Thursday 18 May 2023

The Best Way To Defend Protest Is To Protest

Matt Foot writes:

When the Shadow Foreign Secretary, David Lammy, was asked on his LBC phone-in, if a future Labour Government would repeal the new Public Order Act 2023, he dropped a bombshell: “We can’t come into office, picking through all the conservative legislation and repealing it. It would take up so much parliamentary time. We need a positive agenda.” There was instant reaction on Twitter castigating Lammy for being so supine.

So unexpected was his statement, that when one caller followed up by suggesting to fellow LBC presenter James O’Brien that Starmer was also disappointing for not indicating any intention to overturn the Act if elected, O’Brien argued Lammy’s ‘off the cuff’ remark had been misrepresented by the Corbynista twitterati.

O’Brien believed that Labour was not opposed to repealing Tory legislation having voted against, but he spoke too soon: Starmer went even further than Lammy, saying that what the Public Order Act needed was time to ‘bed in’. Lammy’s argument that it would take up too much parliamentary time to repeal the Act is nonsense. It would simply be a matter of tabling a Bill to the House of Commons with a simple clause repealing the Act.

This has happened many times in the past. Probably the busiest post-war government was the Attlee government of 1945, which introduced the NHS and welfare state, and nationalised major industries and public utilities. Yet in one of their first pieces of legislation, they included a provision to repeal the much-hated Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act of 1927 which had been introduced by the Conservatives after the General Strike, to outlaw ‘sympathy strikes’.

If previous governments had taken Lammy’s myopic approach, we would still have harmful or irrelevant laws on our statute books. We would still have the hated Corn Laws, meetings of more than 50 people ‘deliberating upon any public grievance’ would be outlawed, and the Defence of the Realm Act would still require all able-bodied men to report to drive wagons.

For the ‘opposition’ to talk of ‘bedding in’ an Act which provides the police with such vague discretionary powers to be able to pre-protest arrest will only invite or acquiesce further draconian policing. By welcoming the ‘bedding in’ of the Public Order Act, Starmer reveals himself as a more conservative opposition than even Tony Blair. In 1994, Blair surprised everyone when he instructed his party to abstain on the introduction of Michael Howard’s Criminal Justice Bill.

The Act brought in a raft of new police powers, including measures against ravers, and travellers. One critic of Labour’s abstention was the future Labour leader, Keir Starmer, who then believed that “much depends in an adversarial political system on robust opposition.” The home affairs correspondent for the Guardian, Alan Travis, optimistically mused that we would have to wait to see “how much of the legislation Labour dismantles if it gets into power?” But after his landslide victory, Blair did not repeal a single section of the Act. His governments instead brought in 3000 new criminal offences: one for every day he was in office.

During Blair’s reign, the police introduced a very controversial tactic to undermine protest. Like the Public Order 2023, it was pre-emptory in nature. Kettling, first used en masse in 2001, saw the police surround May Day protesters and prevent any movement for seven hours, even though no crime had been committed. Leading the challenge to the use of the tactic for years was the a human rights barrister, Keir Starmer, who argued that kettling was a deprivation of the protesters’ liberty and therefore a breach of human rights law - until he unexpectedly became the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Today, Starmer shows indifference to the frightening discretionary powers of the Public Order Act 2023, which we have first seen used at the Coronation. The Act has sweeping vague terms including the power of arrest for a person who has as an object that ‘may’ be used to lock on; and is locking in a way ‘capable’ of causing serious disruption to ‘two or more individuals.’ The pre-protest arrest of republicans preparing to hold ‘Not My King’ placards as part of a peaceful protest is characteristic of the worst authoritarian regimes.

The Met claimed that these arrests were justified because they had “concerns people were going to disrupt the event”, but such suspicion that protesters unloading placards from a van would ‘lock on’ is somewhat farcical. Swept up in the pre-protest arrests was Alice Chambers, a royalist who had travelled from Lincoln to celebrate the Coronation. She was also arrested ‘for potential to cause a breach of the peace’ and detained for 13 hours. The Met later apologised to the placard organisers, with “regret that those six people arrested were unable to join the wider group of protesters in Trafalgar Square and elsewhere on the procession route.”

When the Public Order Act was being passed, many people and organisations warned of the dangers of providing the police with further discretionary powers, particularly since the police had used their ‘discretion’ in 2021 by handcuffing women attending a peaceful vigil in support of Sarah Everard raped and murdered by PC Wayne Couzens. And recent landmark reports into policing have confirmed persistent institutional racism (Casey Review), misogyny, and corruption (the Daniel Morgan Review). 

To provide the police with yet further powers, given all that has been said about their use of their current powers, is going to lead to further cases of prejudice and injustice. If Labour have no intention of repealing the Public Order Act we, the public, will need to campaign. The groundswell of opposition to the policing of protesters at the Coronation provides a firm basis for a successful movement. We should call for Labour MPs, alongside other parties and groups, to join a campaign to speak up for the right to protest.

Protest has a long and wonderful tradition in this country. Without the chartists and the suffragettes we would not have universal suffrage. Equal pay and the right to form unions were created out of direct action. The best way to defend protest is to protest.


  1. Like the only way to assert the right to publish is to publish, the only way to assert the right to protest is to protest.