There was uproar earlier this month when the Metropolitan Police preemptively arrested several people planning to protest the coronation of Charles Windsor. Those arrested and held in custody for as long as sixteen hours included Graham Smith, chief executive of anti-monarchy pressure group Republic, which nevertheless successfully mounted a protest with a turnout estimated at around two thousand. While the protest appeared to be more concerned with the cost of the occasion than the affront to democratic principle represented by the continuing existence of the monarchy, the demonstrators’ refusal to go meekly along with the whole charade should be applauded.
But it is indicative of the tetchy, McCarthyite mood currently prevalent among British politicians, police, and securocrats that even a liberal NGO like Republic should find itself caught up in such a draconian anti-protest crackdown. Indeed, Republic said it had been in “close conversation” with the Metropolitan Police for four months prior to the protest, so it can hardly be accused of not playing by the book. Also among those arrested were a number of activists from Just Stop Oil — whose activities have whipped up the right-wing press into a state of hysteria — and Animal Rising, which disrupted last month’s Grand National at Aintree.
Those apprehended were arrested under the Public Order Act, passed into law earlier this year, which imposed further restrictions on the right to protest to those contained in last year’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Act. The Public Order Act grants police new powers to stop protests, extends suspicionless stop-and-search, and specifically makes “locking on” a criminal offence, as well as introducing new banning orders preventing individuals subject to them from attending protests. The PCSC Act had already empowered police to stop protests considered to have the potential to be too noisy or for causing a public nuisance.
Of course, we know what happens whenever police are granted more powers — they abuse them, pushing their luck to see just what they can get away with. So it proved on the weekend of the coronation, when the Metropolitan Police arrested three volunteers from Westminster Council — and funded by the Home Office — who were found to have rape alarms; the police concocted a delirious story about how these were supposedly to be used to disrupt the procession, when in fact the volunteers had merely intended to hand them out to women in an effort to help keep them safe.
Anyone hoping that arch-securocrat Keir Starmer, who is likely to lead the next government, would roll back this assault on the right to protest was soon disabused of the notion. Asked during an appearance on LBC whether he would repeal the Public Order Act, Starmer said that now that the legislation is “on the books,” it should be allowed to “settle in”; in a BBC interview, he promised only to provide “fresh guidance” and make unspecified “improvements.” Amnesty UK has scorned the law as “deeply authoritarian,” warning that the measures contained therein are “neither proportionate nor necessary” and adding that it puts the UK government “in breach of its international obligations.”
However, readers of Oliver Eagleton’s The Starmer Project would surely already know better than to expect Starmer — a dyed-in-the-wool securocrat himself — to come riding to the rescue. As the book spells out in detail, Starmer was himself a reactionary director of public prosecutions, sycophantic to those above him in the state hierarchy while overseeing harsh crackdowns on student protesters, rioters, and those suspected of making fraudulent benefit claims. As early as October 2020, meanwhile, Starmer demonstrated his continuing loyalty to the security state when he ordered Labour MPs to abstain on the third reading of the Spycops Bill, which effectively puts undercover state operatives beyond sanction.
Nor does the record of the New Labour years — so frequently cited as a touchstone by Starmer and right-wing Labour MPs — inspire any great hope when it comes to civil liberties. A huge Twitter thread by journalist Jon Stone, of the Independent, gathers together some of the most egregious instances of New Labour authoritarianism and targeting of demonized minorities, including Muslims, social security recipients, and asylum seekers. It is important to remember that New Labour’s aggression abroad, and the role it played in increasing the threat of domestic terrorism, was inextricably linked to its illiberalism at home.
Among the many regressive domestic measures of the New Labour years were Tony Blair’s failed attempt to extend detention without charge to ninety days for terror suspects, ramping up stop-and-search powers under the Terrorism Act of 2000 (disproportionately targeting innocent Muslims and later ruled unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights), and proposals to screen every child in Britain to determine the risk that they would go on to commit crimes. In 2006, Blair even floated the idea of watering down the Human Rights Act or withdrawing from parts of the European Convention on Human Rights simply because judges kept finding so many of his government’s policies to be illegal.
Both Blair and Gordon Brown appointed a string of home secretaries — including such luminaries as Jack Straw, David Blunkett, John Reid, and Jacqui Smith — who still stand among the most reactionary holders of that post in modern British history (no mean feat). Perhaps most symbolic of New Labour’s hostility to dissent, meanwhile, was the notorious occasion when the late Walter Wolfgang, a longtime Labour left and antiwar activist then aged eighty-two, was manhandled out of the 2005 Labour conference for heckling Straw, Blair’s foreign secretary at the time, and subsequently detained under anti-terrorism law.
The Labour Party is firmly back in Blairite hands, and we need only look at Starmer’s intolerance of internal opposition during his leadership to see that their instincts have not changed. Even in the New Labour years, though, there was a dogged band of Labour MPs — mostly on the party’s left — who could be relied on to consistently oppose the government’s increasingly draconian legislation. But when the Scottish National Party tabled a motion to repeal the Public Order Act last week — albeit one that had no chance of passing — not one Labour member joined their erstwhile colleague Jeremy Corbyn in voting for it, a bleak and worrying sign of how cowed Starmer’s few internal critics in the parliamentary party now are.
Likewise, New Labour’s illiberal policies were also met with a spirited defense of civil liberties from some members of the liberal commentariat. But there is, regrettably, little sign of any dissent from that quarter now. On the contrary, Starmer’s crushing of internal Labour Party democracy — and his entirely fraudulent campaign for the party leadership in 2020 — has been widely hailed as savvy politics, cheered to the rafters by a centrist press still spooked by Corbynism and now scarcely less eager than the Tories to see socialist ideas permanently driven out of the political sphere.
More than anything else, the defining characteristic of Starmer’s tenure as Labour leader so far has been an ingrained hostility to grassroots activism. But given the unfavorable circumstances a Starmer-led government is likely to inherit — a stagnant (at best) economy with falling living standards and continuing industrial unrest, not to mention worsening environmental degradation and global conflict — more upheaval seems inevitable in the coming years. This suggests, then, that the real reason Keir Starmer is happy to keep the Public Order Act on the statute book is that he thinks he might soon have some use for it.