Breaking out of the circle
“We are alarmed to be informed that, despite earlier agreements with the Police and Birmingham City Council, West Midlands Police are attempting to stop the trade union demonstration against public service cuts from marching past the Conservative Party conference at the International Convention Centre on Sunday 3rd October... "
So begins a petition to West Midlands Police appealing to them to restore the rights of trade unionists and others to demonstrate outside the Tory party conference in October. It is not even a protest for the right to protest, it is simply a polite "ask" of the police to restore that which they had no right to remove in the first place.
There is a kind of circular logic to the whole "rights" question. Because really what are rights? Do we have a birthright to these rights and if so, then logic would seem to suggest that they cannot be removed no matter what arguments the police "in the interests of public order etc" and the state authorities make. If that route is taken, then that should be the end of the matter – our rights are inalienable.
But the dismayed tone of this letter suggests that the signatories to the document, who include Labour MPs and trade unionists and left-wing film director Ken Loach, do not viscerally believe in that idea. These members and supporters of the Right to Work campaign, good people though they undoubtedly are, are taking an underwhelming approach to this very serious issue.
There are in fact two issues here. First: what can people who are aiming to demonstrate against this government's austerity measures hope to achieve? The senior partner in the coalition is not going to return to Westminster convinced of the error of its ways – the protests will make no difference whatever in that regard. Second: what will they do if the 'right to protest' is not magnanimously restored, meekly acquiesce? Hopefully not. It would actually be uncharacteristic of them, going on past form, because back in February this year members stormed the Conservative Party Spring Conference in Brighton. Unquestionably a militant action!
They have also given support to workers in dispute, including building solidarity with the BA cabin crews and Royal Mail workers, for instance. Now however the ground seems to be shifting for some reason. Perhaps it's because they wish to appeal to a wider section of the population who might be frightened off by 'militancy' or 'direct action'? Probably not a worry the campaigners need entertain, given the level of dissatisfaction and anger out there. So, given that they have planned to protest, that is, they have decided that 'doing something', even if that something achieves not much at all, is better than 'doing nothing' they really ought to follow through and not be derailed by some sort of liberal respect for the forces of law and order, when quite obviously those very forces are intent on simply protecting 'our rulers' from any uncomfortable experiences.
Given that the supporters include the likes of Ed Balls and Diane Abbott, perhaps it's not too surprising that the Right to Work campaign is leaning towards respectability, at least in its public face. Having Labour Party leader hopefuls on board amounts to a kind of co-option, or at least the danger of it, they might after all be the government again one day!
Whatever the outcome of the Right to Work's little dispute with the police and however they resolve it if the answer is No, there will be protesters from various other groups outside the ICC on 3 October. Members of the IWW for example are planning to march along with a militant workers bloc and things may get lively!
This brings us back in suitably circular fashion to the basic question of what constitutes 'rights' and how far can we go in the exercise of them. Just applying peaceful pressure perhaps? Or are there other courses of action such as working for People’s Assemblies, that we claim, assert and utilise, come what may?
A World to Win
10 September 2010