Several bills going through the House of Commons at the moment demonstrate the Johnson's Government's commitment to the hard edge of state power, in both its overt and covert forms.
While this legislation raises significant human rights concerns, Labour has been cautious in challenging the Government so far. This may reflect Keir Starmer's strategy of attempting to prove his patriotism to British voters before engaging in any major policy moves.
Divisions over this approach emerged two weeks ago at the second reading of the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, which would make it more difficult to prosecute British soldiers for war crimes.
Labour policy was to abstain in order to attempt to amend the bill at later stages. However, a number of left-wing MPs, including Jeremy Corbyn, voted against the bill outright.
As I write, Parliament is debating another piece of legislation which may cause a similar split. The Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill would allow state agents to break the law, providing a statutory basis for intelligence practises which have persisted on a very murky legal basis for decades.
Such activity – the licence to commit a crime to prevent something far more serious occurring – has been happening for many years, but it has not been properly legislated for. This cannot be right, both for the public and the security services we charge with keeping us safe. This activity should be on a statutory footing. That’s why we accept the need for this bill and believe it should be allowed to progress to Committee Stage in the Commons.
It is vital that any legislation relating to the work of our security services does two things: maintains public confidence and protects those putting themselves in harm’s way to keep the rest of us safe. This necessitates very clear limits and oversight. In its current form, I fear the legislation does not provide this. Labour will be pressing the government on robust safeguards.
The Labour Party Irish Society has welcomed Thomas-Symond's opposition to any attempt to apply the the bill's provisions retrospectively to the Irish Troubles.
It remains to be seen how Starmer's nuanced approach to opposition fares in coming months. Many current and former MPs have welcomed a more traditional parliamentary style, but that has it's own risks in the social media age. An over-gentlemanly approach to Conservative austerity after 2015 arguably handed the Labour leadership to Jeremy Corbyn.
Civil liberties issues may not have the same resonance as austerity, but they have provoked a similar tactical divide among Labour MPs.
Commons Library briefing on the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill 2019-2021.
Human Rights (Joint Committee) on the The Overseas Operation (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill.
Intelligence and Security Committee report on Northern Ireland related terrorism. A partly censored report on MI5 activity against dissident republicans. It includes some background relevant to the covert intelligence bill.