by Freddie Sayers
Tuesday, 28
September 2021
Dispatch
10:00

The Left’s case against vaccine passports

A group of senior Labour figures offers an animated defence of civil liberties
by Freddie Sayers

“Before the pandemic,”wrote Nate Silver the US political analyst, “I would have guessed that conservatives were COVID hawks and liberals were COVID doves.” It is an intriguing thought: perhaps, if a few key figures had made different decisions, the political argument of the past 18 months could have flipped entirely between Left and Right?

Yesterday I chaired a fringe meeting at the Labour Party Conference in which we were given a glimpse of that parallel universe: a group of senior Labour figures, mainly from the Left of the party, brought together by the campaign group Big Brother Watch to discuss “the Left case against Covid passes.” Blur your eyes and you could just make out how it would have looked — a Left that was still animated by a defence of civil liberties.

Rebecca Long-Bailey, the close Corbyn ally who came second to Keir Starmer in the Labour leadership contest, gave a sense of what opposition during the pandemic might have looked like had her wing of the party still been in charge. Yes, it would be easy to point out inconsistencies in her position (she talked favourably about Zero Covid and the Chinese example while simultaneously championing individual freedoms) but there was no doubting the sincerity of her deep suspicion of pandemic power grabs by the Tory government. For a party in opposition that’s not necessarily a bad instinct — and the way she spoke showed up the absence of that animus in Keir Starmer. She said she had done an online survey which revealed she was a ‘Left libertarian, right underneath Gandhi’ — so make of that what you will.

Quote of the day:

I’m not convinced that vaccine passports are actually based on science, because you don’t stop shedding the virus just because you’ve had two vaccines. So they don’t keep you safe.
- Rebecca Long-Bailey

Dawn Butler, a former minister in Gordon Brown’s government and MP for Brent Central, had had a heavy night at her legendary party — “generally I adhere by some rules, yesterday I probably failed in that a little bit at the Jamaica Party, and for that I apologise,” she joked. But her concern was specific and clear. She has voted against renewing the “authoritarian” Coronavirus Act each time because she feels that the “police state” that comes with such measures will always make life hardest for minority and vulnerable communities. Random checks and exclusion of certain people will only lead to one thing:

Quote of the day:

I’ve been a victim of that too. We went to a restaurant with my office and a group of people went in before us and just strolled in, no problem — we went to go in and were told that we needed to scan the QR code, show our passes, but the group ahead of us were not asked that. How come you’re asking us? That is how we create a two-tier society.
- Dawn Butler

Bell Ribeiro-Addy agreed with Dawn, and was additionally frank about the reality for her constituents in Streatham. She simply doesn’t see the point at this stage.

Quote of the day:

Despite what you might see on television, almost 90% of the adult population of this country has been jabbed.. The vaccination programme has been a success. Of the remaining 10%, some are immunosuppressed, some cannot be jabbed and some do not want to be jabbed… Some people are never going to want to be jabbed – that is going to be what it’s going to be.
- Bell Ribeiro-Addy

Emily Benn may be the granddaughter of socialist Tony Benn, but the former Labour candidate is a true Blairite and happy to be described as such.

So it was especially interesting to hear from this very different wing of the party. Her concerns were more centred on the abandonment of due process and the ease with which her centre-Left colleagues surrendered the proper checks and balances on state power during this pandemic.

She described how the past year and a half had been “transformative” to her political views, and suggested that her fellow Blairites had forgotten her grandfather’s famous five questions about power, and how you keep it in check (see pic).

Quote of the day:

What I have come to realise is the complacency that a lot of people from my political tradition had about the overwhelming power of the state, and I’m scared about how a lot of those rights disappeared at the drop of a hat… I felt like sometimes I was shouting in the wind. I remember in January and February this year, I couldn’t quite believe it. There was no opposition to anything at all. I used to think that we would, as a country, fight against some subversive takeover — now I think, my word, it would happen without anyone even noticing.
- Emily Benn

Shami Chakrabarti has spent decades as the controversial face of the Left civil liberties lobby, and her argument came out of that principle: persuasion, not coercion, is how we should attempt to change behaviours in a free society. She feels that discrimination is so much the default tendency of an unchecked society that government needs to intervene explicitly to prevent it — don’t just mandating but banning vaccine discrimination — just as discrimination is illegal on other grounds:

Quote of the day:

When you’ve got a challenge, and a policy to deal with it — whether it’s terrorism, whether it’s Covid-19, whatever it is — and you’re intruding in some small or grave way on people’s liberties, the tests are: necessity, proportionality, accordance with law (a proper law, a piece of primary legislation) and the crucial one: equal treatment. Covid ID will always lead to unequal and arbitrary treatment, discrimination, corruption and bullying and that’s why I’m against it.
- Shami Chakrabarti

A reality check: as we gathered outside the secure zone in Brighton, the main conference hall (and even the Momentum fringe event) were subject to Covid pass checks as a requirement for entry. These voices are the minority dissenters — as it stands the mainstream Left is not interested in their arguments.

Join the discussion


  • One could always go back to the argument that cases of covid19 will overwhelm stretched health services and prohibit other medical care. I’ve only just really thought about the idea that someone with severe obesity that they had years to do something about should take precedence over someone suddenly suffering from a brand new respiratory disease that they have no immunity for? I mean clearly it’s often the same person so you could even say the obese are the cause of the health service becoming overwhelmed from covid19.

    This is not a moral judgement. For large parts of my life I’ve been obese and I’ve never ever thought I wasn’t equally deserving of medical treatment than anyone else or that this shouldn’t be the case for someone who smokes or someone who takes part in high risk sports. Because we never know the full motivations of why one person does what they do and what makes an addiction (in particular) to any behaviour easy or difficult to break. I just think it’s interesting the way we scapegoat a group of diverse people with many different reasons for doing something we have decided is objectionable without ever questioning that anyone getting and suffering a severe dose of this disease has in fact done nothing to encourage it except possibly be poor, in a multigenerational home or working/living in a vulnerable location without being able to do anything about that. They have, in fact, clearly NOT set out to get sick with covid19 to the detriment of others even though I admit I’m currently thinking about it to improve my lifelong immunity.

    In fact, not once while I was obese was I threatened with having medical treatment removed from me but numerous times, since this pandemic began, I’ve had the idea thrown in my face for not doing something perfectly rational based on the current evidence or even for sticking up for other people who have had their rationality questioned in a similarly abusive way.

  • I often think of the fight against HIV discrimination and wonder what happened. To the lack of fight against Corona discrimination, that is.

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