If the Labour Party really want to unify left and right, they need to get serious about civil liberties

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!

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6 thoughts on “If the Labour Party really want to unify left and right, they need to get serious about civil liberties

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  1. Hey Lou

    This may just be me being thick and not understanding the context of your comments but the Quran burning thing did not come about under new Labour. Those arrests are police’s decision today.

    Broadly I agree with your comment on civil liberties. The only thing that concerns me slightly is when people talk about absolute freedom of expression.

    For example, how far would we take that? Would we allow mainstream newspapers to print inflammatory articles about ethnic minorities using the N word for example?

    I’m not sure I believe in complete freedom of expression for the same reason I don’t believe in complete freedom to do what one wants (i.e to committ crime)

    Just because I think sometimes one can underestimate the harm caused by certain offensive material. Particularly if people believe it and then act upon what they read. Npw, you can argue that isn’t the fault of people printing stuff – but surely they should have some accountability? At the moment, we live in a society that would be horrified at the thought of a newspaper printing the N word, or offensive terms for jews and gays. But let’s not completely underestimate the role in how the media – not just papers but the wider media can influence people’s way of thinking. And that way of thinking can have some very dire consequences as history shows. Whether it’s (and I appreciate this is an extreme example) of Nazi Germany or as happened before in the form of riots, etc. There may even be an argument that the media hostility towards muslims and propoganda by politicians and the like has already lead to a backlash against Muslims. I’m not talking about quran burning here by a few warped individuals. I’m taking the more extreme example of hypothetical media situations which can have very serious consequences for society if it wasn’t subject to some restrictions. It’s the same reason why libel is illegal. I.e – printing that you think someone might be a peadophile without basis for that. You could argue that that also comes under freedom of expression. But how far should we allow that if lives can get ruined?

    i’m talking about the mainstream use of offensive terms or semi turthful, even untruthful statements (not that offensive terms mainstream of course, – I am talking hypothetically here to make a point)

    So sometimes I think there is good cause to have laws which says ‘hey you can’t go around calling people N* word or fags, because we deem those as unacceptable and unnecessary in our society

    So I am in favour of accountability and laws which don’t allow you to say absolutely everything to the general public but which only apply to things which are likely to incite violence.

    This is not to say that we should ban everything we don’t like. Newspapers often print things I don’t like – but stop short of the more exteme things as mentioned above. But only to restrict things which are likely to result in significant harm.

    I’m not just talking about protecting minorities here – but also against libellous statements that are without basis.

    So to some extent I’m not in favour of some (although scant) restrictions on expression. But I’m talking about striking the right balance – not of simply banning people saying things that one may disagree with. And it is important to recognise that crucial difference.

    Now there is an argument that such laws are open to abuse. But when you think about it, any law can be used to curb freedoms and be abused by governments. Terrorism act is one example.

    I realise I am going off topic slightly – but just thought I’d add that in as a little caveat.

    But in terms of the points you do make about civil liverties under the labour government – so true. I mean, I loathe the Tories I think they are evil incarnate. But I’m not convinced Labour are that much better.

    It’s almost a choice between two evils isn’t it?

    Do you want a party who seems hell bent on passing laws to make the rich richer and the poor poorer, or do you want a party that wants to monitor and snoop on everything you do and drastically restrict civil liberties?

    I think if Labour want a good chance in getting power, they really need to work on their civil liberties record such as the snooping laws the ID cards which nobody wanted and oh yeah sending soldiers off to die over oil. Although with ID cards – that was originally the Tories idea but at least they had the sense to renounce it (even if only for tactical reasons.) If Labour do not work on their civil liberties, (or on improving equality of opportunity while they’re at it and improving the NHS) we may just be stuck with the Tories. Now there’s a thought 😦

  2. sorry in regards to my post above with the following quote:

    “I’m not in favour of some (although scant) restrictions on expression…”

    I meant to say that I AM in favour of some (although scant) restrictions on expression

  3. Hi Janalyst,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to give such a detailed reply! I thought very hard about your comments.

    Yes, the arrests were under the Coalition, but of course the law against Incitement to Religious Hatred was passed by New Labour, and it’s this piece of legislation that I take issue with.

    Firstly, I’m not comfortable with religious texts being given special treatment. If someone wants to call their ideology a religion I have no problem with that, but that State should treat all books as equal. Or do you think there should be laws against burning any books, or anything sensitive? Do you, for example, support laws against flag burning as often discussed in the US? I would not.

    How far would I take freedom of expression? I have very simple criteria. If something directly causes harm or directly restricts someone else’s civil liberties, it’s right for the State to put laws in place to protect the civil rights and liberties in question. If something causes offence, the State shouldn’t ban it. If something has an indirect propensity to cause harm, (preaching racial hatred, for example), then the specific instances of harm that can be directly linked to the said action should be looked at on an individual basis.

    Do I think it should be illegal to say or publish the N-word? Of course not. Books, films, journalists quoting people, and songwriters are just a few examples where it is an important part of free expression. Do I think newspapers should be allowed to print false or misleading information about minorities (a la Rod Liddle and Jan Moir)? No, of course not. Rod Liddle was quite rightly held to account; Jan Moir, in my view, was lucky to have her boss as chairman of the PCC. I disagree with that it’s illegal to libel someone for the same reason as it’s illegal to cause religious offence. It has been illegal to print factual inaccuracies about someone for a long time. Labour passed laws against inciting Religious Hatred because they wanted to look as if they were doing something about the growing nastiness towards Muslims, which they actually helped cause themselves. Would it make a difference if this law had been mostly used against minority communities themselves?

    If we are going to ban activities because they might potentially cause harm, you’d have to ban reading the Quran and the Bible before you ban burning them, as statistically this has indirectly “caused” much more harm. This, I think, is the biggest flaw in the much-acknowledged ‘harm principle’: an awful lot of things could cause indirect harm. Governments tend to choose the ones that suit their agendas.

    But, more importantly, I don’t believe that just because something should be discouraged (as happened to Terry Jones), that the best way of dealing with it is necessarily to pass laws banning it. Surely the British Quran-burners have not changed their minds about whether burning the book was a good idea? Terry Jones has. What, I wonder, would have been achieved by locking him up?

    Thanks very much for your comment, and I hope you keep reading and commenting on Left Eye Right Eye.

    Lou

  4. Hey Lou,

    Excellent article and you sum up a lot of how I see this issue for Labour too. There will be a difficult balance and a difficult message to get across over the next couple of years for Labour. And that process will have to start now.

    I say it is a balance because Labour is not a liberal party. It is not idealistically directed towards liberty, so pretending that it suddenly is will not really go very far. It is rather, a party that balances a somewhat liberal outlook, with a somewhat utilitarian outlook. And so its message has to be that the 2010 election made it see that it had strayed too far towards trying to control for the wider public good, and too far from public freedoms.

    It then has to be careful not to go too far the other way. While it lost a lot of voters over civil liberties, the fact is that things like Asbos and locking more people up have, to some extent at least, rerduced crime. And Labour’s core vote,being working class and relatively poor, considers that a big priority. They are the people who suffer crime most.

    So it will be a tough balance. It won’t get an easy ride of rebalancing either. The other side is prepared for that and will try to mock it following Labour’s illiberal outlook in government and cast it as not credible.

    But it is one the party has to undertake, and that by electing Ed seems to signal it wants to try.

  5. Hello Gavin,

    Thanks very much for adding your thoughts, you make some very good points about Labour not necessarily being intrinsically liberal as a party, and the public support for some of their less liberal policies.

    I look forwards to seeing more comments from you on Left Eye Right Eye!

    Best,

    Lou

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