There are too many things amiss in our democracy. Our democratic space, its essential bulwarks, our Bill of Fundamental Rights and the separation of powers in our parliamentary democracy cannot in any circumstances be encroached upon or undermined. In the absence of a credible opposition, the onus is on the people, the civil society and its actors to engage a contradictory debate with government.
Some weeks ago Martin Amis, a leading English novelist (twice listed for the Booker Prize) wrote a scathing article in the Sunday Times on Jeremy Corbyn, elected in September 2015 as the new UK Labour Party leader. Martin Amis who has been a ‘prominent figure of the British left for three decades’ uncompromisingly described Jeremy Corbyn, who was born in the same year as him as ‘uneducated, slow-minded, humourless and third rate’. Driving the nail further, he uncharitably opined that he was unsuited to lead the Labour Party after obtaining two Es at A-Level before dropping out of a course at North London Polytechnic. He threatened to leave the Labour Party ‘undeserving of a single vote’.
Shortly before two Labour peers, Lord Warner and Lord Grabiner sitting in the House of Lords had decided to quit the Labour Party arguing that ‘by 2020, the Corbyn leadership may well take the Labour Party where it can never rebuild’. To add to Labour’s woes, Corbyn’s startling gaffes in the wake of the dastardly attacks by terrorists in Paris on unsuspecting soft civilian targets as people enjoyed a Friday evening out with close ones and friends in bars, restaurants, at a concert or watching a football match, plumbed his standing among the British further.
In the face of the legitimate outrage and anguish in France and across the world at the carnage as well as anger towards the Islamic State (IS) who claimed responsibility for the terror attacks, Corbyn declared that he opposed air strikes against IS in Syria. Against the outrage that the attackers were for the most radicalised French and Belgian nationals, he questioned the legality of killing ‘Jihadi John’, the British national alleged to have appeared in various IS videos cold bloodedly beheading captives in 2014 and 2015.
Against a backdrop of sabre-rattling, voices have been raised to defuse extremism at grass roots level. In a recent statement, Sadiq Khan, Labour MP and London mayoral candidate (born to a working class British Pakistani family) called on fellow Muslims not to bury their heads in the sand over the scale of extremism in the UK and to do more to root out the cancer of radicalisation’.
Earlier this week, Pope Francis visiting a mosque in a predominantly Muslim area of Bangui in Central African Republic, a country split along religious lines delivered a potent message of peace. He said: ‘God is peace. Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters’ created by the same God. He added, ‘Together we must say no to hatred, to revenge, to violence, particularly that violence which is perpetuated in the name of a religion or of God himself.’
Jeremy Corbyn bungled and insensitive remarks took their toll. It has caused divisions in the Party and the support for the Labour leader has collapsed. A poll showed that a mere 17% of people trusted the Labour Party leader to keep them safe and that 40% of the voters already say that Labour should remove Corbyn as leader. The Conservative Party now has a 15-point lead over Labour which has already lost the last two general elections. The previous Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband is even said to have broken his silence on his successor, Jeremy Corbyn with a ‘I bet you didn’t think things will actually get worse’.
There have as a consequence been calls from former Labour Ministers urging Corbyn to take the ‘sensible’ decision to step down because of the damaging rifts his leadership is creating. All this turmoil has led to an unseemly situation of strife within the Party between those safeguarding the paramount interests of the Party and Corbyn loyalists. A leader is appointed to serve the Party, to strengthen it and rally its members and the multitude through his enlightened leadership. If he becomes a liability to the Party, he needs to have the grace and sense to go instead of undermining the Party’s future.
This healthy and salubrious in-house debate in the interests of the Party has been possible owing to the internal democracy within the UK Labour Party respectful of the code of established party rules and conventions.
No leader can be bigger than a party, the more so in the case of the Labour Party which is endowed with a rich legacy of lofty ideals and of relentless fight for people’s rights. When party leaders lose all credibility, they have to step down to allow the Party to rise like the Phoenix around a new and more credible leadership. Not to do so is to hobble and impair democracy itself.
Credible leadership at the head of opposition parties is an essential element of a vibrant democracy. These simple principles also apply to our own political context. It is obvious that by holding on to their posts as leaders of the MMM and the Labour Party, the two roundly disavowed leaders at the last general elections deny our democracy of a credible and potent opposition and allow the government to have a field day. The standard modus operandi of opposition seems grounded on basically reacting to government initiatives or proposing amendments to pieces of legislation tabled and on parliamentary questions, all diligently tom-tommed in their weekly press conferences. They are very often unable to see the wood for the trees.
The leader of the Labour Party hounded by so many cases against him blunts the Party’s role in the opposition. Instead of stepping down, this embarrassing situation has caused the Party to keep a low profile in spite of all that has happened in the past year. The Labour Party is bigger than any leader whose term should in line with standard practice have ended in the wake of defeat. The multitude who values the iconic role of the Labour Party in the context of our fight for freedom cannot allow it to be in limbo and must ensure that it is freed from coterie politics to continue to play its legitimate and premier role in the country.
In the current disquieting context where the government is yet to deliver on the needs and aspirations of the people, it is vital and long overdue that a rejuvenated and credible leadership in the opposition parties provide more constructive thrust to the national debate for the common good of the nation. Such a salutary change will keep the opposition on their toes in respect of government action or legislative proposals to ensure that the interests of the people prevail and remain the focus of the political class at all times.
For example, the Good Governance and Integrity Reporting (GGIR) Bill essentially aims at ‘hounding’ people alleged to have ‘unexplained wealth’. In basic terms, it introduces a system (which once it is law becomes perennial) which legitimises and protects whistleblowers in a country which thrives on rumour, innuendo and gossip. Such a system opens the floodgates of possible licence towards a new form of MacCarthyism. Are the Abigail Williams going to have a field day with the attendant dire hardships during protracted periods for innocent persons being investigated at public expense? To crown it all, all the persons entrusted to carry out the mandate defined in the Bill are protected from liability.
In very simple terms, the approach of the proposed legislation is flawed and fraught with serious risks of abuse. What is the point in basically encouraging whistleblowers to signal purported illicit wealth when the logical approach should have been to first and foremost set up a robust system of good governance and check and balances in both the public and private sectors to nip in the bud any risk of corruption?
Apart from saving substantial government expenditure, such a rigorous system should stem any intent of malpractice. What is the logic of weakening the system of good governance through political appointments if the professed intent is to relentlessly fight fraud, corruption and financial crime?
The core object of the Bill ‘to promote a culture of good governance and integrity in the country’ seems to miss the fact that most people have an ingrained integrity. It is only the dishonest who thrive and take advantage of a system of governance devoid of solid checks and balances. Why wield a Damocles sword on everyone when the intent is to nab the dishonest? Why allow opportunities of corruption through a more lax system of governance when the intent is to put an end to corruption and all forms of malpractices?
Why have such fundamental issues germane to our basic rights and the imperative of a more logical approach to stem corruption not been raised by the opposition? The stance adopted by the opposition parties and their leadership towards the GGIR Bill is an indictment of their ability to act as bulwarks against questionable legislation proposed by government. This is not the time to finesse on legalese or for language amendments to the Bill but to fundamentally question the rationale of tabling such a controversial bill when a more efficient approach to stem corruption could have been adopted through tighter checks and balances. The leader of the opposition seems, subject to the government taking on board some further fine-tuning on text amendments, ready to support it. Is there more than meets the eye?
As a nation, we must be vigilant to ensure that no legislation tinkers with our Constitution, the supreme law of the country without a public mandate or with our fundamental democratic rights, the more so as some past amendments have led to problems. The generation of politicians who have controlled the main political parties over the past decades have a poor record in the fight against corruption. It is evident from past experience that replacing the erstwhile ECO by ICAC soon to be overseen by a new highly drummed up apex body, the Financial Crime Commission is not going to stem corruption if its independence is not cast in stone and if it not manned by the most competent professionals driven by the highest standards of probity and fairness.
Already, there is a deep-seated concern about rigorous adherence to the rule of law in the country exacerbated by the spate of arrests on accusations yet to be validated in a court of law. It is above all vital that the sacrosanct basic international human rights principle of présomption d’innocence remain applicable and supreme at all times. The questionable proposal of a reversal of onus of proof is contrary to this fundamental principle. In a democracy where the rule of law is paramount, the legal system cannot allow that unwarranted arrests and overnight custody ignominiously become instruments of humiliation with impunity.
There are too many things amiss in our democracy. Our democratic space, its essential bulwarks, our Bill of Fundamental Rights and the separation of powers in our parliamentary democracy cannot in any circumstances be encroached upon or undermined. In the absence of a credible opposition, the onus is on the people, the civil society and its actors to engage a contradictory debate with government to ensure that this is so, as essential elements of the contract of trust with the nation.
* Published in print edition on 4 December 2015