Civil liberties under fire

Peers block right-wing dog-whistling on right to protest, writes Peter Hain

When Tony Blair sacked over 600 (overwhelmingly Tory) hereditary peers from the House of Lords in 1999, it meant that the Conservative governments from 2010 experienced for the very first time something Labour ones had always done. Namely a House of Lords in which they had no majority. And they hate it.

Ruthlessly stuffing it with party donors and cronies has assisted the Tories, but they can still be defeated if Labour can assemble a cross-party majority with Lib Dems and crossbenchers, and sometimes even dissident Tories. Which is exactly what happened with the Police Crime and Sentencing Bill on 17th January, when peers voted decisively to remove some of the worst parts of the bill – most notoriously the new Priti Patel offence of blocking protest that is too “noisy”. That was damned in an elegantly coruscating speech by former Number 10 policy chief under David Cameron, Baroness Camilla Cavendish. The very idea of protesting is to attract attention, to make a ‘noise’, whether on a Home Counties village high street gridlocked with lorries or a London protest reclaiming the night for women.

Having both organised and participated in demonstrations for over half a century, the bill represents the biggest threat to British citizens’ right to dissent and non-violent protest in my lifetime. It is deeply reactionary – an authoritarian attack on the fundamental liberties of our citizens.

If enacted in past generations, it would have throttled the suffragettes and blocked their ability to rattle Parliament’s cage to secure votes for women. It would have prevented anti-fascists from stopping Oswald Mosley’s bullying, antisemitic Blackshirts at Cable Street in the East End of London in 1936. It would have thwarted anti-Apartheid protests that I led, in 1969 and 1970, which successfully stopped all white South African sports tours – a success which Nelson Mandela, then on Robben Island, hailed as a vital stepping stone in the ultimate defeat of apartheid. It would have prevented the Anti-Nazi League protests that stopped a resurgent and antisemitic, Islamophobic and fascist National Front in its tracks between 1977 and 1980 – and its successor, the BNP, in the early 2000s.

Peers defeated not only the new ‘noise’ offences but a series of other authoritarian measures, including powers to regulate static assemblies such as peaceful pickets or vigil.

Another defeat came over criminalising those exercising their fundamental rights, by making people unknowingly in breach of police conditions at an assembly or procession guilty because they “ought to have known” about them. Legal experts pointed out how the terminology “ought to have known” is a “vague term, hard to define, harder to enforce and possibly impossible to effectively convict.”

The Government wanted a new offence criminalising those deemed “seriously annoying” or causing another person to “suffer disease”.

A series of fresh clauses introduced in the Lords were also defeated, including ones directed at Extinction Rebellion which would have created new offences of “locking on” and “being equipped for locking on”, risking criminalising a range of behaviours including even linking arms.

The bill is a blatant exercise in transparent right-wing dog-whistling. Under the Public Order Act (1986), police already have wide powers to impose conditions and prohibit protests, including where a demonstration causes “serious disruption to the life of the community”. Most police chiefs didn’t want these draconian new powers.

By bringing in this legislation, Boris Johnson and Priti Patel have placed themselves so badly on the wrong side of history that even some in their own party voted against them.

Of course, most of the Lords defeats were reversed in the Commons, where the Tories have a huge majority. Many Lords amendments to their bills since 2019 have been. But at least the new clauses which were first introduced in the Lords and then defeated cannot be resurrected without an entirely new bill.

I’ve always favoured an elected Second Chamber, but it’s ironic that our unelected one seems to be the only bulwark against encroaching oppression from the elected one.

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