NATIONWIDE demonstrations against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill show the strength of opposition to this assault on democracy.
Yet the absence of Labour frontbenchers from the street protests underlines how narrow is the opposition’s current challenge to a government in crisis – and how far it is from using that crisis to force the government to change course on key policies.
The Tories are in disarray, with almost daily revelations preventing them from drawing a line under the “partygate” scandal. The dramatic loss of the supposedly safe North Shropshire seat in November will have rattled Conservative MPs. They are vulnerable to pressure at local level.
And pressure is needed. Labour can hardly be faulted for targeting them on lockdown breaches and the NHS (though Keir Starmer’s NHS “vision” outlined at the weekend failed to mention the key issues of outsourcing and privatisation, or commit to supporting health workers’ pay demands).
Yet significant too is legislation that drastically curtails the right to protest.
The policing Bill provides for 10-year sentences for actions that officers deem to have caused “serious annoyance.” It allows police to shut down protests that “cause serious disruption” to organisations or businesses – a clause that could be turned into an effective police ban on picket lines, as Lord John Hendy QC explains in tomorrow’s Morning Star.
These extremely vaguely defined offences place enormous power in the hands of the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to determine whether an action is illegal or not.
The state which is awarding itself the right to arrest and imprison people based on a police assessment that they have caused “serious nuisance” or “unease” is the same one which, in 2020’s Covert Human Intelligence Services (Criminal Conduct) Act, licensed a huge range of public bodies (including “any police force”) to pre-authorise any crime whatsoever in the service of another set of nebulous concepts (including “the economic wellbeing of the United Kingdom.”)
The direction of travel is clear and ominous. If the police wish to arrest demonstrators, they can define almost anything as a crime, while agents of the state itself are being systematically placed beyond the law.
Labour’s assumption — perhaps based on Starmer’s reliance on Blair-era advisers — seems to be that “law and order” are popular with the public.
Though the party opposes the policing Bill, it was slow to do so — only announcing opposition in the wake of the mass women’s protests that erupted following the police assault on people mourning Sarah Everard, raped and murdered by a policeman, last spring.
Labour has not made campaigning against the Bill a priority and Starmer’s recent Birmingham speech called for yet more police powers and for “police hubs” to be “visible in every community.”
This may reflect the authoritarian instincts of a former director of public prosecutions, but evidence suggests that it is out of step with the mood of the country.
Juries are increasingly acquitting protesters who do not deny that they took the actions they are accused of but who stress the moral case for them – the acquittal of three Christian Extinction Rebellion activists on Friday followed similar verdicts for the demonstrators who toppled slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol and other climate activists last year accused of causing criminal damage to the London HQ of oil giant Shell.
And trust in the police is at a low ebb after years in which collusion with illegal blacklisting, deceiving spied-on women into sexual relationships and systematic lying in the case of the Hillsborough tragedy have been brought to light.
There is no public appetite for a stronger state or greater police powers. The weekend’s protests showed that, by contrast, the reaction to this authoritarian Bill is one of “serious unease.” Labour should take note and work together with the extraparliamentary mobilisations to stop this terrible law.
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