Last week I was at a Demos #ResponsibleSecurity event in London for a speech by the Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper MP, on the balance between Liberty and Security in a modern democracy [full text]. It was a timely intervention on a crucial debate. Of course the revelations about widespread and illegal government surveillance are still in the news, and there had been recent, appalling revelations that the family of Stephen Lawrence had been bugged by the police. However, it has also been said that stronger surveillance measures might have prevented the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich.
Cooper said that Labour’s approach to balancing a need for security with our human rights and civil liberties would be based on evidence. By this measure, she said, the attempt by the last Labour Government to extend detention without charge first to 90 days and then to 42 days, was wrong: “The politics of security had become more important than the evidence.” She also said Labour had also failed to stop the powers granted within the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) from being abused by local authorities, and that they should have done something to mitigate the effect on ethnic minorities of the stop-and-search laws.
Cooper praised the current Government for trying to fix RIPA and the stop-and-search problems, but criticised them for introducing new laws without proper checks-and-balances on state power. She cited the recent Communications Data Bill (a.k.a. The Snoopers’ Charter) and the appalling new secret courts as examples of this.
For anyone concerned about the protection of civil liberties, this was about as good a speech as a Shadow Home Secretary is ever likely to give – the Home Office brief has a way of worrying out the authoritarian tendencies in those who take it on! Crucially, Cooper affirmed Labour’s support for the Human Rights Act (HRA) echoing Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan’s strong support for this British reinforcement of our European Convention Rights. These simple statements are, to my mind, crucial at this moment in the political cycle, because battle-lines are being drawn for the next General Election. Labour introduced and supports the HRA… but will it campaign vocally for something that has been referred to in the tabloid press as a ‘villain’s charter’? The Shadow Cabinet need to find the passion and the language to defend the Human Rights Act against a sustained Tory attack. If the entire Labour Party routinely cites liberty as a way of empowering ordinary people, then its support for human rights can become a vote winner.
With this in mind, I took the opportunity during the Q&A part of the event to ask Yvette Cooper to talk about how Liberty is a Labour value. The recording and transcription of what she said is below.
Is liberty contrasted with equality? The tradition – actually [this] is one of the things that Ed Miliband has argued – is that Liberty has been a hugely important part of the Labour Party tradition. Certainly the work we did after 1997, whether it was the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act, the introduction of the Human Rights Act, and so on, were all about the importance of liberty. And a lot of the work that I do, for example, around domestic violence, and around violence against women and girls, well you can see that as an equality issue, because it is about safeguarding women and girls against violence. But you can also see it as a liberty issue, about protecting people, about giving people their freedom, and not have them feel either oppressed, intimidated or harassed, but actually have the liberty to go about their daily lives.
Actually I think the real strength of the Human Rights Act is that it does balance both rights and responsibilities. It isn’t actually a charter that is simply about rights, it is one that balances both rights and responsibilities, that does actually incorporate … both security and liberty and the relationship between them. And I think that we have to show … that the part of my argument about checks and balances and the constraints on power that are needed – which is very much a Labour argument – is also an argument about how you need those checks and balances, you need those constraints on concentrations of power, in order to protect liberty as well.
This is good as an unprepared response to an audience question. It is the sort of thing that would persuade a labour supporter to work for civil liberties and human rights. But I would like to see more speeches from Yvette Cooper, Sadiq Khan and Ed Miliband, where the idea of Liberty as a Labour value is given top billing. I hope to collect more examples of them doing this, so please leave links to speeches and news report in the comments.