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The Public Order Act is a permanent soft curfew

At first glance, the new protest ban's chaotic debut at the Coronation backfired. But chaos was the point. If even the police aren't sure what's legal anymore, how can you, a citizen, feel safe to exercise your rights?

May 13 2023, 17.14pm

Whatever you might have thought about the Public Order Act in theory, in practice it turned out to be worse. Republic activists  were arrested for preparing to peacefully protest the coronation, handcuffed, interrogated and held for hours. Just Stop Oil offices were raided. And the night before the coronation, the Met Police was spotted in Soho in the wee hours, confiscating rape alarms.

For good measure, a committed Royals fan was arrested for standing somewhere in the vicinity of people police identified as potential future protesters, and, like them, dragged through the system: handcuffs, overnight detention, the works. 

And yet, we’ve seen barely a fraction of what police are now at liberty to do. George Monbiot, over at the Guardian, has a handy list: stop and search is massively expanded, and pretext is reduced to an officer’s belief that somewhere, someone in the vicinity might be protesting, at some point. Resisting will get you locked away for almost a year.

Locking yourself to objects and to people - time-honoured, nonviolent civil disobedience - is now illegal. Carrying anything that could conceivably be used for the purpose can get you nicked  - as was the case for the Republic protesters. 

And protesting roads works, oil and gas works and fracking sites is now illegal by default. 

At first glance, this inaugural application of these laws obviously backfired. Republic alone reported a huge surge in membership after the arrests (click here for the testimony of one of the detainees, Lead contributor Ben Clinton). The image of Wayne Couzens’ erstwhile brothers-in-arms confiscating rape alarms has torched what little good will the Met might have reclaimed through its numerous mea culpas. 

But this doesn’t necessarily mean the enforcement was a flop. In fact, the chaos serves the ultimate purpose of these vague, discretionary laws: to deter people from protesting. If even the police don’t know what they can and cannot do, how can you, a citizen, be sure? Being released without charges is cold comfort when the protest has been irreparably disrupted. And if you can be arrested merely for walking past a protest, wouldn't you think twice before attending one? 

In effect, the laws are a soft curfew: your presence on the streets, whether as protester or passerby, is merely tolerated - but can be criminalised at random and at any given point. 

Given all that, it is disappointing even to our ever-shrinking expectations that Kier Starmer is refusing to pledge Labour will scrap the Public Order Bill (or even condemn the arrests). David Lammy, his Shadow Foreign Secretary, added insult to injury by saying Labour can’t start by rolling back every bit of Tory legislation. This is not only disingenuous and facetious - he was only asked about this specific bill - but it’s also incorrect. 

So to help Labour, we’ve asked acclaimed human rights lawyer Matt Food to tell Lammy exactly how Labour can do precisely that. And we’ll be launching a campaign next week - to run right up until Labour’s conference in October - calling on Starmer to commit to scraping the Public Order Act if he becomes PM. You can’t keep running against an increasingly authoritarian government on competency alone. Some commitment to democracy needs to come in in there, somewhere.