Tuesday 13 April 2010

A little problem with liberalism

Last week Lord Adonis tried to win over Lib Dem voters to Labour. The gist of his argument was: 'We share the same values and objectives. But Labour can form a government. So vote for Labour!'

Chapter 5 of Labour's manifesto is unlikely to make the task of persuasion any easier.

Let's take a look at just three of the manifesto commitments.


(1) Policing. The manifesto talks a lot about improving police 'performance'.

There is, however, no acknowledgement of the very serious issues around the policing of protest which have emerged in recent years: kettling; preventive arrest of peaceful protestors; the construction by the unaccountable Association of Chief Police Officers of a database of 'domestic extremists' (a category with no standing in law); the use of 'Forward Intelligence Teams' to gather intelligence on protestors.

More generally, there is no acknowledgement, let alone a response, to the widening concern about the way the relationship between police and public is being steadily corrupted, with an accumulation of legislation and assumed powers slowly undermining the tradition of policing by consent with an altogether more authoritarian and arbitrary relationship between police officer and citizen.

Is this not relevant to the question of police 'performance'?

(2) The DNA database. The manifesto reaffirms the government's commitment to 'retain for six years the DNA profiles of those arrested but not convicted.'

As I argued in a recent post, this measure is completely disproportionate. Given the changes in police powers and policing style noted above, it is now remarkably easy for all kinds of people to get arrested. So this measure risks branding large swathes of essentially law-abiding citizens as suspects in the eyes of the state.

The manifesto does exhibit a mild twinge of liberal conscience at this point, noting that 'we...have taken the DNA profiles of children off the database...'

But why? The very same logic that supports putting adults who have not been convicted of any crime on the database for six years also supports keeping children on the database. After all, one of those kids might turn out to be a serious criminal in a few years time....

(3) Detention without trial. The manifesto says: 'We will continue to give the police the tools they need to fight terrorism...'

Rough translation: all the erosions of the right against detention without trial that we have seen since 2001 will continue - and may be expanded as and when the police think it advisable.


The roots of this go back to the early 1990s. Back then, leading Labour figures - Blair, Brown - visited the US to talk to Clinton's 'New Democrats'. One thing they brought back was the idea that parties of the centre-left need to neutralise issues like crime so as to win a hearing for their message on social and economic inclusion. The electorate might be receptive to a moderate agenda for tackling poverty and inequality, but parties of the right will always be able to win crucial voters away by talking about crime - unless you make your policy as right-wing as theirs.

Over the past decade and a half, New Labour has followed this tactic with a vengeance, to such an extent that it now seeks to attack the Conservatives from the right.

Perhaps this was once savvy electoral politics, whatever its intrinsic flaws.

But in many constituencies now the main challenge to Labour is not from the Conservatives, but from the Liberal Democrats. Labour's efforts to outflank the Tories on crime are a liability when it comes to competing with Lib Dems for the centre-left vote.

In this respect, far from being 'Blair plus', Labour's manifesto looks, on civil liberties issues, to have committed what is perhaps the cardinal sin in the Blairite book: it is simply not up to date. It is geared up to fight the electoral battles of the past, not the battles of today.

It reflects the worst 'forces of conservatism' within New Labour - unable to see how the world is changing, unable to modernise.

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