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THE series of Bills outlined in the Queen’s Speech show that this government marks a radical departure from its predecessors — a radical shift rightwards.
Taken together the legislation proposed and laws already enacted make this a new type of authoritarian government in this country, one we have not seen previously in the era of the universal franchise.
No government which has Boris Johnson at its head and Priti Patel as its Home Secretary can be expected to be a champion of civil rights or a guardian against an over-mighty state. But this is something quite new.
Included in the Queen’s Speech are Bills that would disenfranchise millions of poorer and younger voters by barring those without photo ID. Black and Asian voters would also be disproportionately affected. This is straight out of the voter suppression tactics of the Southern US.
In addition, another Bill allows the police to prevent protests even when they are peaceful if they are deemed “disruptive.” All protests are to some extent disruptive, otherwise they could never take place.
At the same time, other proposed legislation would effectively place the government above the law, as its decisions could not be accountable to the courts. There will also be a clampdown on diverse voices and critics in our universities, while racists and fascists are to be protected under the false flag of “free speech.”
As the academics’ union UCU said in a response to the proposals, “There are serious threats to freedom of speech and academic freedom from campus, but they come from the government and university managers, not staff and students.”
In effect the government is curbing the right to free speech if it does not agree with you, curbing people’s right to protest against their policies, blocking the courts from holding the government accountable to the law and preventing millions of people from voting who are more likely to vote Labour.
This is a Donald Trump-style vision of a free society. Freedom for the rich and privileged and a return to the “good old days” for everyone else. It is the type of legislation we see all too frequently in authoritarian regimes around the world. Under this government we will become one of those regimes.
This attack on our rights did not emerge out of the blue. Despite repeated media claims, Boris Johnson is not a defender of liberty. He is an economic libertarian, as his further drive towards deregulation (also in the Queen’s Speech) attests. As Mayor of London he increased stop and search while cutting neighbourhood policing. He also bought water cannon to be used on the streets of London, but was thankfully thwarted.
The two aspects of the Johnson programme, economic libertarianism and the authoritarian state, are linked, as they frequently are elsewhere. During the course of the pandemic huge numbers of people have lost their jobs, many others have been subject to “fire and rehire” on much worse terms and the Resolution Foundation estimates that half of those in work have seen their real pay cut.
At the same time, the government has turned to ugly and malicious targeting of asylum-seekers as part of an overall scapegoating programme to cover for its own failures.
The Tories plan much more of this, with increased stop and search, more demonisation of Muslim communities by indiscriminately labelling them extremists and even denying the existence of institutional racism altogether.
The attacks on living standards are unrelenting too, with a public-sector pay freeze in the Budget combined with rises in income taxes for ordinary people. The government has completely reneged on its pledge to introduce an employment Bill.
This is a green light to all the most predatory employers, including in the shocking conditions that have come to light in the sweatshops in our own neighbourhoods during the pandemic. Every employer considering fire and rehire will be encouraged by the government’s stance.
It is notable that draconian legislation has already been enacted. Both the Overseas Operations Act and the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Act are already on the statute book. They grant members of the armed forces and members of the police and security forces respectively immunity from prosecution from crimes as grave as torture, rape and murder.
The new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which has already been the subject of widespread protests, is inspired by the same mentality and would itself severely curtail the right to protest.
Protests, campaigns and mobilisations are a key part of the response to this package of oppressive measures. This should include a widespread and, if needed, prolonged campaign against photo ID for voting rights. The right to vote is a fundamental in our society and this blatant attempt to block poorer people from voting must be resisted by the entire labour movement.
At the same time, all curbs on the right to peaceful protest must be opposed. This is also a democratic right. It is literally a step towards a police state if the police can decide on their own authority whether a protest should go ahead.
The whole of the labour movement and all supporters of genuine freedom of speech should support the UCU in its opposition to the government’s plans to curb legitimate academic research and debate.
Elected representatives and trade unions need these dissenting voices to hold the government to account and society as a whole needs diverse views in order to develop and grow. There can be no passive acceptance of the government placing itself above the law either. The law should be there to protect us all.
Protests around these key issues have already begun and because the encroachment on our liberties is so wide-ranging it is highly likely they will grow. If the government is allowed to implement its plans, we will find ourselves much worse off and with even fewer avenues to challenge the status quo.
Diane Abbott is MP for Hackney North.
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