Keep up the fight to defend the right to protest

Defending the right to protest, in Bristol, photo Mike Luff

Defending the right to protest, in Bristol, photo Mike Luff   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Iain Dalton, Socialist Party national committee

In a blow to the Tory government, several parts of its anti-protest Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill were rejected by the House of Lords on Monday 17 January.

These included a raft of amendments added by the government in December, including giving the police the power to stop and search at a protest without suspicion, and giving courts powers to ban individuals deemed to have caused “serious disruption” from specific protests.

The anti-protest provisions in the amendments, and those left untouched in the bill itself, rather than reflecting the strength of the government, reflect its weakness. The bill is a pre-emptive strike against the potential for mass struggle to develop. The Tories can sense huge anger against the cost of living crisis and their attempt to make the working class pay for the costs of the pandemic.

Government weakness

Any ratcheting up of police powers to restrict protest must be opposed. But it is a mistake to underestimate how difficult a weak and divided government would find it to use repressive legislation against a popular mass movement.

During the pandemic, some protests have been broken up by police, with organisers issued fines under the Covid restrictions. However, no such action was taken against the huge Black Lives Matter protests that swept many cities.

Indeed, attempts to restrict the right to protest can spur further protests. Kill the Bill protests in Bristol last year gave a taste of this. Attempts by the police to repress protests, misreported in the media as protesters attacking the police, fuelled further and bigger protests in Bristol and across the country.

The Lords, many of whom are ex-grandees of the major political parties, were more aware of this potential than the government, which is why they opposed the government pushing too far. Instead, they supported a number of positive measures to deal with other aspects of policing provoking public anger.

The so-called Hillsborough amendment was added to require police officers to speak with “candour” in court proceedings. Another demanded an urgent review of spiking cases, and the recording, investigation and sentencing of crimes motivated by sex or gender.

Other changes have already been conceded to by the government in the hope of increasing support for the bill, including making assaulting a frontline worker an aggravated offence.

While Labour MPs have voted against the bill as a whole, Keir Starmer’s initial position was to abstain, only forced into a U-turn by the backlash against the police assault on the mass vigil for Sarah Everard. But Labour’s strategy in the Lords and in the Welsh Assembly (which has to give legislative consent on some parts of the bill) has been only to oppose parts of the bill.

In the Welsh Assembly, Labour whipped its members to support making “intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance” a new offence; protesters could be punished if a “serious annoyance” is caused to a member of the public.

In the Lords, Labour opposed a new amendment to criminalise protests interfering with the operations of the road transport network, by proposing their own amendment to criminalise blocking a highway leading to major routes or motorways!

Police powers

With all its changes, the bill still contains serious attacks on the right to protest which must be opposed. These include police-imposed restrictions on the location start and finish times of marches to be extended to cover static demonstrations, and extending the sentence for damaging statues or monuments from 3 months to 10 years.

Some reports suggest that the government’s approach might now be to ‘bank’ the bill as it stands with its remaining repressive powers, and then introduce a new bill in the next parliamentary session to further extend restrictions against protest, including the provisions rejected by the Lords.

Neither the unelected House of Lords (still containing 92 hereditary peers), nor Starmer’s Labour can be relied upon to defend the right to protest. It is vital, not only to oppose the bill, but to put forward a political programme that tackles the issues forcing working-class and young people onto the streets to protest: inequality and poverty.

Key to this is linking the struggle against the bill with the organised working class in the trade unions. Ultimately, a mass movement could not just win inflation-busting pay rises and sweep away this bill, but take this rotten government hanging on by a thread with it.