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I RECENTLY took part in a demonstration of around 2,000 people along the Thames to protest over the local water company allowing sewage to pollute the river.
It was a very polite and almost genteel affair. There was a little bit of slogan-shouting but nothing major. In fact, at one point, I was startled when someone behind us shouted something. I’m just not used to such quiet and polite protests.
A number of things occurred to me about the protest. The first thing was it is the least diverse demonstration that I can remember attending in terms of the number of obviously black people. I will write about black involvement in the environmental and climate change movement in the weeks to come.
The second thing is the importance of nationalising all of the utility companies. Water bills are rising alongside other basic needs. When we get situations such as the Thames being polluted with waste it also becomes a question of quality. I believe that we are in a better position to regulate prices and quality through a nationalised provision.
Labour really mustn’t shy away from doing this. If they do we run the risk of a US-type free-for-all where your access to clean water depends on where you live. We could easily see a Flint, Michigan, situation where the drinking water has remained polluted since 2014.
Above all, I reflected on the right to protest and the attempts by this authoritarian Tory government to decide who can and can’t take part in them.
While the farce of whether Tory MPs have enough bottle to remove someone who should never have got anywhere near Downing Street continues, and Boris Johnson and his cronies partied like it was 1999 during lockdown, the Tories have pursued their right-wing agenda.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is an odious piece of legislation that confirms the Tories as one of the most authoritarian governments in living memory. Not even Thatcher attempted to put in place the sort of proposals that this government is putting forward.
There is little doubt that if these proposals were put forward by any foreign government on the Tories’ “naughty step” they would be swiftly denounced as anti-democratic.
The Police Bill was debated in the (unelected) House of Lords last week. I am no supporter of the Lords. Far from it. I believe in an elected second chamber. They did us all a favour though.
The Tories were defeated time and time again as they introduces a wide range of amendments into the Bill such as the ridiculous notion of setting noise limits on protests.
The Tories tried to give police the power to force restrictions that protesters “ought” to have known about, even if they have not received a direct order from the police.
Also included in this list of bizarre Tory proposals the police would have the right to stop and search people “without suspicion.” Yes — just because they felt like it.
The Tories want to have the right to decide not only when and where a protest should take place but precisely who would be allowed to attend. Outrageously, they want to go so far as to name individuals to be prohibited from taking part in specific protests.
The proposals were so bad that many Tories in the Lords couldn’t even bring themselves to support them.
Not content with introducing a string of right-wing laws, almost all of which would virtually guarantee a demonstration, the Tories want to curtail the right to protest against what they are doing.
The Tories have signalled that they will continue to pursue many of these dangerous assaults on civil liberties when the proposals come back to the Commons for consideration.
Our aim can’t be to emerge from the process of back and forth between the Commons and the Lords with a watering down of our civil liberties but a feeling of relief because the most despicable proposals have been defeated — we must defeat the Police Bill in its entirety. No watering down of our civil liberties can be accepted.
Remember the Tories have made it clear that they also want to rescind the 1998 Human Rights Act, which would of course further reduce our liberties.
We need a united movement to defeat the Tories that even the 2,000 people demonstrating for clean water in the Thames can easily support.
More than that, we need to attract people to a campaign for civil liberties who just believe it to be wrong that any government would want to exert such repressive control over its population. As I continually say in this column, we need to build a movement for radical, I would say socialist, change.
The Tories are fighting ferociously for their class. We must demonstrate the same determination and ferocity for our class. This means not allowing the opposition parties in Parliament to play fast and loose with our civil liberties.
Our civil liberties cannot become part of some electoral calculation or political trade-off so that politicians can appear to be tough on crime. Our ancestors won these rights for us. We must be prepared to organise and campaign to keep them.
Roger McKenzie is a journalist and general secretary of Liberation.
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