Labour is breaking from the past on civil liberties

It’s been more than three years since Ed Miliband trumpeted his liberal credentials after winning the Labour Party leadership. Disowning the knee-jerk authoritarianism of the Blair era, he said government itself can become a vested interest when it comes to civil liberties and pledged to reclaim the British tradition of liberty for Labour.

Now, after a long wait, there are signs Labour is starting to put this new vision into action. Yvette Cooper’s cyber-crime speech on Monday represented a major break from the past on civil liberties. In the speech, she responded to the revelations about GCHQ indiscriminately collecting and storing vast quantities of our personal communications data by calling for a shake-up of the oversight and legal frameworks governing intelligence agencies and surveillance in the UK.

Cooper’s questioning of the out-of-date laws that permit mass surveillance and criticism of the Intelligence and Security Committee would have been unthinkable coming from a Labour politician just a few years ago, when the imperative to be seen as tough on national security got in the way of any rational or proportionate response to terrorism.

This change comes straight from the top. When speaking at the recent Hugo Young Lecture, Ed Miliband came out strongly in favour of reform to intelligence services oversight. He made it clear that greater scrutiny of the intelligence agencies is an important part of his mission to challenge “unaccountable power”. Miliband’s instinct has always been to take on vested interests and champion the rights of the individual. His vigorous and passionate response to the phone hacking scandal revealed a natural concern for privacy that drives his unease about mass surveillance today.

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Miliband is not alone. Though Labour is often painted as the arch-enemy of civil liberties, there are many in the party who champion them. Previously marginalised, we are now gaining strength and confidence under Miliband’s leadership. And we are gaining strong allies, too. Tom Watson has been outspoken in his criticism of mass surveillance, while David Blunkett has called for a review of the laws governing GCHQ’s activities.

Labour inherently understands that the state can be a force for good. The NHS stands tall as the greatest example of state-engineered social progress. But we are increasingly aware of the dangers of uncontrolled, unaccountable state power too. The Snowden revelations have shown what can happen when elements of the state divorce themselves from their democratic mandate and are inadequately scrutinised.

GCHQ’s Tempora programme, which allows for mass data surveillance, was never explicitly authorised by Parliament. RIPA, the law that primarily governs surveillance in the UK, was passed in 2000 when mass data surveillance wasn’t possible or imaginable. The Intelligence and Security Committee, meanwhile, did not inform Parliament or the public about the questionable activities that were going on in our name. Reform to the oversight and legislative frameworks governing surveillance will be essential for restoring the public’s control over and confidence in the intelligence agencies.

We in the Labour Campaign for Human Rights believe this reform should include an end to blanket surveillance. Tempora indiscriminately collects masses of information about private communication. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve done anything wrong – everyone is targeted. That level of intrusion in innocent people’s lives is unprecedented in British history and cannot be justified. And it’s also unpopular. Supporters of Tempora will try and tell you people don’t care about their privacy, but a recent poll found that 68% of Britons are worried about how their data is collected by the government. That’s a clear mandate for change.

Whatever the precise outcome, Labour’s willingness to lead the debate on this issue represents a quiet revolution in our party. There is a new awareness of the dangers posed by a state that takes on its own personality and agenda separate from the society it’s meant to serve. Though there is still a way to go, I’m confident we’re moving in the right direction.

Andrew Noakes is Chair of the Labour Campaign for Human Rights

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