“If the government proceeds with this draconian bill, this law will be broken repeatedly. It will become unenforceable. It will lead to unnecessary tensions between the police and broad sections of the public.”
By Richard Burgon MP.
The government’s anti-protest Bill was already a very dangerous piece of legislation when it was passed by the House of Commons last year. But in recent weeks it has risked becoming even more chilling as the Conservative Party sought to railroad a raft of reactionary new amendments through the House of Lords.
This attempted power grab included new amendments to enable the police to stop and search anyone on protests, without even having any grounds of suspicion. Alongside that, so-called “serious disruption prevention orders” would allow the authorities to ban individuals from participating in demonstrations and even from using the internet to encourage others to do so.
In a series of humiliating defeats for the government, the Lords rejected the government’s new amendments meaning they can’t be brought back into this appalling Bill because of the way the government sought to manipulate the Parliamentary agenda to force these amendments through.
The Lords also rejected measures previously passed by MPs – including bans on protests outside parliament and noisy protests – setting up another showdown in the House of Commons in the coming weeks as these measures will therefore be debated again.
Despite the Lords votes, the Bill remains a real threat that rips up long-cherished democratic rights and basic freedoms and tosses them aside. We now need to step up the fight – both in parliament and on the streets – to kill it off.
Under the Government’s plans, protests will still be allowed, just as long as the police say so, just as long as the protests are not too noisy, just as long as they do not cause too much of a nuisance, just as long as they do not seriously annoy anyone, and just as long as they are not too near Parliament.
In short, in Tory Britain, protests could still go ahead, just as long as they do not do what protests are meant to do. And those who do not abide by the new rules could face years in prison. Parliament’s joint committee on human rights has correctly called the proposals “oppressive and wrong”.
This Bill is a form of state intimidation, designed to stop people from organising and attending protests by criminalising them. It is an attack on basic political rights — designed to stop people from being able to use one of the key levers that they have to push for change in our society. And it is an attack on free speech – suppressing one of the ways people have to speak out against Government policies they oppose.
This Bill was written in direct response to the growth of Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion, but it is aimed at suppressing not only their legitimate campaigning but much wider political opposition to injustice and to unpopular Tory policies.
There is no end to the list of those who will be targeted: trade unionists demanding an end to “fire and rehire”, environmentalists worried about local incinerators, women demonstrating against male violence, black and GRT people challenging police racism, families worried about cuts to local care service, communities outraged by the closure of their local hospital are just some of those in the sights of the Tories with authoritarian Bill.
Anyone who wishes to oppose the type of Tory policies that are causing such harm to our society will be targeted. The biggest impact will be on those excluded communities with the most to protest about. Instead of tackling the underlying grievances, the state is responding by attacking those who challenge injustice.
This Bill is part of a pattern with the Conservative government engaged in a disturbing authoritarian drive. Through unnecessary Voter ID requirements in their Elections Bill – designed to replicate US Republican Party tactics to suppress the votes of black and other marginalised communities – to the anti-protest laws and anti-union laws the Tories are attacking people’s rights to vote, peacefully protest and take strike action. These are vital, hard-won democratic rights wrestled from the establishment by social movements and brave campaigners throughout the decades.
This attack on our rights is not separate from the assaults on people’s living standards underway under this government. This authoritarian drive is because the government knows that it will become increasingly unpopular and so it wants to weaken people’s ability to oppose its unjust policies.
Protests against the Poll Tax and the Iraq War made clear public opposition when politicians were simply not listening. This reactionary government has no intention of allowing such dissent to be expressed.
Throughout our history, significant gains have been won through demonstrations: from the eight-hour day won by the trade union movement to votes for women won by the suffragettes. Such movements were always denounced at the time as extremist by politicians standing on the wrong side of history.
The Tories need to wake up and recognise the simple truth that people won’t let the government trample over our hard-won democratic rights and freedoms. People will always mobilise and demand necessary change, whatever barriers the government puts in their way.
So if the government proceeds with this draconian bill, this law will be broken repeatedly. It will become unenforceable. It will lead to unnecessary tensions between the police and broad sections of the public. The level of trust between citizens and the state – already hitting rock bottom after the recent revelations of a government that believes it’s one rule for them and another for everyone else – will plummet even further.
In the coming weeks, it is vital that politicians speak out against this authoritarian legislation and vote against it. But with a Tory majority, we will need to keep opposing it on the streets too. Nothing will show the power of protest more than our popular protests leading to this legislation being thrown into the dustbin of history where it belongs.