The reaction of some Labour people to the formation of the Lib Dem/Conservative Coalition Government last May was sheer disbelief. For some reason they seemed to believe that liberals were just Labour supporters who’d mistakenly joined the wrong party. The notion that maybe we had a whole different set of values seemed alien to them.
In my experience, however, you can easily divide liberals from Labourites, and you do that on the issue of civil liberties. My Labour friends just don’t get civil liberties. They find it hard to understand that I don’t believe that the State always knows best and that I don’t want to give the State ever more power over my life.
I was reminded of this when I read about criticism of Lib Dem transport minister Norman Baker MP, who refuses to wear a helmet when he rides a bicycle.
More local evidence is provided by some stats I just got hold of from Plymouth City Council. These stats were all about how the council had used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) 2000; this is the Act that gave any Tom, Dick or Harriet at councils up and down the country the right and power to snoop on residents.
What’s interesting is that use of RIPA powers by the council skyrocketed in 2004, which was the first full year in which Labour controlled the council after the passage of the Act. In that year – 2004 – the council used “directed surveillance” – things like placing listening devices or taking photographs in public places – 37 times. They also used “covert human intelligence sources” once; this is where people act in an undercover way to gather information.
The only other full year in which Labour has controlled the council since the passage of the Act was 2005, and this was the year in which use of RIPA powers by Plymouth City Council peaked. Communications data was obtained four times (eg getting addresses for telephone numbers), directed surveillance was used 45 times, and covert human intelligence sources were used five times.
Since Labour lost control of Plymouth in 2006, RIPA has been used less and less. In 2009, it was used just eight times; in 2010, just seven times; and it hasn’t been used at all yet in 2011. Thankfully, the Coalition now plans to tighten the rules of how and when RIPA can be used.
One of the most important things that defines my political outlook and helps me to know that I am a good liberal is my belief in civil liberties, and my belief in the need to place limits on the extent to which the State, even a humble city council, can place listening devices in public places or send in undercover officers to snoop on local residents. It’s a lesson that Labour still needs to learn.