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A summer of scapegoating: Laurie Penny on being trailed by the police

Millions have urgent, legitimate grievances with government. The criminalisation of dissent should outrage us all.

Last weekend, some friends and I took a trip to the seaside. We ate ice-cream on the beach in the brilliant sun, and tiptoed out into the icy waves, negotiating bits of floating plastic, shrieking like excited children with rolled-up trousers and tucked-in skirts: five get messy in Brighton. It was, in every respect, a normal holiday. Except for the eight or nine uniformed police officers watching us paddle.

Two "forward intelligence teams" had been sent down from London specifically to keep an eye on us, taking pictures as we handed out flyers about tax avoidance with a local anti-cuts group and ate chips with little wooden forks. If this really represents a danger to the state, the state is in far more trouble than we have been led to believe.

Bad things happen to people who protest against the British government and its austerity program. You no longer even have to have committed a crime to be reported to the police. This week, the City of Westminster's "Counter Terrorist Focus Desk" issued a call for all "anarchists" to be identified, stating that anyone who thinks that the state is "undesirable, unnecessary and harmful" should be considered as dangerous as al-Quaeda. Presumably the architects of the "big society" project will soon be getting the heavy knock at the door.

The Metropolitan Police have made their priorities extremely clear. Up to 200 officers have been devoted to hunting down students and anti-cuts activists, knocking on the doors of school pupils and arresting them for their part in demonstrations against education cutbacks that took place nine months ago. Thirty UK Uncut protesters are still facing charges for their part in a peaceful demonstration in Fortnum and Mason, footage from the police recordings of which shows some dangerous anarchists waving placards in the foyer and batting a beach ball over a stack of expensive cheese. Up to 300 activists have been arrested so far, in a joint operation that has already cost the taxpayer £3.65m. By contrast, only eight man-hours were spent in 2009 investigating the allegation that feral press barons were being permitted to run what amounted to a protection racket at the Met.

When he resigned as Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson listed some of his proudest moments at the Met. These included the force at their "glorious and unobtrusive best" on the occasion of the royal wedding. Thats not how I remember it. I remember hippies and students all over the country being dragged out of their homes and arrested for crimes they hadnt even thought of committing. The disgraced former police chief also congratulated the force on their "professional and restrained approach" at the recent student demonstrations. Thats not what I saw. I saw them dragging Jody McIntyre out of his wheelchair. I saw crowds of students and schoolchildren screaming and scrambling over one another as they fled a charge by mounted police that put at least forty-three of them in hospital and left one young man fighting for his life on the operating table.

As students and activists continue to be charged with violent disorder, it seems to have been forgotten that this offence normally relates to acts of self-defence in the face of police brutality. It is now a crime to fight back when you're getting bludgeoned with batons for daring to take a stand against unfair, unnecessary cuts to public services. Police officers, meanwhile, are rarely charged in connection with violence against protesters. In 2009, despite video evidence showing Sgt Delroy Smellie assaulting Nicola Fisher, District Judge Daphne Wickham ruled that he had acted lawfully. This week, the same judge ignored sentencing guidelines to send Jonnie Marbles to prison for attempting to splatter Rupert Murdoch with shaving foam.

Marbles hurt nobody with his misguided prank. Nor did 20-year-old Frank Fernie, who is serving a year in jail for "throwing two sticks at police officers" in full body armour. Nor did Charlie Gilmour, whose drunken antics at the student demonstrations earned him 16 months in Wandsworth, where he is currently spending 23-hours a day locked in a tiny cell with an armed robber. Although some have identified these opprobrious sentences as attacks on the right to protest, the courts seem only to be making examples of certain types of protester whose principles directly threaten the ruling consensus. Stephen Lennon, the leader of the far-right English Defence League, was recently convicted of leading a street brawl and threatening members of the public, but received only a fine and a community order.

The Home Office has admitted to ongoing discussions with the Metropolitan police about operational policies and procedures concerning UK Uncut and other anti-cuts groups. So much for the separation of powers. So much for the rule of law. I am sick of it. I am sick of seeing peaceful protesters scapegoated as violent thugs and sent to prison while right-wing extremists and corrupt media tycoons walk free. At a time when millions have urgent and legitimate grievances with this government, the criminalisation of dissent should outrage us all.

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

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.