Northern Irish police use water cannon on an Orangeman marcher in July 2013. Photo: Getty
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The pros and cons of water cannon policing

For sale: three water cannon. One previous owner. 90 per cent off.

Here’s the first thing to say about Boris Johnson's decision to purchase three water cannon for use in riot policing: he has got us a terrific bargain.

A brand new water cannon would generally set you back around £870,000, which is quite a lot of money, even in London. But by buying them second hand from the German federal police force, Johnson's deputy Stephen Greenhalgh has managed to get the Metropolitan Police a job lot of three, for the low, low price of just £218,000.

That's more than 90 per cent off. I mean, you would, wouldn't you? If you walked past a shop selling laptops at 8 per cent of their regular price, you'd have to stop yourself from going in. Can we really expect our leaders to show any greater restraint?

The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) quite fancies some toys of its own, and last January published this briefing paper, helpfully outlined the advantages of using water cannon in riot policing. For one thing, they can be used from a distance: this not only keeps the boys in blue safe from harm, it reduces the chance of minor scuffles that can escalate into something more dangerous. A cannon’s mere presence can have a deterrent effect, too, the briefing claims: in Northern Ireland, whose police force has six of the things, they’re "often deployed without being employed".

Best of all, water cannon "provide a graduated and flexible application of force, ranging from spray or diffused mode to  forceful water jets". In other words, those who fire them have at least some control over the appropriate level of force to use.

That is not something that can be said of other approaches to crowd control at a distance. If you don’t have a water cannon, the main alternative is ‘Attenuated Energising Projectiles’ which, ACPO tells us, are more commonly known as baton rounds. In fact they're more commonly still known as rubber bullets (words that don’t appear anywhere in ACPO's briefing). These, despite being rubber, are pretty nasty things: better to disperse a crowd by giving them a light hosing than to jump straight to shooting at them.

Oh, and you can water flowers with them. That's nice, too.

That's the good news. Here's the bad: water cannon are indiscriminate. They're not used to target individuals, but to target entire crowds. If you're at the wrong protest, if you’re standing on the wrong place, it doesn't matter how well behaved you are: you're going to get blasted.

And ‘blasted’ is the word. We probably all realise by now that these things aren't Supersoakers, but what happened when they were used in Stuttgart in 2010 is really, genuinely shocking. Here’s how the BBC reported it after the event:

"Dietrich Wagner – a 69-year-old retired engineer – was hit in the face at a protest in Stuttgart four years ago. His eyelids were torn and some of the bones around his eyes fractured, causing his eyeballs to fall out of their sockets."

Let’s say that again. His eyeballs fell out of their sockets. That is an extreme case: no such injuries have ever been recorded in Northern Ireland. Nonetheless, it’s a reminder of quite how nasty these things can be.

The Home Secretary has yet to grant police the power to use water cannon in England and Wales. Even when that happens, senior police officers have repeatedly reassured that the technology will only rarely be used. (That briefing document identifies three protests where they may have been useful, one of which, hilariously, was the Countryside Alliance's 2004 march on Parliament Square.) As ACPO itself admits, “whilst water cannon can have a deterrent effect, it must also equally be understood that its presence alone can be inflammatory".

But the Metropolitan Police are, shall we say, not averse to using their crowd control powers to the maximum of their abilities. Inflammatory behaviour by riot police is hardly unknown either. Now they've got their toys, it seems probable that they'll want to use them.

This is a preview of our new sister publication, CityMetric. We'll be launching its website soon - in the meantime, you can follow it on Twitter and Facebook.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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Sadiq Khan is probably London's new mayor - what will happen in a Tooting by-election?

There will be a by-election in the new mayor's south London seat.

At the time of writing, Sadiq Khan appears to have a fairly comfortable lead over Zac Goldsmith in the London mayoral election. Which means (at least) two (quite) interesting things are likely to happen: 1) Sadiq Khan is going to be mayor, and 2) there is going to be a by-election in Tooting.

Unlike the two parliamentary by-elections in Ogmore and Sheffield that Labour won at a canter last night, the south London seat of Tooting is a genuine marginal. The Conservatives have had designs on the seat since at least 2010, when the infamous ‘Tatler Tory’, Mark Clarke, was the party’s candidate. Last May, Khan narrowly increased his majority over the Tories, winning by almost 3,000 votes with a majority of 5.3 per cent. With high house prices pushing London professionals further out towards the suburbs, the seat is gentrifying, making Conservatives more positive about the prospect of taking the seat off Labour. No government has won a by-election from an opposition party since the Conservative Angela Rumbold won Mitcham and Morden from a Labour-SDP defector in June 1982. In a nice parallel, that seat borders Tooting.

Of course, the notion of a Tooting by-election will not come as a shock to local Conservatives, however much hope they invested in a Goldsmith mayoral victory. Unusually, the party’s candidate from the general election, Dan Watkins, an entrepreneur who has lived in the area for 15 years, has continued to campaign in the seat since his defeat, styling himself as the party’s “parliamentary spokesman for Tooting”. It would be a big surprise if Watkins is not re-anointed as the candidate for the by-election.

What of the Labour side? For some months, those on the party’s centre-left have worried with varying degrees of sincerity that Ken Livingstone may see the by-election as a route back into Parliament. Having spent the past two weeks muttering conspiratorially about the relationship between early 20th-Century German Jews and Adolf Hitler before having his Labour membership suspended, that possibility no longer exists.

Other names talked about include: Rex Osborn, leader of the Labour group on Wandsworth Council; Simon Hogg, who is Osborn’s deputy; Rosena Allin-Khan, an emergency medicine doctor who also deputises for Osborn; Will Martindale, who was Labour’s defeated candidate in Battersea last year; and Jayne Lim, who was shortlisted earlier in the year for the Sheffield Brightside selection and used to practise as a doctor at St George’s hospital in Tooting.

One thing that any new Labour MP would have to contend with is the boundary review reporting in 2018, which will reduce the number of London constituencies by 5. This means that a new Tooting MP could quickly find themselves pitched in a selection fight for a new constituency with their neighbours Siobhan McDonagh, who currently holds Mitcham and Morden, and/or Chuka Umunna, who is the MP for Streatham. 

According to the Sunday Times, Labour is planning to hold the by-election as quickly as possible, perhaps even before the EU referendum on June 23rd.

It's also worth noting that, as my colleague Anoosh Chakelian reported in March, George Galloway plans to stand as well.

Henry Zeffman writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2015.