The UK's new self-defence law opens the door for a Trayvon Martin case

By placing what is essentially a variant of Florida's "stand your ground" law on the statute book, the coalition has created the potential for greater acts of vigilantism.

Tony and Trayvon Martin. Not related by blood, but the two share more than a surname. The supporters of both men claim that they are the victims of unfair self-defence laws in their respective countries. Whereas in the UK, Tony Martin was deemed to have unlawfully killed the burglar who had entered his farmhouse, Trayvon Martin’s killer has walked free from a Florida Court. In seeking to avoid the issues caused by Tony Martin’s prison sentence, the UK government has made worrying moves towards the much-criticised US position.

The “stand your ground” self-defence law in Florida, states that a person who is attacked in a place where he or she has a right to be has “no duty to retreat and has the right to… meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so”.

In the aftermath of the Zimmerman trial, the United States Attorney General, Eric Holder called into question “laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defence and sow dangerous conflict in our neighbourhoods”. The veteran campaigner Reverend Al Sharpton went as far as to describe the stand your ground law, which exists in over 30 States as the “worst violation of civil rights” in America. If the dry words of the legal text books do not provide enough context, perhaps the fact that this law is supported strongly by the National Rifle Association will.

Opponents argue that by allowing a lawful excuse for people to stand and fight when faced with what they perceive to be a grave threat, the law will lead to unnecessary escalations in violence. When this is coupled with ingrained racial stereotyping which perceives certain races to be more threatening than others, the law can justify or even catalyse a deadly chain of events.

Ironically, it is a variant of the stand your ground law – in fact a more extreme form – that the coalition has just written into the statute books.  

In 2012, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling grandly declared: “The public should be in no doubt that in such circumstances that the law really is on their side. We need to get rid of doubts in this area once and for all”. Contrary to Grayling’s version of events, the law prior to his amendment was appropriate to deal with the situation of people threatened in their own homes: a person was allowed to use such force as is reasonable, in the circumstances which he honestly believed to be the case. This rule took into account the possibility for an honest mistake about the level of threat that an intruder poses but crucially, did not act as a carte-blanche for acts of personal revenge or retribution. Sometimes, it is reasonable to not use force at all.

The law did not impose an onerous duty on the initial victims of a crime to carefully consider absurd trade-offs: “Should I hit him with a vase, or use a golf club?” The statute books, judges, and perhaps most crucially, the Crown Prosecution Service did not expect a person to, as one Law Lord put it “weigh to a nicety” the exact measure of a defensive action. Fortunately, this remains unchanged in all situations apart from that of the household.

One recent amendment provides that a possibility that a defendant could have retreated is to be as a factor to be taken into account in deciding whether force was reasonable, rather than as giving rise to a duty to retreat– in other words, this is a statutory endorsement of the stand your ground law. More importantly though, s.43 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which came into force this April, provides that in a household case (the definition of which is complex), the degree of force used by a defendant is “not to be regarded as having been reasonable” in the circumstances as the defendant believed them to be “if it was grossly disproportionate in those circumstances”. This ungainly negative formulation will only serve to confuse matters. It appears that some level of disproportionate force will be available to householders, but precisely what degree is entirely unclear. How does one distinguish what is merely disproportionate from grossly disproportionate?

Chris Grayling’s bluster is liable to cause two problems. First, the new law will create more rather than less confusion, second it may even encourage people to think that acts of vigilantism are now ratified. As the Trayvon Martin case has demonstrated, this can go horribly wrong. In their knee-jerk reaction to the cases like that of Tony Martin, the government risks opening the door to the tragedy of his namesake.



People hold up photographs of Trayvon Martin at a rally in Manhattan. Photograph: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.