Labour has failed to stand against the Tories’ attack on the right to protest

Green Party peer Jenny Jones gives her account of the parliamentary battles over the Tories' protest laws

Extinction Rebellion protest in Westminster

Jenny Jones is one of two Green Party members of the House of Lords

Last night, the Labour Party made a disastrous misjudgement that will impact on hundreds of thousands of people attempting to protest and exercise their democratic rights in the coming years. By failing to support my Fatal Motion that would have stopped serious disruption being defined as anything “more than minor” Labour have managed to alienate lots of their natural supporters. 

Many of the 64,000 people who signed the petition asking them to act like an opposition, are now wondering why Labour let them down and why the media don’t report this stuff?

Perhaps Labour felt that they could sit this one out and no one would really care. After all, political journalists and media organisations like the BBC very rarely report on anything that isn’t a Blue/Red clash. So many issues and viewpoints are excluded simply because they don’t fit this cosy Blue/Red duopoly. The narrative was that if Labour wasn’t backing the Fatal Motion then it wasn’t worth reporting on and all my attempts to generate coverage were met with silence, with the honourable exception of James O’Brien on LBC and the Guardian.

What Labour under estimated is the power of social media and influential commentators like Carol Vorderman and Marina Purkiss. The Vlogger, Peter Stefanovic reached over a million people with his first video outlining what was going on. He explained the constitutional issues in a way that the BBC’s one attempt at coverage failed completely to understand, as our state media bought the government narrative that this was a law aimed at Just Stop Oil.

Meanwhile, Labour’s regret motion, a loud tut tut in parliamentary terms, led to a Daily Mail front page attacking them for supporting Just Stop Oil. The result is that many voters see them as a pointless and feeble opposition, while the government label them as on the side of disruption.

The excuse used by Labour is that they didn’t want to break parliamentary convention by having the Lords vote down a government bill, but the reality is that they allowed the government to break convention by using a Ministerial decree to over turn a parliamentary vote. A few months ago, the Lords voted to reject the draconian proposal that the police and Home Office would decide which protests are causing “more than minor” disruption. For the first time ever, secondary legislation was used to reverse that vote. Far from breaking convention, my Fatal Motion was defence of the status quo.

In many ways, this was not a one off, but part of a trend of legislation that undermines parliamentary democracy by giving Ministers increasing powers to make, delete or change laws. In the last four years we have seen a series of skeleton bills pass through parliament that hand over powers and discretion to Ministers to make decisions with minimal parliamentary scrutiny. The Retained EU Law Bill is the boldest example of this authoritarian approach to law making that side-lines our parliamentary democracy and transfers power to Ministers and civil servants in Whitehall.

By allowing the government to do this, Labour have opened the door to Ministers overturning previous parliamentary decisions with minimal debate, no chance of amendments and no meaningful votes. It will happen again and parliamentary democracy will seep away. I’m grateful that the Lib Dems, many law Lords and some Labour rebels could see this.

I have no doubt that Labour politicians, along with the rest of us, will regret this missed opportunity. We will regret it when they read the headlines about the police arresting a bunch of parents and kids protesting about pollution outside their school, or people holding a vigil for a victim of police violence. We will definitely regret it when you hear about a big march against some government policy, like the time a million of us protested about the Iraq War and the police say “sorry, that really is going to cause more than minor disruption.” I will take no pleasure in telling Labour that I told you so.

This is an authoritarian law that hands power to decide what is a good protest and a bad protest over to the police and the Home Office. It was enacted in an authoritarian way. I desperately want to see a general election and a change of government, but I fear that Labour will now keep these draconian laws in place to “bed in” as Keir Starmer said. The only thing that will change their minds is if voters switch to other parties, like the greens, who value democracy and freedom. Anyone but the Tories is not good enough.

Image credit: Alisdare Hickson – Creative Commons

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