Bloody Tories: the shrinking realm of public discourse

The conviction of Bethan Tichborne begs the question: has Britain outlawed the truth?

Has Britain finally outlawed the truth? I struggle to find a case where any of the of thousands of members of the Stop the War Coalition fell foul of criminal law for accusing Tony Blair of having "blood on his hands", yet four months ago Bethan Tichborne was arrested and last week tried, convicted and fined, for saying the same of David Cameron, with an Oxford district judge finding that her words constituted "threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour" proscribed by the Public Order Act 1986. It could "hardly be more insulting to anyone, whether a politician or not," said the judge, to suggest that the Prime Minister "had blood on his hands."

Polemically, of course, the two are very different cases: where the former were clearly protesting against machinery of death, Tichborne's argument is more nuanced, suggesting that the Government, by cutting the welfare entitlement of the disabled, is responsible for the deaths of those who, out of "fear of destitution, the exhaustion of constant WCA and ESA assessments and endless forms," take their own lives. While it is possible to employ various efficiency arguments to maintain that cuts in social welfare are worthwhile or not, there is considerable scope for disagreement. Though expressed in extreme terms, Tichborne's argument is not without basis in fact: not in that David Cameron actually has human blood on his hands, but in that there is an entire academic discipline dedicated to the study of the trade-off.

Tichborne's case is drawn in still sharper relief when one considers the involvement of the Public Order Act, Section 5 of which proscribes engaging in "threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour... within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby." Recall that, in January, a prominent national campaign backed by Stephen Fry and Rowan Atkinson among others secured the future removal of the word "insulting" from Section 5. This campaign notwithstanding, the word "insulting" continues in Section 4A (relating to intentionally causing harassment, alarm and distress) and, in the case of Section 5, while "'insulting' is gone, 'abusive' remains." This should not give politically active citizens much, if any, comfort, as "the courts are very willing to conflate the two" concepts in cases where language is sufficiently inflammatory (see paragraph 29 of Abdul v DPP), and in such instances - of which I should think Bethan Tichborne's is one - it is no defence that particular words are "not abusive and insulting because they were (believed to be) true."

Language permits myriad ways to call a man a scoundrel and, fortunately, the mere suggestion that a politician has "blood on his hands" is not, prima facie, illegal - at least, not yet. But it is not prima facie permissible, either. When one man's apt metaphor is another man's insult, where do we draw the line? The English courts have difficulty resolving the question, admitting that the existing legislation makes it impossible to define in advance which kinds of political speech are permissible, and which are not (at paragraph 57). So what appears at first to be a public order question becomes a civil liberties one.

Even if one disagrees fundamentally with Tichborne's politics, it would be difficult to maintain that she doesn't have an objectively valid point - one which she is now less free to express. For Tichborne, the subtler nature of her argument - the wider range of possible disagreement her claim invites, and little else - places her on the wrong side of a law which is not endowed with any "cognizance of unintentional offences." The combination of overbroad legislation and overzealous local policing leads, in her case, to a violation of what most of us would consider to be the "certain minimum area of personal freedom which must on no account be violated" because, as put by Isaiah Berlin (pdf), "if it is overstepped, the individual will find himself in an area too narrow for even that minimum development of his natural faculties which alone makes it possible to pursue, and even to conceive, the various ends which men hold good or right or sacred." 

The statutory framework regulating speech in the United Kingdom is not remotely appropriate for a free state. I hope Tichborne appeals. I hope she wins. For if Bethan Tichborne is a criminal, so are we all.

 

 

A protestor dressed as Tony Blair shows his "bloody" hands. Photograph: Getty Images

Preston Byrne is a fellow at the Adam Smith Institute.

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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.