Manifesto is in the spirit of great Conservative reformers

The last of The Brief’s three-part series in which lawyers with the main national political parties make the case for the legal elements in their general election manifestos

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May 24, 2017
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The mood music around this national Conservative manifesto is remarkable. When before has a Tory manifesto explicitly rejected not only the socialist left but also the libertarian right?

For me it evokes the spirit of the great Tory Lord Shaftesbury who campaigned for reforms to child labour, work practices and the lunacy laws in the days when the Liberals were the party of the factory owners.

As a Remain campaigner, I was saddened at the Brexit referendum outcome. But that having happened, I cannot understand the desire of many pro-Europeans to throw away every negotiating card before talks even start. Lawyers’ experience is that successful mediations begin with the two parties setting out positions far apart.

The Conservative stance lays down no red lines which would make it impossible to achieve a new European partnership, and its general ethos of toughness in negotiation makes an ultimate satisfactory outcome more, rather than less, likely.

The tone on human rights is markedly different from the 2015 manifesto – with an express commitment to remain in the European Convention on Human Rights.

The manifesto also keeps the door open to fresh consideration of our human rights law framework after leaving the EU. Slapping the unpopular “Europe” label on domestic fundamental rights has done a disservice to our own heritage of freedoms.

The manifesto indicates reform of the law of tort to restore the position espoused by the dissenting opinions of Lord Mance, Lord Wilson of Culworth and Lord Carnwath of Notting Hill in Smith v MoD. The law on combat immunity as it stood until 2013 worked better than what has succeeded it. The carefully worked out international humanitarian law offers a more sound foundation than the woolliness of forcing the European convention articles into a place for which they were never intended.

Company law is another area where reform is announced. Undertakings given in the course of takeover bids are to be legally enforceable. Legislation will require publicly listed companies to publish the ratio between the pay of executives and that of the broader workforce, and will require an employee voice on company boards.

Penal reform has a bigger place than in previous manifestos. There is to be a career structure for top graduates to enter the prison service. Employers are to be given a 12-month holiday on national insurance contributions when employing a person coming out of prison. And the importance of legal services as an export is acknowledged.

The law would be playing a good role if the party is given the chance to implement this manifesto. I have canvassed for many manifestos, but rarely one so close to my own values as this one.

Anthony Speaight, QC, is chairman of research at the Society of Conservative Lawyers; he writes here in a personal capacity

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