Defend the right to protest, strike and boycott..

Veronica Fagan explores the ways the Tories are attacking our rights to organise - including the under-discussed anti-boycott bill


Attacking the right to protest is central to the Tories agenda. Activists are familiar with the way the Tories have outlawed noisy or disruptive protests as well as particular forms of direct action such as ‘locking on’. The 2022 Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act was quickly followed by the 2023 Pubic Order Act.

As is always the case, laws provide a repressive armoury the state can use, but they are often applied inconsistently for a myriad of different reasons. Stop and Search powers for example have always been used predominantly against working class Black youth.

We have certainly noticed  the different way the state responds to those committing criminal damage by smashing cameras clocking motorists coming into the ultra-low emission zone (Ulez) in London and peaceful environmental protestors campaigning against Fossil capitalism.  And older laws are sometimes being used –  as in this decision by the attorney general to prosecute a climate campaigner for contempt of court.

We also know that Britain already has the most repressive anti-union laws. Over the last year hundreds of thousands of workers have taken strike action for the first time – so know how the need to win a postal ballot every six months distorts the focus of their organising from a demand that they receive a living wage from the intensive labour power they put into their work.

The new Minimum Service Act which came into force in July this year allows the government to order workers to break their own strikes. In the context of the recent strikes by consultants and junior doctors, the Tories have been talking about imposing regulations that would do this. The BMA have issued a strong press release pointing out that this government’s policies mean that there are constantly dangerous levels of understaffing in our hospitals. Other trade unions under attack by the act have made similar points.

Like ACR, the Free our unions campaign which we support, welcomes the decisions of TUC Congress 2023 for non-compliance with the Act – and has called an important meeting to strengthen the grass roots campaign to  fight for these decisions to be implemented. The campaign has also produced a leaflet on the new Act which should be widely distributed and discussed.

Right to boycott

But  while these two attacks are quite widely known, fewer have heard of the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill – otherwise known as the anti boycott bill. Yet this legislation introduced before parliament broke for the summer is another arm of this repressive crackdown.

This bill would make it illegal for any public body – notably a local authority or university – to make decisions about where pension funds are invested or where they buy their supplies on political grounds. Boycotts and divestment have been a key part of internationalist campaigning – this bill would have outlawed public bodies supporting the boycott of apartheid South Africa for example and would block the divestment campaigners are pushing for from fossil fuel companies.

The bill makes particular reference to the Israeli state and to the occupied Palestinian territories. While the bill would allow the Secretary of state to grant exemptions to the bill if the government’s foreign policy changes –– this clause does not apply to Israel and the occupied territories. Michael Gove in speaking to the Bill at its second reading in July made clear the Tories opposition to the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign initiated by Palestinian civil society and taken up by pro-Palestinian campaigners internationally.

For this bill is not only part of a reactionary Tory attack – but also part of an international campaign to marginalise and criminalise supporters of the Palestinian people.  Peter Oborne points out here how this bill delivers on “a a central objective of Netanyahu’s foreign policy – protecting Israel against the threat of international isolation by blocking public bodies from supporting sanctions, boycotts and divestment campaigns against Israel.”

Similar laws have been passed in a number of US states as demonstrated in the powerful film Boycott. This useful review points out that in this case too, while the offensive against Palestinian campaigners is central it is also being extended to ban boycotts of the armaments industries, manufacturers of harmful substances, or clinics that refuse to perform abortions.  Sadly but not surprisingly the US supreme court refused to hear Leveritt’s appeal,

A key part of this offensive is to try to silence the voices of the many Jews who support the BDS campaign – including inside the Israeli state itself-organised together with Palestinians through groups such as Boycott from Within  through the weaponisation of antisemitism – a subject we have dealt with frequently on this site.

There is a broad coalition against this bill and both the Scottish government   and more latterly the Welsh government have stated their opposition to the bill.  Given the small amount of time left in this parliamentary session, its immediate fate is far from certain. But the determination of te Tories – as well as the absence of determined opposition from the Labour Front Bench means the campaign against it needs to be stepped up in the weeks ahead.

Sign up for the online rally against the Bill on October 3 here

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