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
Getty Images.
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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.