Starmer must stop dithering on civil liberties

By David Osland

The Tories never actually banned strikes, they just made effective industrial action almost impossible to organise. And now they want to double down and do the same for direct action.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill gives the government carte blanche to dish out ten-year prison sentences to anyone protesting in a noisy, annoying or inconvenient manner.

What even is the point of protest that does not result in annoyance and inconvenience?

This legislation is heavy-handed, mean-spirited, disproportionate, and drawn so widely as to mean anything the government wants it to mean. And it’s almost certain to get on the statute books.

These are measures of the ilk favoured by dictators, petty tyrants, authoritarians and theocrats down the ages. In short, just the kind of law that put away Pussy Riot.

An intellectually self-confident Labour Party could have opposed this reactionary move from the start.

It could have wrested momentum from the Lib Dems, even triggered backbench rebellion from those Tory MPs who misleadingly describe themselves aslibertarians. Instead, Starmer fluffed it.

Initially announcing the intention to abstain, he was then forced into an opportunistic last-minute U-turn on account of the police attack on women gathered at Clapham Common to remember Sarah Everard.

And sadly, this stance is an improvement on the abstentions seen with the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill and the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill.

Britain’s secret police now have impunity even in the case of such offences as rape and even murder. There is no accountability for troops alleged to have committed war crimes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Northern Ireland.

The Policing Bill completes the trifecta of Tory illiberalism, ramping up the scale of the assault to take in everybody who ever gets angry enough to demonstrate against anything.

The irony is that Labour has the reputation of being the party of civil liberties, earned thanks to the reforms enacted under the tenure of Roy Jenkins as Home Secretary prior to his descent into bête noire status.

It is largely undeserved, as numerous subsequent steps from the Prevention of Terrorism Act to racist immigration laws and New Labour’s bid for 90-day internment without trial have shown.

Charles Clarke and Jack Straw were anything but ‘Hampstead liberals’, to use the latter’s favoured put-down.

Yet for someone with Starmer’s background as a human rights lawyer, taking back the ground should be a tempting proposition.

Labour needs to do the right thing primarily because it is the right thing. Ceding ever-increasing powers to a right wing and increasingly English nationalist party is laden with obvious dangers.

But baser reasons may appeal as well. Consistent defence of civil liberties offers the chance to win progressive brownie points without soiling his hands with nasty socialism. It needn’t even clash with the pitch to the Red Wall.

Just because northerners want to see more burglars busted does not mean they were not horrified by the television pictures of women getting manhandled by the Old Bill, just for attending a vigil for a murder victim.

I hate to sound like the metropolitan elite north Londoner from central casting, but Starmer’s prevarication and dithering reinforces the emerging narrative that he lacks any real values, or even any real soul.

Finally, Sir Keir has drawn a line in the sand, even if it is a long way up the beach. Today Labour will vote the right way with reluctance; in future, let it vote the right way with enthusiasm.

David Osland is a member of Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP and a long-time left wing journalist and author. Follow him on Twitter at @David__Osland


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