Left journalist Ash Sarkar remarked on a recent episode of TyskySour that the police are actively constructing their own ideological narrative about what their job entails. It now includes covering their tracks by physically assaulting journalists reporting on police suppression of non-violent demonstrators. The right to protest is being attacked on two fronts: the physical dispersal and arrest of protesters, and ideological attacks from Boris Johnson and Priti Patel, with no counter-narrative from the Labour opposition.
The Independent reported that video footage from Friday’s protests in Bristol showed demonstrators “some sitting, others with their arms up, chanting ‘we are peaceful, what are you’ as officers use riot shields to push them back – in one instance using the edge of a shield to hit a person who was on the ground.” Daily Mirror reporter Matthew Dresch told the Guardian he was assaulted by police “even though I told them I was from the press. I was respectfully observing what was happening and posed no threat to any of the officers.”
Ross Tatham, a 24-year-old student, said he was hit in the head by a police officer while standing on the frontlines of the protest. “I was saying ‘I’m peaceful’ and had my hands in the air saying ‘I’m here to protest not to fight’. The officer came and whacked me in the head with a baton. I got dazed and stumbled back. A lot of people got a lot worse than I did. … Further down the line, police were hitting them with the edges of the shield, which is obviously more painful,” he said. “The ones using the edges of the shield – that is done with vicious intent. There wasn’t any physical violence I saw from the protesters. The police didn’t need to clear the streets. The police could have just waited it out.”
This did not stop Patel saying she was “disgusted” by the violence of the protesters, adding “I’m in no doubt the silent, law-abiding majority will be appalled by the actions of this criminal minority.” Johnson chimed in: “Our officers should not have to face having bricks, bottles and fireworks being thrown at them by a mob intent on violence and causing damage to property.” They are portraying protestors as criminals and a violent mob, while at the same time chief constables are presenting the police as caught between their obligation to enforce covid laws in order to protect the public, and the rights of protesters who are breaking these laws.
The function of these ideological attacks is not only to prime the public and media for the government’s draconian Police Bill restricting any form of protest, but to guide the actions of individual policemen. There is no need for Metropolitan police commissioner Cressida Dick to give them all detailed instructions: they act on their own initiative to deal with those they regard as troublesome. An example of the effect of this ideological framing of the protests is the comments of one policeman when informed that a man had exposed himself to a woman leaving the vigil for Sarah Everard, two weeks ago. The woman told Lambeth Life that a female police officer had indicated it would be investigated, but was overruled by a male officer who told her: “No, we’ve had enough tonight with the rioters” even though the vigil was nonviolent and nobody had accused the women of rioting.
As Ralph Miliband contended, ideology plays an important coordinating role for the state to maintain a central direction over the network of semi-autonomous bureaucracies that compose it. The importance of government affirmation of the legitimacy of police violence is confirmed by the reaction of police chiefs to Patel reneging on her promise to make a public statement urging people not to gather at the Clapham Common vigil. Chiefs felt they were “hung out to dry” by Patel, when she had told them in private that a ban on gatherings had to be enforced, but after the public outcry criticised the images of officers manhandling women, rebuked the Met commissioner and ordered an inquiry into the events. According to the Guardian, “A government source hit back at any complaints from within policing, saying that ‘pinning women to the floor and dragging them away from Clapham Common bandstand was an independent operational decision’ made by the police themselves.”
The Labour leadership has swallowed the Tory narrative whole, aligning it with the political direction of the government. Shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds told BBC Breakfast that violence was completely unacceptable. She said protesters should be using “other ways of expressing whatever dissatisfaction they have,” taking at face value the statements of the Avon and Somerset police that police violence was a response to physical resistance from the protesters, refusing to blame the police tactic of kettling then charging them with horses and dogs while they were seated and nonviolent.
To understand why the Labour right is so responsive to the ideological requirements of the British state, it is instructive to look at the politics elaborated by the party’s general secretary, David Evans, in a recent Zoom meeting. He described himself as a nonpolitical “oily rag” only concerned with the efficient working of the party’s electoral machine. “My business is running the Labour Party and to supply the people on this call with the very best possible election machine to help us win power,” he said. His highly political role in suspending left party members is thus subsumed by an ideological statement that aims at depoliticizing Labour’s constituency parties.
More significantly, he cites what he calls “Maslowian” politics, which implies a hierarchy of needs, as the justification for his argument for embracing the patriotism of conservative Labour voters. First of all, he says, “they have to have confidence you’ll look after their money, you’ll keep them secure, before you have permission to talk about their aspirations for a better life, about the benevolent society which as Labour Party members we want to get to.” He thus repudiates social welfare, the common good, in favour of individual security identified with personal capital. This makes the foundation of the British state – defence of property – the precondition for Labour politics, and enables social democratic values to be replaced with traditional “patriotism.” “The voters we try to reconnect with have Englishness as their identity,” he said, adding that his Labour-voting friends “have no problem literally wrapping themselves in the George cross.”
Parallel to the way the British state is organized, individual regional officials do not need to be instructed directly to suppress discussion in CLPs or suspend their officers: the officials share Evans’ philosophy and so automatically remove those whom they perceive to interfere with the workings of the “machine.” And they are not above working with central office bureaucrats to facilitate their aims – as in the case of the selection of Paul Williams as the single male candidate on the shortlist for the Hartlepool parliamentary byelection. A leaked email exposed the local Labour right’s arrangements to foist their choice on the membership: “With a single candidate short list being fairly controversial (and with certain factions in the party certain to try to make a grab or call foul) LOTO [Leader of the Opposition’s office] require a formal letter from us to the NEC requesting that Paul be our candidate. The left will make a big deal of this and paint the selection as a stitch up by Starmer. We need to make it absolutely clear that these arrangements ore local and that, in the absence of a full selection process and the choice of a local candidate, Paul is the choice of the CLP.”
It is hard to understate how rightwing the thinking of these officials is, how reactionary and contemptuous of both the membership and the electorate. So when regional officials interfere in CLP elections, it is not necessarily because of a party-wide conspiracy to purge the left. It’s a result of the officials actively internalizing the direction of the central office. Since the officials, mostly young graduates, are intent on building a career in the Labour party machine, they are not going to tolerate even the slightest divergence from the general secretary’s recommendations.
The frustration of party members needs to be directed at dismantling the Labour right’s ideology by reaffirming social democratic values against its championing of property-owning selfishness, and continuing to fight for democracy within the party. Regional offices should be disbanded – they are perennially useless even in elections – and the funds retained for local use.