Human rights and austerity – Chakrabarti’s speech to Labour North West conference


Below is the full text of a speech delivered by Shami Chakrabarti at the Labour North West conference.

Friends, it is a privilege to return to this Labour North West Regional conference, even in such dark times. Having spoken to so many fellow members and activists since the general election. I know that the result felt to so many of us like a death in the family. And not just because of our hopes, dreams, values and labours for a different outcome, but because we know as surely as night follows day that a far-right Boris Johnson-led Tory government is literally shortening the lives and diminishing the life chances of millions of people in our country and even beyond it.

We didn’t come into this struggle to be ‘players’ on a stage or on a pitch, seeking ‘control’ of a ball or a scene or glory for ourselves. We are in this movement to win and share power, opportunity, peace and sustainability. The yearning for dignity for all people everywhere is a light that never goes out and it is our duty to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down, brighten and offer that light with urgency.

Too many in Britain’s political commentariat – too much of it based in London – have come to read and sound more like sports commentators or drama critics. You know, I even went to a TV studio on election night to find a well-known sports presenter in charge of the results.

Their analysis is based purely on who is up and down in the polls, in and out of high office, cocky or hesitant in ‘performance’. Their grasp of competing ideas and policies, let alone the needs, challenges and aspirations of ordinary people is sketchy at best and whilst they relish the power and influence that they attempt with their withering verdicts on our struggles, how often do you see them admit that far from being impartial expert observers in our politics they are key protagonists?

Compare for example, the constant and anxious scrutiny of our internal discipline, disputes and arguments – not that we have always helped ourselves – with their relaxed attitude to Johnson’s personal history of misogyny, racism and climate change denial, his illegal shut-down of parliament, purge of more liberal Tories and threats to our independent judiciary.

Yet how has the media been rewarded for its attacks on Labour and light-touch scrutiny of the Conservatives before and during the election campaign? With ministerial boycotts of flag-ship political programmes, threats to the licence fee and just last week, the bizarre and chilling spectacle of political journalists being segregated at a No. 10 briefing, with the less than friendly outlets sent packing. At least, on this occasion and in a rare example of something approaching solidarity, their more favoured colleagues left with them.

I take no pleasure in this morality tale but merely point out that whilst any school-age child can warn about the dangers of giving in to bullies, some of our most established news outlets have been much later to this lesson, and their slowness has come at a price. For whilst my topic today is “austerity and human rights”, before even the fight for human rights comes the need for an open democracy based upon the rule of law.

Without these basic foundations of contemporary civilisation – including a robust independent judiciary, free and pluralistic media beyond the domination of either global corporate giants or the governments they too often influence or control, all other human rights struggles will be so much harder to address. That means that in the months and years ahead, we are going to have to be the bigger people and movement that we are, and fight to defend the rights of people and institutions that have been far from kind or even fair to us. But I know we will do this in pursuit of our values and of the kind of society and planet that all people deserve.

Even the most so-called “liberal conservative” or “liberal liberal” has a rather narrow view of the rights of people. They supposedly support freedom from torture but turn a blind eye to the degradation and inhumanity perpetrated by shameful levels of poverty in one of the wealthiest nations on Earth. They talk a good game about ‘modern-day slavery’, whilst failing to invest in enforcement against it or to give safe haven to its victims. And they have nothing at all to say about the modern day servitude of zero hours contracts and the poverty wages that drive hard-working people to food banks as – according to Joseph Rowntree’s Report of last week – we experience the highest levels of in-work poverty on record.

It’s enough to make you weep, make you angry – but how much better that we put tears and anger aside, unite and organise to offer a clearer alternative vision of hope in the future.

In recent years, too many people have taken their own lives or died of starvation in the face of inhuman treatment at the hands of the DWP. An internal investigation by that very department last year looked at the case of 64 year-old Liverpudlian Stephen Smith. In 2017 and despite many terrible illnesses and weighing just six stone, he was denied benefits. He died last April. The investigation talks about “missing crucial safeguarding opportunities”. We might better call it “social murder”.

How many times have you heard the Tories invoking public safety. “The first job of government is to keep people safe”. That’s true enough. But safety isn’t just required from a bullying state or from abusive fellow citizens. A supportive community and country keeps its vulnerable people safe from starvation and ill-health as well.

The NHS is perhaps the greatest democratic socialist experiment in world history. For many years it created a practical right to a reasonable standard of healthcare envied all over the world. It became such a cherished and trusted brand that even the Tories – who let’s not forget voted against its creation – could only whisper against it in private and privatise and dismantle it by stealth.

They fear it so much because it is living proof of what people can do when they come together to provide rewarding work for people from all over the world who want to contribute here and world-class healthcare for people here on the basis of need and not means or greed. It demonstrates that another way of living and working is possible and so they undermine it quietly and over time with all platitudes to the contrary.

NHS A&E staff now openly speak of the “despair, anguish, anger and frustration” that they feel in their work with insufficient resources to give their patients proper care, with sick people waiting for hours on trolleys in the depths of winter and to our national shame.

And if a right to reasonable healthcare is too rich for blue Tory blood, how do they justify their record of the last ten years on law and order? And what could be a more important role for government than keeping people safe from sexual and violent offences? Human rights defenders all over the world will tell you that a key indicator of the rule of law breaking down is when rapists escape with impunity and victims fear that coming forward is a painful and degrading waste of time. So how appalling that whilst Boris Johnson stands in front of rows of uniformed police as part of his election PR, women’s groups speak of rape being effectively de-criminalised with the lowest conviction rates on record.

Vulnerable complainants are being treated as criminals with their mobile phones taken in the police station and Government guidance warning against life-saving therapy. Waiting times between complaint and charge have increased by 140 per cent since 2010 and we now have a Prime Minister who thinks that resources should not be “spaffed up the wall” on historic child abuse inquiries.

Next week the government is poised to introduce emergency legislation to prevent the early release of some convicted terrorists. Make no mistake, if there is an emergency, it is one of this government’s own making. It is the emergency of our over-stuffed under-staffed prisons, many almost controlled by dangerous offenders and where prisoners are very likely to leave more dangerous than when they entered.

It is the emergency of a criminal justice system on its knees, of crumbling courts and of prisons and probation run for private profit not public safety. Labour will engage constructively with any new sentencing proposals but we will not let this government off the hook for the double-speak and distraction of attacking judges, lawyers and human rights values whilst they pretend you can keep our people safe on the cheap.

No new legislation will work without massive re-investment in our criminal justice system and political accountability that cannot be farmed out to Serco and G4S. And contrary to the spin of his henchmen, Boris Johnson didn’t just arrive from outer-space, he has been at the heart of the Conservative leadership during the last decade of failure. It’s just that now he has his name on the notepaper and we know where he lives.

In tough times I hope that you have found both solidarity and renewed energy at this conference. We are, after all, those strange people who occasionally forsake the football and the family, the shopping and the work to come together in this wider family and work that we share. For we are a movement of yes of visionaries, but of working and practical people most of all. So please leave today with fire in your belly and hope in your heart and spread that fire and especially that hope in all you do.

“Hope is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all – 

And sweetest – in the gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little bird

That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest sea –
Yet – never – in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.”

Thanks for listening.

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