action against IS. Cameron told the Commons yesterday that if emergency action needed to be taken, he could decide to act and tell parliament afterwards. Clegg, however, commented that, “clearly any British government that takes a decision to be involved in military conflict should always try to seek the permission of parliament first… I cannot stress enough, I have long believed – what is now the convention – that parliament [should have the say over whether British military forces are engaged abroad] is very important.”

Although admitting that there may be “emergency reasons” to act before consulting parliament”, he insisted that the priority should be that, “it needs to be done in a way that is democratically accountable”.

It has been widely reported how the Lib Dems have been clashing with the Conservatives over the civil liberties and legal implications of the desires of the latter for new anti-terror measures. Although Clegg refused to be drawn on these disagreements, it’s clear that both the existence of a coalition, and the precedent for asking parliament whether it endorses military action, puts significant brakes on the UK government’s approach to its intervention in foreign crises.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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It's time for Jeremy Corbyn's supporters to take on the unions

The union support for expanding Heathrow reflects a certain conservatism. 

The government’s announcement that it will go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow seems to have unlocked an array of demons. It has also created some unlikely alliances. Zac Goldsmith, the pro-Brexit mayoral candidate whose campaign was widely condemned as racist, is seeking to re-invent himself as an environmental champion, campaigning alongside fellow Heathrow MP John McDonnell. And the Richmond byelection which he is triggering could yet become a test case for Labour’s progressive alliance enthusiasts.

But perhaps the most significant position is that of the major unions. To the shock of many less seasoned activists on the left, Unite, the largest trade union in the UK and a consistent supporter of Corbyn’s leadership, has loudly called on the government to “be bold and build” the new runway, even now urging it to accelerate the process. Far from being a revelation, Unite’s position on Heathrow is longstanding – and it points to the lasting power and influence of an establishment trade unionism.

In August, the TUC co-ordinated a joint statement from five unions, urging the government to go ahead with the third runway. Like the rest of the unions’ lobbying efforts, it was coordinated with other pro-expansion stakeholders like the CBI, and it could just as easily have been authored by the business lobby. Heathrow expansion will, it says, “deliver at least £147bn to UK GDP and 70,000 new jobs”. “Trade unions and their members”, said Frances O’Grady, “stand ready to work to help the government successfully deliver this next major national infrastructure project”.

The logic that drives unions to support projects like Heathrow expansion – and which drives the GMB union to support fracking and Trident renewal – is grounded in a model of trade unionism which focuses not on transforming the workplace, but on the narrowly-defined interests of workers – job creation, economic growth and a larger share of the pie. It views the trade union movement not as merely antagonistic to employers, but as a responsible lobbying partner for business and industry, and as a means of mediating workers’ demands in a way that is steady and acceptable to the state and the economic system. This model, and the politics that accompanied it, is why, historically, trade unions were a conservative influence on Labour’s internal politics.

Nothing could be more at odds with the political, environmental and economic realities of the 21st century. It is not in the interests of workers or ordinary people to live on a planet which is slowly becoming uninhabitable. To avoid catastrophic global warming, we need to leave the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground – that probably means shrinking the aviation industry, not expanding Heathrow’s passenger capacity by 70 per cent. All of this is implicitly recognised by Jeremy Corbyn’s environmental and industrial strategy, which aims to create a million new jobs and build a million new homes while switching to renewables and democratising the energy industry.

The gap between Corbyn’s policies and the policies of many major trade unions tells us something deeper about the challenges facing the left. If Corbynism is an unfinished revolution in the Labour Party machine, it is one which has barely started in the wider labour movement.

The gradual leftward shift in many unions’ political allegiances has broadened the alliance around Corbyn and given him strength in numbers and resources, but it is often as much about internal union politics as it is a deep conviction for what Corbyn represents. Unison general secretary Dave Prentis did back Corbyn’s re-election following a ballot of members, but is hardly a left-winger, and the union’s votes on Labour’s NEC are not safely aligned to the left.

The political radicalisation of the unions has been matched, if anything, by a decline in coordinated industrial action. The national strategy that fuelled the anti-austerity movement in 2011 and 2012 is only a memory. The democratic and organising culture in many unions, too, remains bureaucratic and opaque. Trade unions have played a key role in Corbyn’s coalition, but without a significant shift in their internal culture and a shift away from their role as respectable partners of industry, they could easily scupper the project as well. 

The expansion of Heathrow airport is a step backwards for the future of the planet and the interests of ordinary people – and yet, if it happens at all, it will have been made possible by the concerted efforts of key trade unions. This is not an aberration but a reminder that, despite their rhetorical flourishes in support of Corbyn, Britain’s trade unions are also in need of change. Any project that aims to transform the Labour party and wider society must also aim to transform the whole of the labour movement – from the shop floor to the corridors of power.