The UK government has granted police the right to prevent far-right groups from marching through five London boroughs for 30 days, prompting concerns that a dangerous precedent has been set in terms of police power and freedom of expression.
Scotland Yard says it applied for the ban over fears of violence and disorder planned by the English Defence League earlier this month.
The view of workers’ rights activists on the Home Office ban on marching is quite clear. “It is an attack on the basic democratic rights of working people in this country,” says Patrick O’Regan from the Workers’ Revolutionary Party.
Through September, in six areas of London, anyone marching as thousands of people did last winter is liable to be arrested and fined, or even imprisoned.
The ban was prompted by plans by the anti-Muslim English Defence League to repeat their February protest in Luton by marching through Tower Hamlets, the area with the highest concentration of Muslims in the country.
But instead of banning one march on one day, the Home Office banned all marches in six boroughs for an entire month. Activist Richard Seymour sees a wider motive.
“Once the ban is passed, that does not necessarily mean to say the march is not going to happen, it just means the police just have more powers,” says Seymour. “And that is a part of the wider problem. If you are restricted to a static demonstration, the police have a right to pen you in and arrest you very easily for relatively small offences or non-offences.”
In Lambeth people still can march, just by pure accident of geography. It is not one of the six boroughs affected by the ban.
But if, as many fear, the government extends and widens the ban to take in more parts of London, both small and large marches through London and many other cities across the country could be a thing of the past.
The ban comes hot on the heels of widespread rioting in many English cities in August. It also coincides with the introduction of government austerity measures, which some say amount to the dismantling of the entire welfare state.
Many say public fear of civil unrest is being manipulated to prevent unions from turning out to protest fierce cuts. And Patrick O’Regan says it is just the tip of the iceberg.
“They are talking about area curfews, they are talking about shutting down Facebook [and other] social network sites,” he said. “They are talking about dictatorial civil war measures because what they are doing in Britain is creating a historic change, in which inevitably the majority of Britain will oppose them.”
The Home Office can only stop marching – it is powerless to prevent people from gathering. But workers’ organizations argue it is no good just standing there. You have to be able to march in order to make a statement, as the unions did in March, when more than a quarter of a million people turned out to protest the cuts.
Activists say that is exactly what the government is trying to stop.
“Just in terms of where we are at the moment with the process of austerity being pushed through by the government, trade unions are one of the major blocs opposed to that,” said Richard Seymour. “Public order legislation does tend to be used against striking workers. That has been very clear and there have been some recent examples of that – people being pulled off the picket lines. And that obviously weakens any resistance to the cuts.”
Freedom of expression and association are enshrined in UK and European law, with the UK renowned for its powerful union organizations. But the ban gives police the ultimate power to step in and arrest demonstrators merely for exercising their right to speak out against the government. And that is a dangerous precedent to set.