Labour are wrong to abstain on dangerous government legislation

Labour are wrong to abstain on dangerous government legislation

By Noah Keate

Labour’s failure to oppose dangerous policies that undermine the rule of law is contradicting its presentation as the party of social equality.

Abstaining in Parliament is where an MP votes neither for nor against a bill. Though, to the politically uninitiated, it can appear pointless, it is a deeply important part of politics. While someone on principle may wish to vote a certain way, abstaining takes into account the pragmatism within politics. To have no flexibility makes compromise, and enacting long term change, impossible.

However, there are times where abstention is the wrong move. Even when, like at present, the current government has a strong majority, how each MP casts their ballot is crucial. Under Keir Starmer’s leadership, Labour have moved towards a trend of repeatedly abstaining on government legislation. By doing this, instead of voting against, Labour is allowing itself to be tainted by legislation with extremely dangerous implications.

The “Spy Cops” Bill

Take the “spy cops” bill, which allows undercover spies to commit crimes while part of criminal gangs.  Labour abstained on the controversial bill when it was passing through the House of Commons. They are now similarly set to abstain on the bill as it enters the House of Lords. Despite an amendment from the former shadow attorney general Shami Chakrabarti, arguing that spies shouldn’t be immune from prosecution, the party will whip its peers to neither endorse nor reject the legislation.

The flaws in this bill are such that it’s tricky to know where to begin. Amnesty International have argued the bill could “end up providing informers and agents with a licence to kill”. Given that those who cooperate with the police could be immune from prosecution, whatever the crime, such legislation represents a clear violation of power. Keir Starmer argues that such legislation would have to comply with the Human Rights Act, but there is nothing to stop an agent going rogue or acting rashly under pressure. Labour should account for this.

Often, proponents of such legislation argue the presence of spies – and their immunity from prosecution – is worthwhile to protect the country. However, groups infiltrated by undercover police are often from a certain political persuasion: usually left-wing, they have often been involved with the trade union movement. In the 1970s the trade unions held huge dominance over government policy, meaning the police were interested in their membership. It is bizarre then, that a left-wing party would sit by while this bill passes through.

Margaret Thatcher’s premiership saw a yearlong conflict between the state and Arthur Scargill’s National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). The level of animosity between each side was such that surveillance would have no doubt been undertaken. If a group is deemed to threaten the status quo, the police and intelligence services will believe surveillance is justified. According to Tribune magazine, of the 1,000+ groups subject to undercover surveillance since the 1960s, only three have been far-right.

Any potential exploitation of this bill when it is used in practice seems almost inevitable. A key tenant of a liberal society is equality under the rule of law. Nobody, whatever their position in society, should be able to evade justice in the name of protecting society. The bedrock of liberty is being able to face the consequences when someone has done something wrong. Labour’s opposition to this bill from start to finish should rest on their passion for social equality. If we are not equal under the law, a cohesive society cannot function.

The Overseas Operations Bill

This is far from the only bill where Labour have been less than impressive. The Overseas Operations Bill seeks to make former soldiers exempt from facing accountability for any alleged crimes committed in warfare. With, according to LabourList, a presumption against prosecuting troops for offences committed more than five years ago, British soldiers who may have committed crimes will not face the repercussions of their actions. Victims and their families will attain no justice at all.

Incredibly, Labour decided to abstain when the bill first entered Parliament. By not blocking a bill, the governing party may be more likely to consider amendments from those who didn’t want the bill to fail. Yet this didn’t happen here. The presence of an 80 seat majority meant that, when Labour eventually voted against the bill on its third reading, no amendments had passed.

This bill is dangerous. Like the Spy Cops Bill, it is opposed to equality under the rule of law. That someone has become a spy or member of the armed forces shouldn’t make them exempt from the law. With the exception of sexual offences, soldiers won’t face justice simply because more than five years have passed since the alleged offence took place. If Labour want to be seen as the party of law and order , the length of time since an alleged offence was committed should be utterly irrelevant. Why did they initially abstain then?

Defending Liberal Democracy

Labour eventually voted against this bill at third reading – unlike the “Spy Cops” bill – but their opposition should have been resolute from the start. Such a bill is the antithesis of the values of liberty, democracy and the rule of law. Many conflicts are (accurately or otherwise) fought on the basis of trying to extend those values around the world. How can the UK advocate for such qualities if it is unwilling to practice them at home? The government introducing such legislation stinks of short-term political opportunism that will generate good media headlines. Labour should not be making their game easier.

Before soldiers are ever placed in the battlefield, they should receive necessary training to prevent them from committing a war crime. But upon an alleged crime, a trial should allow them to make their case and a jury should decide their future. Some crimes like torture can never be blamed on the heat of the moment. It is a premeditated act violating the European Convention on Human Rights. To abstain on a bill that could prevent prosecutions on torture allegations is quite remarkable. The fact that all soldiers and spies would be exempt from facing prosecution for certain offences sets a particular precedent. The suspicion will always run that individuals have managed to avoid scrutiny and escape facing the consequences for the offences they have committed.

Principles are the bedrock of politics – by holding beliefs and values, a party can understand what it wants to change in the country. To abandon principles is to lose any kind of purpose or justification for existence. Whatever the size of the government’s majority, Labour – supposedly the party of equality – should be resolute in voting against legislation that would eradicate equality under the rule of law. It is to their shame that they stood complicit.