Brother P began with setting out a thumbnail view of the classical Marxist position of the state. He said that despite there being a wide variety of state forms, capitalist states all have something in common - be they liberal democracies, dictatorships or theocracies. And this commonality is the existence of a repressive apparatus, what Engels famously called 'armed bodies of men' that exist to defend private property and property relations. Other functions, such as the army's "humanitarian" work or the police's 'policing' are, from this viewpoint, secondary to the real reason for their existence. To emphasise these points, P read out a quote from Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution:
Toward the police the crowd showed ferocious hatred. They routed the mounted police with whistles, stones and pieces of ice. In a totally different way the workers approached the soldiers ... The police are fierce, implacable, hated and hating foes. To win them over is out of the question.Do those who wear the state's uniform have a place in the struggle for socialism? Do their occupations place them in irreconcilable antagonism with that struggle?
Brother J said that, like other workers, prison officers, the police and soldiers are selling their labour power in return for a wage. This means they can be open to similar pressures as anyone else. Brother A concurred. None of these arms of the state are homogenous, nor are they immune to being contaminated by the class struggle. In some ways their organisation can prove to be especially susceptible to them. For example, there are few institutions in capitalist society where class privilege and power is as clear cut as the army, and this is the case even among the more privileged elite units. For example, the Bolsheviks were able to split and win over the Cossacks during the Russian Revolution - despite their historically being Tsarism's battering ram against the people. Similarly, the police can be won over to class struggle politics. In 1918-19 the police strike on Merseyside so frightened the ruling class that they called the army out on to Liverpool's streets to confront them. P also noted it was the sympathetic chief of Helsinki's police who hid Lenin during the July Days.
Clearly neither are a homogenous reactionary mass, and to pretend they are - especially at moments when their interests contradict those of the state (such as the recent debacle over police pensions, or the discontent over inadequate equipment in Afghanistan) - risks driving them further away from the labour movement and firming up their support for the state. A key objective for socialists to weaken them as a defence of bourgeois interests is to establish relationships and encourage fraternisation. Generally speaking the police would find it harder to spy on, harass and batter labour movement mobilisations if their representatives had to regularly sit down with them. Furthermore, in preparation for a future period when the system is thrown into general crisis and socialism is back on the agenda it's in the interests of the labour movement that the police and army do not stand in its way. To this end socialists call for the election of officers, the right to form independent trade unions, and the right to take strike action to break them from their historic functions.
Brother G argued recent history of police deployment to pursue government's class struggle objectives demonstrated the uneveness of their character. It was not for nothing Thatcher drafted in police battalions from outside areas at the forefront of the miners' strike. Village coppers were too embedded in miners' communities to ever be effective as a means for repressing their families, friends and neighbours. Similarly A added the police already fraternise with a well-organised workforce everyday: the civilian back room staff you can find in any police station.
P returned to the theme of weakening the police as guarantors of capitalist property relations. He suggests no one joins the police because they want to protect the interests of the rich and powerful. While it is true some are little better than thugs in uniform, most join up out of a commitment to the ideology of the thin blue line. The SP's historic call for democratisation of the police is about limiting the purview of the police to their crime-fighting functions above high profile stunt busts and protecting the powers that be. Because it asks the police to live up to their official ideology, it's quite possible reforms and demands of this character could win support from within the force.
Rounding off the discussion, A added there is only one set of criteria that matters for any party member, and that's their commitment to building the party, the labour movement and fighting for socialism. If this is the case then membership is entirely justified, regardless of whether they're a copper, a soldier, or a screw.
Also, it turns out Medway SP were simultaneously having the same discussion. A report can be read here.