After Ed Balls’s inglorious surrender to Osborne over the cruel decision to make sacked workers wait longer to sign on for benefit, the 50 or so people crowded into Committee Room 9 at the House of Commons were pretty apprehensive: would Sadiq Khan, Labour’s shadow Lord Chancellor, there to speak on “Defending Rights, Delivering Political Reform”, sell the pass on the Human Rights Act? Indeed, his fellow speaker, Stephen Bowen, from the British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR), took advantage of Khan’s temporary absence for a Commons vote, to say: “I hope that Sadiq will make it clear that there will be no retreat from the Human Rights Act (HRA) under a future Labour government.”
Actually, the event – to mark the 25th anniversary of the creation of Charter 88 - was carefully choreographed by Unlock Democracy, the Charter’s successor organisation, and Khan himself, to do just that. Khan crowned a thoughtful speech on the significance of human rights and the rule of law to modern democracy with the commitment that the room wanted, promising that “there would be no retreat from the Human Rights Act and the rights and responsibilities that come with it”. He differentiated his approach to that of Conservatives, not only on the Act itself, but also in Labour’s commitment to a universal approach to human rights in contrast to the Tories’ attachment to “selective” human rights excluding marginal groups and their “majoritarian” behaviour in government.
Well yes, said a savvy guy in the audience, this is all very well in this room, but how would he deal with the “toxic” debate framed by its opponents “out there”? In essence, Khan, who has a distinguished past as a human rights lawyer, said at various points that he would defend the Act by taking the opportunity to set out its contribution to securing justice and dignity for all manner of ordinary people.
Khan began by rehearsing Charter 88’s influence on the Labour government’s early years, introducing the HRA and freedom of information (FOI), enacting devolution to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, London, and stressed his own commitment to transparency and accountability and the importance of “pressure from below” in securing reform. He also acknowledged that Labour in power had “grown less comfortable with our reforms, we saw them as ‘inconvenient’”; that they had become too controlling and impatient with the exercise of rights and freedoms; that they had introduced executive powers that were abused; and that they had mishandled devolution within England after the failure of the attempt to create regional assemblies. They had, in short, become too arrogant and technocratic – “but we have learned from our mistakes in government” and “we need to re-discover our radicalism in government.”
An indignant Tory present then lambasted him for other Labour failures, notably the invasion of Iraq – not really part of Khan’s brief for the evening. However, Khan responded silkily, saying that he had voted against the invasion – which had been carried thanks to the decision of the majority of Tory MPs to support the government. Further, on Blair’s notorious disavowal of FOI, “I didn’t always agree with Tony Blair.”
Khan was easily the sharpest dresser in the room. All in all, his performance was immaculate, and reassuring for those who care about accountable democracy and the rule of law. He knows the issues and has radical ideas. Some examples: A commitment to judicial review as a tool of accountable government. Endorsement of David Miliband’s idea of “double devolution” of power to local government. The suggestion that human rights law and FOI ought to apply in the private sector as well as the public sector. A belief in active citizens and interest in citizen’s conventions and a written constitution.
The dodgy moments came with questions on Edward Snowden and the surveillance state. The first he deftly finessed; on the second he owned that he had no answers, only questions. He said that Labour’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act in 2000 was now clearly out of date as the technology had moved on; that William Hague’s reassurances on the legal framework for the activities of the intelligence services were worthless; and he repeated Tory MP Douglas Carswell’s pointed suggestions that the UK intelligence services were sub-contracting “snooping” of British citizens to the US National Security Agency.
There are suggestions that Sadiq Khan’s speech was designed in part to create space for agreement with the Lib Dems in the event of a hung parliament after 2015. If so, then the Lib Dems have a lot to do to catch up, given their actions in government. So of course will many of Khan’s Labour colleagues. Both parties have much more to do to rehabilitate themselves, even though Khan has made a start. Meanwhile, if Khan was holding out an olive branch, it seemed to me that it was being offered to civil society organisations like Unlock Democracy under its new director, Alex Runswick; the BIHR; Liberty; the Electoral Reform Society; and many others. It looks as if he is urging on “pressure from below”.