Why ‘pay-to-protest’ is an offense against Labour values

The Metropolitan Police’s recent demand that the Million Women Rise and Campaign against Climate Change marches pay for their own traffic diversion measures, if their protests were to go ahead, at a cost of at least £10,000, sparked outrage from campaigners and even a coded disapproval from Boris. The reaction from most Labour quarters, however (Jeremy Corbyn excepted), has been somewhat muted. It should be one of uproar.

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While those two groups have now been granted a reprieve, the Met has said the changes will still apply in future, since facilitating protests is outside their “core responsibilities” of “preventing and detecting crime, maintenance of the Queen’s Peace and protecting life and property. […] Following a review of what services we provide, we have stopped doing this”

First, the Met’s classically Liberal interpretation of the ‘Queen’s Peace’ here is deeply at odds with Labour’s commitment to social justice. The Peace is generally understood as the protection which the state affords its citizens. But unlike the Conservatives, Labour has never been about protecting the status quo for its own sake. We don’t just believe in removing barriers, but in empowering people in their own lives.

That same commitment to the Peace under which police are protectors of the citizen’s freedom from the tyranny of crime means they must also be guarantors of the freedom to exert one’s civil rights, to do and become things. So when the Met claim that redeploying officers to their protective roles in communities is sufficient to satisfy what the people ”want to see” from the police, they are neglecting a key part of what it means to keep the Peace.

Second, the moral foundation of British policing rests on the idea of ‘policing by consent’ (of the law-abiding majority of citizens), and politicians never tire of expounding the supposed benefits of this pragmatic British approach, in comparison to philistine continental alternatives. According to the Peel Principles, our police are the public in uniform, and the public are the police.

The Met, however, are caught in a contradiction. On the one hand, they claim the democratic process of debate and free expression gives them the consent of the policed. But on the other, they are erecting financial barriers to that very same process of consent which supposedly gives them a legitimate monopoly over the use of force. This tension cannot hold.

Third, the police are not Tesco (yet). They can’t just ‘refocus the business’ away from areas the commissioner feels are outside of the core activities. Their powers and responsibilities are part of Britain’s delicate and unwritten constitutional balance, and the Met cannot just start unilaterally shifting things around without creating wider problems. Yes, budgets are tight. That doesn’t mean the police get to choose which duties they prefer – that’s a job for politicians.

Finally, a reminder of our party’s history. The spirit of hope and progress that animated Labour during our proudest achievements was rooted in a long tradition of radical popular dissent. From the Levellers, through the Chartists, to the Suffragettes – Labour’s heritage is one of protest. Tolerating restriction of the dissenters of today would be at the cost of our own identity. And that’s not a price anyone should have to pay.

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