This is how to make human rights a vote winner

In the past couple of months I have been making notes on the Labour Party’s approach to human rights. Here’s a quote from the conference speech given by my MP, the Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan:

What happens when you cut back judicial review? You betray bereaved families, like the Hillsborough campaigners, who can’t challenge terrible decisions.
What’s the outcome of cutting legal aid? The family of Jean Charles De Menezes, the innocent Brazilian man shot at Stockwell tube station would no longer have access to expert lawyers in the future. Nor indeed the Gurkhas or the Lawrence family. It’ll be harder for victims of domestic violence to break away from abusive partners.

And what if the Conservatives succeed in their clamour to abolish human rights laws? There’d be less protection for victims of crime. We’d lose:

  • Laws that halted the diabolical situation of rape victims being cross-examined directly by their attackers.
  • Laws that helped bereaved families find out how loved ones died.
  • Laws that offer protection against the grotesqueness of modern day slavery, human trafficking.

Human rights laws the Tories want to scrap. Human rights laws of which Labour is proud. Human rights laws Labour will defend.

First things first: Its important to have such an unequivocal pledge to defend the Human Rights Act. It reinforces the idea that Labour, at least, believes that supporting human rights can be a vote winner.
But how to win the argument? Sometimes, the case seems hopeless. Too often, human rights defenders find themselves stuck defending terrorists and prisoners! This is to be expected, because human rights principles are designed to protect the most hated and vilified in society from the power of the state and populist abuse. An intellectually lazy, but superficially persuasive argument against human rights goes something like “what about the human rights of the victims?”1 When the argument is focused only on the rights of the outlaws, support for human rights is naturally weak.
Likewise when human rights talk centres around extreme human rights abuses. Orwellian dystiopias, or historical genocides. These are not situations we can readily identify with, and so relying on them to win an argument might actually be counter-productive.
Khan makes neither error in his speech. He refers to contemporary problems experienced by bereaved families and those who have been raped – in other words, the victims of crime and negligence, not the perpetrators. These are groups that an ordinary British voter might identify with, who that benefit from the Human Rights Act and the ECHR. Its difficult for the white majority to imagine themselves being suspected of terrorism. But those voter can easily imagine that they might be the victim of a terror attack, a sexual assault, or some kind of accident caused by negligence.
The effect of Khan’s argument is that human rights are framed as a crucial protection for everyone, not boutique laws for just a few. Persuading voters of this is essential, if human rights are to become a vote winner. Let us hope more politicians, of all political parties, use similar language in future speeches. We need much more of this, if we are to win the argument and protect the Human Rights Act.


Of course, personalising your argument with examples that their target audience can relate to is how politicians try to convince us of anything. But I think the use of the tactic to defend human rights is noteworthy because those who seek to undermine human rights usually try to steer the conversation onto people with whom we do not identify. We need to be mindful of the opposing tactics as much as we take care in crafting our own language.

1. The answer, by the way, is that the rights of victims are already adequately protected by ordinary criminal law. There are unequivocal laws against planning terrorism, for example.

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