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
Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.