The Counterterrorism Stances of the UK’s Major Political Parties

On Thursday, May 7, 2015, voters will go to the polls in the UK’s general election. With that in mind, it’s worth reviewing the domestic terrorism and extremism related-measures and policies found in the manifestos of the three main parties: the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats (see here for a brief history of manifestos in the UK). The content of the three manifestos is politically unsurprising, but measures and policies are often presented in disappointingly thin detail (even allowing for the fact that, as manifestos, they are bound to have some built-in flexibility). In terms of the coverage given, the outlier is the Labour Party manifesto which is markedly meager on terrorism/extremism than the other two manifestos.

The key proposals in the Conservative Party manifesto (found on pages 61-63) are as follows: 

  • Counter-terrorism powers are to be strengthened, including by new communications data legislation;
  • New “Banning Orders” will outlaw groups that “foment hate;”
  • New “Extremism Disruption Orders” will restrict the harmful activities of extremist individuals;
  • A strategy will be developed to “tackle the infiltration of extremists into our schools and public services;”
  • The powers of Ofcom (the media regulator) will be strengthened so that “tough measures can be taken against channels that broadcast extremist content;”
  • Employers will be able to check whether an individual is an extremist and bar them from working with children;
  • Further measures will be taken to ensure colleges and universities do not give a platform to extremist speakers; and
  • The Human Rights Act 1998 (the “HRA”), which makes it unlawful for public authorities in the UK to act incompatibly with the European Convention on Human Rights, will be “scrapped” and replaced with a British Bill of Rights that will “stop terrorists and other serious foreign criminals who pose a threat to our society from using spurious human rights arguments to prevent deportation.”

The Labour Party manifesto addresses extremism/terrorism on pages 53-54:

  • “Proper controls” will be imposed on dangerous suspects;
  • Returnees from the Syrian conflict will be subject to a mandatory de-radicalization program “designed to confront them with the consequences of their actions;”
  • Investigative laws will be updated and both the powers available and privacy safeguards will be strengthened; and
  • The de-radicalization Prevent program will be “overhauled.”

The Liberal Democrats’ manifesto sets out a list of “We will” action points in relation to terrorism/extremism (pages 127-28) and security service powers (pages 114-15; it’s also worth noting the party’s digital liberty proposals, including a Digital Bill of Rights at pages 115-116). The key points are as follows:

  • “Proper oversight” of the security services;
  • Backing for a judicial inquiry into complicity in torture (if the current investigation by the Intelligence and Security Committee “fails to get to truth”);
  • Identification of practical alternatives to the use of closed material procedures within the justice system “with the aim of restoring the principle of open justice;”
  • Development and promulgation of counter-extremist narratives;
  • Maintenance of existing laws e.g. those proscribing terrorist groups and Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (“TPIMs”);
  • De-radicalization programs; and
  • Threat-assessment review (to ensure all ethic and religious communities are protected).

Four observations on these three manifestos:

  • First, many of the measures and policies are described in superficial and disappointingly thin detail. Such superficiality in a wide-ranging manifesto may be generally understandable and may reflect the fact that this is not regarded as being a key election issue, but on a heavily law-centric topic such as terrorism/extremism it makes it difficult (a) to understand the scope of the policies and (b) to comparatively evaluate and analyze the respective party positions. This is especially so where, as here, the content of the policies are not easily or reliably discernible (if at all) by reference to other sources of information.
  • Secondly, and regarding the Conservative Party manifesto: (a) the counter terrorism measures appear to be equally applicable to violent and non-violent extremism (see, e.g., “We need to tackle it at root, before it takes the form of violence and terror” and “We have already reformed the Prevent strategy so that it focuses on non-violent as well as violent extremism. We will now go even further.”). As such, there is an obvious and unaddressed tension between such measures and the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of thought: see my earlier post here. This tension is partly attributable to the definitional problems with the terms “terrorism” and “extremism” (also considered in that earlier post), which make the application and implementation of such policies difficult and uncertain. (b) The purpose behind “scrapping” the HRA is to “break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights and make our own Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter of human rights matters in the UK.” (page 60). The “spurious human rights arguments” which have enabled individuals to evade deportation are those that are rooted in the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights. Pursuant to Article 32 of the ECHR that Court has the jurisdiction to interpret and apply the ECHR. Seen in this context, “scrapping” the HRA appears to be designed to evade the proper application of the ECHR to British public authorities (which makes the interpolation of the photograph of Lady Justice, on page 62, rather ironic).
  • Thirdly, regarding the Labour Party manifesto: (a) this issue is given a puzzling lack of attention (and, comparatively, the least attention) – puzzling because even though national security might not be considered to be a key election issue it is nevertheless an important duty of government. Thus, the “Labour will” list (on page 58), does not contain a single extremism/terrorism-specific action point — the closest being to “protect neighbourhood policing by safeguarding over 10,000 frontline police officers over the next three years”. Nor has extremism/terrorism featured in either the “Ten bills Labour wants to implement in government” or Mr Miliband’s “pledge stone.” (b) Like the other two manifestos the descriptions of policy are brief — but, viewed overall, they are also vaguer. For example, no explanation is given regarding the “proper controls” for dangerous suspects. Does this mean Labour intends to reintroduce the much-criticized (and litigated) Control Orders, which were replaced with TPIMs (aka “control orders-lite” ) by the present Government? Or does Labour intend to bring in “stronger measures” and, if so, what are these? Equally one might ask: what “consequences” will Syrian returnees face; how is it proposed to strengthen both investigative powers and privacy safeguards and how will Prevent be changed?
  • Fourthly, and regarding the Liberal Democrat manifesto: it is in this manifesto (rather than the Labour manifesto) that liberal political nettles are grasped. See, for example, the Liberal Democrat stance on two important and controversial issues: complicity in torture and closed material procedures.

 

About the Author(s)

Shaheed Fatima Q.C.

Queen's Counsel Barrister practicing at Blackstone Chambers