The Convention on Modern Liberty takes place today.
We are among the eclectic range of organisations and voices brought together to take part, as the Fabians and Compass co-host a session on liberty and the left in London this afternoon.
The London event is a sold out all ticket affair, with further events in Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff and Glasgow. But if you can't make it, there is set to be what looks like the most extensive online coverage - video streaming, blogging, twittering and much else besides - than has been attempted from any previous civic society event in the UK. That will be on
www.modernliberty.net , while many sites like Liberal Conspiracy will be taking part and no doubt rounding up some of the broader blogosphere reaction.
Some of those involved - including convention co-director Henry Porter have cast Labour as the principal villain of the story. Porter is a talented polemicist, who no doubt attracts many with the fierceness of his attacks on the government, and the persistence with which he writes the same column so often. Like many in the Labour party, including on its liberal wing, I sense in Porter's writing an allergy to the state similar to the David Cameron analysis (which risks a rather important baby and bathwater problem), and a tone of certainty in prosecuting the charge which seems to me to close down and make some necessary debates more difficult.
If that might make me an unwitting stooge of the authoritarian tendency, then I am expecting a robust, perhaps difficult, debate. (Some left voices have been sceptical about the convention, and been in turn accused of forming a 'backlash' against it. I don't see how anybody could deny that the Convention has taken pluralism seriously. I am personally rather more of a fan of Porter's co-director Anthony Barnett, former director of Charter'88 among other things. This is an impressive achievement which will do a good deal to make these issues more salient. If I might be sceptical about some of the centre-right or right-wing organisations or voices, then I am sure they too may doubt the Fabians have anything to contribute on civil liberties. Whether and how such an eclectic range of voices can create effective pressure might well be a problem that many civic society advocates would like to have).
Beyond the substantive issues of civil liberties, this reflects an important part of Labour's political problem - that it can struggle to even be part of a conversation with some important progressive constituences: that is something that needs to change. It might well be that civil liberties is now perhaps the most difficult of these issues, taking over from foreign policy. (The environment is difficult too, while Labour has a decent - and largely deserved - reservoir of trust with many campaigners on international development, and on domestic inequality and child poverty: where, even as they push for deeper and faster progress, many believe the government is motivated by their cause). Part of that is being able to disagree with respect.
But part of it would demand some policy changes. This is one of the areas where the Brown administration suggested "change" but has yet to deliver it. The Prime Minister gave a rich and sophisticated speech On Liberty in November 2007. The disappointment is that its spirit has not been reflected in the government's policies - notably on detention powers and on ID cards. And the promise of a new constitutional settlement has risked turning into a tidying-up exercise, and slipping from view as the recession takes centre stage.
Scrapping or postponing ID cards seems to me the substantive and symbolic move which is needed to put Labour back into the broader conversation about liberty, and how it should relate in Britain to other goals of democracy, equality, security and so on. (I have been arguing that for some time, but perhaps the recession offers the government the chance to get off the hook on pragmatic cost grounds. I hope my more cynical colleagues might at least note that, in narrow political terms, this is one of the issues that would prevent Labour being coalitionable with the LibDems in any future hung parliament, but before that this is an issue that could well cost progressive votes that they might need to deny the Tories the chance of a majority).
There are many Conservative voices taking part today too. That is good opposition politics. But how far does it go? I think one can draw a sharp contrast with Labour's experience in opposition in the 1980s and 1990s. That eventually led - and not without much difficulty and debate - during the 1997-2001 term to the most significant constitutional changes in British politics since 1918, because of the commitments Labour took into the 1997 election. Certainly, that record is imperfect and piecemeal. Labour has at times - on freedom of information, political funding and other issues - been caught in the contradictions of its own half measures, got very little credit for the advances made, and been whacked in ways that would not have been possible without its own reforms. Still, a good deal of it will endure.
What are the Conservatives offering? They have a critique of where we are now - though it is often ambiguous, sometimes shallow and combined with populist posturing on the Human Rights Act which suggests very different messages are being sent to different audiences.
The Conservatives came to power in 1979 after Lord Halisham had issued his famous warning against 'elective dictatorship'. And this week's Thatcher retrospectives will remind many that that they seemed somewhat less troubled by this notion after 1979.
What's different now? The Conservatives are a long way short of having the kind of sustained and coherent agenda on civil liberties which the LibDems can credibly claim to have, and need to do a good deal more to refute the charge of opportunism.
So let us see how far Conservatives today offer the Convention warm words - or also concrete constraints they would apply to any future Tory government.