As in my previous mail, the full NEC meets on Tuesday 25 May. Thank you to everyone who has already sent thoughts about the elections and the aftermath, more comments are welcome! I will read them all and reply to as many as I can.
Justice and Home Affairs Commission, 12 May 2021
Policy commissions bring together front bench MPs and members of the NEC and the national policy forum. Shadow ministers outline what Labour is doing on current issues and members explore areas of interest, before moving on to consider particular topics in more depth. Meetings are constructive and courteous and show Labour in a positive light, and I wish they were more widely accessible to members.
On 12 May the justice and home affairs commission heard from shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds, shadow minister for voter engagement and young people Cat Smith, and shadow minister for legal aid Karl Turner. Nick highlighted the emptiness of the Queen’s speech, with nothing on jobs or employment rights. Labour would continue pressing for stronger action on violence against women and girls, and on the appallingly low rates of reporting and conviction for rape. Violent crime had risen through 11 years of cuts in youth and mental health services and increases in school exclusions. New Tory legislation did nothing to tackle underlying issues, while clamping down on peaceful protests and on unauthorised encampments, a dog-whistle attack on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities which contravened human rights and equality laws. Labour would oppose these measures, while supporting extra protection for emergency service workers and tougher action on drink-driving. Further divisive immigration laws were coming, and while no-one wanted long delays it was the Tories who dropped the six-month target for processing applications. Meanwhile borders had remained open to visitors while the pandemic raged and new variants spread across the country.
The policing of the vigil for Sarah Everard was raised and members stressed the need to work with BAME communities and with local authorities. Our own processes for dealing with sexual harassment had to be beyond reproach if we were to speak with credibility. Also online stalking and abuse should be included in legislation. Nick suggested that a separate bill on online harms might cover social media attacks. He said that both he and Keir Starmer had spoken strongly against the way the vigil was policed, and promised that Labour would publish our own bill to highlight the difference from the Tories. Every community needed to have confidence in the criminal justice system, and there have been plenty of reviews: the Angiolini review of deaths in custody, David Lammy on discrimination, Wendy Williams on Windrush, Doreen Lawrence on the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on BAME communities. We now needed a government committed to implementing their recommendations.
Stitching up the System
Cat Smith will lead Labour’s opposition to the voter suppression bill, sorry the “electoral integrity” bill. Around 3.5 million people have no photo-ID, which will become compulsory for voting in person. While Labour is rightly concerned that this may disproportionately affect young, BAME and disabled people, the impact is likely to be greatest on older people who no longer have passports or driving licences, who always vote and who like to vote in person, and I suggested that campaigning with this group would attract public sympathy. Cat confirmed that Age UK were indeed worried about the plans.
The bill also proposes that citizens living overseas should be able to vote in UK elections for life, rather than the current 15 years. While this has some support within the party, notably from Labour International, it will be hard to prove where expatriates used to live because records have been destroyed, and they could register in any constituency. They will also become permissible donors.
Meanwhile the boundary review is progressing, with initial proposals for England expected shortly, followed by consultation through to January 2022, revised proposals later in 2022 and the final report and recommendations by 1 July 2023. Scotland and Wales are running a few months behind. A general election in 2023 would presumably be held on current boundaries, but an election in 2024 would use the new boundaries, which will make it difficult for parties to plan the selection of candidates.
Karl Turner spoke passionately on legal aid, cut by £1 billion every year since 2012, though people only noticed when they personally tried to access justice. The pandemic had made the crisis worse, with some suspects released for years while under investigation, leaving victims unprotected. The current review of legal aid was promising but £300 million was needed immediately, with further annual increases. It was difficult to get advice on immigration, housing and family law, and cases took longer where litigants did not have professional representation. The threshold for legal aid was so high that 98% of working single parents, overwhelmingly women, were not entitled to financial support.
The best way forward was for an independent body to decide appropriate rates for civil and criminal proceedings, as well as extending provision to include housing and immigration and clearing the backlog of employment law cases. Finally the Tory plan to end “abuse” of judicial review was a savage power grab on the foundations of democracy. Labour would oppose these moves, but with a Tory majority of 80 Karl was not optimistic. He also had to convince the shadow treasury team that legal aid was a priority.
Members stressed the need to educate people about how everyone is affected even if not directly involved, and raised disproportionate sentencing and the impact of joint enterprise laws on BAME communities (joint enterprise can allow a group of people to be charged with a crime even if it was only committed by one person and the others did nothing to prevent it). Karl shared these concerns and the situation was getting worse, with fewer people from underprivileged backgrounds going into the law and the judiciary.
Electoral reform continues to feature prominently, making up more than half the contributions to justice and home affairs. The commission heard from Joe Sousek of Labour for a New Democracy and Sandy Martin, chair of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform. The central call is for Labour to commit to the principle of proportional representation for the House of Commons, with further consultation on the specific voting system to be included in the manifesto. A YouGov poll before the 2019 election showed 76% of party members supporting electoral reform, and up to 214 constituency parties have passed resolutions in favour of proportional representation, with only seven known to have rejected such motions.
Millions of people feel unrepresented in parliament, living in safe seats or electoral deserts, and fuelling resentment. Evidence from other countries suggests that proportional systems reflect the political balance of the electorate more closely than first past the post, and they also tend to correlate with less unequal societies. The Tory government plans to remove second preference votes from the election of mayors and police and crime commissioners, seeking political gain from making the system less proportional.
Members asked whether electoral reform was sufficiently important to appeal to voters, and if the heavy defeat in the 2011 alternative vote referendum was a warning. The speakers responded that AV was not a proportional system anyway, and the vote was primarily a popularity contest. Labour won a landslide in 1997 with a manifesto which included a commitment to electoral reform, though it was not delivered because at the time it seemed unnecessary. I commented that the Jenkins proposals, which retained constituency links with MPs plus a top-up at county level based on vote share, had been the last best opportunity for Labour to change the system for good.
The speakers also affirmed their commitment to
- automatic voter registration and votes at 16 (already party policy),
- reform of the bloated House of Lords
- opposing any measures which would suppress voting
- fairer representation at local level
However reforming the House of Commons took priority, because this would be a safeguard against other changes being unpicked by future governments.
More information is at the websites below. Given the level of enthusiasm, the outcome of the debate in September will at the very least be a test of Labour’s own internal democratic structures.