Political Reform, Civil Liberties:
As a liberal to my core, there is nothing about which I feel more passionate than the cause of individual freedom and civil liberties. A liberal society protects and promotes the cause of individual dignity and freedom. When those freedoms are curtailed by the arbitrary and unjustified powers of the state, the crucial balance between the rights of every one of us and the state will become dangerously unbalanced.
That is what is now happening in Blair’s Britain. This Government’s disregard for individual rights is a damning indictment of a “progressive” Government which has lost its way. Attacks on jury trial, an increase in the powers of the state to hold information on its citizens, to conduct surveillance and to expand its powers of arrest and detention have shifted the balance of power significantly towards the state and away from the citizen. Liberal Democrats must be tireless in arguing for more accountable Government, and for the protection of our inalienable right to civil liberty.
That is why I will continue to lead the charge against the Government’s deeply flawed proposals for Identity Cards, and against the continued erosion of the rights of due process and of equality before the law. The Conservatives are fairweather friends of civil liberties. They have been undecided about ID cards and uncertain about draconian anti terror legislation.
I will also return again and again to the cause of constitutional reform. Renewing trust in our politics is an issue of growing importance for all of us in politics. The declining numbers turning out to vote, willing to stand for election, joining, or even being prepared to identify with a political party are symptoms of a greater malaise affecting our body politic. Our response has to address the gap which has developed between those in power and the people.
The Liberal Democrats have had a long history of support for democratic and constitutional reform. We have worked with those of other political parties when it has been necessary in order to bring about or build pressure for reform of our democratic arrangements. We recognise that our democracy should not be the plaything of one political party. The Labour Government after its election in 1997 introduced a number of significant constitutional and democratic reforms and we supported them in this. A parliament for Scotland, a Welsh assembly, a freedom of information Act and a human rights Act were all consistent with Liberal Democrat principles.
But their reluctance to finish the task they began – to renew our domestic democratic arrangements – has increased the sense of mistrust people feel towards politics and politicians. Power is more centralised than before. Parliament has been increasingly marginalised as the executive by passes it, ignores it or whips it to do its bidding. Local government has been hollowed out to such an extent it could be regarded more as an administrator of central government’s policies rather than a vibrant force of local energy and political focus. And we continue to elect our national parliament using a voting system that ensures the majority of voters in this country are little more than bystanders as all the parties target a tiny number of swing voters. Little wonder that our citizens prefer to channel their energies into single issues campaigns than work through political parties.
We have a political system based on the dominance of two political parties. This is no longer the reality of how politics in Britain is today. People want more choice in their politics, they want more influence in the decisions that affect their lives and they want democratic politics which are more transparent and accountable to them.
That is why I will fight for the renewal of our political system: to complete the reform of the House of Lords allowing for direct elections for a majority of the House; to introduce a proportional voting system for the House of Commons and local government; to empower local government, including significant new powers over local finance; and to strengthen the role of parliament allowing it to have a more significant and meaningful role in holding the executive to account.
These priorities are all part of the political modernisation of Britain which is long overdue. Mr Blair’s Presidential style of leadership, in which issues of constitutional importance are decided on the sofas of Number 10, has led to capricious and arrogant government.
The Liberal Democrats are the natural rallying point for all those who seek accountable Government, a vigorous and independent judiciary, and the fullest protection of our most basic civil liberties.