The Fabian Review: Labour has a trump card – so let’s use it

More often than not the accusation comes in that politicians are all the same, with nothing to separate their petty squabbles and public relations facades.

Perhaps this is in part because we are not highlighting some of Labour’s strengths. One area that does seem to have been completely neglected by the Labour election machine are our justice policies.

Labour wins the justice policy debate hands down and most in the legal profession – solicitors and barristers from all political creeds – would agree. Here’s a bunch of highly skilled, well educated and influential individuals who more likely than not think the Conservatives have some really crackpot ideas – so why aren’t we shouting from the rooftops about this fact?

So, what are these policies and why do Labour trump the Tories so emphatically in this arena?

The most obvious place to start is legal aid. In a world of widening inequality, the coalition’s proposed 8.75% fee cuts have infuriated defence lawyers, who say there will be an increase in miscarriages of justice as experienced lawyers are forced out of business. The policy proved so unpopular that more than 1,000 lawyers protested outside parliament last year in the first full-day walkout ever seen in the profession. Labour have already pledged an immediate review of the proposed cuts and to work with the legal profession to find alternative savings.

The same can be said of the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling’s, plan for restrictions to judicial review, which is used to hold the government to account by subjecting their decisions to scrutiny in the courts. Attempts to pass legislation has found significant opposition both from within parliament and in the legal profession, with Labour arguing effectively that the proposals make it far more difficult to challenge unlawful government decisions and subject public bodies to effective scrutiny.

Then there was the farce surrounding Grayling’s ban on sending books to prisoners, which was swiftly declared unlawful by the high court, with the judge ruling that it was strange to treat books as a privilege when they could be essential to a prisoner’s rehabilitation.

Furthermore, Grayling’s plans to leave the European Court of Human Rights were widely derided – none more so than from within the Conservative party itself, with Dominic Grieve proclaiming that the proposals contained “howlers” and were “factually inaccurate”. The move itself is absurd, as Sadiq Khan rightly warns – Britons’ right to petition the ECHR if they feel their rights had been infringed could be jeopardised by dictatorial Tory MPs.

To top it off, the whole shambles of the Tories’ justice policies and its hostility towards both the EU and ECHR was no doubt a factor in the ousting of some of the more moderate faces of the party – the likes of Dominic Grieve, Ken Clarke and even perhaps William Hague – and the party is far more polarised as a result. Astonishingly, a recent online poll claimed that 82% of legal professionals would be more likely to vote Conservative at the general election if Grayling is moved. Why are we not making more of this one?

It might be that as a lawyer-in-training, my brain is set to permanent legal-mode and I’ve lost any sense of perspective. Perhaps justice policy is too dry to work on a billboard. But surely campaigning on this issue is a path not yet fully explored and one worth exploiting.

As the Labour campaign finds itself on a slightly unstable precipice less than three months from the election, let’s make the most of all of our strengths. Surely we’re sitting on a trump card.

• This article was originally published in The Fabian Review on 11 February 2015. To access the original, please click here.

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