Commons abstentions are clashing with Labour’s commitment to human rights

Diane Abbott
© Sandor Szmutko/

Recent weeks have seen Labour MPs adopt positions on human rights issues in parliament that were surprising to many, not least Labour Party members. And it has been particularly surprising because the current Labour leader, Keir Starmer QC, has spent most of his career as one of Britain’s most distinguished human rights lawyers.

The first contentious human rights issue to come up was the overseas operations bill. The government claimed it would stop “vexatious” legal claims being brought against British soldiers. After five years from when the incident took place, there would be a presumption against any criminal prosecutions of soldiers. This would include war crimes, allegations of inhuman or degrading treatment and torture. In effect, the bill would decriminalise torture by British soldiers if it had taken place more than five years earlier.

But the truth is that British troops have committed brutal crimes, they have often taken years to be revealed and it has been extremely difficult to hold the individual soldiers concerned to account. Accordingly, the bill was condemned by the former head of the British armed forces, Field Marshal Charles Guthrie; a former commander of British land forces; the ex-head of service prosecutions; and even former Tory defence secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind. They all argued that British soldiers would be put at greater risk if Britain was seen to ignore international law. Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn spoke for many Labour MPs when he said: “I have grave concerns that, as it stands, the overseas operations bill defies and undermines international law.”

Yet despite the widespread condemnation of the bill, from people ranging from top British military men to the UN rapporteur on torture, astonishingly Keir Starmer directed Labour MPs to abstain on it at second reading. He even sacked three Labour MPs from their frontbench positions who insisted on voting against the bill. But as one of the sacked MPs Nadia Whittome said: “The bill was anti-veteran, anti-human-rights and would effectively decriminalise torture.” In the end, 18 Labour MPs altogether voted against the bill.

Less than two weeks later, the government introduced the covert human intelligence sources (criminal conduct) bill – or as campaigners describe it, the ‘spycops’ bill. In the same way that the overseas operations bill put soldiers above the law, this new bill would put undercover police officers and security agents above the law. As the human rights organisation Amnesty said: “There is a grave danger that this bill could end up providing informers and agents with a licence to kill”. But once again, Keir Starmer instructed Labour MPs to abstain.

Noticeably the Labour frontbench mainly talked about undercover policemen in terms of criminal gangs. But there was huge concern about undercover surveillance of civil society including trade unions. Over four decades, undercover policemen had infiltrated nearly 1,000 political groups. These groups included environmental campaigns like Greenpeace, animal rights organisations and family justice campaigns like the Stephen Lawrence campaigns. In the case of the Stephen Lawrence campaign, police officers were blunt. They said that they had infiltrated not because they suspected criminality, but to dig dirt.

As the scale of the infiltration became apparent, the controversial methods also caused concern. People were shocked that undercover police officers routinely had sexual relationships with female activists, even had children with them, and then disappeared back to their real lives as police officers. Even in terms of criminal gangs, many people – including former Labour director of public prosecutions Lord Macdonald – questioned why the bill did not exclude murder torture and sexual violence from being legalised (as similar Canadian legislation does).

Lord Macdonald also questioned why the bill extended the power to engage in criminal activity to organisations like the Gambling Commission and the Food Standard agency. And he raised the question of why undercover policing (with the consequent massive intrusion into people’s lives) did not require a warrant but something like phone tapping did. So once again, in the face of all the criticism of this ‘spycops’ bill, a group of 20 Labour MPs defied Keir Starmer’s instructions and voted against it at second reading. But concern about the bill was more widespread than people prepared to vote against it.

Keir Starmer’s reasoning in making Labour MPs abstain on these human rights issues is clear. He believes that the key to winning back ‘Red Wall’ Labour seats is sounding tough on security and policing. But there is increasingly a clash between this electoral strategy and standing up for human rights in the House of Commons. It remains to be seen how Keir Starmer will resolve this.

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