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Does Charlie Gilmour really deserve a 16-month jail sentence?

Yes, he acted like an idiot, but he's also an ideal tabloid scapegoat.

If the British justice system is truly designed to punish people for being utter prats, we all know one or two people who belong in Belmarsh. Well, now that Charlie Gilmour, the Cambridge student who swung from the Cenotaph during the 9 December riots, has gone down for 16 months, I'm sure we will all sleep safer in our beds.

Charlie Gilmour is a PR disaster for the student movement. I met him on the night before his monumental bender, as someone's reprobate brother who had turned up at the UCL occupation to party.

We had an altercation on the smoking steps whose content is now lost to memory but which ended in me storming off, and Charlie staggering after me, grabbing me in a half-headlock and demanding that I sign a piece of paper on which he had hastily scrawled 'Charlie Gilmour is not a misoginist [sic]'.

By the time I had patiently explained that this might not fix whatever it was he had just done, he was already tearing off to disrupt a planning meeting. I remember remarking to a friend: 'That guy is a liability. He's going to give us all a bad name.".

I have every reason to consider Charlie Gilmour a prize dickhead. But 16 months? Really? Sixteen months for going on a bender and attempting to damage some property? Sixteen months for setting fire to some newspaper and jumping on the bonnet of a car?

Charlie Gilmour is many things, but he's not dangerous, unless you happen to be a bottle of Gordon's Gin. Meanwhile, it seems unlikely that whoever, at the same protest, beat 20-year-old Alfie Meadows until he bled into his brain, will be facing charges; in fact, Alfie himself is now amongst the many young protesters up on charges of violent disorder this summer, presumably for headbutting a police baton.

Gilmour is, of course, the ideal tabloid scapegoat for those who would prefer to believe that all young people involved in political struggle are spoilt, drug-addled and reckless. It's a perfect way of whipping up outrage against activists who have a sustained critque of government-imposed austerity, and of dissuading others from joining them.

While Gilmour was not sentenced for his actions at the Cenotaph, he was told that his actions were 'reprehensible', and that the eminence of the occupants of the car had been taken into account. So it's not about throwing a rubbish bin at a Roller - it's about throwing a rubbish bin at a convoy containing the heir to the throne. In swinging off the Cenotaph, he broke the unspoken rules of the King-and-Country brigade. 'You showed disrespect to those who made the ultimate sacrifice defending this country," said Judge Price, who last week sent 20-year-old Frank Fernie to jail for a year for throwing sticks at the TUC demonstration in March.

This is British justice. Over the past six months, 200 police officers have been dedicated to hunting down and punishing students and school-age protesters as part of Operation Malone and Operation Brontide. Meanwhile, a senior Metropolitan police officer devoted less than eight hours to reviewing the original News of the World phone-hacking investigation.

When the photos of Gilmour's rampage dominated the front pages after 9 December, leaving no space for any discussion of police violence or the confiscation of public university provision, many activists were furious with Charlie Gilmour for giving us all a bad name. Now he's been sent to prison on their behalf, along with many genuine protesters, it's the justice system that people are angry with.

Charlie Gilmour behaved like a massive prat, but being a massive prat is not a crime, and nor is being young and foolish. He has been sent to jail purely because he makes a good scapegoat, and to indulge tabloid hand-wringing about disrespect for those who lost their lives in war.

Well, there's disrespect and disrespect. Right now, a cross-party consensus is tearing up the 1945 Attlee settlement -- a far more important monument to those sacrificed in war than any lump of rock in Whitehall. And the newspapers crowing over Charlie Gilmour's jail term are cheering them on all the way.

Editor's note: This post was updated by Laurie Penny at 5.05pm on Sunday, 17 July

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a force at least united in name.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will remain a story.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.