Why the Fortnum & Mason protesters’ case matters

The judge said we had not been personally intimidating, then found us guilty anyway. What now for th

If 300 football fans chant together and then one assaults a rival supporter, are they all responsible? If you're on a protest and someone commits a crime and you don't leave immediately, can you be held to account for the person's actions? That was the question put before Westminster Magistrates' Court as we, the first ten defendants in the trials of those arrested for staging a sit-in at Fortnum & Mason on 26 March 2011, faced our verdict. We were found guilty of aggravated trespass; nine of us were given a conditional discharge and order to pay costs of £1,000 each, while the tenth was also fined.

The prosecution was required to prove an act beyond ordinary trespass — which on its own is not a crime. In this case, it argued that the protesters demonstrated intent to intimidate. Michael Snow, the district judge, accepted in his sentencing that none of us had been personally intimidating towards staff and shoppers, but said that under the terms of "joint enterprise" we were responsible for the actions of other protesters.

For the first few days of the trial, prosecution witness after prosecution witness — staff, customers and police officers — explained that most of those inside the store were, in the words of the chief inspector on the scene, "sensible" and "non-violent". One key prosecution witness, when asked by the prosecution barrister if he had seen anyone inside the store doing anything he believed to be criminal, said: "No." The police officers co-ordinating the case held their heads in their hands.

There is some evidence that a small number of acts inside the store may have been intimidating. There is no evidence that any of us on trial was responsible for these. In fact, in the case of many defendants, no individual evidence has been presented at all, and in my own case the court was shown footage of me engaged in the intimidating act of . . . facilitating a meeting inside the shop. But the prosecution maintained that we were guilty because we didn't leave when the intimidating acts allegedly took place. We will find out if the high court agrees when we take the case to appeal.

In a sense, this sort of verdict has been waiting to happen. In the past, it was hard to go on a potentially civilly disobedient protest without first knowing each other and planning it together. But in the Internet Age, it is increasingly easy to read a tweet and just pitch up at a location along with strangers. Can you, in this situation, be accused of "joint enterprise" with everyone at the resulting protest, even though you have never previously met them? Should everyone at such a protest be held accountable for the actions of everyone else? The implications of a guilty verdict are pretty scary — in effect, the Crown Prosecution Service and District Judge Snow believe that the only evidence they need to convict you for protesting is that someone else at the protest did something illegal.

This rests on a ludicrous premise: that it is acceptable to drag through the courts a group of people whose only crime is to have attended a "sensible" protest. Aggravated trespass legislation was introduced in 1994 as an explicit attempt to criminalise certain types of protest. Yet even this dubious law wasn't written so broadly as to include any demonstration in a shop.

This new development is worrying. Perhaps more worrying, however, is the disparity between the Crown's enthusiasm in pursuing the case, compared to their complete failure to convict a single banker over the acts that led to the financial crisis of 2007-2008. We'll see them again in the high court.

Adam Ramsay blogs for Bright Green

Adam Ramsay is co-editor of the UK section of openDemocracy, a contributor to bright-green.org and a long standing Green Party member.

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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.