18 March 2021
Dave Kellaway reports on the latest attempt by the Conservative Government to stifle the voice of the protest.
Women’s determination to protest the femicide of Sarah Everard, at Clapham Common achieved one important result. It shifted Kier Starmer’s new Labour leadership from abstaining on Priti Patel’s new Police Crackdown bill to actually opposing it. The clear signal from shadow policing spokesperson, David Lammy, throughout the previous week was that the Labour party would abstain. Following their obsession with a focus group method, they assumed that to win back lost Labour voters they had to appear tough on law and order at all times.
So much for bogus groups of ‘weighted and sampled’ voters’ as thousands of women, supported by men, demonstrated in defiance of a court ruling all around the country. Abruptly the new labour leadership was confronted with a lot of its natural supporters, and particularly its women MPs, doing something old fashioned like showing solidarity and militancy even if the law said it was not allowed.
Labour’s official amendment to stop the bill focussed almost exclusively on the obviously important need for the law to be changed to support and defend women against violence of all types. However, the Tory offensive against our democratic rights to protest and the bill’s targeting of actions taken by Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter was not given equal prominence by key spokespeople like Starmer or Jess Phillips. Correctly calling for tougher penalties for crimes against women allowed Labour to maintain the general message of being as tough on crime as the Tories.
It was left to David Lammy, to his credit, to take up the democratic issues, as well as a group of 40 cross-party MPs, led by Dianne Abbott and Caroline Lucas who put forward an amendment that included both feminist, black and civil rights issues.
“it fails to address the racial bias and discrimination that persists in policing.(…)The Bill therefore risks exacerbating the racial and gendered disparities in the criminal justice system by increasing police powers and sentencing whilst reducing accountability,”
The official Labour party amendment to stop the bill is good on more effective action to defend and protect women but has half a line on the
“fact that the bill rushes changes to protest law.”
Thankfully, a number of other Labour MPs such as Nottingham East MP Nadia Whittome said the bill represents
“the biggest assault on our right and freedom to protest in recent history”
and Olivia Blake said something we had not heard from the main Labour leaders:
“There is one group of people who will feel significantly less safe and less secure because of this bill: the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community.”
Clive Lewis has written in a strong article on the Labour List :
And yet here we are, with this bill before us. It is the tip of an authoritarian iceberg – one that’s on a collision course with public defiance. Democracy is being swept away, in a calculated programme to leave the public muted and powerless.
The shift that Starmer has had to make should give a little more confidence to the left both inside and outside the Labour Party. Spontaneous action from women combined with a strong reaction from many MPs, not just from the left, brought results.
It is worth just familiarising ourselves with the key points of the bill which passed its second reading with 96 votes.
The Morning Star has produced a very good summary:
At almost 300 pages long, the Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill is a mammoth piece of legislation covering unrelated changes to law ranging from life sentences for child killers to banning sex between sports coaches and 16-year-olds.
While some of the proposals are considered positive, others have been described as an attack on our fundamental rights. Here are some of the reasons why:
Restrictions on protest
• Conditions relating to marches will apply to ‘static’ gatherings, increasing powers to restrict more forms of protest
• Police powers will be expanded to shut down protests, including if they cause bystanders ‘serious unease’
• Officers will be able to ‘impose conditions such as start and finish times and maximum noise levels on static protests’ of whatever size
• Criminal penalties will be created for protesters who cause ‘serious annoyance’
• A protester who unwittingly breaches conditions placed on a demonstration could face a criminal sentence
• The maximum penalty for organisers who breach conditions will be increased from three to 11 months
• Protest around Parliament will be prevented
• The maximum penalty for damaging a statue will rise to 10 years (longer than some sentences for rapists)
Expansion of stop & search
• Officers will be allowed to stop and search more people if plans for serious violence reduction orders go ahead. These will allow police to use the tactic against known knife offenders without reason or suspicion
Criminalisation of Traveller and Gypsy communities
• The Bill will introduce a new offence of ‘residing on land without consent in or with a vehicle,’ effectively criminalising trespass
• It will also increase the period of time for which a roadside camp cannot return to a piece of land from three months to 12 months
• Human-rights group Liberty claims these law changes will criminalise the way of life of nomadic Gypsy and Traveller communities
Deciding what constitutes ‘serious unease’ or ‘annoyance’ for the public will be primarily in the hands of the police. They will make the judgment. If you think about it the whole point of protest is to make an impact by disrupting everyday normalcy.
We have seen historically with the anti-union laws that people on the left may start out with the bravado response that if working people move into action then these laws will not be viable. But they soon realised that the threat of fines and imprisonment can be very effective. From a situation back in the 70s when mass mobilisations destroyed the first anti-trade union laws we are now in a country where it is extremely difficult to take strike action.
For all his blathering about being a libertarian Johnson is clear about defending the interests of his class. He is aware that his Covid policies, his failure to deal with the ecological and economic inequality, will inevitably provoke some forms of mass resistance. Just as he was keen on the water cannon option when the mayor of London, he wants some extra weapons to keep things under control. Young people are particularly hit by all these crises and they are more likely to take action on the streets.
At the same time, this sort of policing bill allows Johnson to play his culture wars card against Starmer’s Labour Party. He can continually try and portray Labour as soft on direct action. Aided and abetted by a compliant media Johnson can benefit whether Starmer goes along with his policies or timidly opposes some. Why should people vote for an alternative if the opposition is not providing one and if the PM’s credibility is not challenged? If Starmer provides some piecemeal opposition without a coherent vision or alternative then it does not convince even the Labour base. He is stuck in the middle with nowhere to go.
Extinction Rebellion, BLM and the Women’s mobilisations show the potential of a campaign to defend the right to protest. Even some Tory MPs, such as Teresa May have voiced some opposition. Like the anti-war movement, we should welcome the mobilisation of anyone from any political background who is serious about defending these fundamental rights. Trade unionists, Suffragettes and socialists have put their bodies on the line in the past to win the democratic rights to protest. Let’s fight to defend them again today.
Dave Kellaway is a supporter of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.