If the Labour Party had won the general election, the UK government would now be moving on to the final imposition of a deeply flawed national ID Card scheme.
It was only the Labour Party’s defeat that prevented this calamity from occurring.
Indeed, on that issue as for many others, it would be more accurate to describe the Labour Party after 2001 as the Illiberal Party. It was not the first period in office of an Illiberal Party: Pitt the Younger and Lord Liverpool presided over similar administrations either side of the Napoleonic Wars. But this Illiberal administration was perhaps the worst of the modern age.
And presumably every delegate at the Labour conference campaigned and voted for the re-election of this Illiberal Party. Had each of these delegates had their way, the Illiberals would be continuing their relentless assault on domestic civil liberties. Policy would still be made at New Scotland Yard and walked across Victoria Street and down Strutton Ground to the new Home Office. Prison would still be “working” and Ken Clarke would still be in business.
Now Ed Miliband, in his first leadership speech, appears to be telling his party members that they were wrong to be so illiberal for so long and in so many ways:
“My generation recognises too that government can itself become a vested interest when it comes to civil liberties.
I believe too in a society where individual freedom and liberty matter and should never be given away lightly.
The first job of government is the protection of its citizens. As Prime Minister I would never forget that.
And that means working with all the legitimate means at our disposal to disrupt and destroy terrorist networks.
But we must always remember that British liberties were hard fought and hard won over hundreds of years.
We should always take the greatest care in protecting them.
And too often we seemed casual about them.
Like the idea of locking someone away for 90 days – nearly three months in prison – without charging them with a crime.
Or the broad use of anti-terrorism measures for purposes for which they were not intended.”
These are fine sentiments: an overall admission that the government of which he was a member just went too far.
To say such things must be a good start. Former ministers can and sometimes must disown their own periods in office – one thinks of Thatcher moving on from Heath’s economic policies after 1975 – and it may well be that Miliband is signalling such a break.
It may even be that Miliband will seek to attack the Coalition on civil liberty issues from the Left. If so, that would be refreshing contrast to the awful precedent of Tony Blair’s years in opposition, when as shadow Home Secretary and Labour leader he continually attacked the Major administration from the Right and got plaudits from the tabloids for doing so.
However, one must read carefully what Miliband says. He admits to excess; but it is less clear what he thinks to be appropriate. When he states “the important things we did like CCTV and DNA testing” is he saying that the surveillance society is the one we shoud live in? Is he commending the routine holding of DNA of suspects, declared to be illegal by the European Court of Human Rights? Is he actually saying anything progessive at all?
The truth is that the Labour Party – with the honourable exceptions of Roy Jenkins and others who moved onto the Liberal Democrats – has never “got” civil liberties. In a similar way the Conservatives have never really “got” the Welfare State. They may mean well and say sometimes what others want them to say, but their hearts and minds are just not engaged.
These reservations apart, at least Ed Miliband is making the right sort of noises. And all those at the Manchester conference – who only months ago were urging us to re-elect their Illiberal Party – now seem to like these noises. So let’s see how those noises convert into detailed progressive criticism of Coalition policy.
David Allen Green is a writer and lawyer. His Jack of Kent blog was shortlisted for the George Orwell Prize in 2010. He blogs for the New Statesman on legal and policy issues.