Friday, 14 May 2010

What the new coalition agreement means

Many libertarians are excited about the Civil Liberties section of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition agreement. Indeed, it all looks extremely promising;
  • A Freedom or Great Repeal Bill.

  • The scrapping of ID card scheme, the National Identity register, the next generation of biometric passports and the Contact Point Database.

  • Outlawing the finger-printing of children at school without parental permission.

  • The extension of the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency.

  • Adopting the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database.

  • The protection of historic freedoms through the defence of trial by jury.

  • The restoration of rights to non-violent protest.

  • The review of libel laws to protect freedom of speech.

  • Safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation.

  • Further regulation of CCTV.

  • Ending of storage of internet and email records without good reason.

  • A new mechanism to prevent the proliferation of unnecessary new criminal offences.
On all of this, I think that I am in agreement with Charlotte Gore and TravelGall. It is a much-needed antidote to the increasingly authoritarian stance of the Labour government over the past 13 years. But there should be no illusions. The Con/Dem pact does not in any sense represent a libertarian (even a right-"libertarian") government.

The Lib Dem proposal for an amnesty for illegal immigrants has gone, and in its place the coalition's guarantee to put "an annual limit on the number of non-EU economic migrants admitted into the UK to live and work." Though they will "end the detention of children for immigration purposes," which can only be a good thing, evidence is that the present draconian immigration system remains in place. Also noteworthy is that the non-immigration related detention of children - a major cause of concern - remains acceptable.

But then, as I have noted before, the right never did take children into account in civil liberties matters. The promise "that all schools have greater freedom over curriculum" is not matched by a promise for pupils' freedom, and indeed education policy seems more concerned with privatisation than liberation.

The more rigid welfare to work system also raises concerns. Not only in the fact that it intensifies the attack on the poor that Labour's Welfare Reform Bill initiated, but also in that it amounts to the legal use of cheap, forced labour by "providers."

Although it is not mentioned at all in the agreeement, it is an established fact that both parties are against workers organising to defend their rights and interests. The new business secretary, Vince Cable, has gone on record in support of curbing the right to strike in various areas, and his party's anti-worker politics are almost as well established as those of the Tories.

This is a significant attack on civil liberties in itself, the withdrawal of labour being a neccesity for workers to negotiate on an equal footing with bosses rather than be subject to economic coercion and industrial authoritarianism. But it also has consequences for working class people whose livelihoods are on the line with the supposedly "modest" cuts to "non-front line services," since precedent shows that "arrangements that will protect those on low incomes from the effect of public sector pay constraint and other spending constraints" amount to PR bullshit as real people are kicked out of work.

Moving away from civil liberties, there is much else to be criticised. Not least that the proposal for an increase in the tax-free Personal Allowance to £10,000 has now become a "longer term policy objective," and that recent increases in National Insurance stand, whilst employers benefit from an incrased NI threshold.

All pretence of serious voting reform has been abandoned. In place of proportional representation we have "a simple majority referendum on the Alternative Vote," which was acknowledged as being even less representative than the present First Past the Post system by none other than now-Energy and Environment Secretary Chris Huhne in the Guardian. The right to recall is a positive measure, but whether the provision "for dissolution if 55% or more of the House votes in favour" is a solid democratic idea, or a constitutional coup to shore up the new coalition, remains to be seen.

Also noteworthy is that any proposals with some merit - such as the devolution of power and greater local financial autonomy - involved the establishment of committees to "consider" proposals. Not only could the money that will be spent on those committees be used to safeguard real jobs that face the axe, but this "consideration" gets the government off the hook of actually having to do anything.

What is clear, from perusing the agreement, is that there are things in there to be optimistic about. Though far from radical, the coalition has at least pulled the new government away from the extreme-hawk end of the narrow mainstream political spectrum. But the fact that the positive measures are tempered by caveats (or committees) whilst the negatives remain strong should be seen as indicative of what this government has to offer.

What is clear is that where there are positives, we should push for their improvement. The many negatives need to be met with fierce and relentless resistance. The fight for reform in the present needs to go hand in hand with the struggle for revolution in the future.