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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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt