Tom Watson Resignation and the Failure of Labour on Civil Liberties

Loz Kaye's picture

Tom Watson has been something of a political touchstone for the digital rights movement in the UK ever since he warned about the dangers of the Digital Economy Act in the dying days of the Gordon Brown government. Since then he has found his way on to the Labour front bench and been their general election coordinator.

For many of us his rise was rather frustrating as his ability to comment on digital issues seemed to have been hampered. Well no more, Tom is to return to the back benches.

Many have commented on the dignity and humour of Mr Watson's resignation letter, the only sniping coming from within the Labour party itself. There has been much speculation for the reasons for his departure. Sure, the Falkirk candidate selection has been controversial, but this hardly the only controversial Labour selection and it will be not the last. 

This is all to miss the main point in my view. There is no mystery behind the concrete political reason for Tom Watson's departure. He makes that clear in his letter: “... to speak out in areas of personal interest: open government and the surveillance state, the digital economy, drones and the future of conflict...”. Put simply, it is impossible to combine speaking out against mass surveillance and being at the top of the Labour party. That has been evident to us for some time, especially during the debate around the Snoopers' Charter, but this is a searing indictment of how little importance Ed Miliband's Labour Party attaches to civil liberties.

As the BBC's political editor Nick Robinson observed, this is about more than Falkirk, it is about the future direction of the Labour party. Much of that is about the tension between the grassroots and MPs like Simon Danczuk who seem to think even moving more than a millimetre away from the Tories is a hark back to 1983. It's left to us in the Pirate Party to really advocate for ending discrimination in the benefits system, holding bankers to account, ending bank bailouts, moving to a citizens' income. But the split in the Labour movement is just as much between the 90 days authoritarians and those who think we should be citizens not suspects.

This problem is hardly confined to the Labour party. The Conservatives like to pay lip service to the idea of personal liberty up to the point that it actually comes to granting us any. Sure, like Watson, there are honourable exceptions like David Davis or Big Brother Watch's Nick Pickles, but it seems you have to be a maverick outsider to stand up for digital rights or privacy in the House of Commons. You can see how well real civil liberties credentials go down in parliament  by the disgraceful harassment of Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert in what I can only describe as bullying by other MPs.

None of this gets us much further forward while rights are eroded. It can't be the job of a select  few to speak up when technology, privacy, data, the Internet, what the government insists on calling “cyberwar” and civil liberties are right at the heart of the political and news agenda now week in week out. This is especially true if those voices are marginalised. We can't expect a few people to do it all, or burden and fetishise them as heroes. The entire political culture has to change. We are all responsible for that. We shouldn't wait for Tom Watson, or anyone else to do it for us.

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Photo of Tom Watson  by  Benjamin Ellis (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr.

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