Labour’s failure on civil liberties

JVL Introduction

In a clear, firm and committed statement of principle, Diane Abbott has attacked Keir Starmer for playing the law-and-order card on issues of policing, security and human rights.

Labour abstained on the overseas operations bill which puts British soldiers largely above the law.

Labour abstained on the ‘spycops’ bill which licenses undercover policing in advance despite the dreadful abuses exposed in recent years.

Now it is the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill.

Were it not for the shocking abuse of the women protesting at Clapham Common at the weekend, which forced a change of mind, Labour would be comfortably abstaining on this one as well.

A welcome shift, yes. But, as Abbott says, it will only be time to celebrate when Labour “begins to restate the case to our supporters for justice, civil liberties and human rights”.

This article was originally published by Labour List on Mon 15 Mar 2021. Read the original here.

Labour needs to think about the merit of any legislation, not the “Red Wall”

Leader Keir Starmer has agreed at the last minute that the Labour Party should vote against the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill due to be debated in parliament this week. But alarmingly his original position was that Labour MPs should abstain, although everyone knew that the bill was really about cracking down on peaceful protest. In particular, Tory MPs had been upset by the successful peaceful protests led by organisations like environmental campaign group Extinction Rebellion.

Abstaining on a human rights matter like this is a nonsense. Labour ought to know where it stands on this type of issue. But sadly it has been clear for some time that Keir and his advisers take the view that there is almost nothing the Tories can bring forward on policing or security that they are prepared to oppose. They are not concerned about the intrinsic merit of any legislation. Their main issue is that they are convinced that, by moving right on policing, security and human rights, they can lure “Red Wall” voters back into the arms of the Labour Party.

So Labour in parliament has abstained on a series of human rights issues. The first example of this was the overseas operations bill. This legislation was designed to make it even harder to prosecute crimes committed by British soldiers. It was an attempt to put our soldiers above the law. And it would have effectively decriminalised torture.

It wasn’t just left-wing Labour MPs who thought these things. Field Marshal Lord Guthrie, former chief of the defence staff, expressed his dismay that the bill would let “torturers off the hook”. Michael Clarke, former director-general of the Royal United Services Institute, argued that the proposals “fly in the face of international legal norms”.

Elizabeth Wilmshurst, former deputy legal adviser at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, suggests that the bill calls into question the UK’s commitment to a “rules-based international system”. And almost a dozen United Nations human rights special rapporteurs and experts said the bill would violate the “UK’s obligations under international humanitarian law, human rights law and international criminal law”.

But Keir was unmoved by the views of actual army generals on this legislation, and he insisted that Labour MPs abstain at second reading. Many of us rebelled and voted against it anyway, but the Labour Party should not have been abstaining in the first place.

More recently, there was the ‘spycops’ bill. Its official title was the covert human intelligence sources (criminal conduct) bill. It will give a host of state agencies, including the police and the security services, the power to licence its agents and officers to commit grave crimes in advance, even here in the United Kingdom.

Police spies have abused innocent campaigners in the UK for decades – ranging from environmental activists to trade unions and race equality campaigners. Undercover police infiltrated the grieving family of the murdered black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, during their quest for justice. Even former Tory Prime Minister David Cameron found they were responsible for “shocking levels of state collusion” in the murder of lawyer Pat Finucane in Northern Ireland.

But, despite the fact that some his own Labour MPs and a number of trade unions had been the victims of undercover policing, Keir insisted that Labour MPs abstain on the legislation, at both second and third reading. Again, some of us rebelled, but the bill passed through the House of Commons with tacit Labour support.

This week, the government wanted to debate their police, crime, sentencing and courts bill. Keir Starmer wanted to abstain on it. The campaign group Liberty summed up the problems with the legislation when it said: “These plans are a staggering assault on our right to protest as well as an attack on other fundamental rights. Police already have extensive powers to restrict protests, and frequently go beyond them even though it is their duty to facilitate the exercise of this right. The proposals in the policing bill are an opportunistic bid from the government to permanently erode our rights.”

Once again, Keir Starmer was unmoved by the arguments of human rights campaigners. But at the weekend women campaigning on violence against women wanted to hold a peaceful vigil in Clapham Common near where the murder victim Sarah Everard was last seen alive. The local Lambeth police, who understood how strongly people felt about Sarah’s death, were prepared to work with campaigners and facilitate a peaceful socially distanced vigil. But Scotland Yard, led by Cressida Dick, insisted on banning any gathering at all. Predictably, people came to the vigil anyway.

The resultant images of male police officers manhandling and handcuffing women, who were actually on a peaceful vigil about male violence, horrified the public. It also demonstrated that police had plenty of powers to deal with peaceful protest. The real issue was stopping the police abuse of existing powers. In this context, even the leadership realised that abstaining on legislation designed to give the police even more powers to crack down on peaceful protest was simply not sustainable.

I am glad we are actually voting against this legislation. But I will be even more glad if Labour stops abstaining on these issues and begins to restate the case to our supporters for justice, civil liberties and human rights.


Diane Abbott has been MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington since 1987.

Comments (16)

  • James Dickins says:

    I hope that Diane Abbott is not, as she appears to be, criticising our Dear Leader, Sir Keir Starmer. Abbott should know that all such criticism is now classified as ‘antisemitic’ – and punishable by likely expulsion from the Party, as members of Bolton North-East Labour Party have recently discovered:

    https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/b/labour-criticised-after-motion-no-confidence-starmer-branded-anti-semitic

  • Linda says:

    Abbott’s piece makes me understand more fully than I did what the Labour party has lost and become.

  • steve mitchell says:

    Some polls in the recent pasts suggested voters wanted a strong leader prepared to break the rules. They believed democracy has failed. They are getting exactly what they wanted. It is not true that Johnson is strong but he is prepared to do anything for power. In his cabinet there are 20 ministers who have not been elected ,including David Frost who holds a very powerful office. Since Johnson was elected human and civil rights are being thrown under a bus at a breathtaking rate. I am not referring to Covid rules. If any other liberal democracy decided to legalise torture there would be an outcry from the Tories. This bill going through Parliament is a disgrace to a nation that insists it follows liberal values. When this pandemic crisis is over and the effects of Brexit kicks in with a vengeance there will almost certainly be mass unemployment and civil unrest. The country will be walking through the same dark valley it endured in the 1930s . The Tory government is preparing for being able to put down riots. I find the things going on at the moment unbelievable. Ministers lie to Parliament with impunity. Peter Oborne has written a list of 15 lies to Parliament in recent months. Most come from Johnson. In times gone by those lies would have meant the resignation of a minister I have ,in all my 80 years never seen Britains civil liberties and human rights
    under such threat. The British people are sleepwalking towards a Far Right populist government. Lots of Tory ministers have been associated with extreme Right think tanks Those think tanks preach anti democratic messages. The Labour Party should be opposing these attacks on democracy. Instead we have a leader who attaches more importance to attacking his own members. He has abandoned Labours historic commitment to truth and justice. Just when our country needs a strong opposition as never before he has deserted the battlefield before the war has really begun. Where is his moral compass.? Labour at the moment is dead

  • Mary Davies says:

    Excellent article.

  • Eveline says:

    I guess it is only a mattrr of time before Diane is suspended from the party. One of the bravest politicians in the chamber. What is happening to this country if the so-called opposition is determined to fall in line with the most corrupt and incompetent government of our age and refuses to oppose?

  • Les says:

    Why keep assuming that Starmer is only moving the party rightwards in order to win back votes?

    I suggest instead, get used to the idea that Starmer agrees that all these new powers are sometimes expedient for the security services.

    He is consciously right wing, he believes it, but is quite happy for some of us to think that he is just being tactical.

    To think otherwise is to think that Labour’s Red Wall relish the idea of government agents having the right to rape torture and kill whom ever they want.

    These policies will deter not attract Red Wall voters, but Starmer doesn’t care, because he supports these policies. He’s got ‘army’ and ‘security services’ written all through him like a stick of seaside rock.

  • goldbach says:

    The current leadership has got politics completely back to front. Their view seems to be that you need to work out what policies/statements will appeal to the greatest number of people, adopt those policies, make those statements and bingo, an election victory will be theirs.
    If it worked it would be shameful, but it doesn’t work so it is not only shameful, it is utter stupidity.
    Progressive politics, let alone socialist politics, should start from beliefs – the belief in fairness, equity, justice and caring about others. Policies will follow naturally and statements made will be made with conviction.
    A recent survey indicated that a large section of the electorate don’t know what Labour stands for.
    Sadly, the answer is simple. It no longer stands for anything.

  • Sabine Ebert-Forbes says:

    Brilliant article. I am horrified about the very real risk, at least in my eyes, that if Mr Starmer and advisors continue to act as they have done to date, that they might end up enabling a fascist (populist) regime.

  • Nailia says:

    Agree 100%!!!!!!!

  • Stephen Williams says:

    Remember Charles de Menezes.

  • Ian Kemp says:

    excellent article and a very good reply by Steve. Me now in my 86 yr am socked at what has happened to the UK over the last few yrs… I am not surprised at the Brits, They are politically illiterate and complacent. We have the most biased Media in Europe. It is not democratic it has become the mouth piece of a right wing populous Gov . The worst I have seen in UK for the last 70 yrs. It is a disgrace to all descent humane people of whatever political persuasion .

  • DJ says:

    Creeping authoritarianism to enforce a right wing populist project is the nature of the Tory game. A culture war to divide the many is designed to weaken our resistance. There is an urgent need to unite the different struggles against the actions of this government. The Labour Party needs to actively support those willing to fight back by initiating the necessary extra parliamentary action to defeat there “race to the bottom”. It’s time to “disrupt” their system and resist their divisive manifesto commitments.

  • Maria says:

    Time for Corbyn and allies to form a new party, the Labour party under Starmer has not one iota of a chance of getting voted in. A new party working in collaboration with the Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Northern Irish Assembly to oust the Tories. Labour has lost Scotland which was the heartland for their votes for eons, not now, I can’t see how they can make any inroads there.

  • Tony says:

    Let us not forget that Keir Starmer also voted with Theresa May on the replacement of Trident at the end of a debate in which she made clear her willingness to incinerate 100,000 people in a nuclear strike! Clearly not a problem for Starmer.

    Well done to Diana Abbott for supporting the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

    I would urge all visitors to this site to ask their MP to give their support using the link below:

    https://cnd.eaction.org.uk/EDM1072/search

    Thank you. With your help we can achieve a world without the threat of nuclear annihilation.

  • Martyn Meacham says:

    The tory posing as Labour leader, along with his front bench should be forced to resign. They have heaped shame and disgrace in the labour movement as a whole, and have betrayed the people they pledged to serve.

  • DAVID JONES says:

    Dangerous times for democracy.
    Just one point regarding Maria (17/03/21): I wouldn’t be too sure of the Greens standing up to the Right. Caroline Lucas put her name along with 99 other “guardians of free speech” to a letter demanding the head of Prof Miller at Bristol University – for speaking the truth regarding Israel / Palestine.
    It’s made me view the Greens in a different light.

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