Civil liberties, and the Labour and Conservative parties

The recent news about control orders makes me a little wary. On the plus side, we’re rolling back one of the most egregious power grabs by the Labour government, and the executive has to relinquish powers to the judiciary on things such as control orders, but on the other hand, the replaced regime has some massive holes; most notably, the fact that the rubberstamping is gone and the powers are permanent.

Still, I think it’s a good idea. Worst still, it pushes Labour into a corner here: they can’t support the new regime as it would be reversing on party policy to do so (and as we know, only the Lib Dems ever do that) and it’d be tacit support of the coalition they despise so much. They can’t oppose it either, as it ruins their image of having “changed” in the nine months they’ve been out of power. What’s a Miliband to do in this case?

You see, I didn’t vote for the Lib Dems because of tuition fees, or because it was trendy; I voted for them because I believed they would bring a liberating force to British politics. One of the things that firmly cemented my support in the Lib Dems was David Davis’ resignation back in 2008. It showed how far Labour had gone in the wrong direction: a Tory — a member of a party that’s historically somewhat authoritarian (both him and the party) — resigning because he thought Labour policy had gone too far.

It’s a story all too common to Labour; when they were elected, they were a breath of fresh air. They passed the Human Rights Act, which constitutionally enshrined European Charter of Human Rights into our laws. But then came U.S.S. Cole, followed swiftly by 9/11, and, like our cousins across the pond, we reacted to one incident of terrorism in a far more knee-jerk manner than the thirty years of Irish nationalism before it. Then came the Terrorism Act 2000, which allowed the police to arbitrarily search you for carrying a camera or walking on a cycle path, RIPA, famously abused by councils to catch parents living outside school catchment areas, fly-tippers, and underage smokers, and SOCPA, which removed the right to protest along Whitehall without getting “permission” from the Metropolitan Police.

One of the things that stops me supporting Labour is their insistence of “we don’t trust you to take care of yourself, so we’ll do it for you”. This is prevalent in a lot of their legislation, not just the anti-terrorism legislation. Take, for example, the smoking ban. It’s a tricky issue, to be honest. Every avenue presents disadvantages: businesses hiding tobacco under the counter could affect the owner of a small shop when he has to refit the shop at his expense. Minimum pricing would drive people onto the ferries and the continent to hoard dozens of sleeves of cigarettes. Government warnings could be seen as propaganda. Banning tobacco would force millions of smokers to either go through addiction therapy or break the law. But banning smoking in all public indoor areas is indicative of this — and I despise the term — “nanny-statism”. It stops a business owner who doesn’t mind smoking to deal with the effects of passive smoking by better filtration or smoking rooms.

But the Tories aren’t any better. One thing that did come up while drafting this post was the issue of prisoner votes. I tend to be for prisoner votes for one simple reason: disenfranchising prisoners could lead to abuse of the penal system. Take for example, ID cards. Were Labour re-elected last year, they could’ve made it a criminal act to destroy ID cards. Anyone who did so out of political protest would still face a jail sentence. So effectively, the government has stifled both freedom of expression and created a less free election system. Additionally, the current rules regarding criminal MPs means that Eric Illsley, had he not stepped down on Tuesday, could serve as an MP but his cellmate could not vote for him.

I did catch some of the debate yesterday. An overwhelming consensus of the Conservative backbenchers was “those who break the laws cannot make the laws“. How ironic that by refusing to overturn the blanket ban, the government would be breaking the law themselves. As some astute twitterers pointed out, by this logic, they should resign. So should Alan Johnson, too: after Section 44 was ruled unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights, his response was that the powers would be strengthened in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics. The point is: those who break the laws can make the laws. Bobby Sands, a famous IRA prisoner, was elected from prison. The law was changed soon after, but even still, prisoners serving less than a year can stand for public office.

It was saddening to see Jack Straw stand up and back the Tories, but not unsurprising. Back in 2000, Leeds University Union enacted a sort of damnatio memoraie in response to the ex-LUU president’s responsibility to help pass the Asylum and Immigration Bill, and removed his name from the presidents’ board in the Union. He was reinstated in 2007, but still epitomises Labour’s authoritarian streak to this day, with his remarks on veils in 2006, and Pakistanis and gang-rape back in January.

But it’s not even Straw. Miliband may try to project an image of having changed, but it still remains that the backbenchers are, as backbenchers normally are, resistant to change. They’ve still got the authoritarianism that plagued them in office — last night, Labour voted 62-7 to pass the motion — and they’ve still got some of the people responsible for loose regulation on the City in charge of their economic manifesto. They put a man who was found to have lied about immigration into the Shadow Minister for Immigration post. And all the while, they attack the government for courses of action they would take themselves: tuition fees, VAT, spending cuts, loose regulation on the banks, are all policies Labour would’ve done in power themselves.

The final thought comes from my words on Tuesday night while talking to a social democrat friend of mine: the only real difference between Labour and the Conservatives is that the Tories are open about the fact they’re nasty thugs.

1 thought on “Civil liberties, and the Labour and Conservative parties”

Leave a Reply