Chilling Tory crackdown on dissent must be resisted – Olivia Blake MP 


“The legislation is part of a wider agenda to strengthen the authoritarian powers of the state and restrict the capacity of everyone to resist the Government’s plans for our economy, our communities, and our environment.”

By Olivia Blake MP

Next Monday, the House of Commons is due to debate the Government’s latest attacks on our rights at work – legislation that imposes “minimum service” agreements on striking workers in transport, health, fire and rescue, education, border security, and nuclear decommissioning and radioactive waste. The proposals will allow employers to force staff back to work who they deem necessary for delivering these service levels, and to sack those who do not turn up.

The changes will undermine the bargaining power of trade unions and create a climate in which it is even easier to victimise workers organising in their workplace. Bizarrely, too, while the government refuses – for example – to adequately resource minimum standards of care in the NHS or compel private companies to provide a functioning rail network, it will mean that strike days are the only time at which minimum services should be expected.

The attack on our right to organise comes at a critical time. Faced with still-soaring inflation, a recession and rising unemployment, workers across the economy are taking industrial action to defend their pay and conditions. The legislation is part of a wider agenda to strengthen the authoritarian powers of the state and restrict the capacity of everyone – from trade unionists, to climate activists, to Black Lives Matter and more – to resist the Government’s plans for our economy, our communities, and our environment.

The Government started in 2020 with the passing of the Overseas Operations Act. While the law granted immunity in all but name for war crimes and torture if the offences are carried out overseas by a member of the military, it also made it harder for service personnel to sue the Ministry of Defence for negligence.    

The Act foreshadowed abroad what the next piece of legislation would do at home. The Covert Human Intelligence Sources – or “Spy Cops” – Act 2021 granted sweeping powers to a poorly-defined range of state intelligence actors to break the law, including human rights violations such as murder, torture, or sexual offences. The legislation was rightly opposed by a broad coalition of trade unions and groups such as the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, the Spy Cops Campaign, the Justice for Hillsborough Campaign, anti-racism activists, and many more – all of whom know too well how police or undercover agents can behave criminally or as agent provocateurs, incriminating legitimate social movements.

After changing the law to make illegal interference in campaign groups and trade unions easier, the government then moved to criminalise their protest activities with the Policing Crime Sentencing and Court Act 2022. Having failed to get offences for “locking on”, “interfering with key national infrastructure”, or measures such as “serious disruption prevention orders” (which ban people from going to protests) into the Act, they’re now trying again with the Public Order Bill, which is currently moving through the House of Lords.   

In addition to attacking the right to protest, the Elections Act 2022 makes it harder for people to express their opposition to the Government through the ballot box. The new laws require photographic ID to vote, addressing a non-existent problem – recent figures on voter fraud convictions number in the single digits – while supressing the turnout of those least likely to vote Conservative such as young people and people of colour.

Now Ministers are trailing further draconian powers, this time in relation to standing against the hostile environment for asylum seekers and migrants. Building on the Nationalities and Borders Act – which, in defiance of international law and our obligations under the Refugee Convention, criminalises asylum seekers – Ministers have now floated that they are seeking to make depicting Channel crossings in a “positive light” a criminal offence in the new Online Safety Bill.    

The proposals join those in the National Security Bill which further chill what can be said about the Government and Government policy. The Bill contains measures that potentially criminalise investigative journalism by lowering the bar on what constitutes spying, defining it in terms of acts that ‘materially assist a foreign intelligence service’. What “material assistance” might look like is dangerously undefined – could it mean, for example, the Guardian’s publication of the Panama papers?

In our workplaces, on the streets, at the ballot box, and on social – and even traditional – media, the Tories are eroding our right to resist and strengthening their own powers to launch further attacks on our living standards – on top of the real terms pay cuts and degraded working conditions people have experienced for over a decade now.

Rather than crack down on those who express legitimate dissent, Minister should look at why they are dissenting and address those root concerns – the ongoing soaring cost of living, the climate and nature emergency, the refugee crisis, the crisis in the NHS, the recession, and over a decade of declining living standards. Instead, their authoritarian record matches their wider agenda for government – either inaction or doubling-down on cuts, privatisation, and fossil fuel extraction which will make these issues even worse.

It’s time to tip the scales in the opposite direction, with a politics that puts people and planet first, and that celebrates the tradition of protest, dissent, and telling truth to power that has driven all progressive change in the UK – and any future progress to come.  

  • Olivia Blake is the MP for Sheffield Hallam and a regular contributor to Labour Outlook. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Featured image: Rishi Sunak chairs the Business Council. Picture by Simon Walker/No 10 Downing Street under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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