CCTV cameras have often been at the forefront of Labour’s civil liberties problems. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496