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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 180 Contents

Notes of the Month

Criminal Justice

Top people’s police


From Socialist Review, No. 180, November 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Riots took place in the richest parts of London last month. They were triggered by the final parliamentary debates around one of the most reactionary pieces of legislation for many years. The Criminal Justice Bill will severely limit the right to ‘protest, picket and party’, as it says on the placards produced by the Coalition against the Criminal Justice Bill.

The 80,000 demonstration against the bill on 9 October ended in a riot which went on for several hours in Park Lane. The main demonstration had already moved peacefully into the park, when the police attacked its tail end.

The reason? To prevent one sound system from entering the park. Over 1,000 police in full riot gear were deployed to stop this dangerous threat to public order. The result was many young protesters injured and some arrested.

Even more riot police were on the scene to protect MPs from people wanting to lobby them in protest at the bill a few days later. It was impossible to move around Westminster on the night the bill was debated without tripping over some of the 2,000 riot police on duty. Those wanting to lobby found they had to run a gauntlet of police with helmets and shields.

If this is the response before the bill becomes law, what will it be like afterwards? Exactly how much money is this Tory government prepared to spend on the policing of completely harmless activities while it cuts back spending on health and welfare?

Support for this policing comes from the top. The Park Lane riot took place two days before the start of the Tory Party conference. The home secretary, Michael Howard, described the lobbyers as a ‘rabble’ and said that the police were needed to protect MPs. Labour MPs who supported the demonstrators were penned into the House of Commons by the police who attacked demonstrators with batons outside its gates.

The bill is so bad that even some top police officers have spoken out against it. They are not, in general, opposed to breaking up raves and arresting hunt saboteurs. But they feel that the provisions of the bill are unnecessarily rigid, that there are already adequate laws to deal with the offences and that the new laws will only create more confrontation.

The bill has been allowed a relatively easy passage through parliament, partly because most people have been unaware of many of its provisions. It has been projected as affecting no one unless they are travellers or ravers. In reality it will centrally affect all those wanting to organise demonstrations, to picket and to build campaigns.

The much larger number of trade union banners on this march, compared to the last national demonstration in July, shows that more and more people are waking up to what the bill is about.

They have little to thank the Labour Party for in this respect. Labour has abstained on the bill, allowing a weak government and unpopular home secretary to get their own way. This is done because it is said there are some good points in the bill – such as: evicting squatters or stopping music being played at night?

It is also said that Tony Blair has to be firm on law and order because this is a vote winner. But Blair has allowed one of the biggest attacks on civil liberties to go through: the ending of the right to silence.

It is almost inconceivable that after all the recent publicised miscarriages of justice and cases of police corruption Labour should collude with the Tories in introducing a measure which will ensure more injustices over the years to come. Yet that is exactly what is happening.

Opposition to this bill is already widespread. The Coalition has grouped around it a wide range of organisations, unions and individuals who have come together in opposition to the bill. The task ahead once the bill becomes law is both to get across the seriousness of its provisions, and to ensure that we mobilise against specific instances where it is used and hopefully make it ineffective.

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Last updated: 6 November 2017