Britain: Mass trade union action needed to defend the right to protest

Anti-Poll Tax demonstration March 1990. The movement, led by Militant supporters (forerunner to the Socialist Party - CWI), showed unjust laws can be successfully defied

The British Tory government’s ‘factsheet’ on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill explains that it will “strengthen police powers to tackle non-violent protests that have a significant disruptive effect on the public or on access to Parliament.”

On 17 March, workers involved in a peaceful picket at SAICA Packaging’s Edinburgh site were dispersed by Police Scotland after threats of fines and further ‘punishment’ for anyone orchestrating the dispute.

Strikes and occupations by workers fighting austerity and low pay are effective because they disrupt the bosses and their attacks.

Under this proposed legislation we face a fine of £2,500 for not following police restrictions over how we conduct our protests.

Effective protest that is considered a “public nuisance”, will now be a statutory offence rather than a common-law offence. Would this include, for example, a workers’ factory occupation against closure and the loss of jobs?

The police will have the power to assume protesters have knowledge of conditions set on a protest, making it easier to convict for ‘breaches’ of their undemocratic restrictions.

The Home Secretary will have the power, through secondary legislation, to define “serious disruption to the activities of an organisation”. This sounds like it is aimed at, for example, those strikers in Edinburgh.

Over the weekend of 20 and 21 March, thousands across the country marched to say ‘Kill the Bill’. One of the biggest protests was in Bristol, where thousands peacefully assembled. Later in the evening, a small number of the protesters were involved in rioting which is being used by Tory Home Secretary Priti Patel to make the case for her repressive legislation.

Police provocation

We do not condone rioting, but video footage of the demonstration shows police violently pushing, shoving and batoning peaceful protesters well before any rioting erupted. The possibility of deliberate provocation is obvious.

Yet Bristol’s Labour mayor limited himself to condemning the rioters, without raising any demands for the police to be held to account for their actions. He claims to oppose the bill, but why didn’t he use his position as mayor to mobilise the labour movement to build for the protest, and also to organise democratically accountable stewarding?

Police provocation is not a new risk to the labour movement and should be anticipated as much as the legal attacks on democratic rights. While these new police powers, like previous ones, won’t prevent collective working-class action if passed they aim to undermine it – in big business’s interests.

As part of the preparations for the struggle against Covid austerity, the trade union movement should be coordinating protests against this bill, and for democratic community control of the police.

However, even if the bill passes, the Tories are fooling themselves if they think unjust laws can prevent a tsunami of protest. This month is the 30th anniversary of the announcement of the removal of the unjust poll tax law from the statute books by an 18-million strong mass movement of organised civil disobedience, led by the Socialist Party, then called Militant. That movement forced the resignation of the ‘Iron Lady’ – Maggie Thatcher, but it will be put into the shade by the storms ahead for Boris Johnson.

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