Paul Nowak: Conservative attacks on the right to protest threaten free speech, free assembly and open democracy

'The threat to protest and the undermining of the right to strike raise questions about the UK’s commitment to open democracy'

Protect the right to strike

Paul Nowak is the General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress

No-one can fail to be moved by the scale of suffering in Gaza – and the urgent need for a ceasefire.

The TUC has a clear policy on the conflict in Gaza, which we set out in our General Council statement last October. We called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, and for the release of all hostages unharmed. We condemned the attacks by Hamas and their targeting of Israeli civilians. And we set out our concerns about the rising death toll among Palestinians in Gaza as a result of Israeli military operations.

Since we published our statement, 1.7 million Palestinians have been displaced from their homes, and now face the unconscionable prospect of an attack on Rafah. The UN has warned that famine is now imminent in northern Gaza and children are already dying of starvation. This is an appalling and unnecessary human-made catastrophe.

For many years, we have urged the UK government to make genuine efforts towards a just, lasting and comprehensive peace in Israel and Palestine – one that is consistent with international law, is based on a two-state solution, and which promotes equality, democracy and respect for human and labour rights.

What is happening in Gaza has mobilised a mass movement across the world. It is clear where UK public opinion is: demanding that our government do everything in its power to stop the fighting and work towards a just peace.

Yet in recent days we have seen suggestions that trade unions should cut ties with one of the largest pro-Palestinian campaigns in the world – the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC).

PSC is a peaceful antiracist solidarity campaign that seeks to put pressure on UK policymakers for action to secure Palestinian human rights and freedom. It does not engage in violence or intimidation. It prohibits the expression of antisemitic views at its events and is clear that everyone who supports its aims is welcome to join its campaigns.

The TUC rejects the call for trade unions to cut ties with PSC – and the wider implication that unions should disengage from solidarity campaigning in support of Palestinian human rights and an end to the occupation of Palestinian territories.

Trade unions should be free to engage with any group that shares our values. Ministers who have talked repeatedly about the need to ensure free speech should take their own advice, and maintain space for dialogue and debate with those they disagree with.

Earlier this month, the head office of the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions in Gaza was bombed and destroyed. The trade union movement cannot turn away from fellow workers when they need the support of their sister unions the most. That is why we continue to speak out and put pressure on ministers – and why we have led a trade union appeal for Medical Aid for Palestinians.

Attending peaceful marches and protests and holding MPs to account are time-honoured ways of making your voice heard in a free society. Campaigning for a ceasefire and for the human rights of the Palestinians is legitimate – and the expression of these views must be allowed.

We want our MPs, councillors and their staff to work without fear or harassment – but we must also defend the right to peaceful protests outside town halls and parliament.

At a time when antisemitism and anti-Muslim racism are rising sharply, ministers should be concentrating on tackling racism, rather than stoking unnecessary controversy about peaceful protests. They should lead by example – condemning and calling out racism consistently, especially when it is from within their own party.

The TUC and the whole trade union movement rejects antisemitism. The Israeli people are not responsible for the actions of their government – nor should the wider Jewish community in Britain and around the world be held accountable for what is happening in Israel and Palestine.

I know that at times trade unions have fallen short of our values. We must be vigilant and hold one another to the highest standards. That’s why we produced a guide for trade union reps called talking about antisemitism. Unison have produced a resource with HOPE not hate to help trade unionists recognise and avoid both antisemitism and anti-Muslim racism when talking about the conflict, which every rep should read.

The government’s attempts to shut down solidarity with the Palestinians are part of a wider targeting of protest – against trade unionists, racial justice campaigners and more. We have seen two new laws to crack down on protests in recent years – with another in the works as I write, intended to stop the use of flares, end protests near Parliament and place yet more restrictions on protest organisers. Alongside this, the last decade has seen a concerted attack on the right to strike.

The threat to protest and the undermining of the right to strike raise questions about the UK’s commitment to open democracy and freedom of speech and assembly. It’s time for a reset – for a government that shares our values, and makes space for challenge and criticism. 

In a free society, there will always be disagreements between governments, social movements, and trade unions. The right of workers and citizens to organise, negotiate and speak freely is an integral part of thriving democracy.

Our trade union values call us to stand with peaceful protesters for democracy and human rights everywhere. And we will not be swayed from our demands for a ceasefire now and a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.

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