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1 July 2009

Councils try to gag us

There has been much talk in the wake of the MPs' expenses scandals of the need to make politicians more accountable, extend democracy and empower people and their communities. However, look beyond this PR exercise and there are scores of examples where genuine attempts to organise and protest have been restricted by manoeuvres by the political establishment.

James Kerr, Lewisham Socialist Party

Of course these restrictions barely touch the main parties. They have huge sums from their wealthy backers to spend on getting their ideas across in the mainstream media. The Tories spent 1.2 million alone at the last election on a single mail-shot to supporters.

Draconian measures

The Socialist Party and the community campaigns we are involved in across the country rely on street stalls, public meetings and demonstrations to get our ideas out and discuss them with workers and youth. It is exactly these methods and organisations like ours in particular that have been targeted with draconian measures.

Exeter City council is debating the introduction of a ban of all political groups from Bedford Square in the city. They are using complaints about a BNP activity there to ban all groups from the square. A ban is in effect already in place with the unelected city centre manager refusing all recent requests for permission to set up a stall in the square.

In Worcester, campaign groups have reported that, while allowed to have a stall, they have been quoted a charge of 25-75 for a permit by 'not-for-profit' organisation VisitWorcester, apparently to pay for admin costs.

This is one of many cases where local authorities are attempting to 'clean up their streets' and remove any signs of opposition. They introduce bye-laws, lengthy applications for permits or promote constant harassment from town centre managers and the police to intimidate any group or individual into not holding a stall.

An example that has been reported in the pages of The Socialist was in Liverpool where the council attempted to stop paper sales and stalls in the main shopping centre. Tony Aitman, a Socialist Party member, was arrested for "wilful obstruction" after refusing to stop selling papers. Campaigners organised a 'mass stall' to defy the ban with 12 different organisations holding simultaneous stalls. The harassment of the stall holders was stopped as a result.

This demonstrates that regardless of the threats made by local authorities, when countered by mass opposition they're unworkable.

Subtle

The tactics used by councils have been more subtle than this in some cases. In Swindon and Dublin, councils have restricted the handing out of leaflets under the guise of litter prevention but in the knowledge that it will make it difficult for organisations to get their material out. This is even though the majority of rubbish in city centres is caused by food and drink packaging, but do retailers face a ban on their products?

Couple this with extensive laws against postering in public places and many smaller organisations struggle to gain a public profile. If councils want to prevent postering why not provide more public noticeboards that communities can use to publicise their local events and organisations? Instead wall space is often taken up by advertising billboards, regardless of whether or not local people want them and which are too expensive to be used by the local community.

Even face to face meetings have been stamped on by local authorities. In Lewisham the Hand off Our Homes campaign, which successfully campaigned for a No vote in a ballot on council house stock transfer, had booked a meeting room at a local community centre.

On the eve of the meeting the local New Labour council (the main supporters of the Yes campaign) waded in demanding public liability insurance before the meeting went ahead. Did this demand apply when events the council approved of were being run there or was it a convenient technicality?

Clearly the main political parties, when pulling the strings on local councils, can use their position to block any opposition. The only way for this to be stopped is, like in Liverpool, to organise and fight back against these measures and make them unworkable.

Working people should decide what material they read and what meetings they attend, not a thin layer of politically motivated council stooges.




http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/7504