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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Recess confidential: Labour's liquid party

Sniffing out the best stories from Westminster, including Showsec, soames, and Smith-side splits.

If you are celebrating in a brewery, don’t ask Labour to provide the drinks. Because of the party’s continuing failure to secure a security contractor for its Liverpool conference, it is still uncertain whether the gathering will take place at all. Since boycotting G4S, the usual supplier, over its links with Israeli prisons, Labour has struggled to find an alternative. Of the five firms approached, only one – Showsec – offered its services. But the company’s non-union-recognition policy is inhibiting an agreement. The GMB, the firm’s antagonist, has threatened to picket the conference if Showsec is awarded the contract. In lieu of a breakthrough, sources suggest two alternatives: the police (at a cost of £59.65 per constable per hour), or the suspension of the G4S boycott. “We’ll soon find out which the Corbynites dislike the least,” an MP jested. Another feared that the Tories’ attack lines will write themselves: “How can Labour be trusted with national security if it can’t organise its own?”

Farewell, then, to Respect. The left-wing party founded in 2004 and joined by George Galloway after his expulsion from Labour has officially deregistered itself.

“We support Corbyn’s Labour Party,” the former MP explained, urging his 522,000 Facebook followers to sign up. “The Labour Party does not belong to one man,” replied Jess Phillips MP, who also pointed out in the same tweet that Respect had “massively failed”. Galloway, who won 1.4 per cent of the vote in this year’s London mayoral election, insists that he is not seeking to return to Labour. But he would surely be welcomed by Jeremy Corbyn’s director of communications, Seumas Milne, whom he once described as his “closest friend”. “We have spoken almost daily for 30 years,” Galloway boasted.

After Young Labour’s national committee voted to endorse Corbyn, its members were aggrieved to learn that they would not be permitted to promote his candidacy unless Owen Smith was given equal treatment. The leader’s supporters curse more “dirty tricks” from the Smith-sympathetic party machine.

Word reaches your mole of a Smith-side split between the ex-shadow cabinet ministers Lisa Nandy and Lucy Powell. The former is said to be encouraging the challenger’s left-wing platform, while the latter believes that he should make a more centrist pitch. If, as expected, Smith is beaten by Corbyn, it’s not only the divisions between the leader and his opponents that will be worth watching.

Nicholas Soames, the Tory grandee, has been slimming down – so much so, that he was congratulated by Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, on his weight loss. “Soon I’ll be able to give you my old suits!” Soames told the similarly rotund Watson. 

Kevin Maguire is away

I'm a mole, innit.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser