In the coming few weeks, a couple of huge bills are going through Parliament which will have a significant impact on the democracy of the UK.
The first of these is the Policing Bill. You may remember there being noise about it when it was introduced in early 2021. Its now on its way through the Lords, and is a great big stinking mess. One of its biggest problems is how it handles peaceful protest, by handing discretionary powers to the police and the Home Secretary which allow them to arbitrarily decide if your peaceful protest it too loud or disruptive. This may not sound like a big deal, but it is huge. It makes it legal for someone in power to decide they don’t like you standing up and making noise, one of the fundamental rights of a free and functioning democracy. So if you are say, protesting against rampant government corruption, racism or their failure to act on climate change, Priti Patel could decide you’re too loud and annoying and peaceful protestors could face imprisonment for up to 51 weeks. But if the government likes you, you’ll probably be fine. It is this ability to politicise protest, to silence opposition, that is so shockingly dangerous to a fully functioning democracy.
The bill also allows police to stop and search anyone they suspect of being on the way to a protest, and remove dangerous materials such as placards. The very dangerous placard. Police have already been doing something else truly dodgy – pre-emptive searches and arrests of people who might be about to protest. This is so problematic on so many levels – a very literal being arrested for something you might do, for crimes you haven’t actually committed. This law makes it a criminal act to chain yourself to other objects – a tactic used by the suffragettes.
It also introduces the utterly egregious prison sentence of up to ten years for defacing statues – a sentence which, and this cannot be repeated enough, is longer than the average sentence served for rape in the UK.
Look. It’s obvious that a lot of these measures are specifically directed against Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter, both of whom have been cited by our Home Secretary as people she actively dislikes. And perhaps you also dislike XR and BLM – that’s fine. I massively dislike the anti-vax protestors. I couldn’t quite believe my eyes at the pro-Brexit marchers who feel the need to still be angry even after we (disastrously) left the EU. But there’s a huge difference between peaceful protest and rioting, and we already have laws that allow for the correct arrest of violent people. If you try to arrest any peaceful protestors – including the ones I dislike – just because you think they might protest, we have a massive problem. If you try to silence their peaceful protest because you don’t like it, then where does that end? What voices will the government keep on silencing based on its arbitrary policies? And how long until the voice that’s silenced is yours and mine? Even if you don’t like some of the people using it, we have to defend the right to protest. No matter where you are on the political spectrum, look ahead and ask yourself – how will you be heard when the powers that be don’t agree with you?
If you want to take action against the Policing Bill, there’s still time! If you’re in London on January 12th, there is a Westminster Protest happening at 10 a.m.. Enjoy it – it might be illegal next year. You can also email your MP – they do read your emails – and make noise on social media and bore your friends. At the end of the day, the government needs public support to stay in power. Your voice and your vote matters.
Meanwhile, on a continuing theme of the erosion of democracy, the Elections Bill continues its journey towards the introduction of mandatory voter ID. I’ve already written about how horrendous this idea is, but just to re-iterate: of the millions of votes cast at the 2019 election, 37 were suspected of being fraudulant. 37. But this bill threatens to disenfranchise literally millions in order to “protect” our election. And those millions being disenfranchised – likely to be the most vulnerable in our society, who don’t have easy access to ID. It’s a flagrant bit of jerrymandering that fundamentally undermines our democracy by making it harder for people to vote, and even cross-party MPs think it’s bad.
As if this wasn’t enough, the government is also attempting to weaken the power of the electoral commission, the should-be independent body that oversees elections, as well as the body which is in charge of such petty things as making sure the Prime Minister isn’t accepting hundreds of thousands of pounds in “perks” to refurbish his flat from Tory donors. It’s a shockingly corrupt move designed to let a shockingly corrupt government off the hook, and opens the door to future governments – again, no matter what their political alignment – using their power for personal gain and silencing people they don’t like.
Whoever you are, democracy exists to serve you. No matter your political inclination or personal views, the system itself has to allow you space to speak. Even if you feel empowered to speak now, that could not be the case tomorrow, so we all need to defend everyone’s right to vote, protest and be heard. The Electoral Reform Society is leading a charge against the Elections Bill and has more information on how you can help, but it begins with making a noise, writing to your MP and kicking up a stink. There’s also local elections coming up in May 2022, which can have a huge impact on the next few years both locally and nationally – vote on May 22nd and if you’ve got the time, get involved!