The Conservative Party Conference began today. As has been the case in past years, human rights policy will have a prominent role to play, but much of which is said will be bluster. The Prime Minister has already said that all options are on the table, including withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Expect more tomorrow when Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling and Home Secretary Theresa May step up to the podium from 2:30pm to 4pm.
Judging from the Prime Minister’s comments as well as Chris Grayling’s in the Spectator, it appears likely that this party conference will be similar to previous ones. Government ministers will promise that a majority Conservative government will replace “Labour’s” Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights – a longstanding Tory policy which also featured in the party’s 2010 manifesto (at p.79). The promise was scuppered after the 2010 election due to demands from coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. And, the Tories will continue to make vague threats that “people want to see the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom being in the United Kingdom and not in Strasbourg” (Grayling, a self-described “staunch Eurosceptic”) and that ECHR withdrawal “may be… where we end up” (Cameron).
Meanwhile, Labour will go into the election pledging to defend the Human Rights Act and ECHR. Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan is developing interesting line on this:
It tells you a lot about the modern Tory Party – on the side of the status quo, propping up powerful elites and siding with vested interests. It’s left to Labour to take on these vested interests on behalf of all our citizens.
Clearly, Labour have decided to present human rights law as a means of challenging the powerful, and now argue – with some force – that attempts by the powerful to limit those laws are self-serving and dangerous. I agree with that view, as you might have guessed from my articles on the issue over the past few years (see e.g. this).
But human rights are also unpopular in many quarters, blamed for perverse (so say the doubters) decisions on prisoner votes and terrorist deportations. Criticising human rights is therefore a potential vote winner. The big question for the Conservatives will be how anti-human rights their stance can be before raising suspicions that their policies are more about Euro-scepticism than national interest, or – worse – that they really are trying to shut down criticism at the expense of the poor and marginalised. Leaving the ECHR may not be as popular as scrapping the HRA, so it remains to be seen how far Tory policy will go.
It is also possible that Tory opponents will join the dots between other Coalition policies – such as limiting judicial review, legal aid and introducing secret courts – and do even more damage (despite the hypocrisy of that position given Labour’s support for many of those policies).
The debate leading up to 2015 is going to be interesting, and is likely to set the tone of the human rights debate for the next few years. But the key point now is that the realities of coalition government mean that nothing will change in relation to the ECHR or Human Rights Act until at least the next election in 2015. Even then, the Conservatives would need to win an overall majority to carry through their plans.
Having said that, there is likely to be a debate over leaving the ECHR this week as the Tories continue to test the waters and more vague threats are made. So here are five posts which explain why leaving would be a tremendously bad idea:
- Why we would be mad to leave our European Convention on Human Rights (Adam Wagner)
- A Conservative Convention (Michael Scott)
- Why have a European Court of Human Rights? (Dr Ed Bates)
- Keep calm and apply the European Convention on Human Rights (Paul Harvey)
- What would happen if the UK withdrew from the European Court of Human Rights? (Adam Wagner)
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