“They have broken the law, the prorogation of parliament. They have broken treaties, I have in mind the Northern Ireland protocol. They have broken their word on many occasions.” Those are the words not of a Labour Party spokesperson, but of former Conservative Prime Minister Sir John Major. He went on to say: “I have been a Conservative all my life. And if I am concerned at how the government is behaving, I suspect lots of other people are as well.”
The government assault on the rule of law and the fabric of British democracy is unprecedented in modern times, so much so that even lifelong Conservatives are concerned. The Tories also appear to have the Human Rights Act in their sights, as confirmed by the recent installation of Human Rights Act sceptic Dominic Raab as Justice Secretary. Raab has previously said that he doesn’t support the Human Rights Act and that he will now “overhaul” it before the next election.
Over the weekend on The Andrew Marr Show, in response to concerns over Downing Street Christmas parties last year, Raab claimed that the police “don’t normally look back and investigate things that have taken place a year ago”. The rule of law is meaningless if the law is not applied and enforced, and this is yet another example of the government’s flagrant disregard for the law. You would be forgiven for thinking, when reading Raab’s comments, that you had stepped through the looking glass – but it really was the Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor speaking.
Today has brought news of a fresh assault on the rule of law, with The Times reporting that Raab and Attorney General Suella Braverman are working on undermining judicial review, which allows people to challenge the government when it does not use its powers properly. This is despite a government-ordered review of judicial review only recommending limited changes to how it works.
With Christmas parties, the Owen Paterson saga, judicial review and more, the Tories believe it is one rule for them and another rule for everyone else. In the words of Major: “There’s a general whiff of ‘we are the masters now’ about their behaviour.” Some of it could be amusing if it were not so frightening.
Our human rights and the rule of law are meaningless if we cannot enforce our rights in the courts. The Tory slashing of legal aid has left millions without access to justice. Labour needs to restore legal aid, a key pillar of the welfare state that protects people at some of the most difficult times in their lives, whether that be when facing eviction, being unfairly dismissed or being as a victim of an abusive relationship.
So far, the Tory standing in the polls has been remarkably resilient – despite the party’s worrisome behaviour on justice, the rule of law and human rights. These are all abstract ideas that are sometimes difficult to communicate, but it is vital the Labour gets its message on these issues across.
As Shadow Justice Secretary, David Lammy, one of Labour’s best communicators, was a doughty advocate for the rule of law and human rights. His replacement, Steve Reed, has an excellent campaigning record going all the way back to when he led the campaign to achieve a double-digit swing to Labour and win Lambeth Council from the Lib Dems in 2006. The new Shadow Attorney General, Emily Thornberry, is also a seasoned and straight-talking campaigner who increased her majority sevenfold at the 2010 general election.
Reed and Thornberry are well-placed to build a broad campaign to challenge the Tories on justice, the rule of law and human rights. That campaign needs to communicate the real life impact of these concepts in a relatable way and why they are important for everyone. The Conservatives pretend the rule of law is only important for small groups against the interests of the majority, but that is simply untrue. The justice system, human rights and the rules of law should protect all of us in our hour of need.
Labour should not just seek to defend existing rights and arrangements, but be on the front foot by working to extend the legal rights we have, especially in relation to social and human rights. A strong campaign to defend and strengthen the justice system, rule of law and human rights in the UK would help Labour build support for the just and inclusive society that we all want and win power to put in place a just Labour government.
Omar Salem writes in a personal capacity.