Defying unjust laws – a rich history of working-class struggle

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Norman Hall, South Tyne and Wear Socialist Party

The impending passing of the ‘Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill’ has raised a question among some activists that its list of restrictions on the right to protest will, in effect, mark the end of protest in the UK.

However, capitalism in crisis, with its relentless attacks on living conditions, will not allow the working class to remain silent for long. These attacks will force people into protest and struggle, irrespective of what restrictive legislation is on the books.

Unfortunately, up to now, the trade union movement has not seriously taken up the issues in the anti-protest bill. However, it cannot remain indifferent for long, as there is no doubt the bosses will seek to use the provisions of the bill against the organised workers’ movement.

We need to be clear that this is a trade union issue. Just as in the past the provisions of the anti-terrorist legislation enacted to deal with the threat of the Provisional IRA was used against shop stewards (union reps) and others, today’s legislation will also be used in a similar way.

The capitalist class will use any means at their disposal to protect their profits and their rights to exhort profit. But sometimes the movement requires the ‘whip of reaction’ before understanding the need for action. And sometimes the lesson has to be repeated before a full understanding is achieved.

Therefore, even if the movement has not mobilised against the bill beforehand, this does not mean it will be passive in the face of an attempt to implement it.

All the great socialist revolutionaries – Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky – constantly explained that experience is the biggest teacher of the working class.

On trial for his part in the 1905 Russian revolution, Leon Trotsky said in the Tsarist court: ‘It’s not revolutionaries that prepare revolutions. It is capitalism itself that creates revolutions. Revolutionaries only prepare for revolutions. These questions are not decided by what is recorded on pieces of velum but by the class forces involved in the struggle, both their numerical strength, their understanding and their determination.’

The history of the workers’ movement in Britain, and even the history of our own party, is filled with examples of defying the law to defend the right to organise and protest. From the formation of the early trade unions in the face of the repressive Combination Acts in the early 19th century, to the illegal strikes of the prison officers in recent times.

From the stand of the left-wing Labour councillors in Poplar, east London, in the 1920s – who refused to implement government attacks on the poor under the slogan: “It’s better to break the law than break the poor” – and who went to jail for their belief.

Liverpool struggle

This slogan was again taken up in the 1980s by the 47 Liverpool Labour councillors who, following a successful struggle for more resources conducted by the Militant-led socialist council, were undemocratically removed from office and surcharged under the Tory Thatcher government

To the defiant protest of the 18 million-strong, ‘can’t pay, won’t pay’ anti-poll tax movement that was victorious in the face of fines, bailiffs and even jailings, including the Militant-supporting MP Terry Fields.

Sharon Graham, the new general secretary of Unite the Union, has raised the importance of defending the rights, pay and conditions of members and not being constrained by anti-union laws.

We agree. There is no doubt about the incompatibility of the provisions of this bill with the protection of working-class rights and conditions. We therefore need to raise the warning most importantly in our union branches but also in our community organisations.

The capitalist class will discover to its cost that the union movement is in the process of rediscovering its power and its claws.

Liverpool: A City That Dared to Fight

  • A must read on how the socialist council defied the Thatcher government.
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