In the last few weeks we’ve seen a singular failure of the Labour Party to stand up for human rights and civil liberties
First, the party abstained on the Overseas Operations Bill – effectively an immunity charter for war crimes and torture. Then it did the same with the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill, otherwise known as the Spy Cops Bill, which would give undercover agents the right to carry out physical and sexual violence in the name of national security. In fact, it has emerged that Labour leader Keir Starmer is urging his MPs not to break the whip and vote against the Spy Cops Bill, even if it cannot be amended.
The combined impact of these pieces of legislation would be to allow undercover police, spies and armed forces to break the law for the state with official impunity. Recent years have made clear just how dangerous such attacks on our democratic freedoms would be. With the ongoing inquiry into the infiltration of ‘spy cops’ into trade unions, anti-racist, environmental and other social justice causes, and the increased use of ‘counter-terror’ surveillance powers against everything from the Stansted 15 to XR, more and more people are becoming aware of the government’s ambitions to curb dissent and effective protest.
Make no mistake: if it does not meet resistance, this government is quite prepared to radically change the landscape of civil liberties in Britain such that protest will become much more costly for those involved, far less safe and, ultimately, a great deal less of a threat to those who hold power in our society. And it won’t just be in this area that freedoms are curtailed – from those subject to British military force abroad to children in our own classrooms (where the teaching of ‘subversive’ political materials will be outlawed), the future looks bleak for dissenters.
We are at a turning point, and it is increasingly clear that the Labour Party won’t save us. In many ways, this is not surprising – it has its own shameful relationship with repression and surveillance when in government. The Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), home of the spy cops, was set up in 1968 under the first Wilson government in response to the rise of the British New Left and Black Power movements. At a time when MI5 Agents were required to read Black Dwarf, the socialist magazine edited by Tariq Ali, the Chief Inspector of the Metropolitan Police Conrad Dixon penned a memo which would birth the SDS stating it was a necessity to combat “various brands of socialism” and “workers’ control.”
By the time SDS’s work was wound up into departments such as the National Public Order Intelligence Unit, the Blair and Brown governments instituted a breathtakingly broad counter-terror surveillance apparatus – which itself picked up the baton from the anti-Irish terror laws introduced under Wilson. Some of the current government’s proposals, such as the introduction of ID cards, circle back to the greatest excesses of the New Labour governments, whose own ID cards ambitions were defeated. And indeed, Priti Patel’s attack on “lefty lawyers” has echoes of then-Home Secretary Jack Straw’s attack on “Hampstead liberals” who opposed his plans to curb trial by jury.
But it didn’t stop there. The 2006 Terrorism Act, which sought to increase the detention of people from fourteen days to ninety, amounted to a historic attack on human rights and was widely condemned by civil society organisations. The Prevent programme – expanded considerably by the Coalition government in 2011 – was in fact introduced by New Labour in 2003. Prevent was the institutionalisation of anti-Muslim prejudice which justified so many attacks on civil liberties around the world during the War on Terror, and has since become a go-to for clamping down on dissent.
Its excesses have seen children being spoken to by police for misspelling the word ‘terraced’ and an eight-year-old being questioned over a t-shirt slogan mistaken for ISIS propaganda. In fact, in an eerie reminiscence of the groups targeted by spy cops, cocuments obtained this January show the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Stop the War and Palestine Solidarity Campaign all appearing on official lists of groups representing “extremist ideology,” as designated by Prevent officials.
During the recent leadership election, Labour leader Keir Starmer made much of his career as a human rights lawyer. Some had hoped, therefore, that his leadership would continue the broadly pro-human rights and civil libertarian direction of his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn. Perhaps, even, he would go farther – and make a clear break with this bleak history of supporting limits to civic and democratic freedoms which has characterised so many Labour governments. Starmer did, after all, promise to “promote human rights” in his famous ten pledges.
But from war crimes abroad to spy cops at home, it is clear that Keir Starmer does not intend to live up to his word. Instead, Labour resistance can only be found in backbench rebellions led by the Socialist Campaign Group MPs. Even in this case, the entire Campaign Group has not been united. Luckily, trade unions, whose members were spied on and campaigns sabotaged by spy cops, have taken up the mantle – with Unite the Union organising a petition including thirteen other trade unions as well as human rights NGOs to oppose the Spy Cops Bill.
It’s clear that just like campaigners did in the past – whether Labour was in government or not – we must organise beyond the parliamentary arena to resist these attacks. And there is much to organise over. As more women come forward about the impact of spy cops who became so intertwined with their lives that they had relationships, marriages and children, we must support their call for justice. As we speak, the government is pursuing yet another ‘counter-terror’ law that would vastly expand the sentencing regime. Inequalities in the policing of the pandemic show that the equivalent of more than a quarter of all black 15- to 24-year-olds in the capital were stopped and searched during the first lockdown.
There has never been a greater need for a reinvigorated coalition to defend our civil liberties. At the moment, organising in this arena is primarily being carried out by a small group of NGOs such as Liberty, Amnesty, Reprieve, or Big Brother Watch. They do important work curbing the worst excesses of the state, but we should be attentive to the fact that this cannot substitute for the role of broader movements. This is not a fight for NGOs alone and with an increasingly interfering Charity Commission, we should be seeking to build beyond the legal realm to defend and extend civil liberties. What we need is to both defend rights from this government’s political attacks, and repoliticise those rights themselves.
Free speech, freedom of assembly and association were long fought for by the left and principles we defend as means to hold power to account. As such, they are indivisible from related freedoms such as the freedom to organise for the betterment of society’s material conditions. When the left defends these rights, we do so not merely in the name of abstract principles but as means to advance popular democracy, empower workers and challenge state power.
The direction of travel of repressive laws is increasingly moving from targeting activists to NGOs and now lawyers and the judiciary. While we are ‘defending the defenders,’ we must not neglect the job of advancing the vision of a more democratic society at large. The fact is, far from curtailing our liberties, and granting impunity to those with power over our lives, Britain is already far from free as a society – and we should be at the frontlines of a fight to devolve power from the authorities to the public in every part of our lives.
As the Spy Cops Bill returns to parliament, there are glimmers of hope on this front in the alliance of trade unions, campaigning NGOs and community groups which have come together to oppose it. This alliance must be sustained and expand in the months ahead as the Conservative government pursues their proposals to outlaw boycotts replicating anti-BDS legislation and to weaken judicial reviews. It must also carry forward the work of groups like the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom, whose demands for workers to be able to organise effectively, to strike and to take solidarity action must be part of any broader civil rights campaign.
Similarly, when organisations like the Coalition of Antiracist Educators and Black Educators Alliance begin a legal challenge against the DfE guidance on teaching in schools, they must be able to rely on the broadest possible support across the left and activist groups for their cause. With a second lockdown on the horizon, trade unions, social movements and campaigners must be especially attentive to the agenda of curtailing civil liberties. We can’t trust the Tory government with our freedoms – and it’s increasingly clear that we can’t trust the Labour Party either.