At the general election, Labour will claim it has seized the moral high ground over civil liberties. It will accuse the wicked Conservatives of trampling over the interests of the poor, weak and sick with their plans – to be spelt out at next week’s Tory conference – to tear up the Human Rights Act.
In this mission Labour will have the backing of the Liberal Democrats who have prevented their Conservative coalition partners from embarking on a voter-friendly assault on the “human rights industry”.
But a cursory glance back at the last government’s record on civil liberties, when the likes of Ed Miliband, Yvette Cooper and Sadiq Khan all held ministerial office, leaves Labour open to accusations of hypocrisy – or at least amnesia. Its authoritarian instincts were as great, and arguably greater, than the administrations which preceded and succeeded it.
It was the Blair government that tried to lock up terror suspects indefinitely without trial in Britain’s equivalent of Guantanamo Bay, Belmarsh prison. When that was ruled illegal, it was replaced with a form of house arrest, otherwise known as “control orders”.
That administration wanted to give police the power to question suspects for 90 days before they are charged, while Gordon Brown supported a 42-day detention period.
In office, Labour drew up plans for national identity cards, the creation of a DNA database and the mass collection of information about email and internet use, and presided over an explosion in numbers of CCTV cameras.
At a Liberty fringe meeting at this week’s Labour conference, delegates lined up to condemn the Tories’ hostility to human rights, but few seemed willing to ask searching questions closer to home.
Labour leaders have disowned their previous backing for 90 days’ detention and are unlikely to revive their support for ID cards, but their instincts appear not to chime with the idealism of many of the Labour foot soldiers.
Two months ago Labour rapidly signed up to emergency legislation requiring internet firms to store records of every website visited by subscribers in the past year and their use of social media. It is also committed to toughening up Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures, the Coalition’s replacement for control orders, which it frequently condemns as inadequate.
Senior Labour figures have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Tory ministers to condemn the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that prisoners should get the vote. That stance infuriated Liberty’s director, Shami Chakrabarti, who has spent years condemning Tory and Labour ministers as two sides of the same illiberal coin. She argues that Labour’s attitude to the issue has played into the hands of those critics who are gunning for the court.
Meanwhile, Labour has refused to be drawn over whether it supports the Coalition’s moves to remove the passports of suspected terrorists, saying there is not enough detail about the proposal.
Nor has it promised to reverse recent cuts to legal aid which critics claim have removed access to the criminal justice system from the most vulnerable people in society.
Keith Vaz, the Labour chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, says the party should champion a “radical agenda” and insists Miliband is a “decent and bold” man who will stand up for civil liberties.
The test of that will come next year. Labour will defend the Human Rights Act at the election, but will it commit itself to go further and reverse the advance of the Big Brother state?Reuse content