It’s time for Labour to take rights seriously

Social Care

Brexit will strip away a layer of protection for human rights in the UK and it is unlikely that these will be restored under the current regime. The current Conservative Party is passionately interested in protecting only one human right – the right to property – all other human rights are just for foreigners.

The Government’s attitude is made crystal clear by its scornful rejection of the severe criticisms made by a series of United Nations’ Committees. To any reasonable outsider austerity is just another word for the way disabled people and the poor have been made to pay the costs of the housing bubble and the subsequent financial crash. There is no mystery as to how or why the Government is targeting the weakest groups for cuts. So it is sad, but natural, that the United Nations’ criticisms are rejected as the ‘politically correct’ outpourings of a bunch of foreigners. This is something that it is all too easy to get away with in a culture that doesn’t take human rights seriously.

It is a strange, strange situation. We are rightly proud of the sacrifices made by our grandparents and great-grandparents in standing up to Hitler. But heaven forbid that we make ourselves accountable for the human rights they were defending and to which our country signed up in the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

In general the UK pays little attention to human rights and we often don’t know what they include. As Paul Hunt explains in the latest report from the Centre for Welfare Reform there are 5 different kinds of human rights:

  • civil rights – e.g. your freedom of expression
  • political rights – e.g. your right to vote
  • economic rights – e.g. your right to a fair wage
  • social rights – e.g. your right to an adequate standard living
  • cultural rights – e.g your right to enjoy your culture

When we do talk about human rights then we usually just focus on the more formal elements: like our right to vote. We don’t think about cultural, social and economic rights, even though these are the rights we need to protect our basic needs: to survive and to thrive. For example Article 25(1) states:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

We are literally an insular people; we don’t make much effort to understand or respect other societies. We don’t realise that the UK is no longer a world leader in human rights; we don’t realise that many other countries are more democratic, have fairer legal systems and much better systems of welfare. We live in our own post-Imperial bubble.

The UK’s human rights record is questionable in many areas. For instance, the House of Lords is full of political appointees; it is undemocratic and courts corruption. But our most striking failure is our disregard for social rights. Social rights are barely mentioned by politicians of the Right or the Left; yet they are the most important rights for ordinary people and they are hidden at the heart of the institutions we most value.

The NHS is not good because it is a large centralised Government department; the NHS is good because it makes real our fundamental (social and human) right to receive high quality health care, without regard to money or status. Our education system is not good because its regulated by OFSTED; our education system is good because it ensures everyone gets access to free education up to the age of 18.

The reason that the other parts of the welfare state (social care, housing and income security) are so shoddy and inadequate is that none of these systems are designed to make our universal social rights real. Instead they are ‘Poor Law’ services: assistance is combined with a dose of stigma, vicious means-testing and coercion. Social care is particularly shameful – vicious means-testing is combined with inadequate funding and limited personal control.

Given all this it is surprising, as Paul Hunt argues, that the Left has been almost as negligent of social rights as the Right. I suspect that there are two main reasons for this. Leadership on the Left has been dominated by two types:

  1. The ‘Come the Revolution’ Type – These are the revolutionary dreamers who think that all practical improvements only serve to delay the Glorious Day; they want no accommodations with ‘bourgeois’ concepts like rights.
  2. The ‘Smart Alec Bossy Boots’ Type – These are the pragmatists and Fabians who want to manage and control the welfare state for ‘our own good’; to them rights are an inconvenience that gives too much power to ordinary people.

Now is the time for the Labour Party to leave these demons behind. I sense a real desire to return the Labour Party to its roots, to a movement that is interested in how ordinary people can work together to get better lives, and become equal citizens. Social rights should be central to the Labour Party’s agenda.

Rights have always made sense, they are central to any decent society. Rights are the means by which power is rebalanced; rights help the invisible stand out and they help the powerless stand up. And, as Paul Hunt shows, activists are already using social rights to tackle social injustice.

The UK must make many changes to effectively respect all our human rights – including significant constitutional changes. But the Labour Party could begin by starting to consistently use the language of rights. If they did they would certainly connect to the deepest desires and the moral convictions of ordinary people.