Sunday, June 26 2016

Can Labour reclaim a name as a defender of civil liberties?

The Guardian Comment is Free carries an article today by the former chief executive of Index on Censorship and former editor of the New Statesman, John Kampfner. Kampfner looks at the way in which British legislation saw an increasing infringement on civil liberties under the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair and the continuation of this trend under the Conservative-led coalition. Kampfner asks whether Labour can reclaim a name as a defender of civil liberties under Miliband’s leadership.

From the Guardian:

“Labour's obsequiousness to the super-rich, demonstrated by Brown's fear, and Tony Blair's adoration, was one of the main reasons so many people gave up on the party. The other equal trigger, for me, was its authoritarianism. The two were linked. Having raised the white flag to the bankers, ministers instead sought to exert their power elsewhere, at the level of the citizen, seeking ever more ingenious ways of watching us, listening to us and telling us how to lead our lives. I called it at the time Labour's displacement theory.

“Throughout this period, it was left to the Liberal Democrats and to a motley band of libertarian-minded Conservatives to raise the alarm. They were joined by an even smaller group of backbench Labour MPs. The then government's plans to increase the period of pre-trial custody were resisted and proposals to extend the snooping on email and other electronic communications were shelved. These were mere pinpricks, however, amid a raft of other measures – almost invariably justified by the fight against terrorism – that turned Britain into one of the most surveilled states in the western world.”

Kampfner describes the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) as “The most intrusive piece of legislation of all”, legislation which allowed public bodies to carry out surveillance and intercept communications. He describes that “the mechanisms are in place for anyone, anytime, to be watched for pretty much any reason. Not satisfied with the powers it had already given itself, the government extended them in several subsequent, but little publicised, orders in 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2010.”

He then comments on the draft Communications Data bill which was recently presented to Parliament. The government argues that the bill, which increases the amount and time which data relating to people’s internet usage must be stored by ISPs, is important in fighting criminals and terrorists. It has however, been criticised by civil liberties groups for being unnecessarily intrusive.

Kampfner argues that “The problem, when it comes to having an input into this bill and to other measures driven by the securocracy, is that no political party is prepared to fight hard for individual liberties.”

Kampfner comments on an “equally alarming piece of legislation”, the Justice and Security bill, which has received widespread criticism particularly for its proposals to extend the government’s mandate to hold secret trials, coined ‘closed material procedures’, to “any civil court case where they believe evidence might damage national security. They will also be able to prevent a case going to court at all, if it produces difficulties in international relations.” Many observe the legislation as a way for the government to protect themselves from future embarrassment, following high profile cases such as that of Binyam Mohamed, where the government have been sued and forced to issue compensation to victims of torture where there was evidence of British complicity.

Kampfner reflects finally on Labour’s position on civil liberties and the downwards journey the UK has seen in recent years,

What will the Labour high command do? Shortly after taking over, Miliband indicated that the Blair era had shown an excess of controlling zeal. But rhetoric and generalities only get you so far: Miliband now has two golden opportunities to recalibrate Labour, in the detail, back towards civil liberties.

“He needs to face down the wizened authoritarians, pointing out that a careful balancing of security and liberty is not the preserve of Hampstead liberals…The targeting of terrorists and organised crime does not require secret courts or giant data hoover operations. Does Labour get it? I'm not convinced. The next few months will help provide the answer.”

The last Labour party manifesto under Gordon Brown’s leadership was not the most promising on civil liberties. It endorsed what some may describe as the perverse use of tools such as DNA databases, ID cards and CCTV. Furthermore, as the Reviewer for Terrorism Legislation, David Anderson QC recently described in a report, terrorism legislation has tended towards gratuitously restricting civil liberties, and this has continued under the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition. Given the steps taken by the coalition, and the lack of success by the Lib Dems in maintaining the protection of civil liberties as was promised by the party, one can only hope that the Labour Party, under new leadership might provide an alternative, fresh perspective which balances the need of security in a way that does not unnecessarily encroach on the civil liberties which are at the heart of liberal democracy.

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