Opposing populist attacks on hard-earned rights

By Nadine Finch

Any review of the 2021 Labour Party Conference and the current direction of the leadership of the Party is incomplete without serious consideration of one of the major elements of the populist ideology that swept the current government to power at the end of 2019 and keeps them comfortably in power, despite the Covid deaths and the financial crisis which affects the majority of the population.

In his speech at Conference, Keir Starmer largely restricted his comments on the “justice debate” to a call for the recruitment of more police officers, to re-open more criminal courts and to increase the number of prosecutions for sexual assaults and rape. As part of a package of measures to ensure access to justice, they had merit. But in isolation, they ignored the fact that the destruction of much of the legal aid system has left those most in need of that protection without the legal advice and representation they require in civil, family and migration courts to ensure a parity of power when engaging with the state.

More fundamentally, he did not engage with the significant number of bills coming before Parliament that will restrict still further legal rights for the majority of the population.  This failure to take a holistic view of the current assault on rights respected in international law conforms with current strategy of the Party leadership to tack a little to the centre-left of government proposals by raising issues that appease traditionally liberal views on civil liberties and play to the perceived social conservatisms of Red Wall areas.

It ignores the fact that the government has managed to create a false narrative of freedoms – freedom from the so-called bureaucracy of Brussels, freedom from the interference of regulations, the law and judges and freedom to express opinions which may “offend” others. This has given an opening for anti-vax groups to compare NHS doctors to the medical staff working in Nazi Germany, who were prosecuted at Nuremberg. It has led to proposals in current bills in Parliament to limit the role of the courts to provide full consideration of applications for asylum; to exempt immigration officers from prosecution or civil actions, if they leave asylum seekers to drown in the Channel; and to amend the Public Order Act 1986, so as to make it a criminal offence to create sufficient noise to make an impact at a demonstration or a march.

The government will also shortly introduce a bill that will introduce an amnesty for those involved in incidents in Northern Ireland that led to deaths in the years running up to 1998. It will be a total amnesty, which will go significantly further than anything introduced by Pinochet in Chile and will require judges to terminate on-going criminal and civil proceedings and coroners to leave inquests part- and un-heard. Even the Police Service of Northern Ireland will have to terminate any current criminal investigations into such events.

Keir also asserted in his conference speech that justice is not a complicated idea. This is a statement that would astound many human rights lawyers and judges. The judicial system can only be fully understood in its contemporary social and economic context and the impact of changes to the law inevitably have differential effects dictated by class, race, gender and wealth. Therefore, a multitude of complexities and competing interests can arise which may need moderating and resolving by the justice system.

Introducing amendments to current bills that seek to moderate the effect of draconian proposals is a very partial defence of the rule of law and democracy against right wing populism. With the current majority held by the government, such measures cannot be sufficient. This is something that is currently better understood by a whole range of self-organised groups; whether they are trade unions or community groups organising to protect the Black community, defend the right to protest and combat climate change. Yet these are the very groups and individuals who were not acknowledged from the platform at Conference and whose views and activities now appear to cause the Party nothing but disquiet.

The right to vote, paid holidays and safety at work, mechanisms to oppose racial discrimination and to protect those who had been trafficked into exploitation were won by political action taken by those most in need of these rights and supported by others for whom supporting these emerging rights was part of their commitment to socialism and a just society. Currently, traveller and gypsy and LGBTQI communities and others are building alliances to enhance and protect their rights to have parity of respect for the lives they choose to live. The Labour Party would benefit from being an active participant in more of these alliances.

Up until the election of 2019, the many young people who had joined the Labour Party and the older people who had joined, or re-joined, the Party understood the need for a synergy between the experience gained in traditional political structures and that gained in community and trade union struggles.  A diversity of talent and an ability to reach into communities that the Labour Party no longer reaches has never been more important. One of the issues which has the potential to re-ignite enthusiasm for the Party is a recognition that this government is ultimately not interested in individuals having rights, if this interferes with its commitment to its multi-national partners and enabling its friends to prosper financially.

The leadership has to turn its back on focus groups, which appear to reflect the views of its closest advisers and the truisms of thirty years ago, and to have the courage to learn from those who are opposing the wholesale assault on rights and genuine freedoms being spearheaded by the government. In times of crisis and uncertainty, appeasement is not a strategy that will protect rights and livelihoods. It will also ultimately not win votes.

Nadine Finch is a former barrister who specialised in human rights law and is the author of several books on family, immigration and comparative law.

Image: Keir Starmer. Author: Rwendland, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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