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Tom Watson bids to reclaim personal liberty for the left

Labour's deputy leader tells David Cameron: "We own liberty just as much as he does, indeed more so". 

Since returning to power as a majority government, free of the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives have introduced a battery of measures to weaken the opposition and to limit accountability: the freedom of information act review, the planned reduction in the House of Lords' powers, the 19 per cent cut in public funding for opposition parties and the trade union bill. 

In a speech tomorrow morning, Tom Watson, Labour's most vigorous champion of civil liberties, will take aim at this agenda. He will call on the Tories to abandon their FoI review, describing it as "a particularly egregious example of their determination to reverse the transparency Labour introduced."

"It doesn’t have the support of the public," he will say, "it is opposed by many of the organisations that are covered by FoI; it has been condemned by the Information Commissioner and slammed by a former head of the civil service. It’s a waste of taxpayers money and it’s time it was scrapped. The Freedom of Information Act works well. Labour would strengthen and extend it." 

Watson will highlight the disparity between the Tories' actions and their past words in opposition and coalition. 

The Tories used to talk up transparency, because it made them seem radical and modern. The 2010 Coalition agreement promised to 'throw open the doors of public bodies, to enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account”. This included a commitment to “extend the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency'. 

It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious. Because now that he has a clear Tory majority, and five years in government under his belt, the Prime Minister is 'reviewing' the Freedom of Information Act with a view to making it significantly weaker, not stronger at all.

As opposition leader he famously said 'Sunlight is the best disinfectant' and promised the Tories would 'bring the operation of Government out into the open'. As Prime Minister he is methodically closing all the doors and the shutters, drawing the blinds and the curtains, retreating to the shadows at the back of the national farmhouse. He wants to govern from the gloom in the old fashioned way, without the inconvenience of scrutiny, abandoning any hope of decency or trust.

His response to the crisis in our health service has been to introduce an NHS news blackout. NHS England has confirmed that the weekly information bulletin, which was due to begin publication on Friday 11th December, will no longer include figures on four hour waits in emergency departments, the number of ambulances queueing outside hospitals, or operations cancelled at the last minute. He thinks we won’t like what they’re doing, so they’re going to stop telling us about it.


But rather than merely reciting the traditional arguments for FoI, Watson will make an original and innovative case for the necessity of civil liberties in an age of greater economic interventionism. 

"There is another reason why we have to ensure checks and balances on excessive state power are hardwired into our democratic institutions and political culture.

"It’s because changing economic realities will mean the state has to play a more enabling role in the generations to come. Let me explain what I mean.

"The hour glass economy is going to hollow out middle class jobs over the next quarter of a century unless the state acts. The Bank of England's chief economist Andy Haldane said last month that the Bank's own research showed this to be the case. In my view, if we are to adapt to the massive social upheaval that the impact of technology and automation is going to have on our society, there will have to be a growing acceptance of new forms of state intervention. I'm not talking about the next election but the direction of travel over the next 30 years. Where there is a greater acceptance of the role of the state in market intervention, industrial strategy, economic planning and adaptation to climate change."

If this happens, there will have to be far more safeguards to protect citizens from erosions of their individual liberty. Governments have to work at this because there will be an institutional pressure to ignore the impact of unchecked state power. You only have to see what technological power allows the government to do with the Investigatory Powers Bill. For left leaning governments, it is important to have a strand of discussion that specifically focuses on civil liberties. Left leaning political parties need to encourage internal debate about civil liberties.

Watson will also root his argument in philosophy, arguing that it is imperative for the left to reclaim the cause of personal liberty from the right. Far from being counterposed to equality, he will argue, the two values are mutually dependent. 

We know all about the aspect of the socialist tradition which stretches back to Hegel and centres on equality of condition. For sure, that’s one of the two central strands of our philosophical inheritance.

But I think we often forget on the British left that the other key strand of our tradition traces its roots back before Hegel, to Rousseau, and has as its founding principle not equality, but liberty. Because you can’t have one without the other. They are always and inextricably linked. It’s an interdependent bargain, a balance, with each side as important as the other.

We need to have these debates with David Cameron secure in the knowledge that we own liberty just as much as he does, indeed more so. We don’t repudiate liberty as they try to portray us.

He will add: "These Thatcherites all worship Hobbes, because he was so cynical about the state, whereas it’s actually Locke and Rousseau who gave an equal place to liberty in their social contracts. Liberty is ours, not theirs. Our tradition is of liberty, a benevolent state AND equality.

"Though it’s the Hobbesians, paradoxically, on the right of the Conservative party who most often found common cause with the civil libertarian dissenters in the Blair to Miliband era. The challenge for both parties is to hot wire our tradition of liberty into the way we make policy today – in both parties and in government."

Finally, he will warn: "With this government we are moving to a new era of private government, where ministers know best. It's resonant of Harold Wilson's description of the then Conservative government as being run on the principles of the Edwardian Grouse Moor." 

Many civil libertarians have never forgiven Labour for its attempted introduction of ID cards, 90-day detention and control orders. But Watson's thoughtful and principled speech should help his party win a hearing. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.