Earlier this week, the Tories lined up to vote through the draconian Police, Courts, Sentencing and Crime Bill, or as it is more accurately known, the Police Crackdown Bill. The same MPs who threw tantrums at the prospect of having to wear masks in public and the same Government Ministers who have based entire policy agendas on a couple of their colleagues being disinvited from speaking at student societies, lined up to vote through a Bill which attempts to legislate the right to meaningful protest out of existence.
Not a single Tory MP voted against a Bill that limits protest and is designed to target some of the UK’s most marginalised communities. But every single Tory MP has helped to mobilise a fierce opposition to their crackdown.
We already know that the Tories don’t really value civil liberties or free speech as ends in themselves; only in so far as they prop up their own interests. But their double standards on this represent an opportunity for us to expose them as the hypocrites they are.
Make no mistake, the Policing Bill is an assault on all our civil liberties. But if it passes, its impact will be felt most harshly by minoritised communities. These are the very communities whose voices we should be listening to, not trying to silence.
Even from a Government that brought in the Overseas Operations Bill and the CHIS Bill (better known as the Spy Cops Bill) – which effectively decriminalise acts of murder, rape and torture conducted by state agents including police and military personnel – this is a drastic attack on human rights, made all the more worrying by the wide application of its provisions: stricter sentences for defacing statues than the majority of rape offenders currently receive, new stop and search powers to use against protestors, making “serious annoyance” a convictable offence, criminalising trespass and introducing measures which expressly target Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.
At the Police Crackdown Bill’s second reading this week, I tabled a reasoned amendment to throw it out altogether and force the Government to come back to the drawing board, citing the Bill’s blatant erosion of civil liberties and its disproportionate impact on the same minoritised communities in the UK who invariably have the most cause to protest in the first place. I was glad to receive cross-party support from the Greens, the SNP, the Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru and the SDLP on this, as well as from Labour colleagues and comrades in the Socialist Campaign Group. With a Tory Government that enjoys a majority of 80, we need all the allies we can get to fight this Bill. Unfortunately, our reasoned amendment was not selected for debate by the Speaker.
But what’s going on outside Parliament is – as usual – far more important. Opposition to the Police Crackdown Bill has gone hand-in-hand with the protests we’ve seen over the past few days. People in my constituency were rightly outraged by the police’s forceful treatment of the women who came to pay their respects to Sarah Everard on Saturday. Chants of “let her speak” turned to “shame on you” as police kettled, wrestled and forcibly removed women attending the vigil, trampling all over the flowers laid by Clapham Common bandstand in tribute to Sarah. By cracking down on protest, they only fuelled further opposition.
Decades of structural inequality fuelled this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests but the spark that ignited them was the Government’s shameful failure to protect Black communities from Covid and the persistence of disproportionate policing through the pandemic. There’s a similar dynamic going on now. Rather than working with the community to help put on a Covid-secure event – and despite every warning from the local community and despite every attempt at cooperation from the Reclaim the Streets organisers – the Police decided to pull the plug and behave in a way which undeniably put more people at risk.
Rather than cracking down on the genuine injustices raised by protesters – from gender-based violence to institutional racism and the climate emergency – this Government has shown time and again that they would rather crack down on the protestors themselves.
But protests this week have given the Tories a taste of what they can reasonably expect when they try to police and criminalise protest out of existence. Until they do something about the things that people are coming out onto the streets en masse to raise their voices about, the people are going to keep coming. By trying to police protest out of existence, the Government has only strengthened our resolve to defend it.
This post first appeared over at Labour Outlook on the 18th of March 2021.