The trial of Alfie Meadows and Zak King

Defending the right to protest.

It was an unlikely security crackdown. Following a show of support by Defend The Right To Protest outside Woolwich Crown Court, the families and friends of student protest defendants Alfie Meadows and Zak King were denied access to the building, along with members of the press. Waiting outside in the snow, we were told, variously, that the public gallery was full, that it was empty but only a few seats were allocated to us, that only the defendants' family would be permitted to enter, or that security had been ordered to keep all “protesters” outside, a decision of the court manager until the judge in the case let the freezing group in. The principle of open justice, which deems that courts must be available to public scrutiny as far as reasonably possible, seemed in conflict with the high security of the facility itself, an airport-style array of scanners, barriers, sealed doors and uniformed guards.

That wintry morning's wait marked the recommencement of the second trial of Alfie Meadows and Zak King, each facing a single charge of violent disorder dating from the tuition fees protests of December 2010. This second trial began last year, but was abandoned in November, after delays and illness left the court unable to conclude. The first trial, in 2012, resulted in a hung jury, and despite representations from both Meadows and King, the Crown Prosecution Service declined to drop charges after being unable to secure a guilty verdict in that instance.

The support campaign for Meadows and King, led by Defend The Right To Protest, has mobilised students, trades unions, academics, lecturers and teachers, and linked the student protest movement to the family campaigns against death in police custody. The awful post-surgical image of the near-fatal head injury Meadows sustained during the protest is by now familiar. What is less well understood is the impact of this lengthy judicial process on the defendants and their families: almost two years, by now, of court appearances, legal wrangling and waiting, of viewing and reviewing the same distressing evidence; almost two years of life on bail - a life of curtailed freedoms, of work unfinished or unbegun, a long lacuna in meaningful living.

This time around, the trial is taking place at Woolwich Crown Court, a privately-run, high-security court adjacent to Belmarsh Prison. The nearest overground stop is a 15-minute walk away between a busy dual carriageway and a razor fence. Inside the facility, panoptical security arrangements prevail, with public areas under surveillance and private areas demarcated. With a sizeable log of video and audio evidence to get through, as well as witness appearances, this third iteration of the trial of Meadows and King is set to run for up to six weeks.

James Lofthouse opened for the Crown with a slew of video evidence of the containment in Parliament Square. This footage was largely drawn from helicopter surveillance, CCTV and hand-held video from Forward Intelligence officers, the Public Order Intelligence street teams whose presence at protests has become emblematic of the diminishing right of free assembly. Witnesses for the prosecution included two officers, PC Marcham and PC Bartlett, from the Parliament Square cordon - the police term for the lines of uniformed and Territorial Support Unit officers which prevent free passage during a “full containment”, or kettle. The court also heard from Superintendent Woods, from the third tier of command at the protest, a Bronze Commander on the day (police use a structure of Gold (strategic), Silver (tactical) and Bronze (operational) command for public order events). Given that their original statements had been written in 2010, the officers were permitted to use them for reference where memory failed, though under cross-examination from Tom Wainwright, counsel for Zak King, PC Bartlett admitted that his statement, which he had said was contemporaneous, included evidence he had not been aware of until he had discussed the day's events with his colleagues.

Questioning largely focused on the use of batons, and the jury was shown footage of officers striking out at protesters at several points in the evening. Though the cordon officers had agreed that baton use was a last resort, and that they were more than aware from their training how much injury a head strike could cause, Supt. Woods defended the use of batons and head strikes in some other circumstances. The jury was shown footage of officers striking protesters, some masked, who were walking past the police line; Supt. Woods responded that the officers were showing "superb restraint." When pressed by the defence on the necessity of baton use against masked protesters who were simply walking past, Supt. Woods replied that officers might be at risk of being "dragged into the crowd" by the protesters. Further videos of head strikes, collarbone strikes and confrontation followed, with Supt. Woods defending baton use and speculating that officers may be being spat at as justification. On being asked once more whether baton use was an absolute last resort, Supt. Woods responded, "the absolute last resort is getting a machine gun out, but in this instance, yes, a baton strike or horses."

Meadows and King deny the charge of violent disorder.

The trial continues this week.

Alfie Meadows and Zak King deny the charge of violent disorder. Photograph: Getty Images
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Is Labour really as doomed as it seems? The polls have got it wrong before

Pollsters often overrate Labour's performance. But in two elections, the opposite happened. 

Few moments in the Labour Party’s history can have felt as gloomy as this one. Going into a general election that almost no-one expects them to win, their overall opinion polling is appalling. Labour seems becalmed in the mid-20s; the Conservative Party has rocketed into the mid- to high-40s, and has even touched 50 per cent in one survey.

The numbers underlying those voting intention figures seem, if anything, worse. The Conservatives have huge leads on leadership and economic competence – often even more reliable indicators of election results than the headline numbers. High turnout groups such as the over-65s have turned against Labour in unprecedented numbers. Working-class Brits have swung towards the Conservative, placing once-safe Labour seats in danger. There are limited, but highly suggestive, hints among the data that the swing against Labour is higher in its own marginal seats – a potentially toxic development for any party seeking to hang on to MPs, as Conservatives defending apparently impregnable majorities under John Major in 1997 would attest.

All the while, Labour seems confused about what it is really for. Try as he might, Keir Starmer’s term as Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary has been marred by a fatal confusion and indecision about the extent of the UK’s future engagement with the European Union’s single market. Labour seems neither the party of Brexit nor of Remain, but one determined to irritate as many voters as possible. A similar situation reigns in Scotland, where nationalists under Nicola Sturgeon face Conservative Unionists led by Ruth Davidson, and Labour struggles even to gain a hearing.

Many Labour policy offers – free primary school meals for all, the promise of free university tuition, nationalising the railways, upholding the triple lock of pensions, opposing National Insurance rises for the self-employed – are pleasingly universal, while in isolation appealing to different electoral groups. But together, they represent a massive shift of resources to higher-income Brits that would take huge tax rises to offset. Labour is dangerously close to offering a regressive package under the guise of left-wing radicalism. This is pretty much as far from the British people’s electoral sweet spot as it is possible to imagine.

It is therefore little wonder that Labour lags so far behind Theresa May’s Conservatives. Even some Labour strongholds appear likely to fall - regional polls from London and Wales suggest that many Labour seats will be lost in the party’s remaining citadels. Brutal stories are already coming in from the campaign trail. Rumours fly of truly epochal losses - though it is important to note that other anecdotes seem much less dramatic.

Still, there are other indicators – all too easily missed in the heat of the moment – that point in the other direction. Labour’s performance in local by-elections has been dire for the main opposition party, but the swing towards the Conservatives has been running at "only" just over 2 per cent. The party has certainly suffered some big swings against it, and it has lost wards to the Conservatives in local authorities as varied as Hertfordshire, Harrow and Middlesborough. But there is no evidence that its vote has collapsed on the scale that some of the polling suggests.

Relatively recent history should also give us pause before we write Labour off altogether. Consider the last two general elections in which Labour had near-death experiences, in both 1983 and 2010. Britain’s third party - first the Liberal-SDP Alliance, and then the Liberal Democrats - seemed about to overtake Labour in the popular vote, and steal scores of seats from the bigger progressive party. On both occasions, Labour was able to draw on hitherto unguessed-at wells of cultural identity and strength to pull away right at the campaign’s end. These are in fact the only elections in recent times when the polls have underrated, rather than overestimated, Labour’s likely score. It might be that the same phenomenon emerges this time.

The Conservatives’ huge lead right now has not resulted from a sudden collapse in Labour support, but rather from the United Kingdom Independence Party’s well-publicised implosion. If anything, after about a year of steady decline, the last week or two has seen Labour’s twelve months of slow deflation grind to a halt. Labour’s numbers have even ticked up a point or two as some voters appear to rally around "their" flag. It might be that, as you squeeze the Labour vote down, it becomes more resilient to further shrinkage.

As the Conservatives try to push into Labour’s heartlands, they might find it harder and harder to persuade voters across, from Ukip as well as from Labour. The Conservatives’ image is still far from good in such communities, whatever the underanalysed and separate appeal of PM May as a strong, considered leader in need of a negotiator’s mandate in Europe. Voters might be attracted to May, and repelled by Corbyn - that does not necessarily mean that they will actually vote Conservative. There is little evidence, so far, of any realignment in how voters see themselves – whether they "are" Labour or Conservative, rather than the more ephemeral question of whether they will simply vote for those parties.

Humans always look for patterns. Experts are no exception, while journalists and commentators can always jump to rapid – but wrong – conclusions in the overexcited heat of an election campaign. So it is with the threat of a Labour catastrophe on 8 June. The danger of just such a result is definitely there. But some of the data points we already have, and two recent elections at which Labour walked close to an abyss, cast a little bit of doubt on the inevitability of such an outcome. There are still just over six weeks to go. A Conservative landslide is still quite likely. But it is not certain. We should keep an eye out for the many hints that May’s gamble might end in a rather less crushing victory than we have been led to expect.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He blogs, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past. He is the author of a series of books about modern Britain, including The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (Palgrave Macmillan: forthcoming, May 2017).

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