It probably won’t win the public over, but Labour is openly wooing the legal profession.
Two years ago I was at the Labour party conference, the last before the disastrous 2015 general election.
It’s fair to say justice issues took a back seat – the party saw little traction in fighting the tide of legal aid cuts and seemed ambivalent about employment tribunal fees, in the end calling for a review of the scheme rather than campaigning for its abolition.
Perhaps then shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan had his mind on future, mayoral matters, but the party had very little to say about access to justice.
To an extent that is still the case. Last year Labour initiated a review of its entire justice policy and, despite a pledge to outline the recommendations in Liverpool this week, has put off publication by almost a year.
The leadership election has also scuppered any hope of a coherent set of policies emerging this week. One Labour insider told me there simply hasn’t been time to combine fighting off a challenger to Jeremy Corbyn’s position with formulating a credible wish list. Rome will burn as long as the party seems to be more interested in fighting with itself.
There is also the lingering feeling that Labour started the process that has led to the near-obliteration of civil legal aid – and fuelled the public anger that allowed it.
Shami (now Lady) Chakrabarti summed up the feelings of many lawyers attending conference when she told a fringe meeting Labour had ‘started the ball rolling’ on the rhetoric and attacks that were aimed at the ‘fat cat’ legal aid lawyer. For legal aid lawyers who feel Labour is their natural home, this is a hard memory to shake off.
And yet, Corbyn’s victory was undoubtedly welcomed by those who hope for a return of state funding for civil justice and a row-back on many of the government’s justice policies of recent years.
The pledge to scrap employment tribunal fees was described as ‘set in stone’ and there is little doubt that the policy review will recommend more, not less, money for legal aid.
Labour was initially at pains to downplay this suggestion, but shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon is an excitable character and dropped his guard at one fringe meeting when he promised that funding would increase.
I don’t see the public grabbing their pitchforks and descending on the MoJ demanding more legal aid funding
Most of all, Labour’s justice team (which is more or less all plucked from the ranks of Thompsons Solicitors) was saying to the legal profession this week that it ‘gets’ them. Members say Liz Truss and her Conservative colleagues have neither understanding of nor empathy for justice issues.
Burgon even devoted some of his keynote speech to praising lawyers directly – a sentiment you won’t find in any conferences speeches from Chris Grayling, for example.
Whether any of this will actually be popular with the electorate is another matter. I don’t see the public grabbing their pitchforks and descending on the MoJ demanding more legal aid funding. The call to enforce human rights laws on foreign battlefields is worthy and arguably right, but being seen to persecute armed forces will hardly resonate with voters.
But still, few delegates I spoke to this week were even interested in winning the next election. They are simply happy to be hearing the kind of politics and policies they crave. They will love pledges to cut court fees and increase legal aid, even if there is little prospect Labour will win power any time soon to enact them.
John Hyde is Gazette deputy news editor