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Thursday, May 11, 2006

Illiberal New Labour

A friend of mine named his toilet “the Hezza”, after Michael Heseltine, back in the darker days of the Thatcher years. I don’t know if it is a common habit for people to rename household items after politicians, but for some years now I have called our bidet “Prescott”, because I don’t know what that’s for either. His sex life is unimportant – politicians can shag manhole covers, for all I care, and frankly the passing image of Prescott’s four chins juddering in flushed passion is not one that most people would wish to dwell on. The significant thing about Prescott and his dead career is that he embodies all that is wrong with the new Labour state: out of touch, useless and beginning to stink.

Consider Patricia Hewitt. Booed by the Royal College of Nursing, this is her WI moment. To be booed by the RCN is equivalent to a children’s entertainer being bottled off. So as peerages get offered out of the back of three-wheelers with “Trotter Trading” on the side of them, and Brown lurks, waiting to mug Blair with all the finesse of a released prison rapist, it has all gone a bit Frank Spencer. “Labour seem a bit like the last lot,” folk are saying, remembering John Major’s incompetent government of gun-runners, liars and corrupt grasping filth. However, this is not just a case of the electorate not trusting politicians; in truth, the politicians have never trusted the people, especially when it comes to civil liberties. For all the many lawyers in new Labour’s ranks, the party has never been a lover of these rights.

Consider the tale of Brian Haw, who has been staging an anti-war vigil outside parliament since July 2001. Haw is Britain’s best-known demonstrator. He has camped out in Parliament Square, in all weathers and despite harassment, to protest first against sanctions on Iraq and then against the invasion. During his time there, he has amassed enough banners and placards to keep a small recycling company in business, should they ever come down. Not everyone, however, has viewed his peaceful presence with tolerance; Westminster Council made a cack-handed attempt to evict him on the grounds that he was obstructing the pavement, and the government went so far as to include Clauses 132-138 in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (Socpa) specifically to bring an end to Haw’s protest.

The question is: why did they go to such lengths? What was so awful about a man protesting outside parliament? So what if he sleeps outside? What threat does he pose? Do the police and security forces perhaps believe he could be a closet Qaeda cell playing the long game? Do his placards bring parliament into disrepute any more than the behaviour of most of the MPs who work in the place does?

David Blunkett, when he was home secretary, explained the government’s case as follows: “It is a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but he is a nut.” Yet if we are talking about disrespecting parliament, surely fast-tracking a nanny’s visa is a slightly graver offence.

Even changing the law, however, could not remove Haw from his vigil, as our nation’s fine and august lawmakers managed to... er... "fuck it up". The law stated that people must have permission from the Metropolitan Police Commissioner before they “start” a demonstration. As Haw’s demonstration had been going on for years before the law was introduced, his lawyers argued that Socpa could not apply to him. This argument found favour with the judges last October and the protest was deemed to be legal – leaving new Labour lawmakers with more egg on their face than a Salvador Dalí painting.

On 8 May, however, three Court of Appeal judges overturned that decision, arguing that “parliament intended to include demonstrations whenever they started”. And just to make sure that Haw didn’t try to do anything silly and provocative such as challenge their decision, the judges refused him permission to appeal to the House of Lords. Whether Haw will contest that ruling is not yet known, so there is still a chance that this wonderful specimen of human cussedness will have another day in court.

For some people, Brian Haw’s experience epitomises new Labour’s illiberal inclinations. From the new offence of “glorifying acts of terrorism” through to “stop and search” for demonstrators, new Labour has made citizens more accountable to the state but not the other way around, which is the preferable path in a democracy. The government has never felt happy handing power or rights over to the people who elect them. Yes, the Human Rights Act came through, but so did detention without trial and the right for courts to use evidence extracted under torture (before that was thrown out by the law lords) and an ID card scheme.

All of which makes Labour appear petty, vindictive and inept – much like the last lot. So I shall leave you with this happy thought: the government created a law and wasted thousands of pounds and countless man-hours trying to enforce it, all because one peaceful demonstrator spoils the view and supposedly brings parliament into disrepute. If those are what pass for good reasons these days, it can surely be only a matter of weeks before new Labour introduces a law that forbids ministers from shagging in their offices. The mere thought of that spoils a lot more than a view.


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