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How does Con-Dem Libertarianism stack up?

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New Labour’s shameful record on civil liberties could have allowed Nick Clegg and David Cameron to pose as defenders of human rights. The Liberal Democrats and the Tories had joined together to oppose new Labour’s 90-day and then 42-day detention without charge. They had defended the right to trial by jury.

Of course, the Tories happily supported new Labour on indefinite detention and control orders. They attacked the Human Rights Act, preferring an ill-defined “British Bill of Rights” designed to pander to xenophobia and prejudice, and lined up with new Labour’s attacks on asylum-seekers.

The Lib Dems had something of a better record. In parliament they had opposed indefinite detention, control orders and secret evidence. Their manifesto promised a repeal of control orders, an end to the use of secret evidence in court and reducing the period of detention without charge in terrorism cases to 14 days, rather than the current 28 days.

Those on the left who had called for a vote for the Lib Dems claimed they would introduce wider and better-defended civil liberties, as well as proportional representation. The Guardian, calling for an unequivocal Lib Dem vote, said:

On civil liberty and criminal justice, they have remained true to liberal values and human rights in ways that the other parties, Labour more than the Tories in some respects, have not.

But in the coalition negotiations the Lib Dems proved false, happy to water down civil liberties and PR for a sniff of power.

The Coalition agreement reads as slightly civil libertarian – scrapping ID cards, extending freedom of information, defending trial by jury and limiting police powers to retain DNA samples of people not convicted of a criminal offence.

It is necessary to read the document for its omissions – the more radical parts of the Lib Dem’s manifesto are firmly off the agenda. Control orders are to be reviewed, not abolished. Ending secret evidence, 28 day detention and restrictions on the right to protest are simply dropped.

New Labour’s ID cards scheme was already politically defeated. It remains to be seen whether a Tory government, once it has its feet under the table, will really extend freedom of information. Defending trial by jury means retaining the status quo – even new Labour had to retreat on that one. A “review” of control orders is unlikely to result in their abolition.

The parties have fudged their differences on the Human Rights Act. The Coalition Agreement contains the Tory promise to have a “commission to investigate the creation of a British Bill of Rights” with the Lib Dem caveat that it should “build on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.”

The word on the legal ground is that Tory lawyers think that a British Bill of Rights is unworkable. However, the Tory Party, egged on by the Daily Mail, hates the Human Rights Act and, from the measure of the Coalition agreement so far, it’s the Tories that will probably prevail.

Fixed-term parliaments are long overdue, but to entrench Parliament from a vote of no confidence in the government – requiring a 55 per cent positive vote – reinforces executive power. Clegg and Cameron have a joint interest in reducing the power of their backbenchers to derail the coalition.

The agreement states: “We will never condone the use of torture.” When does any politician say the opposite? But foreign nationals may be deported where “there are verifiable guarantees that they will not be tortured” by the receiving country. New Labour had an identical policy – relying on memorandums of understanding from Jordan, Libya and Lebanon that were utterly unenforceable. As a result, men who had never been convicted of any criminal offence in this country were deported and disappeared.

Foreign Secretary William Hague’s sudden announcement of an inquiry into allegations that British security services were complicit in torture is welcome. David Miliband, who as foreign secretary led the charge for keeping allegations of complicity in torture secret, must be furious. No doubt Hague is delighted to expose Miliband’s role, but whether or not a Conservative government is really prepared to take on Britain’s secret services remains to be seen.

The most humanitarian commitment is the promise not to detain children for immigration purposes. The fact that it’s a right-wing government ending this national scandal says more about new Labour’s inhuman demonisation of asylum-seekers than it does about Clegg and Cameron.

It is on immigration that the Liberal Dems have conceded most. None of the mainstream parties are progressive on immigration – they share the premise that there are too many foreigners in the country and those numbers should be reduced.

But the Lib Dem proposal of an amnesty after 10 years was, again, a basic humanitarian policy and better than the existing system. It recognised that, because of our draconian immigration laws, people who are in this country illegally lead appalling lives. They can’t legally work, they can’t claim benefits, they’re not entitled to secure housing and they’re supposed to pay for any NHS treatment, which means in practice that they don’t seek medical help at all. If they survive like that for 10 years, why not recognise their existence, permit them to work and to pay taxes?

Not only did the Lib Dems drop the amnesty but they capitulated to the Tory cap on immigration from outside the European Union. During the leaders’ debates Clegg had attacked Cameron not on the principle of a cap but on the practicality – how is the figure set, what happens to people applying later on in the year etc. To get into government, even that was abandoned.

It is hardly surprising that Clegg allowed Cameron to set the agenda on immigration. The Lib Dems are not that progressive on immigration, just a very little better than the Tories or new Labour.

When mainstream political parties accept a fundamentally racist agenda, and just disagree about the best way to implement it, it is inevitable that the party furthest to the right of those right-wing views should prevail. And it is also unsurprising that the BNP, despite being routed in Barking, still got over half a million votes nationally, increasing their vote and coming fifth after the three main parties and UKIP.

A truly progressive policy on immigration would make the case that immigration is positive for the country, that freedom of movement is something that rich people take for granted, and that asylum-seekers should be given safe havens, not treated as criminals. Note that none of the mainstream political parties proposed ending detention for immigration reasons in principle – even though the people detained have committed no crime – or ending the dispersal and stigmatisation of asylum-seekers.

Readers don’t need convincing that the Liberal Dems are not a party of principle. Those of us who were, or are still, in the Labour Party always knew that where they oppose Labour in local government they face right and play dirty. Now, so does the rest of the country.

Liz Davies is a barrister, political activist and chairwoman of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers. She was formerly a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee. She wrote this column in a personal capacity for the Morning Star.

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