Wednesday 11 March 2009

Liberal lessons for Labour

Shirley Williams was "in conversation" for us last night at Friends House with Newsnight's Michael Crick - who it transpires was chair of the Young Fabians at the same time Shirley was chair of the Fabians proper (I wish we could take credit for a good bit of event planning here, but he only revealed this the day before). This was in 1981 - the year of "the big bust up" and "acrimonious meetings".

Shirley was talking about "how liberal is labour" and her main point was a good one: that Labour had been particularly good on gender and race equality (it's record was "fairly outstanding" she said), but its major liberal achievements had come in the first term. The second and third terms have been dominated by security considerations (obviously 9/11 changed matters) with the related anti-crime and anti-terror legislation, and bona fide liberal achievements that came after the first term are thin on the ground. This is because the liberal agenda (freedom of information; devolution and the accompanying electoral reform; human rights) were bequeathed to Blair by John Smith. "Tony Blair picked up and ran with an inherited plan and then ceases to show any sign of being liberal" after the implementation of the Smith reforms; "Labour ceases to be a liberal reforming government" after the first term. Blair was never particularly signed up to the reforms himself and his cabinet was "pretty feeble". The Guardian's Malcolm Dean backed this up from the floor by highlighting Blair's political priorities: he had asked John Smith for the job of shadow Home Secretary so he could show Labour could be tough on crime and thus win over middle England. Blair was always more interested in law and order issues than liberal ones.

Michael Crick challenged her on this – and by extension the Lib Dems and Tories – by saying that it is easy to be liberal in opposition but once in power realpolitik gets in the way, M15 puts threat evidence in front of your nose and you naturally become more authoritarian. He highlighted that when Shirley was in Labour governments in the 60s and 70s they had enacted fairly tough legislation – the prevention of terrorism act, the 1968 immigration act, detention of suspects at the request of the Americans. She conceded half the point, but explained there were strong cabinets then, and that things would have gone much further had the likes of Jenkins, Benn and herself not been prepared to forcefully stand up to the PM. Under Blair the cabinet was either weak or bypassed (which is why, she said, the cabinet minutes on Iraq are not being released: there was no cabinet) and so you end up with the "surveillance state", asbos, extensive data holding etc.

Blair's modus operandi was particularly in evidence on Iraq, and his style of government was "unacceptable in a democracy".

She also discussed nuclear proliferation, on which she is a government advisor, although she interestingly said she hadn't spoken to Gordon Brown about it since the economic crisis hit - he is too busy. She sees the only way forward as being to get the entire system under international control, from fuel supply to waste. She is much more optimistic since the election of Obama, who has made an "extraordinary start" meaning "we now have a fighting chance." Iran, she said, was a "very clever country" that would "go as far as it can within the rules" but "make sure she never crosses the line" between civilian and miliary uranium enrichment. The question is whether Israel and others will keep their nerve.

This revealed an important link to the question of liberalism and government, as Crick suggested: nuclear proliferation demands further restraint on liberty. How can security and liberty concerns be reconciled?

Williams recognised the political problem for liberals on this. Very tight control over terrorism is popular, and most voters would trade freedom for tough measures. The problem is that once conceeded, freedoms are very rarely gotten back.

There was an unusually high percentage of younger people at the event and lots of people joined the Fabians specifically to come along, demonstrating that people are interested in politics if you talk about the right things and adding fuel to my view that a more liberal approach is the way reinterest a new audience of people in Labour politics.

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