Ed Miliband’s home affairs appointments: can we really take him seriously on civil liberties?

by Stephen Tall on October 11, 2010

One of the more cheering bits of Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour party conference was his pledge that the party under his leadership would once again take seriously the issue of civil liberties, of individual rights

My generation recognises too that government can itself become a vested interest when it comes to civil liberties. I believe in a society where individual freedom and liberty matter and should never be given away lightly. … we must always remember that British liberties were hard fought and hard won over hundreds of years. We should always take the greatest care in protecting them. And too often we seemed casual about them. … I won’t let the Tories or the Liberals take ownership of the British tradition of liberty. I want our party to reclaim that tradition.

Stirring stuff, and for small-l liberals everywhere a welcome sense that the Labour party might be rediscovering the radical, reforming spirit of the 1960s (when Roy Jenkins was a crusading, liberal home secretary), and banishing once and for all the dismal parade of authoritarian home secretaries appointed by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

But then Ed Miliband announced his shadow cabinet. And suddenly I’m doubting the sincerity of the new Labour leader’s words.

First, there was the appointment of Ed Balls as shadow home secretary. Lib Dem Voice noted at the start of Labour’s leadership campaign that Mr Balls was the least liberal of the contenders (together with Andy Burnham).

Indeed, it was hard to think of a Labour MP less likely to pursue a liberal home affairs agenda within the Labour party… and then I heard that Mr Balls was to be joined by Phil Woolas.

Mr Woolas ranked among the most authoritarian Labour MPs of the last parliament, achieving an impressively illiberal 100% score.

More importantly, his wafer-thin election victory in Oldham East and Saddleworth is currently the subject of a court challenge as a result of the campaign he mounted — see LDV’s recent reports here — and the literature he put out. As Lib Dem blogger Nick Thornsby notes in an open letter to Ed Miliband:

… in his election campaign, Phil Woolas published material that any right-minded person would find abhorrent. He claimed on leaflets that Muslim extremist groups were attempting to rig the election, and that his Lib Dem opponent was somehow in cahoots with them, and then, as we learned from the court case which I attended, his team delivered these leaflets solely to the ‘white areas’ of the constituency.

Whether or not Mr Woolas is deemed on November 5th to have breached election law is, frankly, irrelevant.

We must judge people by their actions, and the campaign that Phil Woolas ran was an affront to decency, democracy and a civilised society. … In my eyes, and clearly in the eyes of many of your members, this man is not fit to be an MP. Yet you have made him a front-bench spokesman in your first shadow ministerial team.

What, Mr Miliband, are we to conclude from that? As I said, we judge our politicians by their actions. For the sake of public life, I hope you will reconsider this decision.

Quite.

Others in the Labour party also appear shocked by Ed Miliband’s decision to hand a plum role to Mr Woolas. The New Statesman questions its wisdom here:

The one sore point is the bizarre decision to hand Phil Woolas the post of Home Office minister. Having run one of the most disgraceful election campaigns in recent history, Woolas is currently fighting an attempt to have his victory overturned by his Lib Dem opponent on the grounds of “corrupt practices”.

While over at the Labour-leaning Liberal Conspiracy website, Sunny Hundal denounces the decision:

Out of all the shadow cabinet appointments, it’s having Phil Woolas back at the Home Office that is the most disappointing. No actually, it makes me angry given recent revelations. And it’s worth pointing out once more, properly, why Phil Woolas is unsuitable to be in the Labour party, let alone a shadow minister.

Ed Miliband’s warm words on civil liberties were welcome. His early actions are anything but.