John West - Labour supporter and journalist

Currently living in Paris, I'm a Labour member, activist and freelance journalist. I'll be writing mostly about missed opportunities, as I see them, and the necessity to rebuild Labour as a cohesive movement. We mustn't lose sight of reality, but we should sometimes challenge it.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Voting on the terror bill

Another terrifying piece of evidence that a large crop of Labour MPs have a stunning incapability for independent thought. It seems to be widely understood that the holding of terrorist suspects without charge for 90 days now stands a halfway chance of being voted through by Labour MPs (even Austin Mitchell says he will only abstain!) - perhaps with the help of enlightened Tory luminaries such as Bill Cash and Ann Widdecombe.

The cynicism of the government's "consultation" period this week in getting to this position cannot be overestimated. Last Wedenesday (02/11/05), Charles Clarke requested that David Winnick, and others, remove their amendments to the bill so that urgent, cross-party, talks could take place to resolve the fact that the 90 day proposal clearly did not have a majority behind it (indeed, no-one seriously doubts that if there were a free vote this would even be worth discussing). This, in the genuine interest of creating a consensus with the government, they did. Let's not forget that the opposition parties, buoyed by the slim one vote majority the government had received earlier that day, might well have been minded to press home their advantage. Instead, all the substantive amendments were indeed withdrawn.

But genunine conensus was never No. 10's plan - and, despite the protestations of the likes of Roy Hattersley that he is an "instinctive liberal", the Home Secretary was complicit in this (for my money, he is either totally illiberal or utterly weak, and in either case is unsuited to the job). What we have had instead of dialogue is the return of the spin machine, with chief constables wheeled out to speak in favour of political measures in a manner that is well beyond their brief and lends some armoury to those who will whip up accusations of this being the beginnings of a police state. This is a ridiculous charge at the moment, but the level of public police lobbying is certainly a cause for concern. There are very good reasons why police representatives should not be pro-actively involved in politics in the public sphere in the same way we don't expect senior civil servants to make statements about what they do, or do not, support going through the House.

It is breathtaking to consider the lack of consultation the government has held on this measure. If NHS nurses demanded a new management structure to enable them to do their jobs more effectively, you can imagine the economists, health experts, union leaders, managers, etc. who would be - quite rightly - called in to chew the fat. Not so with the police: they've demanded new powers, powers which proscribe the understood freedoms of UK citizens let's not forget, and so they shall get them. The Home Affairs Select Committee took representation from Liberty, questioning them at length along with other human rights bodies and that bastion of left-wing radicalism - the Law Society. We can imagine that Liberty's submissions to No. 10 and the Home Office found their way swiftly to the bin.

If you want an overview of the arguments against 90 days, you would do better to look at my previous post on the matter, which deals with the substantive points. But we should be in no doubt that Blair's strong-arming of weak-minded Labour MPs has the hallmarks of an administration that plays politics with liberty and is incapable of compromise, unable to engage in dialogue and, perhaps fatally for our liberties, is chronically myopic.

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