Are Human Rights a vote winner?

When a politician speaks out in defence of human rights, the public need to show their approval of such statements and publicise them widely.

Writing in the New Statesman, Labour Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan brazenly declares that the Liberal Democrat’s record in Government has left Labour as the party of civil liberties. This has kicked off predictable outrage from Lib Dem activists and in the comments, with most people citing the poor record of the last Labour government.

Despite the Blair Government’s terrible approach to civil liberties and counter-terrorism, its wrong to call Khan a hypocrite. For starters, he was one of the Labour rebels who voted against Tony Blair’s 90-day detention policy, back in 2005. More recently, he has admitted the party’s mistakes on human rights and civil liberties. Part of his Charter 88 anniversary lecture was a scathing critique of the last Labour Government’s approach:

And I hold up my hands and admit that we did, on occasions, get the balance wrong. On 42 and 90 days, and on ID cards, where the balance was too far away from the rights of citizens… On top of this, we grew less and less comfortable with the constitutional reforms we ourselves had legislated for. On occasions checked by the very constitutional reforms we had brought in to protect people’s rights from being trampled on. But we saw the reforms as an inconvenience, forgetting that their very awkwardness is by design. A check and balance when our policies were deemed to infringe on citizens’ rights.

If an opposition spokesperson says this, I think they ward off the charge of hypocrisy when they subsequently criticise the civil liberties failings of the Governing coalition. We want political parties to admit their mistakes and reverse their policies, don’t we? Whether the voters believe Labour or not is another matter, but I think the fact that the spokesman is someone who was a Government rebel on 90 days, and who has been a target of surveillance himself, make Labour’s position that little bit more credible. Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, included similar nostra culpas in her Demos speech on security and surveillance.

Meanwhile, at the Liberal Democrat annual conference, delegates have approved motion F41 [PDF], a reaffirmation of their party’s committment to human rights and the Human Rights Act. Speaking at the debate on the motion, Lord McNally said:

So long as the Liberal Democrats are in Government there will be no repeal of Human Rights Act…I have said to my Tory colleagues – if the Tories really want to call into question our commitment to the Human Rights Act, to the European Convention on Human Rights, to the European Court on Human Rights, then let’s take that case to the hustings…I still have great faith in the value of the British people and their respect for human rights. It is an argument that we can win.

(Source: BIHR e-mail newsletter, 19th September 2013).

These debates make me happy. What Khan and McNally’s comments show is that both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have begun to see the promotion of human rights as a vote winner. This is by no means a given in British politics, and not something to be taken for granted.

Regardless of Labour’s past failures, or the Liberal Democrats’ current, shaky record in office, we should still applaud these commitments to protect the Human Rights Act. The alternative is the gutting or abolition of the Act, and a withdrawl from the European Convention on Human Rights, which the Conservatives are threatening to do (David Cameron even had a populist pop at the idea of human rights in a conference speech before he became Prime Minister).

When a politician speaks out in defence of human rights, the public need to show their approval of such statements and publicise them widely. Who knows, if the politicians see that such positions are a vote winner, we may find that Nick Clegg is inspired to fight a little harder for rights and liberties in this parliament… and that Secretary of State Sadiq Khan is emboldened to defend and extend human rights in the next.

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