Liberty at the Labour Party Conference

Posted by Bella Sankey on 02 October 2012

Watch a video of the Labour Party Liberty fringe event 'Equality Under the Law?'.

Welcoming a huge crowd of delegates to Liberty’s 2012 Labour fringe, Shami reminded the audience that Labour was the party of the hunger marchers, non discrimination law, and - to spontaneous applause - the Human Rights Act. Is there “Equality under the Law?” in 2012 she asked our panellists. And in front of packed a room in the Midland Hotel the panel gave their answers citing secret courts, legal aid cuts, Government surveillance plans and blacklisting of construction workers as threats and scandals that must be challenged.

Keith Vaz MP, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, spoke about his lifelong commitment to equality and diversity and his Committee’s conclusions on the rotten state of extradition law. He lamented the lack of minority ethnic representatives in Parliament and the demise of the Commission on Racial Equality. It was heartening to hear him also pay tribute to Liberty’s work. To warm applause he said Liberty “sits at the top table with Government and the Opposition” and said he wanted to thank Liberty “for all it does for our country”.

Shadow Justice Secretary, Sadiq Khan MP, took to his feet saying it was great to see such a huge turnout at a Liberty event at a Labour conference. Referring to Ed Miliband’s acceptance speech in Manchester two years ago he said that Labour had got the balance wrong on civil liberties in Government and had lost huge support – including from the newspapers – as a result. He promised we would now see Labour getting it right and told the fringe about his recent letter to DPM Nick Clegg, which asks the Government to back down on plans for secret courts. He respects Ken Clarke “but he has been misleading the public on this and getting away with it” and he said that “none of the Government justifications for secret courts stack up”. He stressed that Labour should be really proud of the HRA “which gives rights to rape victims, the vulnerable and elderly”. The Human Rights Convention was Churchill’s legacy and it was given force by “the early vision of New Labour”. He’s looking forward to working with Liberty to make the Labour 2015 manifesto as progressive as it was in 1997.

Emily Thornberry MP, the Shadow Attorney General, spoke of her anger and despair after 7/7. She remembered London’s united response which was soon overtaken by divisive Government attempts at 90 and then 42 days pre-charge detention. Everyone in the party agrees that security is the key, “but we must conduct debates about how to achieve it sensibly and with respect”. On secret courts she was clear – the Bill is “radical” and would “fundamentally alter” the face of civil justice. “The Government has not produced the necessary evidence” and there are “no examples of the judges harming national security”. The Bill would “undermine the independence of the judiciary” and damage the legal system. Noting the opposition at the Lib Dem conference she asked if they would vote against it in Parliament?

Kevin Maguire, Associate Editor of the Daily Mirror, cut to the chase. He’s proud to live in a country that celebrates civil liberties and he’s against the Snoopers’ Charter. Why should the Government have access to so much personal information about us, he asked? The Coalition’s proposals on surveillance and secret courts “must be opposed by the Labour party as fundamental issues of principle”. “Just think of Hillsborough”, he urged. In a democracy we have to oppose secret courts and cover up. He said that in office Labour triangulated on law and order “trying to make the Tories look soft” and it didn’t work. “The Human Rights Act should have been championed by us. We should explain to people that it’s for everyone”. To prolonged applause and vocal support from the crowd, he was clear: “We’ve got to stand for civil liberties and principle now”.

There were lots of questions from the floor. On secret courts, asylum rights, legal aid, mental health, stop and search, “was Labour going to become the party of civil liberties?” asked one delegate. Polly Toynbee, due to speak, sadly couldn’t be with us. But last week she wrote – “How much better would the last Labour era have been in coalition with the Lib Dems? No Iraq, no civil liberties abuses, less defence spending, no soaring jail numbers...That’s the difficult paradox. The next Labour government would probably be better in harness with the Lib Dems as well… Ed Miliband should not abandon a close alliance, as Tony Blair did with the arrogance of a landslide victor".

Shami thanked the speakers for doing us proud. Liberty and Labour members are reconnecting at a very important moment.