Right now, a number of bills working their way through UK parliament have citizens deeply concerned that the nation’s democracy, and fundamental rights like protest, are under threat. So, what exactly is going on?
System change needs protest – but we can’t take protest rights for granted
Protest is a vital pillar of democracy. Until very recently, citizens in Western Europe and the US didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about protest rights. However, lately, we have been served many reminders that democracy is not something we can take for granted.
Some governments around the world are attempting to protect their power by eroding our rights to protest. And it’s no coincidence they are doing it during a time where there is so much to protest about – climate change, racism, misogyny, war, labour abuses, fuel poverty. The list goes on.
The UK is an example of this. A hugely influential nation both in historic terms and currently as one of the wealthiest countries in the world. What happens in the UK is important because it has implications for the rest of the world. The Conservative government, renowned for austerity measures, is proposing some changes to the nation’s legislation that has been branded as authoritarian and draconian.
The Elections Bill, also known as the Voter ID, aims to make ID mandatory in British elections from 2023. The government claims these measures are in order to address voter fraud, despite there being no compelling evidence that voter fraud is a problem. Essentially, it’s good old fashioned voter suppression. Requirements that make voting more logistically challenging inevitably lead to a decrease in voter turnout. Officially recognised forms of identification, like passports, are more difficult for people on the margins to obtain. This leads to the further disenfranchisement of already underrepresented groups. There will be no climate or environmental justice if the same people are always locked out of decision-making.
With climate change, inevitably comes displacement. Sadly, the UK’s attitude to refugees is notoriously lacking in empathy. The tabloids have whipped up a disturbing hatred towards people arriving in the UK in search of safety and freedom from persecution. Now, the government is attempting to cement that sentiment into law.
The Borders and Nationality Bill could mean that asylum seekers who enter the UK via an illegal route face having their claim ruled inadmissible and even a jail sentence of up to 4 years. The proposed bill also contains a provision that would give the government authority to strip people of citizenship without warning. This, they say, is in the interest of “national security”. Home Secretary, Priti Patel, says the bill will allow the UK to “take back control of its borders”. In an interview, Patel described refugees fleeing persecution on lifeboats as “asylum shoppers”. Barristers opposing the legislation have dubbed the bill led “the biggest legal assault on international refugee law ever seen in the UK.”
Patel has come under fire regularly for her anti-immigrant stance. In December 2021, she relented to pressure from activists and the public to allow RNLI, a rescue boat charity, to save the lives of refugees at sea. Yes, that’s right, Patel wanted to criminalise saving drowning people at sea. And recently, Patel and the government have been called out for long and complicated visa applications making it difficult for Ukrainians fleeing the war to seek refuge in the UK.
The Police Bill
Last but definitely not least, is the divisive Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. This bill proposes allowing the police to arrest individuals they deem ‘”noisy” or “annoying” in an attempt to crackdown on protests around the nation. For just over a year, it’s been making its way through the legislative process to become law. The bill has been met with widespread resistance. And for good reason but, we’ll come back to that.
The Conservative party has been in power for almost 12 years but recent polls suggest that Tory popularity is starting to decline. In the last 12 months alone, the government has racked up a lengthy list of failures and controversies.
> The UK is facing the steepest cost of living crisis it has seen in three decades. Things are looking so bleak for the poorest in Britain that renowned personal finance expert, Martin Lewis, is pleading with Treasury to intervene. Lewis told interviewers that he is “virtually out of tools to help people now…..It’s not something for those on the lowest incomes, telling them to cut their belts will work. We need political intervention.”
> A major factor affecting the cost of living is the ongoing energy crisis. This has already resulted in an increase of 54% in home energy bills, though some are reporting that their bills have doubled.
> Throughout COVID the government were criticised for their inadequate response to the pandemic. They caused nationwide outrage in December when it was revealed that they were having parties while the country was on lockdown, one of the strictest in the world.
> Despite being known as one of the wealthiest countries in the world, there are a record number of people relying on food banks to sustain them.
These dictatorial policy propositions could be a desperate bid to maintain power. This brings us back to protecting our right to protest. The above is just a selection of very recent failings of the existing government in the UK. But, pretty compelling evidence in itself to oppose the authoritarian bills being pushed.
Power to the people
The latest IPCC report has directly named Colonialism as a root cause of the climate crisis. We are experiencing a collective awakening that the power structures we have in place need to fundamentally change. But, those who benefit from the system are not going to just hand over their power. If history has taught us anything about social movements, it is that protest is fundamental to change.
Inequality is growing, and power is consolidated into an ever-shrinking group of wealthy people. Protest allows us to stand up for one another and with one another. To stand up and defend people and the planet. In recent years, we have witnessed a swell of people power across the globe. Some of the biggest protests, marches and demonstrations in history have taken place in the past few years; the women’s marches in 2017, Extinction Rebellion (XR) in 2018, Black Lives Matter (BLM) in 2020 and the farmers’ protest in India 2020/21.
We have also seen the positive impacts of mobilising en masse. The year-long and arduous farmers’ protest resulted in a repeal of proposed ‘anti-farmer’ laws, and the 2018 Rebellion finally had governments declare a climate emergency and ensured the climate crisis maintained a fixed presence in the media.
How and where we protest is just as important as why
The right to protest exists to protect people’s right to be heard. When marginalised communities are kept out of decision making, protest can give them a voice. From the suffragettes to civil rights, LGBTQIA+ rights to disability rights, activists throughout history have employed protest as part of their campaigning.
How we protest has been refined by social movements through experience. XR has been quite explicit that they take lessons from the social and environmental movements that came before them. Some of their (now infamous) tactics, like ‘being arrestable’ ‘locking on’ and ‘temporary structures’ are utilised to cause disruption and intentionally waste police time. The rationale is to create such public nuance that the powers that be, especially the police force and government, have no choice but to listen to their demands.
The devil’s in the detail
The policing bill set out to dictate where, when and how citizens could assemble. It even sought to legislate that protesters gain planning permission before their demonstrations. This matters because protests are often organised quickly to react to decisions made by their governments or in response to geopolitics. For example, upon hearing the news that Putin had invaded Ukraine, citizens around the world took to the streets in solidarity with Ukrainians. They called on their governments to condemn the war and mobilise aid. A requirement for long-winded planning processes would have made it impossible to organise in this way at short notice.
The bill proposed a ‘no-protest’ zone around parliament in London. This is of huge significance. Protesters select political buildings like parliament and foreign embassies for a variety of reasons. They want to be seen and heard by the people who are in positions of power. The people going in and out of those buildings. Banning protests in these areas silences civilians, who more often than not do not have representation inside the establishments they gather outside.
The PCSB proposed increased police power, granting individual officers power to decide at the moment whether a protest or protester, was causing ‘serious annoyance’. This would be punishable by up to 10 years in prison. A staggering sentence for a non-violent crime.
Vive la Resistance
When the bill first surfaced, organisations opposing the bill quickly formed a coalition. The group penned an open letter to the government calling on them to make considerable changes to the proposed legislation They cited their deep concerns around increased police power, the silencing of marginalised voices and the persecution of minority communities. The charities mobilised their supporters to get vocal about the bill, sign a petition and speak to their local representatives. The response was overwhelmingly positive with over 600,000 people adding their signatures to the petition.
The bill has now entered a stage in the process referred to as ‘ping pong’. In spite of its rather jaunty name, the procedure is pretty bureaucratic. The bill goes from the government to the House of Lords and then back again as they propose amendments. Fortunately, the government’s bill has been defeated twice now by the House of Lords. A ray of hope shining through in a rather bleak landscape.
In January 2022, the lords rejected some of the most repressive and authoritarian proposals. Overall, the bill was defeated in 14 votes, which accounted for almost all of the anti-protest measures. This means that offences of “locking on and being equipped to lock on” are gone. Also removed were proposed “suspicion-less stop and search related to protest” and “stop and search on suspicion for items associated with protest-related offences”. The Lords also ditched measures to make “obstructions of major transport works” and “interference with key national infrastructure” offences.
Other measures removed at this stage were police powers to “impose noise-based restrictions on protest”, and “impose any restrictions they deem ‘necessary’ on public assemblies and allowing the Secretary of State to define the “serious disruption” threshold for police conditions on assemblies.” All significant for protesters.
Not over yet
Unfortunately, many elements of the bill still pose dangerous threats to people’s rights. At this stage, noteworthy parts of ‘Part 3’ of the Bill remain and there are no further opportunities to change them. When the bill is finalised and put into practice, it will be possible for police to convict anyone for breaching a condition placed by police on a protest, even if they had no knowledge of the condition. This could include a prison sentence.
At stage two of ‘ping pong’, Members of Parliament stayed up till 1 am to vote on the Lords’ Amendments. Encouragingly, the legislation was criticised by members of both the government and the opposition. In particular, politicians expressed concern about the levels of discretion given to the police.
One MP, Richard Fuller, gave an impassioned speech about the importance of freedom of speech. He referenced the group “Act Up” that protested during the AIDS epidemic and the necessity for them to be loud to have their voices heard. Fuller also voiced his deep worry regarding trust. “I worry that at a time in our society where we need trust, trust between people with profoundly different opinions, the provisions around noise in this bill do nothing at all to help in that regard”, he said.
Democracy is a verb
The bill has now returned to the government for a second time having been defeated in the House of Lords again. However, even if further changes are made, the bill will increase police power, suppress protesters and introduce harsher punitive measures. It is likely that the opposition will need to continue to fight to minimise its impact. Once the bill becomes an act, there may be calls for its repeals. Additionally, groups may scope options to legally challenge the act in the cost on the grounds that it violates human rights.
As Audre Lorde once said, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. We know we can’t rely on those in power to make change for good. Historically, change has come from citizens pushing for it and a key part of that is protest.
We have a collective responsibility to fight for democracy if we want to change the world. As individuals, we must engage with our local and national representatives to ensure they are doing their job – representing the needs of all people in their constituencies.
Here are a few things we can do:
> Encourage your MP – write letters and tweet them
> Support charities and activists
> Attend protests (and be noisy and annoying!)
Featured image: by RODNAE Productions via Pexels | Image description: a woman holds a hand made sign saying “I want to be hear” up to a CCTV camera
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