From his first appointment as shadow city minister in September 2015 – 47 resignations and at least two shadow cabinet reshuffles later – the now shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, comes across as a man determined to hold the Conservative government to account.
Speaking exclusively to Scisco Media, he muses that:
“The [Labour] MPs who initiated the events […] the antics of the last few weeks need to take a long hard look at the effects of what they have done […] The Conservatives have created economic chaos which is hurting people in communities like the community I represent, and communities like it the length and breadth of the country. These MPs have decided to embark upon a course of action which has let the Conservatives off the hook.”
To say Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his allies – including the man sitting in front of me – are having a bit of a hard time is an understatement. They are constantly under attack from all sides – including their own. It is hard to formulate alternative policy or to scrutinise your governmental counterparts when you are constantly being hit by own goals from your own team – but that is exactly what Corbyn and his loyalist cabinet members are having to do.
Bound by his evidently strong commitment to public service, Burgon says:
“I think that all Labour MPs have a duty to carry on doing the job they were elected to do, which is to hold this Conservative government to account and to stand up to it. That’s why I accepted a role in the shadow cabinet as shadow justice secretary; because I think that we need to keep on going. It’s an insult to people out there that [some of us] are downing tools and stopping standing up to the Conservatives and holding the Conservative government to account.”
He tells me that before being elected to represent Leeds East in parliament, he worked as a lawyer for 10 years – and that eight of these years were spent in Employment Tribunals for a trade union law firm. “I‘m very comfortable with the idea of working on Labour’s campaign for Access to Justice and being shadow justice secretary” Burgon says, “because Access to Justice and Justice are two subjects close to my heart.”
Burgon was appointed as shadow justice secretary on 27 June this year to replace Lord Falconer of Thoroton after the mass “downing of tools” by the then members of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. So, in the 21 days serving in his role, how has he been holding the Conservative government to account?
“In my first two weeks […] I have raised the issue of Access to Justice. I have raised the fact that a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn will abolish Employment Tribunal fees.”
Employment Tribunal fees, introduced by the Conservative/Lib-Dem coalition, resulted in a 70% drop in the number of cases brought before Employment Tribunals.
The drop in claims, says Burgon:
“is not because there’s been a 70% drop in bad treatment of workers – it’s not because suddenly all employers have started to behave themselves and treat people the way they should be treated. It’s because people are being priced out of pursuing Justice. Last week we voted against a 10% increase in Court and Tribunal fees, and [we have opposed] the attacks on legal aid.”
“All of these things mean that justice is becoming something of a theoretical concept for many people in our society. If you can’t access justice, then justice is just a theory.”
We have a prime minister who publicly supported withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) during the EU referendum debate, and whose tenure as home secretary has left a negative mark on the development of human rights and civil liberties in the UK. I raised the issue that many are worried that the fundamental protection currently granted to society’s vulnerable by the ECHR and Human Rights Act is at risk. Burgon responded:
“We can’t allow the exit from the European Union to be used as another excuse for the Conservative government to water down our human rights. We’ve got to be the party for socialism and the party of defending civil liberties.”
This is a welcome development for Labour. In the past, the party has not been consistent in the defence of civil liberties.
Whilst it was the New Labour government under Tony Blair that passed the landmark Human Rights Act in 1998, they went on to form a legislative programme that at its worst, was a complete violation of human rights:
- The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act [RIPA] 2000.
- Terrorism Act 2000.
- The Criminal Justice Act [CJA] 2003.
- The Identity Cards Act 2006.
Thus far the Terrorism Act – ruled incompatible with the ECHR by the UK Court of Appeal – has been used to:
- Hold a 12 year old autistic boy (2008).
- Question a boy photographing Wimbledon station for a school project (2009).
- Search a BBC photographer taking photographs of the sunset over St. Paul’s Cathedral (2009).
- Stop over 62,500 people at railway stations between 2000-2009.
The Conservative party’s record on human rights and civil liberties is of equal concern. In 2015, the Royal College of Nursing took action against the then home secretary in relation to the treatment of patients under the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006. The provisions of this act were held by UK courts to violate the rights of mental health patients to a fair hearing, and to respect for their privacy.
Yesterday, Conservative Lord Faulks, QC, a junior minister in the Department of Justice, resigned his post due to his lack of confidence in the new secretary of state for justice, Liz Truss. Faulks said:
“Is she going to have the clout to be able to stand up to the Prime Minister when necessary, on behalf of the judge? Is she going to be able to stand up, come the moment, to the Prime Minister, for the rule of law and for the judiciary […] without fear of damaging her career? It’s a big ask.”
It is against this background of the eroding of civil liberties, in the face of a government intent upon dismantling the Human Rights Act, that Burgon speaks of the importance of protecting civil liberties:
“It is important that Labour returns to being seen as the party that will protect the civil liberties of the individuals, and of the communities.”
Burgon was one of a minority of Labour MPs to vote against Trident. He spoke to me about our international obligations, and our image on the world stage:
“We have got to rethink Britain’s role in the world – and in light of the recent Chilcot report I think that need is more pressing than ever. I want to see Britain become a beacon in the world for human rights, democracy, and international cooperation.”
He adds that we shouldn’t support US military campaigns without good cause. When considering UK involvement in American led military campaigns, he surmises that:
“We have got to consider the questions: Is it in the international interest? Is it in our national interest? And, really, is it in the interest of members of the British Armed Services?”
And what of the future of politics?
Burgon – who thinks MPs shouldn’t sit in the Houses of Parliament at Westminster believing that the grandiose surroundings contribute to the high self regard of some MPs – says:
“There’s not enough people who represent their own community in Parliament. I think one of the big reasons for the disconnect between people and the political system is that they’ve started to perceive MPs […] as not emerging naturally from their community to represent that community. They perceive MPs as appearing in that community, and using that community as a springboard to a national political career.”
Of course, the Labour Party is skating on thin ice at the moment. Many grassroots members have been put in the position of having to pay a surcharge of £25 – which many can ill afford – to become a ‘registered supporter’. Simply to vote in the upcoming leadership election.
Burgon thinks the situation is very sad indeed:
“I don’t want to see people who signed up to the Labour party since January – who were told explicitly by the Labour party that if you joined you could vote in the next leadership election – I don’t want to see these people constitutionalised out of having a vote, [or being] priced out of having a vote.”
Burgon also comments that had the National Executive Committee (NEC) kept Corbyn off the ballot, the party would have split. An outcome that all true Labour supporters, from whatever wing of the party, want to avoid:
“No socialist or social democrat worth their salt in Parliament wants to see a split in the Labour Party. Because a split in the Labour Party can only help the Conservatives.”
To Burgon, this is about much more than just Jeremy Corbyn. This is not a cult of personality. “This is not just about who is the leader of the Labour Party” he says:
“this is about what kind of Labour Party do we want. Do we want a Labour party that […] people perceive as embracing the political, economic establishment? Or do we […] want a Labour Party that stands up to the challenges that we face today, and tries to create a different kind of economy – a different kind of society?”
To Burgon, being in the shadow cabinet is about holding the government to account – acting as a credible opposition, and forwarding the alternative to the consensus. To Burgon, this is about a movement – not a man. This is about the belief that the way things are is not the way things have to be. A belief that business as usual cannot go on.
When asked if he had a message for our readers, Burgon was clear:
“There are people in the Labour party – the people behind the events of the past few weeks, who want you [the grassroots members] to leave the Labour party. They want you to resign. That is why some people are behaving in such an undemocratic and offensive way. They’re not scared of offending the members, quite the reverse. They want to offend the members. They want to reshape the party back into a Blair inspired image which is much easier for them to control, and where socialists and the left are no longer in the Labour party.
“However difficult it gets, however bad it gets, don’t give them the satisfaction. If you leave, they will be delighted. Do not think that by sending them a frosty letter saying you’ve resigned you will upset them. They will be cheering and getting champagne out if socialists leave the Labour party.
In summing up, Burgon said:
“So I think socialism in the Labour party is unfinished business, whatever the outcome of the leadership election. So I say, let’s all stay in there, and let’s finish that unfinished business.”
Whatever the outcome of the upcoming leadership election, one thing is certain: for Labour and for politics in general – business as usual is no longer an option.