I recently decided to join the Labour Party. Obviously, I disagree with the Labour Party about rather a lot of things, but, as some kind of social democrat, I feel, much like so many of the backbenchers prepared to reduce a majority of 66 to 1, I suppose, that the Labour Party is the best vehicle for the achievement of a progressive politics in this country, and that battles over what counts as progressive politics ought to be fought within it. I didn't vote Labour at the last election - when, I hasten to add, I wasn't a party member - but in a way, my refusal to vote in favour of appallingly mismanaged, deceitfully presented and suspiciously neo-imperialist Middle-Eastern adventures and the more or less total absence of any coherent plan to lift millions out of social exclusion, deprivation and, in many cases, poverty, except where it could be made to fit the over-riding desire to pander to the wildly misleading agenda of rabid dogs of the Tory Right, was for much the same reason as I joined: I want to do whatever I can to drag the Labour Party away from the centre-right, which is where it now is, and back to the centre-left, if not further.
So, for example, you'd think I'd welcome the chance to give, as an email I recieved today offered, '[my] views on fighting terrorism'. Unfortunately, I'm not really being offered a chance to give 'my views on fighting terrorism', I'm being asked to participate in a shameless publicity exercise which will then be used as the basis of beating recalcitrant backbenchers into line on the grounds that 'the party in country supports our unquenchable desire to lock up the innocent and criminalise those who think that there are circumstances under which political violence is acceptable'.
It links to a questionaire. Let's take it question by question:
Do you think that our laws should be updated to cope with the current security threat?
OK, now maybe there's a case for changing the law to cope with the current security threat. The use of wiretaps as evidence in court, which the government apparently now opposes, might be one step. Perhaps there are others: I'm not sure. The point is, there are, plausibly at least, questions to be asked about that, a debate to be had. That's not what the question seeking to do though, because the possible answers are 'yes', 'no', and 'don't know'. If the aim was to initiate a discussion, there'd be some presentation of the alternatives, an explanation of the current situation some means by which to actually have a discussion, rather than just exhaust my opinion on the matter by an aye, a nay, or an abstention on the rather vague question of whether we should change the laws, the details of which could be anything, in some utterly unspecified way.
The problem is what the meaning of 'updated' is, because if we knew what the update was, then there'd be something concrete we could refer to, and then we'd have some basis for making a decision. I have this sneaking suspicion that what 'updated' is means here is 'updated in the manner which we, when scribbling on the back of an envelope and thinking about ways to please the Daily Mail and the Police Federation, decided to try and foist on the country by appealing to their baser instincts'. I think this because, well, using 'updated' instead of saying that sounds so much better, and that'd be really helpful when it's what you're trying to do, despite people telling you it's not a good idea and doing their level best to stop you. So, with that meaning of 'updated', what the question is asking is, 'do you think that our laws should be changed so that the state can more or less arbitrarily imprison people for three months and prosecute them for thinking there are occassions where those, other than agents of the American or British states, are entitled to use political violence?' If you didn't know that though, you could be confused: you could think that it actually meant 'do you think that, in some circumstances, laws might need to be changed to meet new challenges?'
The next one:
Do you think police should have the time and opportunity to complete their investigations into suspected terrorists?
Now, the thing here is, there's a problem with what 'time and opportunity' means. I do think the police should have time and opportunity to complete their investigations into suspected terrorists. Fourteen days is plenty of time and opportunity. I'd say, you can find a lot of things about someone out in fourteen days, if you try, especially if you've already got grounds for suspecting them of being a terrorist. I'm not sure that that's what the question's asking though, because, well, no-one thinks that the police shouldn't have the time and opportunity to complete their investigations into suspected terrorists, but lots of people disagree about what is enough time and opportunity, given that imprisoning people who have not been charged with any crime, let alone convicted of one, is generally thought to be a bit morally suspect. Given that it's not really very interesting to ask questions when everyone will give the same answer, I think that, just maybe, the point is to impose one, rather contentious, reading of 'time and opportunity' on the question, say 'however long and with whatever abrogations of rights the police, those noted guardians of the rights of the accused, feel they might be able to screw out of a government so desperate not to be outflanked on the right on law and order they are undergoing a kind of permanent revolution where drawing cries of amazement from every sane individual is the standard by which proposals gain consideration'.
The final one:
Do you think the government should make sure there are new safeguards to protect innocent people?
The problem here is that if you want proper answers to a question, it needs to actually ask something, not just offer up totally banal sentiments for approval: amazingly, I'm confident that most people think that additional protection for the innocent is a good thing, although I find it difficult to see what that has to do with terrorism policy, since the point of that is that we take for granted we aim protect innocents, and ask about how we do that, making affirmations of the morally unquestionable aim of the policy fairly f*cking pointless.
Granted, I shouldn't be surprised by this. Dressing your violations of civil liberties up in the language of uncontroversial moral or political truths is surely one of the oldest and most used tricks in the book. I just have this attachment to the obviously insufficiently shiny and new idea that if you're honest with people, if you can explain yourself clearly and simply, without equivocation, without vagueness, some of the time you can lift some of the scales from some of their eyes and if you persist, in end, you should be able to lift most of the scales from most of their eyes. You might call it an Enlightenment faith in truth and reason. You might think it was central to the mission of any progressive party, any party which has roots, however deep, in the Enlightenment vision of a better world made better by the people who live in it. Apparently not.