Who'll stand up for liberty in Britain?
The three main parties are all dragging their feet. They must deliver on the promise of a freedom bill
The Liberal Democrat compromise on control orders is significant of itself (people are still to be curfewed and tagged without charge) but also important for what it indicates about the political future of the coalition.
The bonhomie of last May's Conservative-Lib Dem negotiations was principally a function of the Lib Dems' volte-face over the speed of deficit reduction.
But it was matched by agreement on a whole raft of civil liberties issues.
The Conservative and Lib Dem manifestos were already in accord on scrapping ID cards, the national identity register and the nationwide ContactPoint children's database, as well as on restraining powers of entry and ending the misuse of anti-terror laws.
The coalition agreement also incorporated Lib Dem proposals to outlaw the fingerprinting of children without parental consent, the storage of internet and email records, and the restoration of protest rights, as well as firming up Conservative proposals to stop the holding of innocent people's DNA and to limit CCTV.
Thereby, for Lib Dem negotiator David Laws, "the economic liberalism of the Conservative Party" had been convincingly combined with "the social liberalism of the Liberal Democrats".
The fate of the civil liberties agenda is thus a vital matter for all parties.
Max Rowlands of the research group Statewatch has produced an audit, and he finds a long list of kept promises – on ID cards, ContactPoint, stop-and-search powers, libel law reform and the misuse of anti-terror legislation. And 28-day detention without charge has now reverted to 14.
However, the new terrorism prevention and investigation measures retain much of the existing control order system, so the new regime for detention of the children of failed asylum seekers (in "pre-departure accommodation") looks more like an amelioration than an abolition of the old.
As Statewatch notes, biometric passports may have been abolished, but biometric permits for non-European nationals will remain.
The repeal of section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 (stop and search) could mean increased use of section 43 (under which a photographer was detained for taking pictures of cadets near Buckingham Palace).
And much of the remaining civil liberties agenda – on DNA and criminal record retention, fingerprinting children and CCTV – still awaits the publication of a freedom bill, which Nick Clegg promised would be out last November.
The Lib Dems can justifiably claim to have made a difference on civil liberties, but that only goes to show they needed to. The resistance of the Conservatives to reform suggests that their much-vaunted commitment to social liberalism is skin deep.
The danger is that Labour can't – or won't – exploit this opportunity.
The party has moved on since the days when Diane Abbott was a lone advocate for its traditional commitment to civil liberties. But some Labour backbenchers are still trying to outflank the coalition to the right on crime, and the frontbench speaks with an uncertain voice.
Before his translation, Ed Balls was attacking control order reform as putting politics before national security, and affirming his support for DNA retention and the current level of CCTV surveillance. This week, Yvette Cooper was evasive on how she'd reform control orders but definite on the need for legislation to put pre-charge detention back up to 28 days in emergencies.
If Labour genuinely accepts that it got it wrong on civil liberties, the party should not be attacking the coalition on these issues from the right. Rather, it should be holding the government to account, seeking to amend watered-down reforms, and insisting that the freedom bill fulfils its promise.