Universal rights aren’t easy, but they are essential


I believe that the death penalty is wrong in all circumstances (though I am not a pacifist). To truly believe this, you have to be aware of the crimes of those you are defending. Sure a few may be innocent, and for some, it is that doubt that brings them to oppose so final an option as the death penalty. But most are not.

Most people sentenced to death are exactly who you think they are. They are murderers, rapists, paedophiles, torturers and terrible combinations of all of these. These are the people who I would keep alive. These are the people whose lives I believe we should protect. Because I believe the taking of a life – outside of warfare or under circumstances of self defence – to be wrong. Wrong from the murderers who should be punished but equally wrong from the state.

Ultimately, I believe we must find a balance between justice and revenge.

I was reminded of this yesterday as calls for Maria Miller to resign almost immediately transformed into calls for her to lose her contractual benefits – in particular her severance pay.

Maria Miller

I was among the many people who thought Miller ought to resign. I felt both she and David Cameron have handled the situation appallingly. She behaved badly in the first place, tried to obfuscate and bully her way out of trouble and was extremely dismissive of the public she is ultimately there to serve. That she had to go was right and was inevitable. That it took so long made her and David Cameron look out of touch, lacking the mantle they had both once claimed of probity and of cleaning up Parliament.

So far, so going with the grain of public opinion. It was only once she resigned that I started to become troubled by the way the debate is going.

First of all, let’s put something to rest right away. Maria Miller did not resign from her job in the way you or I might recognise as such. Whether she was “resigned” or whether she came to the decision herself that her position was untenable, her behaviour and that of her supporters over the past week has amply demonstrated that she would have preferred to remain in post. This was a forced and sudden loss of position based on political pressure.

When I have resigned from jobs, my contract means I have a notice period. I either work this, which allows me time to get my financial affairs in order or it is paid as a lump sum allowing me the financial space to get my affairs in order. These things being written into my employment contract protects me from the whims of potentially capricious employers.

We need better enforcement of and stronger rights in employment contracts in the UK. More people should have more protection and a better safety net were they to lose their position. One of the things we have been most vocal about as an opposition from across the Party is our opposition to the dreadful Beecroft Report which sought to (and where implemented has) reduce workers rights to compensation on dismissal and a fair dismissal process. I remain committed to the principles that led me to challenge that report and to stand with those opposing it.

But much like the death penalty, a belief in universal rights at work and a strengthening of contracts and safety nets has consequences. You have to understand that not everyone you are fighting for will be noble and good. Bad people have rights too. That’s what rights mean and that’s why they are tricky at times. That’s why defending them properly is frequently a choice, not an instinct.

Labour have been right to say that Miller should go. We should have said so more clearly, more loudly and sooner. But we should be very careful before calling – as John Mann did yesterday – for Miller or any other “resigning” minister to lose their severence entitlement”.

If we start picking and choosing which jobs it is politically acceptable to allow contract law to be broken on then we undermine the very principle of the law. A law we should be championing. And if we allow contracts to be ignored in convenient political circumstances, do you think it will stop with those we disagree with politically? Tory ministers aren’t the only people who are protected by what appears in their contracts. So are trade union “pilgrims”, a group this government has been itching to attack for a long time.

Universal rights protect us all. They enforce a basic decency on and for the best of us. But that doesn’t come for free. It means enforcing the rights of the worst of us too. For me, that is a price worth paying.

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