Last updated 06/11/2023

Home Secretary Suella Braverman recently revealed she will “not hesitate” in changing the law to crackdown on basic forms of solidarity, particularly after pro-Palestine rallies were held across the country amid the ongoing siege in Gaza. It’s just the latest in a long line of authoritarian measures hailed by this Tory government. And you can watch our video on Britain’s authoritarian shift with Socialist Campaign Group Labour MP, Bell Ribeiro-Addy, here.

Laws, such as the Police, Crime Sentencing & Courts and Public Order bills, already provide the police with powers to curb protests, taking a sledgehammer to grassroots movements such as Extinction Rebellion in the meantime. However, these laws failed to deter hundreds of thousands of protesters from joining the Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s rallies over recent weekends.

That being said, Israel’s war on Gaza has not prevented the government from bringing its “anti-boycott” bill back to the Commons. The aim is to prevent councils and public bodies from staging boycotts, divestments and sanctions campaigns against other countries, particularly Israel.

Elsewhere, widespread public support for strike action did not stop the government from pushing ahead with the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023, requiring striking workers in key public-sector industries to work a certain amount of hours before walking off the job. The Lords introduced a couple of amendments to retain unfair dismissal protections for workers who do not comply, but this was voted down in the Commons, and the bill shamefully passed.

Finally, despite zero evidence of voter fraud, the Tories introduced voter ID laws before this year’s local elections in a blatant act of voter suppression. Once again Labour has refused to commit to repeal the law, though Momentum-backed reps at the National Policy Forum did help secure a review of voter ID laws under a future Labour government.

Anti-democratic manoeuvres like these have tainted the Tories’ reputation since the 2019 election, with the right to protest, vote, strike and seek asylum all under attack. Why isn’t Labour doing more to stand up against these heinous Tory policies? The Leadership has refused to commit to repealing these laws once in government, bar the anti-strike law, and recently, Labour peers in the Lords abstained on an amendment that further curtailed the right to protest.

This isn’t what a democratic Britain looks like. In fact, a recent report found that anti-protest laws and the ongoing culture wars on migration and trans rights have only further eroded British democracy. The UK was recently downgraded in a global index of civic freedoms due to the government’s “increasingly authoritarian” motive to impose restrictive laws on the public.

To get to grips with Britain’s authoritarian turn, and the Labour Leadership’s response, we spoke to writer Oliver Eagleton for the latest edition of our political education newsletter, The Educator. Oliver wrote a piece for Jacobin back in June exploring the increasing authoritarianism under the Tories. For the Educator, he gave his view on what these punitive restrictions mean for UK voters, and why the Labour Leadership is adopting the stance that it is.

Note: all authors expressed are the author’s alone, and should not be taken to be representative of Momentum.

⬤ Why do you think the Labour Leadership opposed most of these bills, yet refuses to commit to repeal them?

It would be a simplification to say that the Labour Leadership has opposed the Tories’ repressive programme. In September 2020, Nick Thomas-Symonds, then the Shadow Home Secretary, met with the Police Federation and expressed his support for the reforms that were later codified in the Police Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. When these proposals were brought to parliament, Starmer’s initial plan was to abstain, as he supported the basic principle but claimed that the legislation was ‘poorly thought-out’. He only changed tack when David Lammy reportedly refused to fall in line. Even then, Labour’s criticisms of the bill focused on its ‘inadequate sentencing’ for crimes like rape and stalking and largely neglected its effect on civil liberties.

The same goes for the Overseas Operations Bill (which prevents criminal prosecutions for British troops who committed war crimes.) Starmer whipped MPs to abstain on the first two readings, then opposed it on the third. Again, this change wasn’t prompted by any qualms about decriminalising war crimes or giving excessive power to the armed forces. It was, as the Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey explained in an article for the Guardian, because various technical problems with the legislation meant that it didn’t go far enough in protecting military personnel from ‘vexatious litigation’. And of course, Starmer whipped for abstention on all three readings of the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill – criticising its lack of ‘safeguards’ but endorsing its fundamental purpose.

So I would say that the Labour Leadership has been broadly supportive of this agenda – and has even encouraged it by repeatedly attacking the government on ‘law and order’. But Starmer has also queried the Tories’ means of implementing this crackdown and promised to wield these powers more effectively as Prime Minister. He is also mindful not to alienate allies in the party whose instincts are somewhat more liberal than his own. This is why he has wavered between abstention and opposition on various parliamentary votes. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves into believing that he has any intention to break with the Tories’ authoritarianism.

 

⬤ Various theses have been aired around the motivation for a new clampdown on these democratic freedoms, from the Tories’ search for a scapegoat in a context of a failed economic model, to attempts to repress threats to the Establishment in a context of a lack of popular consent. Where do you stand?

I don’t think this clampdown represents the use of coercion in the absence of consent. At present Britain’s ruling bloc is relatively secure, having seen off the challenge of Corbynism and the fallout from the Brexit vote. There is no oppositional movement capable of threatening its hegemony in the short to medium term. So the Westminster establishment hardly needs these laws to protect themselves from popular upheavals. They might be helpful to counter climate activism or public sector walkouts – but, in truth, the government could probably weather these disruptions without resorting to repression.

In fact, the primary function of the legislation is ideological. Neither of the major parties has any ambition to renovate Britain’s moribund economic model – which, without the cheap credit and commodities of the Blair era, is suffering from multiple afflictions: declining real incomes, low productivity, a shrunken labour force, crumbling health and education sectors. In the absence of renovation, the aim – for both Labour and the Tories – is to stave off collapse by attracting investment and appeasing panic-prone financial markets. This damage control strategy means more wage restraint, more austerity, and continual inaction on the climate crisis.

It isn’t easy to win public support for such policies; but at the same time, expectations are extremely low among the majority of the population. The purpose of these authoritarian laws is to keep them low. By effectively outlawing protest, the Tories are drawing a dividing line between sensible, hardworking people who simply ‘get on with things’ – accepting that any return to economic growth will be a slow and painful process – and reckless utopians who make impossible demands for higher pay and better services. By casting the latter as criminals, Sunak is trying to further stigmatise the politics that characterised the Corbyn years, and assemble a constituency among ‘ordinary’ working-class people – who are said to be more interested in preserving ‘stability’ than in changing society. Starmer, of course, is doing the very same.

 

⬤ Do you not think that, given that the political class has in many senses given up trying to meet popular desires, that there is an element of closing off potential threats? If we think about some of these issues – climate action, Palestinian rights, – there are actually strong majorities for progressive stances which aren’t being represented by the Tories or Labour; so it’s easier to crush dissent. This might make sense in an era of accelerating crises, where the political establishment knows it won’t have the same level of popular consent as in previous decades. What’s your response?

Yes, you could say that these laws are partly intended to neutralise forms of dissent that might develop further down the line. But we shouldn’t assume that this era of accelerating crisis has an inherent tendency to generate popular class politics. It could just as easily have the opposite effect: atomizing and dividing the lower strata, increasing the appeal of antidemocratic ‘solutionism’, and heightening opposition to migration. In the end, the implications of economic decline and ecological breakdown will be determined by political interventions – organising, campaigning, propagandising. My point is that, with these new laws, the right is making an active effort to shape this field. The left needs to be equally active, since deteriorating material conditions won’t necessarily work in its favour.

 

⬤ How might we link the Tories’ nascent anti-net-zero faux-populist agenda, which emerges from hard-right themes, to anti-protest laws explicitly aimed at ‘protecting’ an imagined ‘public’ from the ‘disruption’ of Just Stop Oil etc? What does this tell us about ruling class strategies for governing in an era of climate collapse?

A bipartisan consensus on climate policy is forming. It is, essentially, that the state should incentivise private investment in green initiatives while also allowing fossil fuel extraction to continue for the foreseeable future – roughly the same paradigm as Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. Within these parameters, there is some room for variation. Labour is less beholden to the oil and gas industries than the Tories, so it may be willing to block new exploration licences, and it has fewer hang-ups about developing onshore wind capacity. Because of these differences, Sunak sees an opportunity to present Labour as peddling a ‘woke’ green agenda that prioritises abstract emissions targets over economic stability in the here-and-now. His recent announcements about pulling back from net-zero commitments are an illustration of this. In response, Starmer is trying to show that a friendlier disposition towards ‘green capital’ is compatible with such stability. Hence his deferral of the Green Prosperity Plan, which signals that Labour’s climate measures won’t transgress fiscal orthodoxy. And hence his attacks on groups like Just Stop Oil, which make clear that he won’t tolerate a more maximalist approach to the energy transition.

So there are differences in scale and emphasis when it comes to the two parties’ environmental policies, and these are thrown into relief by a confected culture war over net-zero. But, at a deeper level, the political class have a broadly unified vision – of a state that makes peace with fossil interests, creates the conditions for ‘sustainable’ accumulation, and represses campaigners who take climate action into their own hands. This is the situation that the left will confront over the coming years, regardless of which party is in power.

 

⬤ What kind of democracy is Britain, under these laws?

Under any advanced liberal democracy, personal freedoms are subject to conditions and constraints. Certain types of political organising tend to elicit state violence; certain types of speech make you a target for the judicial system. But these constraints are often informal: they reflect the balance of power in society, rather than the letter of the law. In theory, that allows you to appeal to the law to protect your official democratic rights, even if that appeal proves ineffectual most of the time. What appears to be happening in Britain is that such restrictions on civil liberties, which any left-wing activist will have already experienced countless times, are being formalised. That is, the arbitrary exercise of police power – deciding whether a demonstration is too disruptive, whether holding up a placard is an unacceptable ‘nuisance’, etc. – is being given clear statutory basis.

This doesn’t mean that Britain is becoming an ‘illiberal democracy’ like Hungary or a ‘managed democracy’ like Russia. Its civil society remains more open, and its electoral system more robust. But perhaps there should be some term for a liberal state that has empowered its repressive apparatuses to smother even the faintest expressions of social discontent. ‘Disciplinary democracy’?

 

⬤ It’s not as if British democracy was in a healthy spot before this latest barrage. Could you talk us through New Labour’s approach to civil liberties, the impacts, and what Labour can learn from it today?

New Labour put a new criminal offence on the statute book for almost every day it was in power. By the time it left office, Britain’s incarceration rate was the highest in Europe. Its crime legislation gave police new powers of dispersal and stop-and-search, while its crackdown on ‘anti-social behaviour’ saw 1,400 children sent to prison over the course of a decade. It expanded the use of state surveillance, undercover deployments and invasive policing – targeting Muslim communities in particular. New terrorism laws quadrupled the period for which suspects could be detained without charge. Blair also instituted a system of national ID cards and greatly expanded detention facilities for migrants. He tried to pass a regulatory reform bill that would allow the government to circumvent parliament and change laws by executive order. All this laid the foundation for the Tories’ serial assaults on democratic principles.

 

⬤ You’ve written in your book about Keir Starmer’s time as Director of Public Prosecutions. What was his attitude to civil liberties in this role?

Sir Keir’s record makes him the perfect person to consolidate this authoritarian trend. As head of the Crown Prosecution Service, he altered official guidelines to make it easier to prosecute protesters in response to the mobilizations around student fees and public spending cuts. During the 2011 riots, he demanded all-night court sittings and ensured that minor crimes were punished with lengthy prison sentences. He played a significant role in the ‘spycops’ scandal, giving undercover police officers a free pass to infiltrate left-wing groups and manipulate activists into sexual relationships. Starmer personally advocated for a ‘superdatabase’ that would allow the state to track all phone and online communications. He refused to prosecute British intelligence agents who were implicated in torture. And the CPS under his watch kept Julian Assange detained in the Ecuadorian Embassy, helping to pave the way for his ongoing extradition to the US.

Given all this, it’s amazing that political commentators – on both the left and the right – are still publishing weekly columns asking ‘what Keir Starmer stands for’. This is someone who has spent his life serving and strengthening the British state. He will continue to do so from Downing Street.

 

End note:

Thanks for reading everyone – and a big thanks to Oliver for contributing!

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In solidarity,

Team Momentum