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.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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