CCTV cameras have often been at the forefront of Labour’s civil liberties problems. Photo: Getty
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The civil liberties audit: how does Labour do?

From 90-day detention to the DNA database, Labour has a mixed record on civil liberties. Big Brother Watch digs into the details.

As Big Brother Watch approaches its fifth anniversary, and as we look forward to the looming general election, we are taking stock of the state of civil liberties in the UK. In our 2015 manifesto, we have conducted an audit of the successes and failures of both the coalition government and Labour in opposition and, quite frankly, the diagnosis isn’t good, particularly on where Labour stands or perhaps more specifically, what a voter can expect from a potential Labour government.

If our manifesto were a school report, our conclusion on Labour’s stance on civil liberties could be summed up with “some improvement but needs to apply itself more consistently”.

No one can disagree with the fact that Labour has had a turbulent relationship on civil liberties. While they now claim that they are “proud of their record”, they will forever be the party that attempted to introduce compulsory ID cards, 90 day detention without trial and the creation of the largest DNA database in the world. That is their legacy and they have done little to overcome it. With mixed messages and a failure to position properly around the debate as a whole, Labour has certainly missed opportunities to show the electorate where its principles lie regarding the public’s fundamental freedoms and liberties.

Let’s look at what was happening pre-2010. It will come as no surprise to many that it was the late Tony Benn who raised concerns about Labour in this area. Speaking at the Big Brother Watch launch in 2009 he stated that the government had an obligation to “serve the people, not rule over them”. That these issues were too important and too fundamental to be left to party politics, that “it is not a matter of left or right, Tory or Labour”.

It wasn’t just old stalwarts who went out on a limb to convey to the public that lessons had to be learnt from the past. Chuka Umunna, then a parliamentary candidate, was the only Labour representative to take to the main stage at the 2009 Convention of Modern Liberty. Despite the fact that it was inevitable he would face audible hostility from the audience, he stood his ground. He accepted that there was a need to reform the discussion, particularly in areas of the media where civil liberties were being portrayed “as protecting the rights of people suspected of blowing up buses”. Instead, he argued that what was required was a more positive re-framing of the argument and that it needed to be people like him will making it an election issue. For a brief moment it made advocates think ‘is this the repositioning of the Labour Party?’.

Yet it wasn’t to be. Almost as soon as there was a glimmer of hope it disappeared as quickly as it came. The authoritarian line was too easy to fall back on.

This was evident in Labour’s 2010 general election manifesto, which only mentioned civil liberties twice. In both cases, it was to cite examples of where Labour could be proud of their track record: the removal children’s DNA profiles from the database and the tightening of surveillance rules. The hard line remained with pledges to install more CCTV cameras, an offer of a “new biometric ID scheme”, and promises to maintain the DNA database regime.

The 2010 Labour party conference failed to provide any change on where the party should stand on these issues and attempts to re-evaluate Labour’s position were unclear if not hypocritical. In his first speech as leader Ed Miliband argued that he would not let the coalition government “take ownership of the British tradition of liberty”. He accepted the broad use of anti-terrorism powers had been wrong and yet stood by the previous Labour government’s stance on CCTV and DNA. Indeed, the then shadow justice secretary Jack Straw’s comments that the coalition’s policies meant that only criminals would benefit from “this madness”, reaffirmed that for some that Labour’s old position was, and always would be, the correct one.

Since then, there has always been an undercurrent of confusion as to how far to push a new agenda when it comes to civil liberties, coupled with the fear of contradicting the policies of Straw and his government contemporaries.

For instance, when speaking to the BBC, Ed Balls (as shadow home secretary) claimed that more CCTV cameras were needed, if only to just make people feel safer. Yet when pushed, like Miliband he too conceded that 90-day detention was a “step too far” and that the Labour government had “got the balance wrong”.

The same can be said for Yvette Cooper’s time as shadow home secretary. She too has argued against the coalition’s policy to restrict DNA use, but welcomed restrictions being placed on the use of surveillance powers by local authorities. Or reacting to the Snowden revelations by calling for a radical shakeup of the oversight and legal frameworks governing the spooks, yet enthusiastically backing the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIP) and the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill.

It would be remiss of me to mention DRIP without mentioning the role played by Tom Watson in getting it into the public domain early to allow for as much public scrutiny as was possible. It was certainly unfortunate that the line became one of process, rather than of principled issues and surveillance.

Similarly, Cooper’s intervention in the Draft Communications Data Bill, aka the Snoopers’ Charter, debate was minimal. While ruling out helping the Conservatives pass the Bill without the support of their coalition partners, this wasn’t due to concerns regarding civil liberties, but concerns regarding funding and expense.

It is the efforts by a small but vocal minority in the party with led us to the conclusion of “some improvement” mentioned at the beginning of this article. While it is indeed true that the days of proposing sweeping powers to detain people without swift and due legal process may be over, there has been a failure to provide us with a legitimate alternative to what the coalition has offered. However, this isn’t quite enough to suggest that the 2015 manifesto won’t present more of the same.

At this point, Labour has a serious opportunity to reassess and take ownership of the debate, providing a balancing act that was once largely the domain of the Liberal Democrats. Yet this will be impossible until Ed Miliband decides what his Labour Party actually stands for. Let’s hope that it is more towards Tony Benn’s “serve the people, not rule over them” mantra, rather than what we have seen in the past.

Emma Carr is the director of Big Brother Watch

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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