Labour's Lurch to the Lynch and the Challenge for Progressives

New Statesman (1996), November 20, 2006 | Go to article overview

Labour's Lurch to the Lynch and the Challenge for Progressives


It matters that John Reid may run for the Labour leadership. It matters, not because he might win--the chances remain remote--but because of the effect his possible candidature is already having on the body politic. The government is engaged in a Dutch auction of toughness, where human rights and a sense of proportion are sacrificed in the name of combatting terrorism, and the forces of sanity are derided as naive or dangerous.

The Home Secretary waxes lyrical about locking up more people and building more prisons to accommodate them; about moving the probation service further away from social work to focus on its penal role; about allowing councils to evict anti-social residents and to fine parents of rowdy kids.

Would that it were only him. Now Gordon Brown seeks to gazump his arch foe, vowing that the nation's security will be safe only in his hands. He wants to be the figurehead in the government's second attempt to increase powers of pre-trial detention of terrorist suspects to 90 days.

The positioning is transparent--the leader-in-waiting has been told he cannot alienate the tabloids; he cannot allow Reid to open up a flank on law and order; and it does no harm to portray the Conservatives as posh softies, out of touch with the concerns of "real" people. Labour's lurch to the lynch poses problems for progressives who care about civil liberties. Everyone is alert to the threat of a new terrorist spectacular. The issue is not whether to respond to this grim reality, but how.

Two recent reports cast important light on the matter. The joint Lords and Commons Committee on Human Rights accused ministers of making unfounded assertions to hide failings in the system, and of disseminating myths about the Human Rights Act. The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, meanwhile, said the government had further damaged community relations in its actions and rhetoric and had increased state powers exponentially while avoiding oversight of them. "This is an administration that finds it hard to stand up to populist pressures," the report said. "The hostility to the judiciary is unfounded and constitutionally illiterate.

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