28 March 2021
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) bill, currently passing through the British parliament, is a blatant attack on civil liberties designed “to strengthen police powers to tackle non-violent protests that have a significant disruptive effect”. A further extension of capitalist exploitation and oppression, it will criminalise protesters simply for being loud or posing “a serious annoyance or inconvenience.” It introduces a new criminal offence of “trespass with the intent to reside”, which will target traveller communities and the homeless. It is certain that the new laws will be predominantly used against the left, the working class and oppressed minorities, reflecting the role of British policing in preserving the capitalist social order. This legislation is a threat to anyone who wants to fight oppression and advocate for change—it must be opposed.
The bill comes hot on the heels of the Covert Human Intelligence Sources bill, also known as “Spycops”, which allows police to commit crimes while undercover—on which the Labour Party under Keir Stamer shamefully abstained. Seeing these bills introduced under the shadow of lockdown, many on the left are quick to conclude that Britain is moving to “authoritarianism” or a “police state”. Any increase in the repressive forces of the state must be fought, but these measures are an extension of powers already held and should not be seen as a qualitative change in the functioning of British capitalism. Police were never a benign or neutral force, but are the armed thugs of the capitalist state, working in tandem with a legal system that primarily serves to defend private property and prop up a society defined by vast disparities of wealth and power.
Labour only reluctantly voted against the PCSC bill during the second reading on 16 March. Starmer abandoned his original position of abstention following the outcry against police attacks on a vigil held on Clapham Common only two days earlier for Sarah Everard, who was abducted from a South London street and a serving police officer charged with her murder. While the safety of women on the streets has received much media attention as it affects all social classes, British capitalism creates far greater dangers for poor, black and Asian women, sex workers, the homeless and those who are precariously housed. Most attacks on women are carried out by someone they know, often within their own home—reports of domestic violence have increased by over 60 percent during the past year under Covid restrictions, particularly for poorer women who are more likely to be trapped in cramped pressure-cooker conditions they cannot afford to leave (Guardian, 23 March 2021).
In targeting protest, the British state may have provoked more than it bargained for. Opposition to the bill has already come from a wide spectrum—women's rights groups, anti-fascists, housing activists, environmentalists, trade unionists, Black Lives Matter, socialists, anarchists and anyone else who understands that their ability to fight for change is under attack. The best way to defend the right to protest is to exercise it—we need to build a broad coalition of those who are prepared to take to the streets. Lobbying, petitions, online rallies, motions in Labour Party branches and pleas to the better nature of the cops will achieve nothing. Using the Marxist tactic of the united front, it is possible to build effective alliances to “kill the bill” without agreeing on every aspect of women’s oppression, protest tactics or the programme needed to fundamentally change society.
It is also crucial to build opposition to the bill within the trade unions, which have the social power to mobilise far greater numbers and to hit the government and ruling class via strike action. This new legislation goes hand-in-hand with the existing anti-union laws that forbid secondary picketing and impose complex conditions before a union can legally call a strike. A real picket line that aims to prevent scabs entering a struck facility is by definition a “serious annoyance” to capitalists and their profit-making. Building a militant movement within the unions would, however, require a hard fight against the leadership, most of whom would rather negotiate cosy backroom deals than do anything as “inconvenient” as call their members out on strike or even onto the streets.
Of course, “lockdown sceptics” critical of measures to deal with the Covid pandemic have also come out against the bill, including those who consider both Covid and the vaccination programme to be an elaborate conspiracy—a movement heavily infiltrated by the far right. It is no coincidence that this legislation is being introduced at a time when mobilising is difficult and Covid restrictions can be used as a pretence to break up demonstrations, but studies have shown that outdoor protests with a high incidence of mask wearing do not result in a spike in infections (Healthline, 8 July 2020). Necessary public health measures have nothing in common with curtailment of civil liberties.
When police attacked a demonstration against the bill in Bristol on 21 March, the press were quick to denounce angry youth defending themselves against police repression and describe the protesters as a “violent minority” spoiling things for everyone else. Elements of the left joined the chorus—Ash Sarkar of Novara Media worried on Twitter that the conflict “might crush the tentative alliance between the left, the Labour frontbench, and grumbling Tory backbenchers”, and Bristol Extinction Rebellion rushed in to proclaim their “absolute commitment to non-violence”. On the contrary, it is not these protesters but the search for liberal “respectability” that weakens opposition to the bill.
Revolutionaries advocate mass resistance by the organisations of the working class and its allies, but we defend anyone attempting to strike blows against the oppressors—even a tactically misguided activist is worth more than a thousand grumbling parliamentarians. As we noted a decade ago when liberal commentators in the US turned on the militant wing of the Occupy movement:
“the appropriate tactics in any given situation depend on a host of concrete circumstances. There are many times when the balance of forces precludes the use of physical force by protesters; and there are also situations where such attempts would be politically unwise. But those who refuse to distinguish between the violence of the oppressors and that of their victims (however tactically inadvisable) are incapable of playing any useful role in the struggle against the multiple and manifest injustices of the decaying capitalist social order.”
—“The Politics of Confrontation”, 1917 No.35
Unless a protest causes “a serious annoyance or inconvenience” to the powers that be, it is likely to be largely ineffectual. The ruling class does not give up power without a fight—centuries of struggle have been necessary to obtain what rights we do have to organise as workers and for movement towards racial and sexual equality. There is a constant threat of regression. All the things we protest against—low wages and poverty, environmental destruction, racism, violence against women and much more—will not fundamentally change under capitalism.
To destroy this decayed and dangerous system requires dynamic and militant protests—and a lot more! It requires a trade-union movement willing to fight not only for wages and conditions but against all the oppression that affects the diverse and multi-racial working class. Most of all, it requires a revolutionary party that can tie all these issues together into a programme for human emancipation and the establishment of a society based on common ownership and the just management of wealth and resources in the interests of all. Marxists seek to “inconvenience” capitalism out of existence and usher in a new era of socialist reconstruction. Join us!
IMT: ‘Defund the Police’ or ‘Workers in Uniform’? (14 June 2020)
Marxism, Feminism and #MeToo" (1917 No.41)
The Politics of Confrontation (1917 No.35)