Archive article from The Socialist Issue 383
What We Think
New Labour - guilty of destroying democratic rights
NEW LABOUR'S anti-terror Bill has scraped through the Commons by just 14 votes and is expected to get a rough ride in the Lords.
This deeply draconian legislation is being introduced under the guise of fighting terrorism. But it will not do so, any more than the equally brutal and undemocratic Diplock courts in Northern Ireland led to peace.
The government argue that they will not use their new powers lightly but it is impossible to believe them. As more facts come out it is becoming absolutely clear that the British security forces were up to their necks in the foul mire of Guantanamo Bay. The Prevention of Terrorism Act, passed rapidly in 1974 in the wake of the Birmingham pub bombing, led to many innocent Irish people, including trade unionists, being harassed and imprisoned.
Existing anti-terror legislation in Britain, introduced in the immediate aftermath of 2001, and now due for renewal, has already led to the indefinite imprisonment of people who have never stood trial or even been accused of a crime.
Yet the new Bill goes even further, giving the government enormous powers to detain anyone they choose to without trial. House arrest, electronic tagging and imprisonment will all be permissible.
As the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, was forced to admit, the vast majority of people the government considers terrorist suspects are detained via "the normal legal process".
In other words, evidence is assembled against them and they are taken to court. (Of course, this does not prevent miscarriages of justice, as the case of the Guildford Four - who Blair recently apologised to - and others so graphically demonstrates.)
Judges are entirely unelected - 84% went to public school, and 90% to Oxbridge. Time and time again they and the legal system have acted, not to defend democracy, but to defend the interests of the ruling elite. Nonetheless, up until New Labour came to power 'innocent until proven guilty' remained the letter of the law. This Bill is designed specifically to be used to lock up people without even producing any evidence against them never mind proving them guilty!
Repeal this legislation
This incredibly arrogant New Labour government has shown again and again that it holds ordinary working people in Britain in contempt. What the debate on this Bill again demonstrated, however, is that they also hold the institutions of government in contempt.
Cabinet meetings are an hour long and act to rubber-stamp decisions already taken. This Bill was pushed through parliament in just six hours, "less time than it takes for the average Virgin train to go from London to Stoke-on-Trent", as Simon Hoggart put it in The Guardian.
And for most of the debate Charles Clarke was not even present. He sent a 'note' promising to do better next time! This note was a very poor substitute for the normal process of actually amending legislation. Instead, it promised that the Bill would be amended in the Lords so that the right to imprison someone, or to detain them under house arrest, would have to be agreed by a judge. This was enough to get the Bill through the commons.
Even the Labour Lord Helena Kennedy expressed the inadequacy of this amendment:
"Sugar-coating the unpalatable by suggesting all will be well if a judge makes the order is to forget that it may not feel significantly different if it is Mr Justice Floggem or the Home Secretary who issues an order if you still don't know the nature of the allegation or the evidence on which it is based."
It is an utter condemnation of the parliamentary Labour Party that, of 408 Labour MPs, only 60 could, as one journalist put it "stir themselves from their obsequious torpor" to defy the government.
If it is passed through the Lords, even with further amendments, this Bill will severely undermine democratic rights. Without doubt, future governments will be prepared to use this legislation against protesters, trade unionists and community campaigners.
Socialists should campaign for the repeal of this legislation and previous authoritarian legislation such as the Criminal Justice Act. We also call for the democratic election of judges. However, we recognise that we live in a capitalist society where wealth and power are owned and controlled by a tiny minority.
The forces of the state - such as the police and the judiciary - fundamentally act in the interests of that tiny minority.
The struggle for genuine justice is linked inextricably to the struggle for democratic socialism - for a socialist society run to meet the needs of all instead of the profits of a few.
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