He was very calm for a man at his wit’s end. I guess it was his training. Richard had come to my residents’ meeting in Shard End desperate for help, because, as an army veteran on an army pension, he could simply no longer afford to pay his bills. So he was going to bed at 6pm every night in his army sleeping bag just to stay warm. He’d served Queen and country defending our freedoms for 18 years. But what did ‘freedom’ now mean for him?
Nothing. Yet since Thatcher, the right’s story of freedom has been an animating force for victory after victory and, for the last 13 years, the Tories have governed with the same old hymns to liberty, with a new verse added waxing lyrical about mythical “Brexit freedoms”.
But, after 13 years of Tory rule, most of my constituents don’t feel they’re luxuriating in some Elysium of liberty. They feel that life is a lottery in a country in which millions of people are prisoners of anxiety trapped by a tyranny of poverty, fear and insecurity, in an economy in which the strong can dictate terms to the weak and the rich buy influence denied to the poor at the ballot box.
The Tories’ account of freedom is reductive – but it has proved seductive. For them, the threat to freedom is always the tyranny of dire states and never the tyranny of dire straits. They ignore the ogre that is the over-mighty employer or the monster that is misfortune. Yet these are the threats to freedom in the real world. And they are getting worse, which is why we take on the Tories’ on what they think is their home turf for three key reasons.
First, reclaiming freedom entails rediscovering our history, dating back to the Levellers, which began with the battles for freedom – as Clement Attlee recognised. Speaking to an American audience after World War Two, Attlee declared: “We, in the Labour party… are in line with those who fought for Magna Carta, habeas corpus, with the Pilgrim fathers and with the signatories of the Declaration of Independence.” Yet, from the 70s on, we neglected this story. And so we left a void for the right to fill with error.
Second, we have something unique to say. Our distinctive insight has always been that liberty does not last long without security and does not mean much without power. If we are to ensure everyday freedoms are stout, strong and sturdy, we need the collective force of society to deliver both security to all and power to each – and the way we do that is through rights.
Third, immense changes lie ahead as technology advances, and if we want each of us to share in society’s progress, some rights must evolve. After all, the Magna Carta says a lot about policing fish weirs but very little about digital literacy.
So this is our task today. To take on the real threats to freedom: the ogres of crime, exploitation, poverty, poisonous air, ill-health, ignorance, prejudice, isolation and hopelessness and instead create a country where we enshrine in a bold bill of powers and duties fresh rights to safety, work, decency, nature, health, learning, respect, mobility, participation and hope.
To back this up, we should rescue the public sector equality duty in the Equality Act. Activating section one of the Act (which the Tories have failed to do) would place a duty on public authorities to have regard for socioeconomic inequalities in their decisions. And we could update the Act to include a need to have due regard for advancing equality in the rights and powers set out in our bill.
We could also actually enshrine our ambition to deliver this agenda by modernising our own clause IV, the Labour party’s statement of aims and values, which – curiously for a party of equality – does not currently mention equality or our ambition to achieve it.
The Tories have always been a me, me, me party. Labour is the ‘we party’. We believe that by pulling together we can create for each and every one of us something extraordinary: the freedom to be you. That should be at the heart of the battle between left and right for the decade to come.
Liam Byrne’s Fabian pamphlet, ‘Reclaiming Freedom: The Case for a 21st Century Bill of Powers and Duties’, will be launched at the House of Commons today. The full pamphlet can be found here.