Sunday 14 March 2021

The Tory Attack on the Right to Protest

Within hours of writing on institutionalised sexism and misogyny in the police, the Met proved the thesis by piling in and attacking women at Saturday night's Clapham Common vigil for Sarah Everard. As plenty have pointed out, the old bill are all kid gloves when it comes to footy fans and anti-mask whingers, but women are fair game. For the Tories, however, the Met's violent outburst was not the most convenient of timings. On Monday, the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill comes before the Commons for its second reading. The proposed legislation is classic tough-on-crime populism. Longer sentences, stronger protections for emergency workers (above all, the police), new rules on electronic surveillance, and much else besides. Guaranteed to go down well with the yellowing grass roots, the core support, and the editorial offices then. However, what might have expected to sail through without much opposition save from the usual suspects on Labour's benches (the party was set to abstain, until this morning), the LibDems, Caroline Lucas and one or two Tories, and some criticisms from the liberal press, the Met's riot has drawn attention to the draconian and authoritarian provisions of the bill.

The bill wants to give police powers to restrict a protest if ... it's overly noisy, and might therefore "disturb" passersby or organisations going about their work. For example, tonight's demonstration outside Scotland Yard could, under these powers, fall into this category if the coppers inside deemed the chanting and shouting was stopping them from pushing papers or whatever. Hence the possibility of disrupting an organisation is now reason enough for the police to break up a protest or a demonstration which, when you consider it, is the whole point of a protest in the first place. Likewise as picket lines tend to be quite an annoyance to the employer concerned, you can see the potential for mission creep away from street activity to any form of protest at all. Recalling the smallest march I've ever been on - a mobilisation of some 16 people in solidarity with striking civil servants - if the police believed it might inconvenience or upset anyone at all, they could have clamped down on it. Thought the Tories were against snowflake culture? Well, no. In fact, anyone charged under these laws can face a maximum tariff of 10 years in prison, and the burden falls on the defendant to provide a "reasonable excuse" for causing "serious annoyance."

A dog's breakfast of a bill then, and one left purposely vague to allow for maximum application where and when the police see fit. It basically gives them what they want. But why, though? The labour movement remains relatively quiescent, and the street movements of the last couple of years - Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter - hardly pose Tory political dominance, let alone their state a threat to warrant such a blunt instrument. Constructing a coherent account has to proceed at three overlapping levels. At the most abstract is a generalised authoritarian turn among most states. This has been the case in Britain for the last 40 years, but few are the liberal democracies to have relinquished powers. This has to do with the evolution of state institutions and the difficulties governments have governing increasingly complex societies. The second is Tory statecraft itself, or its habit of governing: centralising the powers of the state and concentrating them in the executive is the same project Thatcher embarked on in 1979, and has been vigorously pursued by Tory Prime Ministers ever since. But here we're going to focus on the day-to-day politics of Johnsonism in government.

Understanding the new restrictions on the right to protest goes to the heart of the (Tory) politics of their electoral coalition. As discussed here more times than I care to remember, the typical Conservative voter is older, retired, and are owner occupiers of their home. They are also relatively secure: a mix of the state and occupational/private pensions are enough to keep the wolf from their door, and their incomes are protected from the Tories' ongoing cuts programme. A significant minority enjoy income boosts from modest levels of share ownership, and rent payments from second or third properties. Yet, the absurd flipside of their security is experiencing it as profound insecurity. As older people who are either retired or don't have much time left in work, making good any personal disasters through earnings is difficult: they know how fixed their income is. Second, particularly among retired people, being outside of the workplace removes the element of compulsion from their lives. No bosses to answer to means they are free to follow their inclinations as much as their resources allow. Retirement then individuates everyday life, albeit with a tendency toward atomisation and social distancing between them and their former life. And with property ownership, this individuation is consolidated as one frets about property values, the behaviour of tenants, and returns on stocks and shares. This is productive of a subjectivity and outlook not dissimilar to that of the small business person: a terrifying world in which fate could strike one down at any moment.

Why does this tend toward Tory support? Because they promise security while stoking their angst. From Marx onwards, political sociology has noted how the petit bourgeois gravitates toward authoritarian politics and traditional institutions. This is because they provide (illusory) certainty. The world might be rough, but the monarchy endures. Threats rise around me all the time, but strong government will put them in their place. I don't recognise the country any more, so let's go back to the tried and tested truths of a better past. In short their becoming is stunted, and this being conditions consciousness. With the adjaceny to small, petty capital, the ontology of the older/retired worker has resulted in millions becoming receptive to a politics that appeals to and deepens petit bourgeois habits of mind among them. Sticking on topic, the appeal of smiting criminals depends on the Tories and their press talking up fear of crime. Likewise, pushing uncertainty (something plenty of its politicians and thinkers feel keenly) can attach itself to scapegoats who condense their fears for a future in which they are left behind. Hence, traditionally, the potency of anti-immigrant populism has proven a favourite. But other groups do just as well. The undeserving poor are harbingers of a Britain that will be on its arse, unless they show the pluck and determination of better Britons (i.e. (formerly) hardworking Tory voters). Black Lives Matter distills yet more fears, particularly of a Britain that isn't Britain any more, the prospect of a country forgetting its glorious martial past, of when it used to stride the world as top dog and therefore when things were better. Brexit was for millions of these people a rebellion against the course of history and the kind of terrifying - for them - destination BLM points toward. The Tories know this, which is why this legislation is aimed at hammering a group of people it has designated as undesirable. Seeing BLM activists, or young people generally getting carted off in police vans is a projection of their felt impotence, a cathartic and mediated lashing out at their imagined enemies. It confers a flash of satisfaction, but it's not long before the ontological itch demands scratching again. And for as long as these conditions of social life persist for their supporters, the happier the Tories are dishing them out.

This is why appeals to the Tory politicians' conscience, or persisting in the naive belief that they're merely mistaken or wrong are doomed to fail. As are, sadly, appeals to Tory voters' better nature, or liberal stat-splaining of the follies of their choices. Shaming has zero effect. Knowing the Tories is one thing, but coming up with an effective counter-strategy to disorganise and loosen their hold on millions is quite another. But what is certain, pandering to these concerns can never win them over because the Tories do it so much better. You cant beat them by effectively joining them, but going around them by mobilising a coalition in opposition and having modest strategies aimed at chipping some of their coalition away. When politics is polarised, and the Tory strategy amounts to keeping it this way, the option is limited to one: this.

Image Credit


David Lindsay said...

And so Keir Starmer agrees to whip a vote against legislation to criminalise pretty much all protest. With enough effort, he may even be able to build the alliances necessary to have had that clause removed in time for Third Reading. His mind has been changed by the roughing up of middle-class white people, whose own eyes had been opened by the death of a middle-class white person. Lines have been been crossed.

Since 1990, 1433 people have died following Police contact. You are eight times more likely to be killed by a Police Officer than by a terrorist. Yet no Police Officer has been found to have been criminally responsible for a death since 1969, and never in British history has a Police Officer been convicted of murder.

Starmer has done his bit to keep those statistics intact. He refused to press charges in relation to the deaths of Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson, in the former case thereby clearing the way for a grateful Metropolis to enjoy Commissioner Cressida Dick. It is also pertinent to the current debate that he refused to press further charges against John Worboys. One hopes that he really does now care about violence against women. But he never used to.

Indeed, he did not do so extremely recently, when he whipped abstentions on the decriminalisation of rape and murder by British Armed Forces personnel abroad, and on the wholesale legalisation of rape and murder by State agents in Britain, specifically including the Police. That latter Bill effectively admitted the existence of such activity, with or without a single conviction in the last 52 years.

Boffy said...

The Tories have been facilitated in bringing forward this authoritarian legislation by all those who demanded that they lockout workers and ban social gatherings. Many of us pointed out from the start that when governments are allowed to withdraw civil liberties they never restore them willingly.

Labour has led the charge under Starmer in pursuing this attack on civil liberties, as he has acted as Johnson's wing man on COVID, Brexit the removal of the right to free movement and so on. His opposition now is again as opportunist and hypocritical as have been his former positions.

But he and Labour are not alone. All those on the supposed Left who mindlessly demanded that society be closed down in some equally mindless belief that such chaos would bring workers rushing to their doors, or worse out of some nihilistic, feeling of spite reminiscent of Oehlerism that in order to prove their views about how much they hate capitalism they would like to see everything turn to shit, are even more guilty.

Now they opportunistically run for cover behind arguments about the right to protest. But if they believed what they have been shovelling about COVID being an actual existential threat to society, then no right to protest could ever outweigh a responsibility not to do so, if it was going to lead to such widespread deaths. Once again it shows the short-termist, opportunist and unprincipled nature of much of the Left, as much as of Labour.

Dipper said...

The origin of this act is the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations and actions where normal everyday legal activities were prevented by a group of people acting unilaterally to prevent them, and the Police said they were unable to do anything about it.

I find the notion that people who continually lose elections can simply embark on a program of social disruption to enforce their views, holding normal activities hostage to their minority opinions, completely unacceptable.

Having said that, I'm not keen on giving the police lots of powers either. I don't really trust the police to do anything with their power other than promote their own power.

Meanwhile, unless and until you propose a better way of ensuring my freedoms cannot be taken away by groups of people acting unilaterally, I'll be supporting this.

Dr Zoltan Jorovic said...


What do you mean "acting unilaterally"?

Apparently everyone, from you to Priti Patel, agrees that the right to protest is an important democratic right, so long as it doesn't actually have any effect. We all know that protest which causes no disruption achieves nothing. In most cases, it isn't even reported in the mass media. Over the years the rules have been tightened and adjusted to ensure that a fully lawful protest has so little impact that it is not even noticed by those it is aimed at. So in effect you support our right to make a token gesture - a V sign behind our back.

But why is the right to protest seen as important? Is it a sort of safety valve to prevent the build up of dangerous levels of tension in society? Is it a way of exercising free speech? Is it a recognition that our Democracy is imperfect, and does not adequately represent the views of a large element of society? Is it perhaps all of these? If so, how important is it that protest should have an effect? A safety valve that is too tightly set serves no purpose. Free speech that nobody hears is no better than silence. A flawed democracy that refuses to recognise its imperfections and offer some means of overcoming them, either descends into revolution, or totalitarianism.

And why does our government support and encourage mass, often violent, highly disruptive protest abroad - for instance, in Hong Kong, in Ukraine, in Venezuela, in Myanmar, in Syria etc. Did you complain that "normal everyday legal activities were prevented by a group of people acting unilaterally to prevent them"? Did Priti Patel? No. Apparently its a vital sign of democracy when it happens elsewhere. But not here. Why?

Anonymous said...

Exactly Zoltan.

@Dipper said: "people who continually lose elections" = like the SNP in Scotland, like Labour in Wales, like Labour in London, Manchester & and other cities.
To see people who continually loose elections one need look no further than Tory council candidates in inner London! There have been far more - winning - Labour council candidates over the years in my true blue Suffolk town than Tory councillors - ever - in swathes of London!

Dipper said...

@ Dr Zoltan Jorovic - stopping Ambulances is not protesting.

Don't assume it will be people you support, or who support you, doing the protesting.

David Parry said...


So let's get this right. The democratically expressed wishes of the people, as supposedly represented by parliament, are sacrosanct and binding on the entire population, and everyone is obligated to submit to them, to the point where anyone who expresses dissent through direct action is a dangerous subversive and an enemy of the people who deserves to be on the receiving end of state brutality and repression?

That sounds a touch Leninist to me if you'll forgive me, Dipper. It kind of smacks of democratic centralism.

Boffy said...

@David Parry,

"So let's get this right. The democratically expressed wishes of the people, as supposedly represented by parliament, are sacrosanct and binding on the entire population, and everyone is obligated to submit to them, to the point where anyone who expresses dissent through direct action is a dangerous subversive and an enemy of the people who deserves to be on the receiving end of state brutality and repression?"

That, mantra, of course, is what we have asked to accept as far as the EU Referendum, not just by Brexiters, but all those that argued the democratic primitivist line that, because the referendum had come down narrowly on one side, everyone now had to abandon their own ideas and beliefs and support Brexit!

I suspect many who used that line were really closet Brexiters, and again it was a convenient argument to justify calling on everyone to shit up and go along with the Brexit they really always wanted, but had been too afraid to come out publicly and call for again. But, its also the line now being used by Starmer.

Once again, opportunist, unprincipled, short-term positions that have all fed into the mire that has now been created, in which all of those that participated find that each time they try to put forward a position to address their current problems, they are dragged back down by the weeds and sludge of their previous positions.

Blissex said...

«agrees that the right to protest is an important democratic right, so long as it doesn't actually have any effect. We all know that protest which causes no disruption achieves nothing. In most cases, it isn't even reported in the mass media.»

That looks to me like an argument for protest as harassment and intimidation. Why not then protest by following the members of the family some "enemy of the people" around and shouting insults at them to cause disruption? etc.

That "protest which causes no disruption achieves nothing" argument seems designed to persuade good middle class people even more than they already are that all protest is evil, and that includes "disruptive" strikes.

The purpose of protest instead seems to me to express an opinion and to be counted for that, and some degree of inconvenience as a side effect must be tolerated. That "second referendum" march of protesters blocked traffic, but its purpose was not to cause disruption to traffic; strikes of train drivers have the purpose to cause losses to their employers, not to cause disruption for passengers.

Supporting right-wingers' claims that protests or strikes must deliberately (and not as a side effect) cause trouble for political opponents or for the general public, else they are not extreme enough to be noticeable, is a fantastic gift to those who want to abolish protests or strikes.

CSF said...

Phil, the incisivness of your analyses have me wanting to drop my plans to study informatics and instead pursue a (possibly precarious) career in (militant) political sociology. Bravo!

Unknown said...

I think that your freedoms are being taken away, but not by the groups you accuse. You seem to have missed the point.

Unknown said...

Well said Zoltan

TJR said...

Well put… Next step: apply the same principles to those citizens (a minority percentage, but thousands in absolute numbers) who honestly, sincerely and unshakably believe that abortion clinics are in the business of industrial-scale murder of babies.
We still quite so keen on "protesters can unilaterally block you at will because the Tories are the ones REALLY interfering with your life"?