Are the police afraid of Twitter?

Report highlights changing nature of protest – both from the left and the far right.

 

Police are struggling to keep up with protest in the digital age, according to a new report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC).

The report is interesting in two respects – first, it notes that protests are on the up ("after a few, relatively quiet years, this is a new period of public order policing"), and second, it explains that the nature of protest is changing.

On the second point, it says that "what seems evident is a willingness to disrupt the public and test police", and explains:

The character of protest is evolving in terms of: the numbers involved; spread across the country; associated sporadic violence; disruption caused; short notice or no-notice events, and swift changes in protest tactics.

. . . large numbers of protesters can be organised in hours and change their focus in minutes through the use of social media and mobile phones. Those responsible for commanding events must plan with this adaptability in mind.

Given that it warns that reforms to police tactics take about two years to filter down, this can only be good news for anti-cuts protesters such as UK Uncut (which I wrote about in the magazine recently) and students.

While the police can certainly work on their monitoring of social media, it is difficult to see how they can effectively police the rapid response garnered by "flash mob"-style protests in multiple locations.

HMIC notes that "adaptability and preparedness come at a cost", with some forces reporting significant increases in spending on public order. This is problematic, given government plans to cut police grants by 20 per cent.

But coming back to the first point – that protests are on the up – it is important for those on the left to remember that this isn't all the work of romantic would-be revolutionaries. Indeed, the most significant public order burden by far is presented by the English Defence League, which, HMIC says, is "test[ing] police resources at short notice".

The report's summary of significant demonstrations over the past 18 months shows that more than half were organised by EDL in small towns across the country. With the exception of one student protest, EDL required the largest police presence.

The recent use of CS gas against UK Uncut campaigners, and violence against student protesters in December, is clear evidence that the police are panicking in the face of a new breed of protest that they do not understand. It is essential that they adapt to the changed circumstances in a way that facilitates the public right to peaceful protest, and not simply by attempting to stamp it out.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.