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Editorial Kill the Bill protests and the left: seeds of a mass movement

THE plethora of Kill the Bill demonstrations that took place from major cities to small towns this weekend show how widespread is opposition to the Tories’ authoritarian policing law.

These protests are not being organised by one central campaign, nor, despite the Labour Party’s official opposition to the Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill, do they enjoy any significant support from “official” politics.

The autonomous organisation of demonstrations locally makes tactical sense. 

The legislation was paused following the huge Parliament Square rallies organised by women following the police violence against the Clapham Common vigil for Sarah Everard in March, itself an illustration of the power of public protest. 

But defeating the Bill means making it politically toxic for MPs, many of whom have already been forced to argue for it directly to constituents and defend it in local papers — something far rarer than it ought to be in a country where legislation is seldom subjected to real public scrutiny.

A great variety of groups are involved.

Local peace and anti-racist activists are joined by ramblers, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and many who are new to protest.

There are some ingredients here for a truly mass movement, similar in scale to that built by the Stop the War Coalition two decades ago, which, while led by the anti-imperialist left, drew support from way beyond it.

Stop the War did not succeed in preventing the invasion of Iraq, but its two-million-strong march in 2003 was not a one-off failed effort. 

The campaign built lasting alliances, in some areas prefiguring the forces that would deliver Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership victory in 2015. It entrenched anti-war positions at most levels of the trade union movement: not something that can be taken for granted and likely to require sustained work to maintain now the West is led by a US president who is combining public investment and pro-union industrial policy with military brinkmanship abroad.

It brought anti-imperialist arguments to audiences who had never heard them before, cohering anti-war sentiment in the population as a whole. This played its part in Parliament’s vote to oppose military action against Syria in 2013 and is a factor in British politics that Westminster hawks have struggled against ever since. Though the monopoly media do their best to hide it, the broad popular sympathy with such positions was clear in the positive responses to Corbyn’s call for a different kind of foreign policy during the 2017 election.
 
It is of course ambitious to argue that the Kill the Bill movement could emulate Stop the War in permanently broadening support and understanding for left positions. Conversely we must also work to ensure it bests Stop the War on achieving its immediate goal and kills the Bill.

But as over Iraq, the left will need to work with groups it has little in common with, hopefully turning single-issue sympathy into a wider understanding of the repressive capitalist state. 

Sectarian approaches that refuse co-operation with others because of items of disagreement and “no-platform” groups or individuals will spell defeat. As we work to build an immovable majority against the Tory Bill, the left must be the party of permanent persuasion.

In the process, the left should challenge its depiction by the libertarian right as authoritarian, drawing out the distinction between democratic defence of our rights against the state and reactionary individualist opposition to social obligations. This means challenging, too, those parts of the left that are actually authoritarian and seek state solutions (such as stricter censorship) to social problems.

The prize— to prevent a draconian piece of legislation that seriously erodes the right to protest from becoming law — is significant enough. But beyond it, there is an opportunity to build a broader-based political left and to win wider understanding of the nature of the state itself.

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