Mark Thomas - assesses the threat of banner-waving

It is now an offence to "spoil the visual aspect" of Parliament Square. Which is legal speak for tel

''Are you thinking what we're thinking?" Well, if you are thinking: "I'd rather get cancer than vote for Michael Howard," then the answer is: "Yes I am!" If, on the other hand, you are thinking: "Committed and casual racists vote Tory!" then the answer is: "No." Never has an election campaign been so offensive and yet so dull. Remember that someone actually got paid to come up with "Forward not back". A grown man (probably) in a suit shouted across a meeting: "I've got it! Forward not back!" He may well have been carried shoulder-high around the room in euphoria.

As, yet again, the election outcome depends upon key marginals - where all the parties' efforts are pitched to win those relatively small numbers of votes - so the process of democracy becomes only slightly more inclusive than the election of a new pope. And with just as much likelihood of radical change. What are the chances of reversing the ravages of privatisation, scrapping the private finance initiative and desisting from being America's stunted sidekick? It's as likely as a Marie Stopes clinic being set up in St Peter's Square.*

Our debased democracy is undermined even further as Labour's laws bear their bitter fruit and continue to restrict our right to protest. Ironically, it was protest that led to the Labour Party's very creation. The Chartists fought and died for the right to vote. In this country, women vote not as a result of marketing slogans, but because of protest and direct action. Our right to protest is the cornerstone of democracy. Has the Labour government forgotten all of this? Do bears shit in the woods? Does the Pope protect child abusers?

Consider Brian Haw. Brian has held a lone peace vigil in Parliament Square since July 2001, demonstrating against the sanctions on Iraq and war in that country. You might have seen him, if you have passed by during that time, standing amid flags and banners opposite our mother of parliaments. In the dying stages of the last parliament, Labour rushed through the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill, which included clauses aimed at getting Brian removed.

It is now an offence for someone to be "spoiling the visual aspect, or otherwise spoiling the enjoyment by members of the public, of any part of the designated area [Parliament Square]". All of which is legal speak for: "Fuck off with your banners about the war." Furthermore, the bill prohibits demonstrations within a 1km radius of parliament without six days' notice and permission from the police, who can set a limit on the numbers of protesters and banners. We could now be arrested for having one too many placards.

Maybe I missed something. Maybe I've underestimated the threat of a banner. Maybe I had my ears blocked when the government said: "We were going to ask for Syria to leave the Lebanon, but not after such a wanton display of flag-waving by demonstrators." Nor did I hear the announcement, "Well, you can understand why any Ukrainian autocrat would rig the election, after such a violent use of the colour orange."

Consider Lindis Percy. She is a registered midwife, Quaker and peace activist who demonstrates at Menwith Hill, the US spy base near Harrogate in Yorkshire. Because she has protested against the base and its role in guiding bombers into action in Iraq, she is being threatened with an antisocial behaviour order by the Ministry of Defence police.

That sounds reasonable; after all, you can't move round our way for gangs of Quaker midwives downing alcopops outside the community centre, shouting at local residents: "You better be having a natural childbirth or we'll fucking do you!" and "See your missus? I stitched her!" Quaker midwives? Don't get me started. They are forever nicking ambulances and doing doughnuts in the residents-only parking spaces.

Consider the case of EDO MBM Technology, an arms company based in Brighton, merrily producing the release mechanisms and guidance systems for the bombs dropped on Iraq. Faced with protesters outside its doors, it has sought an injunction to create an exclusion zone around the factory, on public highways and the park by the factory. "Against who?" you ask. Against everyone who might not like its work; if the injunction is granted, anyone who walks past its gates with a "Smash EDO" badge could be arrested. Unless they are doing it on Thursdays, when the company has generously said it will allow no more than ten people to protest - quietly.

You have to wonder if it's worth defending a democracy so fragile that it has to try to crush a sole protester outside parliament, a Quaker at a military base, and anyone and everyone who wanders past an arms factory with a bad attitude.

* Any reader with knowledge of planning application law in Vatican City, please get in touch. It's worth a go.