Back in the weeks after the murder of Sarah Everard by Metropolitan Police officer Wayne Couzens, militant protests against the government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill swept the Labour Party into voting against the Tories’ plans in Parliament, which Keir Starmer’s leadership had not intended to do. They also swept trade unions into making public statements and so on against the Bill.
However, only a scattering of small unions (IWGB and UVW) and individual union branches made any real effort to mobilise on the streets. Quickly even the statements from trade unions dried up and the labour movement effectively fell silent.
This despite even the specific threat the Bill poses to workers and unions.
The failure or refusal of trade unions and the Labour Party to mobilise or, increasingly, just speak out against the Bill is surely a significant reason why the protests did not reach the scale necessary to shake the Tories and have since fizzled down.
Now, for whatever reasons, trade union leaders seem to be finding more courage to speak out. A new statement of hundreds of organisations against the Bill coordinated by human rights organisation Liberty has been signed by almost every union general secretary (the notable exceptions being GMB, RCN and CWU - members of those unions should ask why). The statement is pretty mild, and it is just a statement. However, after the months of silence it was noticeable.
On 13 September TUC Congress passed relatively strong and clear policy against the Bill (and against the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) or “Spycops” Bill), including a commitment on paper to mobilise trade unionists. See motions here and here.
The first of these motions, the main one so to speak, is proposed by Unite and seconded by the Fire Brigades Union, which provided much of the key text in the composite. This is noteworthy because, although the FBU is left-wing and generally active and outspoken about the right to protest, it went quiet early on after the Metropolitan Police Federation attacked it for criticising supposed fellow providers of “emergency services”. It is good that the FBU is again finding its voice. FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack's speech for the motion was very good. (Looking at the final motion, it actually looks as if some of the FBU’s harshest criticisms of the police were composited out.)
The problem, of course, is that all this could well be far too little far too late. If the unions had mobilised people on the streets in the middle of the year we would have had a much better chance of forcing significant amendments to the Bill, at least. It is harder now. Nor are motions, statements, etc., a guarantee that unions will mobilise.
As the Police Bill returns to Parliament, socialist and trade union activists should look for ways to build on the new relative outspokenness from our unions about the Police Bill and get large numbers of union members to protest on the streets.