“Draconian legislation is needed only when the government feels threatened.”Diane Abbott MP
This is based on Diane Abbott MP’s speech at the event on Our right to resist: the Tory attacks on our civil liberties & human rights – you can watch the full event here.
Our right to protest matters. Partly because the right to protest matters. But also because sometimes protest works. That is the key lesson to draw from the events of the last week. That is what the Tories fear.
It is clear there was unnecessary force used to break up a vigil for Sarah Everard. This was followed by the rushed vote to pass a Bill making that type of policing the norm. But this was halted. It was halted because of widespread public revulsion, and continued protests outside parliament and an Opposition doing its job. This has forced a temporary rethink, despite the Bill passing by a large majority.
There is no suggestion that this government has had a change of heart, it is simply retreating under pressure. And the government is trying to use the events in Bristol to claim that this shows their Bill is right. They don’t. That is why it is vital to maintain the pressure.
There can be no doubt that this legislation is draconian. Many people have pointed out that it provides for greater penalties for damaging a statue than it does for sexual assault.
Others have rightly highlighted the powers given to police to prevent peaceful protest and arrest the protestors, simply because they cause annoyance or disturbance. No doubt Extinction Rebellion is disruptive and certainly annoys the fossil fuel producers.
Similarly, Black Lives Matter demonstrations have sometimes been large enough to force traffic diversions and they certainly annoy racists. And of course pickets are supposed to be disruptive in persuading people not to cross picket lines, and they undoubtedly annoy employers when there is a dispute.
Yet all of these are overwhelmingly peaceful. And there could hardly have been a more peaceful gathering than the vigil. Remember, that was broken up even before the latest legislation undermining our rights has been passed.
This government does not believe that we have genuine rights. There is a long list. If the right to protest is conditional, if it can be withdrawn simply because a police officer believes someone is annoyed, then it is not a right as such.
Similarly, if the cry freedom of speech only applies to reactionaries and racists, it is not a general right. For decades successive governments have not been fans of the right to organise at work either, and attempt to block trade unions. The right to a family life has long been breached by deportations, even of the daughters or sons of British citizens.
The ‘police crackdown bill’, is not even the most draconian piece of legislation in this parliamentary session. It was preceded by the Overseas Operations Bill and the Covert Human Intelligence Bill, also widely known as the SpyCops Bill.
These are both more pernicious and more sweeping than the police Bill. They grant the right to members of the armed forces and police officers to commit the most serious crimes, including rape, torture and murder with legal impunity.
Once again, if we are all potentially victims of such heinous crimes and the perpetrators are protected by law, then human rights do not apply either in this country or overseas where military operations are taking place. The complaints from this government and these ministers about alleged human rights abuses elsewhere reek of hypocrisy.
It is an age-old cry of autocratic governments everywhere that ‘ordinary innocent members of the public have nothing to fear’ will ring hollow in the ears of all the women who were duped into sex with an undercover police officer, or trades unionists barred from work for their political views, or the families of the victims of Bloody Sunday, and many more besides.
We saw this week it took 50 years for trade unionists to win justice picketing in a building dispute. Both Labour and Tory governments did nothing in that time to see there was justice.
To be fair to the government, ministers do not even make the claim that any of this will make us safer.
There is nothing in any of this legislation to tackle to the acute crises of policing, the courts and the criminal justice system. All those who suffer from these real injustices include women, Black and Asian communities and of course ordinary people without resources.
The most glaringly obvious area is in the abysmal record on rape convictions. Reported incidence of rape is soaring and almost reached sixty thousand last year. But barely more than two thousand resulted in prosecutions.
The Office of National Statistics recently showed that fewer than ONE IN SIX cases of rape or serious sexual assault are even reported to the police. The victims’ commissioner has spoken of the effective decriminalisation of rape in this country.
The new Bill has nothing to say about this huge injustice and others like it. There are also low and falling conviction rates for a number of serious crimes. These amount to a crisis of policing, the courts and the criminal justice system. Yet this government does not even bother to pay lip-service to these problems.
For them, policing bills are not simply an attempt to court favourable tabloid headlines. They get those almost whatever they do. Instead, draconian legislation of this type serves two broader aims.
The first is the widening of ‘culture wars’ where the main enemy is those who pull down a statue rather than those who are still engaged in modern slavery. This fits with their entire programme, increasing mistreatment of asylum seekers, increasing random stop and search, ploughing on the with failed Prevent programme, and police officers manhandling women attending a vigil.
But the second purpose of these sweeping powers is practical. They are not simply striking poses and demonising opponents. This is the worst government of my lifetime, and that is not a status easily won.
It is a government that has presided over 140,000 deaths, one of worst in the world on a per capita basis. We have one of the worst economic crises as a result. Unemployment has risen by well over one million, and pay has been slashed. The government will continue with all this. Official forecasts are for thousands of further deaths, hundreds of thousands of newly rising and a public sector pay freeze. It has deepened inequalities in every conceivable way during the pandemic.
No wonder then, the government wants to clamp down on protest. Draconian legislation is needed only when the government feels threatened. This is not the fear of terrorism, or the everyday fears of the victims of crime.
This government fears peaceful, popular protest. Which tells you a lot about them, and a lot about what we need to do in the period ahead.