If the Labour Party really want to unify left and right, they need to get serious about civil liberties
All five of the Labour leadership candidates are fighting over who can best unite left and right (with Ed Balls perhaps winning by claiming to have united Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson).
But it’s fairly easy to get two Mayor of London hopefuls to agree that Londoners should be given special treatment by being exempt from the spending cuts and the immigration cap.
There is a more urgent issue which really does seem to unite everyone from the Daily Mail to the Socialist Workers Party, and from the Guardian to ex-UKIP leader Nigel Farage. But it’s an uncomfortable one for Labour – especially for bookies’ favourite for leader, David Miliband.
Under New Labour, British civil liberties have been offensively poor. Since 1997, the government created over 3,000 new laws. Over 1,000 of them carry jail terms.
This is not wholly bad. Labour brought in some very good laws – the Working Family Tax Credit, to take just one example. How could people object to a tax cut for the working poor? Labour also brought in some laws to protect, even expand, people’s freedoms, such as the 2003 Licensing Act, or the 2004 Civil Partnership Act.
So let’s not pretend all laws are bad. Laws which protect and expand liberties are not authoritarian, and it would be a mistake to automatically assume, as some do, that more laws necessarily equates to less liberty. Still, ask almost any ordinary voter of any political persuasion for their their verdict on the Labour government, and they will be very likely indeed to tell you that Labour’s overall record on civil liberties has been shameful.
From detention without trial, and the shooting of Charles de Menezes, to very nearly passing an anti-blasphemy law (instead compromising by just banning ‘religious incitement’), New Labour managed, by mistake, to unify the far-left, the far-right, and most of the middle, all in furious opposition to their policies.
Civil liberties are perhaps of even greater relevance now. Other countries in Europe are banning Burquas and Minarets, and targeting laws specifically at the Roma. Britain, as one of the EU member states to take a sensible view of the Burqa non-issue (a non-issue because people have been wearing Burquas and similar garments all over the world quite happily for as long as anyone can remember without bringing about the collapse of civilisation as we know it) should be taking this opportunity to re-assert our moral authority in the EU.
We are not. Instead, we are arresting people for burning Qurans. Burning books is a horrific thing to do, and symbolic of a dubious mind (to put it generously). But burning a Quran is also an act that is extremely unlikely to change the mind of anyone who isn’t already an Islamophobe, and is, in fact, probably extremely likely to change the minds of many of those Britons who insist, blindly, that there is no Islamophobia in Britain. Our cousins in the States showed us the way to deal with such idiots, and it worked perfectly for them. Everyone from Barack Obama to Sarah Palin explained to pastor Terry Jones that although he was free to burn whatever he likes, he would be accountable for the nasty consequences, and he would be a much bigger, much more respected person, if he dropped the whole thing. Having got what he very probably wanted anyway (lots of ink), he did, course, not burn any Qurans: a victory, surely, for libertarians everywhere. Would Labour advocate arresting Terry Jones? The implication of their laws is that they would. Would that have achieved anything that couldn’t be achieved by everyone else exercising their freedom – and responsibility – to tell Pastor Jones what they thought of him?
But this is not just about New Labour. The tottering giant of civil liberties is not going to balance out while everyone sips their tea patiently, just because Labour are gone from power. Let’s not pretend the Conservative party has a reassuring record on civil liberties. To take just one (crucial) example, the rights of workers to negotiate the value of their own labour is just as worthy of protection as an inventor’s right to choose what value he wants for his own ideas, or a consumer’s right to choose which workers and which ideas they give their custom to. It’s only when these three principles work together, in a balanced equation, that the fair-and-free market principle can make sense. This, historically, has been much, much better recognised by Labour than the Conservatives.
Moreover, the Labour Party have also learnt to respect the importance of the free market, while the Conservatives are still spitting outdated anti-Union rhetoric and “goading the unions to strike,” as Ed Balls put it. Contrary to appearances, Labour have a genuine opportunity to unify British people once more, over one of the most heavyweight political issues of our time. What’s more, this time they could actually get us on their side. They just need to have the courage to listen to us!