Political parties seem to be burying legal issues in the run-up to this May’s poll.
As I look across the first week of this general election campaign, I wonder where the legal issues are. I don’t expect legal policy to be a constant preoccupation for the general public.
But having followed the link between law and politics since May 1997, I’m surprised by the degree to which law, to borrow a phrase from the children’s books Charlie and Lola, is completely not there. It’s as if politicians inside and outside the Global Law Summit feel they’ve ‘done’ rule of law this year and don’t plan to return to it.
I’m surprised because law is so often on the front pages of our newspapers – big emotive stuff. Convictions that are secured or overturned, verdicts upheld, people ruined by libel cases, supreme court humiliations for government, failed JR attempts, oligarchs’ counsel knocking nine bells out of each other in the Rolls Building.
The list could go on – an importance reflected in the fluency and length or response I received in interviews with the parties’ justice spokespeople for the Gazette.
Yet in more general forums the political parties have chosen to bury the issue. The Conservative party wants to talk only of the economy; Labour refer only to the NHS and the EU; the Liberal Democrats about their equidistance from both on the cuts and the economy (and a bit of mental health); UKIP talk of immigration (the only policy area to come close to ‘law’); and the SNP and the Greens are having to take a lot of questions on coalition choices and whether a vote for them lets someone else in.
Where is crime in all this? I may not always like the way crime is discussed in elections, but its absence from our discourse is unsettling.
No ‘family-friendly policies’ will make prominent reference to family law – a hotly contested area of policy when ministers and the opposition are allowed to talk about it.
The current bun-fight between the Conservative and the Labour parties over who is ‘pro-business’ includes not one mention of corporate crime. The tax evasion/avoidance debate draws in the accountants and a small namecheck for lawyers.
To my surprise, I’m not even seeing many ill-informed statements about the Human Rights Act.
And the senior and managing partners of law firms are never referenced as ‘business leaders’.
When a wrong needs fixing, and there is a law-based way to achieve it, demonstrators and camera crews crowd round the Royal Courts of Justice expectantly – the place has totemic, iconic, assumed significance. At one level, people’s faith in such a place is the rule of law.
This isn’t a grumpy ‘curse on all their houses’ rant – or at least it isn’t meant to me. Instead, I worry for the quality of our public policy. Law is part of the toolbox – the technology – that can determine the success or failure of policies. Countries with rules that work more or less reliably also work better as countries. Without that component part, we’re taking a step on the journey to being a failed state.
The people who speak for the main parties on justice aren’t hiding away because they are ashamed they have cut, or can’t commit to reinstating, swathes of legal aid – even though many readers will argue they should be. No, these spokespeople talk a confident talk on legal policy, when allowed.
But they aren’t front of stage because the leaders and strategists guiding their parties have decided they don’t want to talk about the law. Anyone who thinks otherwise has just a few weeks to change that.
If they don’t, the law will likely remain completely not there after 7 May as well.
Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor