Where Do The Labour Party Leadership Candidates Stand On Human Rights?

By Sian Lea, Managing Director, Shiva Foundation 17 Aug 2016

A Labour Leadership debate is to be broadcast at 9am Wednesday 17 August (on BBC Victoria Derbyshire, live on BBC News, or you can watch on BBC iPlayer). The debate is part of a series leading up to the leadership election for the Labour Party. In the running are incumbent Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and challenger Owen Smith. So where do the candidates stand on human rights?

The Incumbent: Jeremy Corbyn

Corbyn Margate

Jeremy Corbyn has had a political career spanning over 40 years meaning that his views have been well-known. Corbyn is a self-proclaimed supporter of human rights and has been praised in an Amnesty International UK blog for his vocal defence of human rights. Corbyn has advocated strongly against repealing the Human Rights Act, stating “we will defend our Human Rights Act as we defend the human rights of everyone in this country”. Corbyn has consistently voted in favour of equal rights for gay people, including same sex marriage. He also voted against restricting the scope of legal aid. Corbyn was previously Joint Vice-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group.

In terms of benefits for vulnerable people, Corbyn has consistently voted in favour of social welfare. For example, he voted against the “bedroom tax” (which reduces housing benefits based on the number of spare rooms your home has). He voted for increasing disability allowance and against reducing financial aid for 16-19 year olds in training and further education. He has consistently voted against NHS reform and against tuition fees. Corbyn voted against phasing out secure tenancies for life for council tenants. The vote was eventually lost with the creation of the Housing and Planning Act 2016. The Act provides for local councils to offer a maximum term of five years to new tenants. The move has been criticised as denying “families a stable home”.

According to They Work For You, Corbyn consistently voted against Labour’s anti-terrorism laws, including what became the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, which provided for indefinite detention of foreign national terrorist suspects. Indefinite detention is an issue because of its potential to infringe detainees’ right to liberty. Corbyn also voted against the Terrorism Act 2006. Some organisations expressed concerns that the legislation’s section on ‘encouragement of terrorism’ could unduly interfere with free expression.

Corbyn is also well-known for his anti-war stances. He voted against the Iraq War in 2003 and voted for a public inquiry into the war. The Chilcot Inquiry found many failings on part of the UK government in the run up to, and during, the UK’s intervention in Iraq. Corbyn voted against renewing Trident, the UK’s nuclear weapons system. At a recent rally, he said “You don’t achieve peace by planning for war, grabbing resources and not respecting each others’ human rights”. In a recent leadership debate, he said that the UK should have a foreign policy based on human rights.

Corbyn is also a controversial figure. He found himself in hot water after certain members of the Labour Party were suspended for remarks sparking claims of anti-Semitism (anti-Jewish prejudice). Former Director of the human rights organisation Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, chaired an inquiry into antisemitism and other forms of racism in the Party. The findings included that, while there was a need for stronger disciplinary procedures, the Party was “not overrun by antisemitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism”. A few weeks after publishing her report, Chakrabarti was appointed a member of the House of Lords on Corbyn’s nomination. The timing of the nomination has caused controversy.

The Challenger: Owen Smith

Owen Smith MP page

Challenging Corbyn for the position of Labour Party leader is MP for Pontypridd, Owen Smith. Smith has spent less time in politics than Jeremy Corbyn, so his views are less well-known. He first entered Parliament as an MP in 2010, after acting as a special adviser to the Secretary of State for Wales and then Northern Ireland. Prior to this, he was the Head of Policy and Government Relations for Pfizer, a pharmaceutical corporation, and then worked in corporate affairs at Amgen, a biotech company.

Smith has attracted some criticism for his opinions on the NHS, a key issue in the Labour Party. Smith previously worked at the pharmaceutical company Pfizer and when he became an MP he endorsed a report that offered private options for NHS patients. From this, it was suggested that Smith was keen to privatise the NHS. However he has since strongly advocated free public healthcare. Human rights protect health in numerous ways and part of the discussion about free and equal healthcare through the UK’s NHS is its effect on the right of access to healthcare.

Smith’s views on war and peace are not as clear as those of Jeremy Corbyn’s. Smith wasn’t an MP for the vote on the war in Iraq, but he has at times said that he would not have supported the Iraq War and at other times has expressed that he doesn’t know how he would have voted. Unlike Corbyn, Smith voted in favour of renewing and replacing Trident nuclear weapon system, although he has stated that he is opposed to nuclear weapons on the whole.

Smith has consistently voted for equal rights for gay people, including same sex marriage. He campaigned against repealing the Human Rights Act. He has voted against restricting the scope of legal aid and is in favour of increasing benefits for vulnerable populations. He has consistently voted in favour of ensuring equal access to education, by voting against tuition fees in the first place and later against raising the £9000 tuition fee cap. Smith also consistently voted against ending financial support for 16-19 year olds in training and further education. Like Corbyn, Smith voted against phasing out secure tenancies for life. He has vowed to fight inequality by strengthening provisions in the Labour Party constitution.
The results of the Labour leadership election will be announced on 24 September.

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Featured image: photo of Corbyn speaking about Bahrain by YouTube/RevolutionBahrainMC © used under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License via Wikimedia Commons; photo of Owen Smith by Wykehamistwikipedian © used under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License, via Wikimedia Commons. Photo of Corbyn in Margate by Chris Beckett © used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License. Image credit for photo of Owen Smith: Paul Bloomsfield MP.

About The Author

Sian Lea Managing Director, Shiva Foundation

Sian is currently the managing director of Shiva Foundation, an anti-trafficking organisation. She has an MA in Human Rights from UCL and Graduate Diploma in Law. Previously she worked in anti-trafficking in Cambodia.

Sian is currently the managing director of Shiva Foundation, an anti-trafficking organisation. She has an MA in Human Rights from UCL and Graduate Diploma in Law. Previously she worked in anti-trafficking in Cambodia.