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Students fight back

In November and December 2010, a series of protests took place in London against proposals to introduce student tuition fees. The protests, attended by between 30,000 and 50,000 students, were mostly peaceful, yet the popular press portrayed them as lawless, focusing on alleged vandalism and violence. One resonant image that emerged during the final demonstration, on 9 December, showed a police officer apparently being dragged from his horse by demonstrators.

For some, including the Prime Minister, this demonstrated the depths to which students would sink. On 10 December David Cameron declared: “When people see . . . police officers being dragged off police horses and beaten . . . I want to make sure that they feel the full force of the law.” Two brothers, Chris and Andrew Hilliard, were arrested and charged with violent disorder. They faced up to five years in prison and an unlimited fine.

Eighteen months later at Kingston Crown Court, however, they were found not guilty. Under examination, their “victim”, PC Cowling, agreed that he had failed to tighten the strap that held the saddle on to his horse and that he had later pulled off the young men’s masks and pulled Christopher’s hair. The defence argued that the brothers were the ones subject to assault.

The judgment follows a string of acquittals for protesters facing similar charges. Figures from the Legal Defence and Monitoring Group show that 11 of the 12 students who pleaded not guilty to charges arising from the protest on 9 December have since been acquitted. This suggests that charges of violent disorder have been brought primarily to intimidate people or deter them from taking part in future protests.

Complaints have also been made about the police tactics on 9 December. It was widely felt that “kettling”, which prevented protesters from leaving the area, was being used punitively. Alfie Meadows, a 20-year-old student, suffered a life-threatening brain injury after allegedly being hit by a police baton. Yet from the outset the police positioned themselves as the victims, claiming it was the most violent protest they had ever seen.

Devilish demo

This interpretation is now being challenged. Initially the police and the Crown Prosecution Service resisted disclosure of communications and video evidence that the defence counsel believes vital in disproving some of the allegations against the brothers. The defendants had
to identify this evidence unaided, and then go to court to force disclosure. They are now taking legal advice on seeking redress for what they claim was serious violence inflicted on them.

Yet even if the Hilliards have been spared, other prosecutions are being pursued assiduously and at great expense. John McDonnell, about the only MP to put his head above the parapet on this matter, believes that the demonisation of protest is corrupting the very law and
order that politicians are sworn to uphold. “Many have been appalled,” he told me, “at the way young people like the Hilliard brothers have been dragged through the courts and had their futures put at risk simply to make an example of them to deter others from protest.” McDonnell is now calling for an independent inquiry into “what is being exposed as a clear abuse of our policing and judicial system”.

Jane Fae is a writer on civil liberties

Jane Fae is a feminist writer. She tweets as @JaneFae.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, European crisis

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Jeremy Corbyn has transformed Labour from resisting social movements to supporting them

The opposition's new leadership has brought about a historic shift in its relationship with social movements.

“Another world is possible,” declared John McDonnell last month in his first major speech as Labour’s new shadow chancellor. These four words show how Labour’s leadership views its relationship with activists and campaigners outside the Westminster system. The slogan is the motto of the World Social Forum, an annual alternative to the ultra-elite World Economic Forum, formed by social movements across the world to struggle against, and build alternatives to, neoliberalism.

How times change. In a speech given at the George Bush Senior Presidential Library in Texas, United States, in April 2002, Labour leader and British Prime Minister Tony Blair offered his support to the administrators of the global economy, not those demonstrating against them.

He said: “It's time we took on the anti-globalisation protestors who seek to disrupt the meetings international leaders have on these issues. What the poor world needs is not less globalisation but more. Their injustice is not globalisation but being excluded from it. Free enterprise is not their enemy; but their friend.”

In 2002, Labour’s leadership wanted to take on social movements. Now, it intends to engage with and support them. “The new kind of politics” of Labour’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is about more than focusing on issues over personalities and (anti-) presentational changes.

It is also “a new politics which is based on returning the Labour party to its roots. And the roots of the Labour party was as a social movement, representing the vast majority of working people in this country,” as McDonnell, Corbyn’s closest political ally, explains to the New Statesman.

Campaigners outside of the Labour party are excited. John Hilary, executive director of War on Want, a campaigning anti-poverty NGO, tells the New Statesman, “there’s a really positive impulse to the Corbyn/McDonnell leadership reaching out” to social movements. For Hilary, the immediate policy changes on TTIP – the EU-US investor rights, regulation harmonisation and non-tariff barriers deal negotiated behind closed doors – and a Financial Transaction Tax have already sent “a message to a disenfranchised part of the electorate that Labour is back”.

But, for the campaigners outside of the Labour party, this moment is not without risks. Political parties have a long record of crushing the autonomy of social movements.

“It’s important they aren’t incorporated or have to work on the terms of the political system. It’s a matter of a respectful relationship,” explains Hilary Wainwright, a political activist and founder and co-editor of Red Pepper magazine. Wainwright argues for “close engagement [between Labour and outside campaigners] that isn’t a bossy dominating one. One that seeks to collaborate, not govern”.

McDonnell agrees. “The most important thing,” he says, “is that all of the campaigns and social movements that are campaigning at the moment and those that will campaign in the future, need to maintain their autonomy from government and political parties. We respect that . . . Otherwise, we’ll undermine their vitality and their independence.”

To remain “strong, independent and radical” is “the most helpful” campaigners can be to Labour’s leadership, according to Hilary. Labour’s leadership “don’t look to us to make the sort of political compromises that they might have to do in order to hold a much broader spectrum of people together. What we can do best is hold that line as we believe it be right and support the Labour leadership in taking a line as close as possible to that”, he says.

The task for social movements and campaigners outside of the party is “to show how there will be popular support for radical and principled positions”, according to Hilary.

To win in 2020, Labour will “bring together a coalition of social movements that have changed the political climate in this country and, as a result of that, changed the electoral potential of the Labour Party as well”, says McDonnell. For Labour’s shadow chancellor, the people's views on issues are complex and fluid rather than static, making the job of politicians to bump up as close to them as possible.

Movements can help shift political common sense in Labour’s direction. Just as UK Uncut placed the issue of tax avoidance and tax justice firmly on the political map, so too can other campaigners shift the political terrain.

This movement-focused perspective may, in part, explain why the Corbyn campaign chose to transform itself last week into the Momentum movement, a grassroots network open to those without Labour membership cards. This approach stands in contrast to Blair’s leadership campaign that evolved into Progress, a New Labour pressure group and think tank made up of party members.

In order to allow movements the space to change the terms of the debate and for Labour to develop policy in conjunction with them, the party needs “to engage with movements on their own terms”, according to Wainwright. This means “the party leadership need to find out where people are struggling and where people are campaigning and specifically work with them”, she continues.

McDonnell says it will. He says Labour “want to work alongside them, give them a parliamentary voice, give them a voice in government but, more importantly, assist them in the work that they do within the wide community, both in meetings, demonstrations and on picket lines”.

This position is not one you would expect from McDonnell’s five more recent predecessors: Chris Leslie, Ed Balls, Alan Johnson, Alistair Darling, Gordon Brown. So, “this may seem like a unique moment if you’re looking just within the British context. But, if you look outside Britain it’s actually much more in touch with movements in many places in the world”, says Hilary.

He adds: “Political parties are going to have to have much more honest engagements between parliamentary politics and the social movement hinterland. For us, it just means that in a wonderful way, Britain is catching up with the rest of the world.”

McDonnell too sees this shift in how Labour engages with movements as “a historic change that modernises the Labour party”.

But, perhaps for Labour, this is a recurrence rather than a transformation. The party grew out of Britain’s biggest social movement: the unions. Labour’s new leadership’s openness to campaigners “modernises it by taking it back to being a social movement again”, says McDonnell.