A PR nightmare
The Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill stormed into the spotlight with the subtlety of a flaming battering ram. Its headlining acts were a manifest ban on “noisy” protests, a ten-year sentence for decolonising demonstrators, and a footnote personally endowing Priti Patel with the power to redefine lawful rebellion. It went down like a lead balloon.
Given these policies, it’s hard to imagine a different response. Yet apparently Labour did. Right up until the eleventh hour, Keir Starmer was whipping his MPs to abstain from the vote. And then the day before the bill’s second reading, his frontbenchers started rushing to oppose it. For a bill that’s had the government’s press team sweating through their chinos, it’s odd that the opposition was so slow to sling mud.
Why did Labour hesitate?
The truth is, Sarah Everard’s vigil completely altered how this bill was supposed to go down. In a parallel universe where Clapham Common remains flowerless, Britain is having a different debate. A Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is reaping praise for a government that’s tough on crime. They’re doubling sentences for terrorists, they’re punishing people who abuse first responders, and they’re protecting war memorials from undemocratic rioters. In this parallel universe, Labour MPs who voted against the bill are sitting beavers in a political whack-a-mole, with Tory spin doctors claiming they’d happily leave paedophiles skipping around our streets.
In all, it’s pretty inconvenient for the government that this vigil happened. It’s inconvenient that of all the demonstrations that could’ve coincided with this bill – all the ambulance-blocking, memorial-defacing, vaccine-bashing demonstrations – it was instead a cause so uncontestable, so universal, that few voters would challenge it: women should feel safe on our streets. So when two uniformed Met officers trampled over Sarah Everard’s flowers and pinned Patsy Stevenson to the ground, it not only pissed off a lot of people, it exposed what this bill could do.
There are such “burn the witch” vibes from this photograph. An age-old story of men’s power and men’s fear. It’s bleak as hell, but at the same time: hold on to that look of defiance. pic.twitter.com/SkpwK5d1MD
— Dani Garavelli (@DaniGaravelli1) March 13, 2021
This bill could cement the state’s pandemic powers to shut down public protest. It could allow those in power to subjectively decide which outcries should be silenced by the law. And it could lower the point at which police forcefully intervene, to even a peaceful vigil.
It really couldn’t have worked out worse for the government.
Who else U-turned?
“The policing bill is an affront to liberty,” read the Telegraph on Monday, “Labour is right to oppose it”. Yet in December, it looked like the paper would be kinder to the Tories: “Priti Patel to clean up law on protests that damage democracy”.
Ms Patel was relying on anti-Extinction Rebellion sentiment to carry this bill through, an assumption supported by polling. Here, she should have had an ally in the Telegraph, whose commentators have called XR a “bloody mess” and “threat to democracy,” while denigrating the police’s handling of them as “pathetic”. I’d have given you great odds to bet they’d stand against this bill, right up until Saturday night.
The vigil’s unintended significance
The vigil’s policing farce has been an incredible lesson. It has taught us to judge a law not by its best case scenarios, but by its worst. Not by its ability to protect the Cenotaph from sinking in the Thames, but by its potential to violently censor unrest. Because broad, sweeping bills like this conceal hard-to-sell policies within pages of populism. Their authors rely on voters wanting a tougher stance on crime, to push through cynical measures that tighten their grip on power. And we wouldn’t have noticed, were it not for the vigil.
This vigil changed the conversation. It changed Labour’s vote. It changed the Telegraph’s headline. But it begs the questions: how many red flags have we missed?
Since they came into power on the back of an “oven-ready” Brexit deal, Boris Johnson’s government has subtly (and at times not-so-subtly) chipped away at constitutional precedent and human rights law.
Unbalancing the constitution
In September 2019, Boris Johnson purged 21 rebel MPs for voting against the whip, doubling the number of Tory sackings since 1979 in a single day. He then prorogued Parliament in a move that was unanimously deemed unlawful by 11 justices on the Supreme Court. When it came to elections, his party manifesto proposed a wholesale review of the constitution after Brexit, with the goal of ensuring “proper balance” between human rights, national security and “effective government”. One of their main targets was the Human Rights Act, which became a bargaining chip during Brexit negotiations (a battle the EU has won, for now). One reason the government finds this act so irritating is that foreign nationals use it to fight their unlawful deportations, so they’re currently brainstorming ways to get around it. Meanwhile, the Coronavirus Act granted unprecedented state powers with minimal parliamentary scrutiny, powers that were demonstrably abused on Saturday night. But that was not an isolated event. Police threatening to arrest asylum seekers in Napier Barracks for carrying a protest banner on their “one walk a day” was just another heinous manipulation of the law.
This policing bill puts the reigns of public debate even more firmly into government hands. Squirming in front of journalists, ministers have told us we’re fretting over nothing—the bill isn’t aimed at demonstrations like Saturday’s, only at really extreme demonstrations. But the point is, we’re just supposed to trust them. We’re supposed to take their word that it will only be used against people who deserve it, objectively and unpolitically. Who better to objectively and unpolitically decide which protests should be heard than the government?
I wonder how they’ll exercise this power during election season?
For so-called “Conservatives” – a word that literally means opposition of change – these are radical policies that fundamentally alter the British constitution. They do so under the guise of being tough on crime. But underneath this shallow layer of right-wing ideology is a radicalism that contradicts the very heart of conservatism. The policing bill doesn’t serve conservatism. It serves the Conservative government.
Things you can do
At time of publishing, THIS parliamentary petition calling to remove protesting restrictions from the bill is less than 300 signatures away from a government response.