Thursday, 29 October 2009

Labour's blogosphere and the erosion of civil liberties

Is Labour's blogosphere complicit in the erosion of civil liberties?

As we know from this week's Guardian, ACPO (the Association of Chief Police Officers) has been putting together a database of UK political activists under the banner of monitoring what it defines as 'domestic extremism'.

A couple of days ago I posted on this topic here at Next Left, focusing in particular on the Home Secretary's inadequate response to the revelations. As I explained, his response was equivocal (gist: I don't think the police are doing anything dodgy, but if they are, I'm not responsible). And he tried to defuse the importance of the issue by treating the whole thing in a jokey manner.

The jokeyness was profoundly ill-judged. The vast majority of these 'domestic extremists' are simply people of conscience who are willing to go public and protest about the social evils they perceive around them. I strongly suspect that well over half the members of any Quaker meeting around the country would fit into this category!

To dismiss the anxieties and activism of these fellow citizens with the sort of glib joke that Alan Johnson did is to show contempt for these people and for the politics of conscience they represent - a political tradition that goes back from today's Climate Camp through anti-war, anti-colonial, and anti-slavery movements, suffragism, Chartism, and the Levellers during the English Civil War.

Historically, the Labour party and the wider labour movement have been part of this tradition - or at least, connected to it, if, at times, in an uneasy relationship with it. It ought, then, to be a concern for those of us in the Labour party when a Labour government seems quite happy to let the police treat huge swathes of contemporary protest politics, expressive of this self-same tradition, as quasi-criminal activity. And when a Labour Home Secretary treats protestors with such contempt.

Let us turn, then, to the Labour blogosphere. Here is a medium in which party members can voice their concerns in an immediate, forthright manner. I've had a look at three Labour-inclined sites: LabourList, Labourhome and Compass's website. What do we see?

Now obviously one can't reasonably expect every site to cover every issue. It would actually be quite tedious if they did. However, I am struck by the collective silence of these three Labour sites on the issue of ACPO's database and its civil liberties implications. (If I have missed something, someone will doubtless let me know!)

And I don't think this reaction - or non-reaction - to ACPO's subversion of our liberties (for are they not amongst the real 'domestic extremists'?) is unusual. Just how much comment on the policing issues raised by the G20 protests was there in the wider Labour blogosphere (outside of Next Left)? I can recall very, very little.

This has consequences. The less we hear critical voices on this topic from within the party, then obviously the less pressure there is on the government to alter course. The silence assists the drift towards authoritarianism.

I assume, of course, that others in the party, those who participate in the Labour blogosphere, share my underlying opposition to authoritarianism.

The worrying thought is: perhaps they - perhaps you - don't share this opposition with me.

Perhaps what we are witnessing here, at the end of the New Labour story, is the Labour party's final abandonment of the 'politics of conscience', of the protest tradition, and its full transformation into a party of executive authoritarianism.

That transformation is completed, not when a Labour government helps make the state more authoritarian (for all governments of all parties will sometimes do authoritarian things), but when such action ceases to be a matter of urgent concern and opposition for a significant number of people in the party. This transformation is completed when the wider party culture is such that the response to obvious and alarming authoritarianism is...collective silence.

There is, of course, an easy way to refute this hypothesis...

Postscript: Guy Aitchison at OurKingdom has written to Alex Smith at LabourList to ask why LabourList has not produced any comment on The Guardian's ACPO revelations and the government's response. I am sure that Next Left readers will be keen to know Alex Smith's reply.


guy.polphil said...

Great post Stuart - let's see what the Labour bloggers have to say. Liberty, and the liberty to protest, surely must be a cornerstone of any genuinely progressive party.

Robert said...

I remeber a few of us traveling up from Wales to the miners strike in Yorkshire, we were then photographed and then weeks later we were stopped and had our cars checked or we were asked what we were doing this went on for weeks, I was stopped in my car seven times coincidence I think not.

I've had this a number of times, and the police have also made sure we knew about it.

Al Widdershins said...

"a political tradition that goes back from today's Climate Camp through anti-war, anti-colonial, and anti-slavery movements, suffragism, Chartism, and the Levellers during the English Civil War."

I'm sorry, but this is totally untrue. There is no such thing as "a tradition of protest" or the like - protest is something that people of any political background or social class can easily find themselves doing under certain conditions. To pretend otherwise, to pretend that all protests from the past (or rather; all protests from the past that *you* approve of) form some great unbroken tradition is a politically motivated abuse of history. I cannot think of much that the Chartists (to say nothing of later generations of working class protest) had in common with the (objectively anti-working class) Climate Camp idiots, beyond the fact that they protested and found themselves on the wrong side of the state and of law enforcement.

Saying this, it's probably true that the current government has less concern for civil liberties than is entirely healthy. In this regard it is entirely in keeping with the attitude of pretty much all British governments ever (yes, including Labour ones. By way of example, I presume that you're familiar with the policies of the Callaghan government towards Northern Ireland). The problem is not that "New Labour" (whatever that is these days) has insufficient regard for civil liberties, the problem is that British Governments and the British State (a different thing, of course) and the British public (how's that for an ugly truth) have had and continue to have insufficient regard for civil liberties. The problem is with political culture and dominant political discourses, not with "the Labour blogosphere" (whatever that is). By ignoring the real problem, you (and other advocates of civil liberties) do nothing to advance your cause.

Rant over.

Stuart White said...

Al: obviously the Labour blogosphere is not the main cause or driver of growing authoritarianism, and my post does not say it is. I would largely endorse your account of the causes. My point is that the Labour blogosphere is too uncritical of the government on civil liberties - that, in your terms, it contributes to the 'political culture and dominant political discourses' that are the driver of the problem, rather than contesting this culture and these discourses.

On the historical stuff, I only partly agree with your criticism. I do think there is a self-conscious republican tradition in British and English politics which wends its way through various of the campaigns mentioned in my post.

I am often struck by how people are willing to doff their caps at the Chartists or Levellers, safely tucked away in the history books, while referring to today's Climate Camp as idiots. The Chartists and Levellers were, of course, also regarded as 'idiots' by many of their contemporaries. There is a lesson there somewhere.

Sunder Katwala said...


Am v.grateful that you have got your teeth into this one - and has helped me to engage with it, and keep across it.

But I don't really agree with the blogosphere challenge - this is an example of what I once called the whynoblogathon.

It isn't saying anything about the merits of any issue to point to the difficulty is that both blogs and think-tanks lack capacity to respond to all breaking stories, and don't add much value if we try to. Very often we end up specialising in particular strands of issues we are across. (The government put out a shockingly bad document on an issue I am very interested in - on the Royal Prerogative powers, as part of the constitutional reform agenda - and I have failed to blog it, though I have a half-post I may dig out).

I don't think there is any doubt that Compass and LabourList have been quite strongly on the civil liberties side of various arguments.

As well as challenges to the government, we could use more space to talk through some genuine difficulties around civil liberties and security issues in a way which is consistent with liberal principles. We have held one or two panel discussions, but that doesn't happen all that much.

Stuart White said...

Sunder: I anticipated the 'Whynoblogathon' explanation in my post when I said that it wouldn't be reasonable to expect every Labour site to have a post on this issue. Indeed, going a bit further, I wouldn't be that worried if most of the Labour sites had nothing. But surely the collective silence of Labour sites (other than Next Left)on the ACPOs issue, put in the context of the eralier virtual collective silence on the G20 protests policing issues, is striking. Does it not tell us something - and something rather unwelcome - about the priorities of our fellow Labour party bloggers?

I recall that when I did a post on the legality of kettling back in April, one commenter wrote: 'Blimey, legal analysis on a Labour blog.' Don't you find that comment revealing - revealing of the problem I describe in the post?

donpaskini said...

Hi Stuart,

Harpymarx is a left-wing Labour Party member who writes a lot about civil liberties issues, e.g.

guy.polphil said...

In fairness to Alex Smith I should point out that I tweeted at him which(probably)isn't the same as writing. But he has now responded and extended an open invitation to write for LabourList on issues of civil liberties.

Alex hadn't seen the Guardian investigation into ACPO's databases so I've sent him the appropriate links, including this piece by Seamus Milne today:

Guy Aitchison

Jessica Asato said...

Stuart - there would have been a very simple way of obviating the need for you to write this whole article and it would have been to write it for LabourList, Progress, LabourHome and any other website you wanted. Argument ended at the click of a button.

Seriously though, a website like LabourList needs people to send it content. If they don't send it content, don't blame the Editor. In any case, there have been loads of articles on civil liberties and there are debates in the comments (I've never seen you there?) against ID cards, against state surveillance you name it.

The other issue is - is there any point in writing a great big blog if the Guardian has already done a fine job in highlighting this activity on their front page? I don't know, but I'd rather tweet that then spend my time trying to think up some big angle which they probably haven't missed.

Finally - we're not all polymaths like you. I have no idea how Sunder manages to write on so many issues so much of the time. I really applaud him for it. But most mere mortals can just about do their day job and flop in front of the telly. Give our Labour bloggers a break. I think they do a fine job all in all.

Sunder Katwala said...


No - I don't agree about that. I read Tom Miller's comment "Wow, nice to see a bit of legal argument out on the Labour blogs..." differently, as being about the quality and depth of Lord Justice White's excellent post on the legal position rather than the idea that the issue is neglected by the Labour blogs.

I find the opening statement "Is Labour's blogosphere complicit in the erosion of civil liberties?" and the argument that "the Labour party's final abandonment of the 'politics of conscience', of the protest tradition, and its full transformation into a party of executive authoritarianism" much overstated and, in my view, wrong - though others inside and outside the party might particularly agree with you.

The liberty/security issue is politically contested within the party. I think you have the wrong target here: this is a good question to Labour MPs, some of whom have an excellent record, some who would be sympathetic but think it complex in practice, some of whom could be described as soft on authoritarianism. I think it is ill directed at the blogosphere.

The challenge to Compass is that they have a general political position of being strongly opposed to 'authoritarianism', but whether they can contentfully come up with proposals (beyond eg 'drop ID cards') in this area, as well as in economic policy, public services, etc. But they take a strong general political line on this: it is probably stronger than the liberal critique I would back, but you can't complain about that.


On blogs, I just think you much overestimate the range and depth of the blogosphere at this point in time. It covers very little, in many ways, though it is strongest at doing certain things around party discourse which have fallen out of national media discussion. On the whole, across party, it tends to be very good as a space for internal party politics (especially party organisation issues like all women shortlists or primaries), for broad political narrative and argument (what should Labour), personalities and reactive left-right politics around major headline news events, and for some other specific political issues (challenging the far right is a good example). There is a lot of reaction to what is on other blogs, and on the media. A lot of contributors are candidates and aspiring candidates, writing on campaigning methods and their experience in their local patches.

To over-generalise, it is often pretty weak (across left, right and centre) on anything more substantive, contentful or policy-based than that, except where individuals have or develop a particular expertise.

So you will find very little beyond broad political narrative on big policy issues on economic policy, schools policy, health, employment, home affairs, prisons, civil liberties, development, foreign policy, Europe. There is almost no discussion of Parliamentary debates or of significant select committee reports, and very little of academic/policy work that doesn't get mainstream media coverage. We are all too media led because that is the most accessible material. So this might have got mentioned - being on the Guardian frontpage - but the overall volume of content is low.

I think you are right about the relative lack of coverage of G20 policing. It is also true that there was very little coverage of G20 content (beyond a political, is Gordon Brown overselling on the right, or pro-government action political argument from the left). There were some good exceptions to this - I think Anthony Painter writes about the economy and politics well.

If you were to look at the blogs the day after a budget or pre-budget report, I think it is very striking how little we all get into the content beyond topline politics.

Sunder Katwala said...

Why? What could we do?

There aren't many academics blogging in political spaces ... it doesn't seem to me a space that, say, the next Andrew Gamble or the next Stuart White is yet using all that much. (Some notable exceptions, I am sure).

The think-tanks (apart from us, and Progress) don't really blog much, as LibDemVoice pointed out, and so don't do much responsive stuff except in the media.

I think specific organisations (I think the TUC Touchstone blog is a good example of this) could get something out of helping to put more content into the eco-system, which others may feed off. We need more individuals and organisations to do that more.

There is often excellent blogging in more specialist spaces - academic, scientific, liberties/legal, environmental - which sometimes the political blogs pick up on, but there isn't that much linkage, and there might sometimes be some value in thinking specifically about the linking spaces.

We need more generalist hubs (and this might be New Statesman/Guardian type spaces, as well as political hub spaces) to try to make relevant specialist information accessible to general audiences, in the way that some of what we do here tries to do.

I think Left Foot Forward is a good example of something useful there. I think blogs like ours and others could try to get more 'specialist correspondents' with particular focus areas, though we all find it quite hard to get people to write regularly (unless they really get the bug, as you have and I have).

Next Left has several 'contributors' who offered to cover different areas, but fell away after three or four posts.

Stuart White said...

Dear all: many thanks for the considered comments. I consider my 'hypothesis' in the post refuted!

I do think that as Labour bloggers we need to reflect on our priorities...and my post was really a way, perhaps too heavy-handed, of prompting some reflection on whether we have these right.

Consider two criteria for priority for a Labour blogger: (1) the degree of importance of an issue to the basic functioning of a liberal democracy; (2) areas where the party/government has things very wrong.

On both of these criteria, the civil liberties issues around surveillance and the policing of protest score very high. But I am not at all sure, as my post says, that the pattern of Labour blogging reflects the priority this issue ought to have. We give the government far too easy a ride.

Al Widdershins said...

"On the historical stuff, I only partly agree with your criticism. I do think there is a self-conscious republican tradition in British and English politics which wends its way through various of the campaigns mentioned in my post."

I would agree that there is a certain tradition of republican and broadly working class protest in British politics (don't forget that the Chartists were strong in South Wales). My problem is with the lumping together of several distinct political traditions together for contemporary political purposes. I don't deny that the Climate Camp thing has a certain pedigree, but it's with the tradition of liberal middle class protest (CND and so on), which to be fair, you did mention - though only as part of the wider legitimising framework.

"I am often struck by how people are willing to doff their caps at the Chartists or Levellers, safely tucked away in the history books, while referring to today's Climate Camp as idiots. The Chartists and Levellers were, of course, also regarded as 'idiots' by many of their contemporaries. There is a lesson there somewhere."

In my case it's quite simple - the only thing that the Climate Camp fools can possibly achieve is the further loss of high quality working class jobs. No matter how "successful" they are, they won't be able to achieve their aims and are in no position to influence anything.

guy.polphil said...

Stuart has withdrawn his hypothesis, but I still think there's a lot to be said for it.

When we were developing the Convention on Modern Liberty earlier this year there was a fantastic response from bloggers. We ran a modern liberty "bloggers carnival" which circulated round a different blog each week and we offered CML buttons for bloggers who wanted to show their support. Hundereds of bloggers linked to CML or mentioned it in some way. Nearly all of them were Lib Dem, Tory, or non-aligned. There was far less enthusiasm from Labour bloggers and indeed a number of them were actively hostile to the whole campaign - they didn't like the fact CML was telling it like it is.

So, I can appreciate the case Sunder is making, but it just doesn't tally with my experience.

I'd say Stuart's postings here on Next Left are probably the one thing that's prevented me from giving up hope entirely with the Labour party when it comes to the issue of civil liberties.

Guy Aitchison

Stuart White said...

Dear Guy: thanks for that. I hope my fellow Labour bloggers will take note.

Just to be clear, the hypothesis I withdrew above is the hypothesis that Labour is fully transformed into a party of 'executive authoritarianism'. I think the replies above suggest that hypothesis is wrong.

However, I don't withdraw my claim that the Labour blogosphere - at least as evidenced by the sites I mention in the post - is bad at standing up for civil liberties, particularly in relation to rights to protest and issues around civil disobedience. I stand by that claim, and your post, Guy, gives good evidence for it.