Conservative MPs, who cry murder every time a right-wing speaker is disinvited from an event by a student society, lined up this week behind a bill that tries to legislate protest out of meaningful existence. The untroubled passage of the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill (hereafter referred to as the police crackdown bill) at its third reading makes it chillingly clear that rather than addressing the growing injustices of our time, the Tories are choosing to silence the people raising them. Clearly, it was never about free speech for them.
The police crackdown bill is part of a nightmarish authoritarian and anti-democratic agenda, which includes campus free speech enforcers, a Republican-style voter bill and attempts to curb the power of judicial review. Taken together, the legislation in this parliament clearly targets campaigners, unions, marginalised communities and anyone who might oppose this government. It’s about trying to centralise executive power and insulate the powerful from the discontent created by a decade of Tory misrule and the years of misrule ahead.
When you crack down on everyone’s right to protest, it naturally has the biggest impact on those with the most to protest about. It’s no coincidence that this bill was proposed and published hot on the heels of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.
I joined Labour colleagues ahead of the vote on Monday to put down and vote for amendments and clauses highlighting the way that this bill will hit minoritised communities up and down the country, from Black, Asian and minority ethnic people to Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.
Our amendments sought to strip out: provisions ripping up the right to protest; discriminatory measures targeting Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities; and the expansion of the youth prison estate with secure 16-19 academies. We also tried to force the government to confront institutional violence and racism in the police and justice system. Sadly, they were dutifully voted down.
Labour tabled an amendment to introduce minimum rape sentences, pointing out that the bill introduced harsher sentences for desecrating statues than the average rape sentence. The Tories voted against this, too. More evidence, if you needed it, that this bill was never about protecting people and certainly not women.
This battle was never going to be won in parliament. With a Conservative Party that enjoys an 83-seat majority, it’s clear we need to make the argument in the only terms the Tories understand: power. This bill is all about power. It’s about pitting people against the police, breaking the tradition of community policing, and putting pressure on the police to crack down on dissent.
As one former superintendent of protest policing pointed out: “Once a lower threshold for police intervention is provided in law, there will be an expectation, not least at the political level, for the police to exercise that power, which may lead to conflict”. The bill will make its way after the summer recess to the House of Lords, where many of the same arguments will no doubt be made.
From the Battle of Ogreave to the scenes of police officers tackling mourning women to the ground in my constituency earlier this year (egged on by the Home Secretary), there is a long history of the Conservatives being closely involved with incidents of heavy-handed policing.
The right to peaceful assembly and protest have changed the course of history. The protests of today are the milestones of tomorrow’s progress. They are the reason that someone of my race, class and gender has the rights I have, and why I am able to represent the people of my local community in parliament.
No matter how much the Tories try to divide and demonise protesters, we only have to look at the treatment of the suffragettes to see that the movements vilified by those in power have been vindicated by history again and again.
We need to recognise that this authoritarianism fundamentally comes from a place of weakness, and ultimately, fear, and that hope is stronger than fear. It falls on us to stand together and build a movement that’s so big even this government can’t ignore it.
I’m joining Drive 2 Survive, a coalition of Gypsy, Roma and Travellers communities to peacefully protest in Parliament Square today from 1pm. The fightback continues.