Fighting for the right to protest: what demands?

Submitted by AWL on 23 March, 2021 - 11:46 Author: Editorial
Kill the Bill protest

The revolt against the Tories' Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, with large demonstrations in several cities just before we went to press, is good news. Faced by an assault against democratic and social rights of many kinds, the labour movement needs to get out on the streets again.

Thanks to left-wing feminist group Sisters Uncut in particular, the focus has been on grassroots mass mobilisation, and it should continue to be. Without this the Tories would be pushing ahead at greater speed (after the first protests they slowed the passage of the Bill), and without even token opposition from Labour (who originally planned to abstain in Parliament).

In the movement against the Police Bill and in the labour movement, the left needs to help develop demands on the right to protest and organise that include but go beyond clear opposition to this law - and repeal of it, if it passes. That should include repeal of earlier (Thatcherite and Blairite) “public order” legislation, and concrete proposals to limit and constrain, not expand, the powers of the police.

It is a problem that in the UK relatively few such proposals, or even debates about possible proposals, came out of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. Politicians who wanted to nod towards BLM while maintaining a “pro-police” stance were not put under sustained scrutiny or pressure. The bulk of the Labour left did not account for its acquiescence in the party’s “more police” message under Jeremy Corbyn.

Even with left-winger Richard Burgon as shadow justice secretary, the Labour Party never challenged mass incarceration. Under both Corbyn and Starmer it has equivocated on migrants’ rights.

Even since the street revolt against the Police Bill pushed Labour into a somewhat stronger stance, much of its opposition has, typically, been on the basis of the Bill being “badly thought out”. Its “10 point plan” for women’s safety is focused on new crimes, more police powers and harsher sentences. The left needs to oppose such regressive proposals as well as proposing positive alternatives.

We need to take this fight into our trade unions, both as an important base for pursuing the political battle over these issues, and as a base for mobilisation now. Some unions have spoken out against the Police Bill, but many haven't, and none have done much to mobilise members on the streets.

We need to raise the issue of the anti-strike laws. Although not formally dealing with industrial action, the provisions of the Bill surely threaten the already very limited right to picket, and any strikes which cause significant disruption. Moreover the right to strike is already heavily restricted in the same sort of way the Tories want to restrict the right to protest. This movement should take up the demand to repeal the anti-union laws, including the ban on using industrial action as a means of political protest.

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