'Tony Blair is a cult'

The campaign to concrete rural England, ban February and for legalising urban foxhunting hits London

Dear citizen reader,

It is with pride that I can confirm that the latest attack on the exposed flanks of government absurdity has been successful. As announced in the last blog a new phase has been entered into with the battle with the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA), leading to a massive surge of citizens deployed.

SOCPA is the legislation - introduced to quieten down peace campaigner Brian Haw and his 5 year vigil outside Parliament - that requires us to get permission from the police if we wish to demonstrate in Parliament Square and it’s environs. As the police deem one person with a banner, badge or T Shirt (with, for example, a peace sign or indeed a Labour Party slogan) as a protest the law manages to criminalise people just for their mode of dress, it also stamps out spontaneous freedom of speech and gives the police a law that frankly they don’t need.

This absurd requirement to get permission to wear a T shirt has been met with an absurdist response, namely Mass Lone Demonstrations (MLD). The MLD’s take place on the third Wednesday of every month in Parliament Square. People demonstrate on individual issues, ranging from “troops out of Iraq” to “Abolish February”, thus forcing the police to issue written permissions for each individual protestor.

The 5th of April saw a group of protestors arrive at Charing Cross police station to hand in 1,186 individual requests to protest. I think it fair to say the police reaction was not one of immense pleasure.
As more applications to demonstrate were handed in over the following week the final number of requests sent to the police came to 2,486. Given that between August 2005 and December 2006 the police processed just over 1,300 requests it is also fair to say that we gave the police 2 years work in 2 weeks.

Saturday the 21st saw a beautiful spring day greet the 300 odd protestors (each having applied to demonstrate in 10-20 different places around the SOCPA
zone) as they gathered in Parliament Square. We made for an eclectic collective, comprised as we were of lawyers, punk rockers, students, artists, activists and the plain old disgruntled folk from Middle England. Some carried bundles of banners and placards, with wooden poles and cardboard protruding from them at odd angles. Some had hand held easy to wipe white boards, so as to write a new slogan at each protest.

One person had even brought a roll of wallpaper which had her 20 odd slogans written out and carefully ordered to be unrolled at the appropriate moment.

A multitude of banners pricked the air, demanding everything from an end to the war in Iraq to the immediate release of all Goodies episodes on DVD. Then after some cheers and shouts the protestors split up to head to their next demonstration.

The law says that the police must give permission for people to demonstrate within the area covered by the law (see previous article and map)which includes Downing Street. So for the first time since the gates went up in 1989 we were allowed to demonstrate in Downing St itself rather than being herded into the metal railings in Whitehall opposite. So in groups of twos and threes we were allowed into the hallowed grounds, having gone through various metal detectors and escorted by police. I had made a blue plaque, announcing that Tony Blair Lived here - Prime Minister and War criminal. My friend Tony happily waved his banner declaring “Shame on me for voting Labour”.

Another protestor held a banner declaring “My prime minister has been kidnapped by a cult.” Whilst his neighbours sign read “My prime minister is a cult.”

As each protestor has chosen a different route for their 20 odd protests the day had a weird feel of a situationalist art event. Groups of protestors mingled with tourists and sightseers before hauling high their demands and proclamations - Make tourists get permission to visit! So as I wandered with friends to the Department of Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs,(variously demanding the legalisation of Urban Fox hunting, the concreting over of the countryside and rural affairs for all!) we bumped into other protestors demanding the abolition of the countryside.

It was like 2,486 little gags taking place in Westminster and being able to wander in and out of some of them.

At one point while heading to Clive of India’s statue, I spot 2 chaps – one looking like George Bernard Shaw standing by the entrance of Churchill’s war cabinet rooms, holding their signs declaring “Churchill gassed the Kurds in 1920” and “Churchill wasn’t as nice as you might think” as people file in to visit. Foreigner guests and England football shirt wearing natives look on in curiosity occasionally querying “What’s all this about?” Before the protestors finish their 10 minute vigil and move on.

Finally the peripatetic hoard return to Parliament Square to finish the day. There was one incident with the police who decided to stop and search two women clowns, one wearing a colander on her head. I am not sure what threat the police believed they might pose as women clowns tend not to feature very much on Crime Watch. However, as we gathered to listen to the chimes of Big Ben announce 5.30pm, the end of our permission to demonstrate, conversations buzzed about how friendly the police had been. One officer I got chatting to went slightly beyond the call of duty declaring, “Frankly, I agree with you, we don’t need it [SOCPA]. We’ve got enough paperwork as it is ,why do we need more? I support what your doing.”

Here are some of SOCPA’s other finest moments:

Baroness Sue Miller has to get permission for various Lords to have a demonstration outside the House of Lords.

Mark Thomas has to get permission from the police to wear a red nose in Parliament Square on Red Nose Day, “as a precaution.” Just in case a police officer thought it was a demonstration and arrest him.

Maya Evans arrested and convicted for reading out the names of the Iraqi and British war dead at the Cenotaph, without permission.

Sian, a friend of mine, was threatened with arrest over a cake she had at a picnic, it had the word PEACE iced upon it.

Woman threatened with arrest for wearing a T shirt which had pictures of Brian Haw’s banners on it, calling for an end to war. According to the police wearing the T Shirt near Downing St was an unauthorised protest. When she pointed out that the T Shirt advertised the Mark Wallinger exhibition of Brian’s placards in Tate Britain the police kindly deemed her T shirt legal.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.