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15 October 2020

Why Keir Starmer’s approach on security comes with a big risk

The Labour leadership is using the Human Rights Act as its shield – but the Conservatives are planning to dismantle it.

By Stephen Bush

Political journalism is generally more likely to cover rows than policy. So for the Labour leadership, that 35 Labour MPs are to defy Keir Starmer’s decision to abstain on the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill, including multiple frontbenchers who have quit in order to vote against the bill, makes today a good day in the office.

There will be more written about the fact of the rebellions – chief among them and most disappointing for the Labour leadership that of Dan Carden from the shadow Treasury team – than the content of the bill. Evident in this coverage will be Starmer’s preferred message: Labour is now taking a tougher and more authoritarian line on security and related issues than it did under Jeremy Corbyn. That the rebels – with the exceptions of Geraint Davies and Sarah Owen, the MPs for Swansea West and Luton North respectively – either have unimpeachable Corbynite credentials, like Bell Ribeiro-Addy or Clive Lewis, or came to be heavily identified with Corbyn over the course of his leadership, like Ian Lavery or Barry Gardiner, will further fuel another of the leadership’s narratives: the party is moving away from its Corbynite past.

But politics is about more than just positioning and the search for electoral advantage, and the contents of the bill are the most important part.

There are two ways to read the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill from a liberal perspective. The first is that it legally regulates the law-breaking activities of covert operatives for the first time – behaviours such as the Spycops scandal – which is a welcome move. Important work of the security services now has a legal underpinning within the framework of human rights law: so the bill, while imperfect, is a forward step that it would be wrong for Labour to impede. This is the official position of the party leadership, and Conor McGinn, the shadow security minister, sets that out in greater detail over at LabourList. The second interpretation of the bill is that it greatly expands the scope and freedom of the security and intelligence services to break the law, which is a retrograde step.

The problem with the first interpretation is it rests upon the continuing presence of the 1998 Human Rights Act on the statute book, and is highly unlikely, to be frank, that the Human Rights Act will survive the 2019 parliament. It has long been the aim of the Conservative Party to repeal and replace the 1998 Act, and now they have a majority big enough to escape the objections and opposition of the liberals on their own benches they will almost certainly do so sooner rather than later.

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Labour’s position is strategically vulnerable because it’s incoherent in policy terms: the party’s position is, essentially, that it doesn’t matter that this bill increases the scope of potentially illegal activity by the intelligence and security services, because the Human Rights Act guts their effectiveness. It suggests it is only for giving the security services all this autonomy with one hand because it is taking it away with the other.

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That may not matter politically if today’s manoeuvres mean Starmer is able to establish the perception of him in people’s minds as offering a break with the past. But if the Conservatives succeed in exposing the contradiction at the heart of Labour’s position, he may find that any political capital he has accrued today is simply counterfeit money.