Charlie Pottins, RIP



I first met Charlie in 2003. I was living in Brent, and my local SWP branch was still working out what we made of our allies in the local Socialist Alliance. To our mind, we had one decisive advantage over them. We liked to think of ourselves as the coalition’s left, the “revolutionaries” where our allies were “reformists”. We had a clear analysis, a shared politics, and a confidence that history would vindicate us. But many of the people we were working with had long histories on the left. Charlie had been in the WRP and was sacked by its despot Gerry Healy, and had written for the opposition’s subsequent newspaper Worker’s Press. He joined in our discussions with a scepticism about any sorts of vanguards and a confidence – no weaker than ours – that history would endorse him. He had a second advantage over us. There was a bye-election taking place in Brent East, one of the first the Alliance had contested, and Charlie, along with several others of the Alliance’s “independents” (most of whom had been members of the Labour Party, or had canvassed for Ken Livingstone in the same constituency) had rather more experience of electoral work than we did. We needed him, it became clear, rather more than he needed us.

It was Charlie who asked me to sign a petition, that autumn, to the Socialist Alliance’s national leadership, complaining that the Alliance was seemingly being sidelined within the Stop the War coalition. My reward was a one-hour grilling by one of the leaders of the SWP, outraged by my lack of loyalty in criticising what was in reality a first move to dump the Alliance in favour of what became Respect.

Having shouted at me a few times, she clearly felt the meeting had not gone on long enough, so attempted a new attack, suggesting that Charlie and others who had signed the letter (many of whom were members of the Jewish Socialist Group) were not genuine in their support of the Alliance and would defect at the first opportunity. Their cultural Jewishness was not irrelevant to the difficulties she had with them as a generation: she complained about another signatory having been at a meeting where he had spoken a few words of Yiddish in passing. I tried to return the conversation to some kind of rational keel. I’d worked with Charlie (and Alf Filer and others), they were my comrades and I insisted on defending them. Even putting to one side the cultural politics, there was something unpleasant about an individual who has worked for the left for forty years and who has earned from her positions a house, a job, no small amount of publicity – suggesting that Charlie was not in for the long haul, when he was the one who gave his life to unglamorous campaigns, did not put himself forwards, and never took but only gave.

There was always a degree of mystery about Charlie, this much older comrade, with eyebrows like an eagle. Who would talk about the left in the 1980s if you asked but preferred your stories. Who always came to meetings alone, and who seemed to have no friends save for comrades in the movement.

I would return to Brent every couple of years to speak to the trades council and Charlie was always there, always generous, ever encouraging.

In 2012, I was representing a blacklisted agency worker in the Employment Tribunal and I think it was Charlie who organised a special message of solidarity from Brent trades council which I received on my phone the evening before the hearing began. I’ve never had a message like that, from the movement, before a case had even started. It gave me enormous confidence (while also adding to the pressure, just a little…) and I showed it to my client the next morning before we went in. I was then cross-examining various managers from the company, some doing their best to be truthful, while others were exuberantly untruthful. Charlie was sitting in the public gallery, watching, enjoying it when I landed one or two blows.

The thing about Charlie was that he really didn’t care what group or campaign anyone on the left was in. What mattered was whether they were doing good work. If he believed in you, he would say so, treating you with the same comradely belief as you would expect among members of a revolutionary party that was true to its name.

And so, a year later, when the SWP crisis finally blew Charlie was one of my best allies on the outside. Because he had seen me in court and thought I had done ok. And therefore if I ever said “as a lawyer” (let alone as a socialist, or as a human being) “that was no way to run a dispute”, he would agree. He never could understand why that expertise hadn’t been wanted in my party. Having known “only” the WRP, he couldn’t understand that there could be other groups that had even deeper reserves of cynicism than Healy’s. I knew exactly why my comrades didn’t want to get the process right, and focussed on simply getting rid of the issue. Knowing them worse, Charlie couldn’t believe as poorly of them as I did.

If I had to think of a single attribute that summed Charlie up I’d choose this: he believed in people. For his belief in me, I’ll always be grateful to him.

“The party of home ownership”


So how many properties do you own? “I own a house in North Kensington which you’ve been to and my house in the constituency in Oxfordshire and that is, as far as I know, all I have.”

A house in Cornwall? “No, that is, Samantha used to have a timeshare in South Devon but she doesn’t any more.” And there isn’t a fourth? “I don’t think so – not that I can think of.” Please don’t say, “Not that I can think of.” “You might be … Samantha owns a field in Scunthorpe but she doesn’t own a house…”

Source: Times [David Cameron forgetting how many houses he owns, May 2009]

How King Jeremy will rule, where his friends will be found


corbyn 02

One of the most familiar misreadings of the distribution of power within the Labour Party imagines that the Party operates like one of the monarchies of the middle ages. There is a King whose power is under threat from a caste of barons (the union leaders). The King has reached an agreement with them under which they fund his regime. In return he allows them a disproportionate save over his party’s policies. The key to the happy functioning of this regime, as imagined by the press, is that the King is prohibited from reaching too far towards public opinion. Life itself would demand that he adopt the sensible policies of the parliamentary centre (such as, say, the immediate sale of the National Health Service to some billionaire combining the enlightened business practices of a Richard Branson with the personal morals of a Rupert Murdoch). Labour is restrained from adopting such common sense policies only by the self-interest of the union barons, who insist on interposing themselves into policies debates in which they could have no reasonable stake (it being plainly offensive to recall that UNISON’s members, for example, staff, clean and supply the same NHS).

If we think beyond this parody to how parties actually operate, one of the ironies of the last few weeks is that the Labour leadership has created something like baronial society, save that the Council with which Labour’s new monarch is surrounded, is composed of MPs not of trade unionists.

When William the Bastard landed at Hastings in 1066 (he became William the Conqueror only on seizing London), he had an army of fewer than 10,000 soldiers. Having defeated Harold, he had to rule a society of some 3 million people. He had enough troops to occupy a dozen castles; he was not strong enough to hold a country without persuading the existing rulers that his kingdom was secure and it was in their interests to submit.

In Labour’s recent election Jeremy Corbyn was the preferred candidate of around 20 of Labour’s 232 MPs: principally the then nine members of the Socialist Campaign Group, and a similar cohort from the 45 or so Labour MPs elected for the first time in 2015. The Campaign Group comprises such Parliamentary stalwarts as Dennis Skinner, veterans within no interest in a front bench role (it is even a rule of the SCG that on becoming a shadow minister, you have to leave the Group). The new MPs were for the opposite reasons unsuitable for rapid promotion. Corbyn’s isolation is shown by the presence of just two of his supporters (McDonell, Abbott) within the 28-strong shadow cabinet, and this proportion barely rises when you include junior ministers as well. Altogether Labour has a frontbench of 150 MPs and Lords: only three in total come from the Campaign Group.

In early modern England, it became common to present the relationship between the King and his subjects as a contract, in which the throne agreed not to govern beyond certain limits, and the people agreed in return to submit to the King’s rule. But certain features of this relationship are worth noting: the bargain between King and people was not recorded in writing (there was no constitution), indeed the terms of the bargain could not be formally negotiated (because to do so was to admit a dual power within the regime as King John discovered to his cost by conceding Magna Carta). That said, most people, from barons to the lowest serf, believed they knew the limits beyond which the King had agreed not to cross. When the feudal commons rebelled, they did so in the name of the King and the proper implementation of the King’s laws.

From the last fortnight it seems that the lines of the social contract underpinning Corbyn’s leadership are now tolerably clear:

  • Jeremy Corbyn has agreed not to use his role as Labour Party to promote the Labour left to ministerial roles in greater proportion than their numbers in the Parliamentary Labour Party (strictly, speaking, as I’ve tried to show, Corbynistas are presently underrepresented on Labour’s front bench). This may possibly change as the new cohort find their feet, but Corbyn has effectively agreed not to promote them rapidly
  • Corbyn has agreed not to back proposals for mandatory reselection of MPs – ie provided that their opposition to his leadership does not exceed a certain extent (yet to be defined), he will not use the Corbyn voters to oust his critics and replace them with his supporters
  • Corbyn has agreed that for the time being – although possibly, this concession is limited until there has been a thorough discussion within the Party as a whole – he will not seek to impose on the Labour Party views with regards to foreign policy (ie Trident, Nato, the EU, presumably the bombing of Syria) which are out of kilter with those of Labour’s most right-wing supporters
  • Corbyn has left the key tasks of internal party discipline (and, to an extent, the nuclear option of whether or not to allow the PLP to topple the leadership) in the hands of the most determined organisers of the “Anyone But Corbyn” bloc in Labour’s recent election – ie Rosie Winterton, Alan Campbell and Mark Tami, the same individuals who were the whips during the leadership contest.

In return, the PLP (Labour’s barons) have agreed

  • Not to stage an open rebellion against Corbyn’s leadership, or at least not to do so at least until after local elections next year
  • Tentatively, to allow Corbyn a role in the formulation of economic policy which has been refused to him in foreign policy terms (although, the terms of this part of the deal is still subject to skirmishing, so that for example rather than allow Corbyn simply to declare that Labour will reverse the Tories’ cuts to legal aid, ie make a spending commitment, a compromise has been reached under which a Labour peer Lord Bach will consider what parts of legal aid shall be restored. We will wait to see whether there shall be similar internal party investigations of housing, education and health policy).

What happens from here?

In a heroic scenario, Corbyn consolidates his leadership by persuading enough Labour MPs that in conventional Labour Party terms he is up for the job, will increase their chances of winning an election and therefore getting better jobs as actual ministers, etc. He is able to do this by following, essentially, a similar path to Syriza in Greece in about February-March 2015, ie having policies for the reversal of austerity which are backed by large numbers of economists, and showing that a redistributive government would run Britain better than the giant tax haven Osborne envisages.

In a disaster scenario, Labour MPs continue to undermine his leadership by briefing against him, weakly restrained by a group of whips, who are his committed opponents. Labour drags on to the spring, does badly then, and the PLP launches its coup at that moment.

Corbyn has an advantage over his PLP opponents in that they tend to see the battle strictly in internal Labour terms. To a greater extent than them, he sees the consolidation of his leadership as dependent on how Labour does. They can only imagine a disaster, possibly mitigated for some time, but in the end they can see only his defeat. He, by contrast, understands that success outside the Labour Party would give him greater power to (albeit very, very slowly) renegotiate the terms of his present contract with the parliamentarians. New blood could be brought in, reselection may yet emerge as the mere logical corollary of the great redrawing of constituency boundaries – but only if Corbyn proves himself electorally.

Corbyn’s principal disadvantage is that even he has a very weak sense of the targeted abuse that will come his way as and when he takes on not the Conservative MPs but the interests of the rich that stand behind them. It is simply not the case that when Labour and the Tories oppose each other, there is a battle of opinion, on equal terms, with the great British public waiting to step in as referees and declare one or the other side the victor. The more effectively Corbyn lands blows against the Tories, the more he raises people’s hopes of, for example, that distant impossible utopia in which a millionaire would have to declare their true income and might in future pay even just half as much tax as the typical streetsweeper, the more weeks he will like his first, and the greater the storm of popular indignation that the press will try to summon against him.

The most decisive battle isn’t going to be between Corbyn and the Labour Party (a working compromise has been reached on that front), but between a redistributively-minded Corbyn leadership and the champions of the rich. There will be a role for those – in the Labour Party or not – who can lay a blow on capital. It may yet prove an equally important task to that of those who focus on the internal struggle within Labour.

“We’re not bothering you, we’re from the press”


I have extracted the sound file of Jeremy Corbyn being harassed by the media on Sunday. They have already caused suffering by door-stepping several members of his extended family, people who never chose to be in the limelight, and are entitled to their privacy.

After a while you stop listening to the questions, and hear only the answer, the rhythm of Corbyn’s feet. He walks as a sometime runner might, with purpose. You can also hear his fatigue. This is a figure, after all, who has given more than 100 speeches to his supporters in three months, and addressed (in addition) so many joint debates that his rivals (20 years his junior) are exhausted. As her prepared himself for his victory he may well have thought, naively, that a holiday was in order.

So much of all our collective longing is invested in him. How heavy that burden must be.

Whatever scenario you might paint in your imagination as to how socialism “should” come about, do not kid yourself that the path would be any easier for an English Trotsky, a British Che, a North London Bakunin.

“Why do you keep walking”, he is asked, “and not answering the question?”

In the press reports, it is said that Corbyn is rescued by an aide, but I’m pretty sure it is in fact his son Tommy – good on him.

And then the journalist becomes conscious, for a moment, of where he is and what he is doing. “Jeremy, we’re not bothering you, we’re from the press.” Well, what do you think you are doing? It is not enough to say ‘our job’. Everyone, whatever they do, always has a choice.

The civility of Corbyn


LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 10: Jeremy Corbyn, MP for Islington North and candidate in the Labour Party leadership election, speaks to supporters at the Rock Tower on September 10, 2015 in London, England. Voting closed in the Labour Party leadership contest with the results of which due to be announced on September 12. (Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images)

Why did he do so well? From the point of view of the Labour right this was supposed to be an auction in contemporaneity. Corbyn represented the 1970s, an industrial economy, trade union power, hand-knitted sweaters; whereas his rivals were supposed to represent the glittering forces of the scientific future. People would vote for the new wouldn’t they? Maybe they just did.

Think for a moment of the most familiar consequences of neo-liberalism – job insecurity, the partial but real removal of the wealthy from the tax system and the degradation of public services that follows, the private sector annexation of common space, health, education … – all of these tend to leave the individual feeling alone. Churches, working-men’s clubs, unions, co-operatives, even pubs are seeing a decline in the number of people who use them. In the context of what can feel like a general demise of collectivity, the personal qualities of our leaders take on a new and unfamiliar importance. When leaders let us down we shout “not in our name”, and look for someone different who we can identify with. In this context Corbyn’s seeming personal incorruptibility – his most often noticed virtue is that he is our Parliament’s lowest expense claimer – seems immediate and new.

Now reverse the exercise, and see neo-liberalism as the accidental creator of new solidarities, whether that is the seeming prevalence of non-monetised relationships online, a new speed of communication through social media, or through (some) social campaigns a re-collectivised public space. And it becomes possible to argue that there is, immanent in our present, a more collective future waiting to emerge. Seen from this perspective, Britain becomes something surprising – a residually social democratic society, with a left consensus that re-emerges whenever you ask people whether we need public services. Corbyn’s civility – his refusal to boast, his unwillingness to antagonise – can feel like the long-awaited reconnection of “politics” with the values of the majority. It certainly feels much more immediate than the Blairite gurning for the interests of the super-rich.

The politics of 1995 maintained was that it was possible to finesse a basic law of politics, and of life, that rich people and workers have different and incompatible interests by making a definite promise that new technology would enable both to prosper. In 1995, it was possible to argue that the world was on the verge of a technological revolution – and if you compare the list of the world’s richest companies in 2015 with its predecessor of twenty years ago it is possible to argue that list has changed more in the last twenty years than it had in the previous 50. Amazon was new once, Apple felt new a generation ago, Facebook had barely been invented…

Now listen to Blair in 2015, mid-campaign, complaining that the future is being ignored: “We should be discussing how technology should revolutionise public services; how young people are not just in well-paid, decent jobs but also have the chance to start businesses that benefit their communities; how Britain stays united and in Europe; what reform of welfare and social care can work in an era of radical demographic change.” Doesn’t it all feel so tired? Voters just know that the million jobs moved from employment to self-employment are not better paid, they’re worse. The privatisation of public services is in the eyes of no one (save perhaps Richard Branson’s accountant) an unexplored frontier. The Europe that crushed Syriza has delivered no enthusiast claiming to have seen the future and it works.

In due course, Corbyn may well look old. The 99 speeches he has already given (he reaches a century today) already wear on his face. There will be a time when it is no longer possible to see them as the benign look of a runner reaching his racing weight. Faced with a five-year barrage that the last month has barely foreshadowed – attacked by the rich, by the Tories, distrusted by a majority of his own MPs – he may struggle. (Those of us outside the Labour Party will need to remember that he is being attacked not for any flaws but for his socialist politics) One day we may become nostalgic for those socialists who respond to invective with its like. But, today, he has more than earned his victory.

Beneath the paving stones, comrades, it’s beige.

Lives; Running reviewed


Book review in Track Statistics magazine, summer 2015


We must all have met people who are such concentrations of energy that the question that comes to mind is ‘How do they find more than 24 hours in each day?’ When I met David Renton recently, that was exactly where my thoughts travelled.

But to begin at the beginning. Sports writing is a difficult pursuit and is not generally noted for its outstanding literary merit. There are, fortunately, a few exceptions in the athletics sphere. To begin a book with the words ‘The first man I saw run, really run, was Jack London’ is the mark of a skilled and imaginative writer and W. R. Loader did just that in Testament of a Runner. Another who displayed impressive command of descriptive language was the prodigious F.A.M.Webster whose pen-pictures of past athletes are arresting and vivid. Then one who doesn’t seem to have received due praise, in my view, was Sam Ferris whose long series of articles on road running events for Athletics Weekly in the decades after World War 2 were so compelling that one can almost hear the patter of the plimsoll soles on the tarmac.

Let us now add the name of Renton which will almost certainly be unfamiliar to readers of this journal. David Renton is an Eton College-educated, London-based Barrister with political views which place him on the Left. But, in his book Lives;Running the reader will get little of powdered wigs or manifestos for change. What you will get is a fine read by a man who loves his running and communicates its joys and pains in a way which will stimulate even those whose interest in sport is limited. But he is more than that. He has published around a dozen books on a range of topics, he has consuming interests in sports, social and family history, he is a family man with two small children and he holds down a demanding job.

The first words in this book I have a short stilted stride. I do not stretch, rather I scuttle like a clubfooted beetle tell us that here is a man who accepts his limitations but is not discouraged from the challenges of seeking physical and mental fitness through running. In fact, Renton’s family background shows a strong sporting tradition. His grandfather competed for his college at Oxford University at cricket, cross-country, football and rugby. His father was accomplished at rowing. Renton himself was to achieve 1:59.7 for 800 metres whilst still a schoolboy. Then, after a break from running which lasted for 8 years, he returned to the sport and combined it with cycling. Eventually he entered the London Marathon where he battled to even finish but recorded 4 hours 24 minutes.

Renton devotes a great deal of space in the book to recalling the rivalry between Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett. This section is wonderfully evocative of a time when British middle-distance runners dominated the world. Renton reminds us that the rivalry was so intense that even athletics supporters (and indeed many people outside the sport) were either for the majestic Coe or cheered for the down-to-earth Ovett. The author makes no secret of his partiality when he writes after the 1500 metres in Moscow [the 1980 Olympic race] Coe asked his rival ‘Where did you finish’. It was only with Ovett’s reply that he had finished 3rd did Coe relax. Yet on the occasions when both athletes lost, Ovett could be seen comforting the younger man. He continues It was that capacity for warmth, sympathy and human solidarity which represented for me Ovett’s victory. I find it difficult to argue with that personal judgement. Whether that made Ovett the better athlete is another question. David Renton’s own view is that there was little to choose between them in innate athletic ability. What he concludes is that their personal backgrounds indelibly shaped the athletes they became. As is well known, Coe was guided closely by his father who made no secret of his determination to mould his son into a high achiever after the boy had failed his 11+. Coe senior believed that hard work paid dividends. But then so did Ovett’s family, successful market traders in Brighton. But is was certainly always my impression that the atmosphere in the Ovett household may have been more relaxed that that at the Coe’s. Whatever, their sons grew into very different human beings.

Renton goes on to describe how he again stopped running after he became a father, only returning to the activity in recent times when past his 40th birthday. Good for him. He writes of what running means for him With just a few other pleasures, running is part of my nature. It is something I could barely exist without. I run to feel the air cool and my body warm. Running has repeatedly surprised me, it has shaken me out of the torpor of daily living. Besides the London Marathon, Renton has tackled a whole series of half-marathons including in Hackney and Oxford and has no intention of cutting back on his efforts.

A few hours with David Renton is unlikely to leave you feeling bored as I discovered on a recent Sunday afternoon in north London. His conversation ranges over topics so far and wide that one cannot avoid being mentally stimulated. On the sport of track and field athletics I put to him my feeling that, whilst professionalism is to be welcomed because it has broken down barriers of class and wealth which featured heavily in the early years of the sport, that a negative effect had been a concentration on elite athletes to the detriment of the everyday club athletes. Renton doesn’t necessarily go along with that view and points out the enormous numbers of people of a wide-age range who have taken up road running in recent times and have found their lives transformed. He also points to the large numbers of runners in the National Cross-country Championships. He has written that competing in road races with runners of both great abilities but also those of more limited accomplishments, as measured by results on paper, gives him a feeling of being part of a social movement. As someone who has participated in a few road runs in his time (rising to the level of spectacular mediocrity) I certainly concur that the overriding emotion is of camaraderie. His view of competition is that it is as much about competing against oneself as against other people. The targets for many runners and joggers are personal. Although, as Renton, admits with a smile, it is a pleasant feeling to beat the bloke who finished in front of you on the last occasion.

David Renton’s views on track and field today are largely positive and formed by his enthusiasm for running. In response to my question about the decline of the influence of clubs in the sport, he stressed that he was more concerned about the serious decline of green spaces and playing fields associated with schools. ‘After all’, he comments, ‘that is where the culture of fitness and challenge is first nurtured’. Likewise he does not see the overwhelming superiority of African athletes in distance events at international level as a problem but prefers to view it as an incentive to other runners to re-double their own strivings.

It was no surprise to learn that he has a special interest in (and has written about), the ‘Workers Olympics’ which flourished in the years before World War 2 and saw celebrations between 1925 and 1937 in Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia and Germany. He has also written a book about C.L.R. James, the Trinidadian radical whose own cricketing book Beyond a Boundary regularly appears in lists of ‘The Greatest Sports Books Ever’. A different sport, but similar human sentiments apply. Naturally, I was delighted when David Renton mentioned the name of the great Alf Tupper and obviously knew all about the welder from Greystone. The ‘tough of the track’ remains one of the greatest athletes of all time and, if you’re looking for one of John Lennon’s ‘working-class heroes’, is up there with Jack Holden, Ethel Johnson and Arthur Rowe. Had Tupper tangled with Coe and Ovett we may have witnessed a 3 minutes 20 seconds one mile!

You won’t get many stats in this book. But if you value a stimulating and uplifting read, then it’s for you.

Michael Sheridan

Protest and the Coalition



The last three months of 2014 in Britain saw a number of high-profile protests. On 19 October, around 100 activists from Occupy Democracy made an attempt to establish a protest camp in Parliament Square. Some of the demonstrators brought tarpaulins, which the police decided were “structures for the purpose of facilitating sleeping”, and therefore banned in the square by the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, and these were confiscated. Activists were outnumbered by police, threatened with arrest if they did not leave, and several were forcibly removed.

Protesters returned on 21 October, at which time fewer police were visible but around a dozen vans were held in reserve. The grass was sealed with a two metre high fence, and all protesters excluded.

There was a student demonstration for free education from Malet Street in Bloomsbury on 19 November with between 4,000 and 10,000 protesters, making it the largest student protest since 2011. Press coverage focussed on the supposed violence of the demonstrators, principally consisting of a group of between 200 and 400 students escaping from the main body of the demonstration and setting off on various breakaway marches. During one of these micro-demonstrations, protesters attempted to remove the barricades which were still up in Parliament Square.

On 22 November, around 100 supporters of Occupy Democracy made a further attempt to enter Parliament Square, where they were again prevented from staying.

On the evening of 26 November, between one and two thousand people took part in a protest at the US embassy at Grosvenor Square to condemn the decision not to prosecute a police officer Darren Wilson for shooting dead black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. An impromptu march then headed South, via Oxford Street, with some demonstrators eventually reaching Parliament and temporarily tearing down the barriers there.

On 3 and 6 December, further student protests took place at a number of university towns, including Brighton where demonstrators were photographed holding placards in the style of book covers: Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, Wolstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. The most significant of the assemblies was at Warwick University, where on 3 December the police were called by the University, police drew a taser and were filmed using CS spray against students. The images helped to spark a “Cops off Campus” protest of around five hundred students on 6 December and an occupation.

On 10 December, 76 people were arrested at a 600-strong “die-in” at the Westfield shopping centre in Shepherds Bush to mark the death of Eric Garner, a black man who had died during an arrest in New York in July.

The return of student protest in particular invited comparisons with the demonstration of 10 November 2010 when in the first significant march against the Coalition government some 50,000 university and further education students and lecturers had protested against increases to student fees and the removal of the EMA grant for 16 to 18 year olds. Around 2000 of the students entered Millbank Tower which housed the Conservative Party’s campaign headquarters. They hung banners from its roof, smashed panes of glass at the front of the building, and it took several hours for the police to gain control of the building. When the National Union of Students distanced itself from the occupation, activists – some of whom had worked together in occupations around Gaza in 2009 and the 2010 closure of the Philosophy Department at Middlesex – announced further protests for 24 November and 9 December, the evening when Parliament was due to consider increasing tuition fees.

Over the next four weeks of demonstrations many students were contained behind police lines and others subject to repeated police charges. Baton strikes were aimed at the heads and bodies of demonstrators. The highest profile victim of the charges was Alfie Meadows, who required surgery after being struck on the head by a police baton. Meadows was then prosecuted, unsuccessfully, for violent disorder.

While protesters may have hoped that events in London in winter 2010-11 would indicate the first blossoms of a “British spring”, in the image of events in Tunisia and Egypt that winter, as important in retrospect has been the hostile response of the police, which has continued, even to protests for very different causes.

For about a year and a half prior to Millbank, the message of the police authorities had been that they were adopting a facilitative approach towards public protest. After the death of Ian Tomlinson at an anti-G20 rally on 1 April 2009, much was made of a supposed British model in which policing was by consent. This shift was given a visible expression at that year’s Climate Camp gathering at Blackheath in August. The police very publicly eschewed the surveillance and intrusive searches that the camp’s supporters had had to endure in previous years.

In the aftermath of the Millbank occupation, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson criticised his own force for having failed to accurately estimate protesters’ numbers or predict that politicians might be targeted, “it must have been an awful time for the people trying to go about their daily business in those buildings. I feel terribly sorry that they have had to go through what must have been quite a traumatic experience. We are determined to make sure that sort of thing does not happen again on our streets.”

Two days before further student demonstrations planned for the first anniversary of Millbank, the LBC radio station reported that police officers had told them they would use baton rounds, like rubber bullets, to deal with any unruly protesters.

“Public revulsion about Ian Tomlinson’s death meant there was a brief window of opportunity in 2009 to challenge heavy-handed police tactics and their negative depictions of most protesters as inherently violent. That window was closed after the student demonstrations”, recalls Kevin Blowe of the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol), “and it was locked after the 2011 riots”.

Over the following three years, there have been successive press stories about the police being armed with increasingly high tech weaponry to be used against either rioters or demonstrators. As part of the preparations for the London Olympics, the Ministry of Defence revealed that ships on the Thames had been equipped with “Long Range Acoustic Devices”, or as they were also known “sonic cannon”, devices which disrupt protests by emitting piercing, high pitched sounds at high decibels and can cause lasting deafness.

The demonstrators who negotiated with senior police officers the route of the Counter Olympics Networks protest, the largest event protesting against the London Olympics, insisted on assurances that the sonic cannon would not be used against their event, and while the officers would not give any guarantees, it was clear from their response that they viewed the devices with a mixture of anxiety and derision. “We are here to protect public order”, the officers said, “That … LRAD is in no way conducive to keeping people safe.”

The Home Office’s 2014 acquisition of water cannon shows a similar pattern with parts of the state welcoming the opportunities to use a wider set of powers against demonstrators, and other parts disowning any actual intention to employ the weapons. The Association of Chief Police Officers produced in January 2014 a briefing paper justifying the purchase. The document acknowledges the risks associated with the cannon which “are capable of causing serious injury or even death”, but justifies their use for disorder such as “the student protests of 2010 where specific locations were targeted”. “The mere presence of water cannon”, ACPO maintains, “can have a deterrent effect and experience from Northern Ireland demonstrates that water cannon are often deployed without being employed.”

Another feature of the past five years has been the Metropolitan Police’s frequent use of kettling, a tactic which requires officers to surround demonstrators in a small spaces, allowing small numbers out after only a lengthy delay. Kettling predates the Coalition but under the Coalition it has become a regular feature of policing, no longer restricted to a few protesters associated with “disreputable” causes rather it has become the force’s principal way of dealing with protest in all its forms.

Kettled demonstrators are held for hours at a time without food, water, or opportunities to go to the toilet. The police’s selection of who to kettle is necessarily arbitrary and, for its dissuasive effect, the tactic requires a rule that no-one may leave the kettle once it has begun. The most high profile case to challenge the use of kettling, Austin v UK, began as an action by two people who were caught for 7 hours in the first kettle in 2001. One was a young mother, who was unable to collect her 11 month old baby from the childminder. The second was a member of the public who had been caught up, without warning and entirely by surprise, in the kettle. He was not a demonstrator but in London on work business when he found police lines closing around him. Both asked to leave the kettle but were refused.

One of the establishment’s criticisms of the police after Millbank was that they had failed to gather sufficient intelligence so as to predict the student numbers. The National Union of Students had told the police to expect 20,000 people, while the true figure turned out to be a little 50,000. The police were also criticised for failing to predict the occupation of Millbank Tower. It would be possible to construct an upbeat narratives of British policing in which this failure has been remedied by a general shift towards a new intelligence-based approach, Intelligence-Led Policing (“ILP”), in which the gathering of information pre-empts a problem by detecting and disrupting criminal activity. There is however a category error in the extension from employing intelligence gathering as a step towards preventing (for example) money-laundering to using it to prevent organised political protest. The former prevents conduct which is wholly negative; the latter leaves protesters without a voice, and the wrong which they have gathered to oppose is left substantially in place.

An example of how ILP has been mis-used in the context of protest is supplied by the High Court case of Mengesha v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis. On the afternoon of the 30 November 2011 public sector protests, around 100 demonstrators were held in a kettle near London’s Panton Street. Police officers informed them that they would be entitled to leave the kettle only once they had been photographed and given the officers their names dates of birth and addresses. Without that information, the police officers appeared to believe, they were entitled to hold and detain members of the public indefinitely. The High Court had no difficulty in finding that the conduct of the police had been wholly unlawful.

Another recurring theme of the policing of protest under the Coalition has been the frequent arrest of up to several hundred demonstrators at a time, followed generally by the selective charging of only a small proportion of those arrested. Protests disrupted in this manner have included the cyclists’ Critical Mass protest of July 2012 coinciding with the opening night of the Olympics, at which 182 people were arrested. The cyclists were then held in buses overnight before being given bail conditions the following morning. Just nine people were eventually charged and of them only four were convicted.

A 2011 UK Uncut protest at Fortnum & Mason saw 145 arrests but only 40 people were charged and 10 were convicted.

At a protest against the English Defence League in autumn 2013, over 300 anti-fascist demonstrators – some from the nascent Anti-Fascist Network, others local youth from Muslim backgrounds in East London – were held in kettles lasting for many hours and arrested. Just two were charged and only one was convicted.

Those held in these mass arrests have been subject to pre-charge bail conditions. The experience of protesters is that these have tended to become more onerous during the term of the present government, with the trend being to exclude protesters not merely from similar protests for the duration of their bail conditions but also from places which have some – often vague – connection to the location or nature of their protest. So, those arrested in 2013 in protests against the English Defence League were required not to be present on any demonstration where a member of the EDL might be present, which is not as easy as it might first sound given that the EDL has a history of infiltrating trade union and left-wing events. Protesters were also excluded for the duration of their bail conditions from the City of Westminster. Some readers of this piece will no doubt be able to draw the boundaries of Westminster from memory, but I doubt most people who live or work in London could do so.

Protesters arrested at a Cops off Campus demonstration in December 2013 were excluded for the duration of their police bail conditions from the central London campus area where the protests had taken place. The editor of the London Student newspaper Oscar Webb was banned from attending any protests or demonstrations anywhere around the University campus, even in his capacity as a reporter. Other students were prevented from being in groups of more than four people. The President of the University of London Union Michael Chessum was required to refrain from “engag[ing] in protest on any University Campus and not within half a mile boundary of any university”, a proposal that was clearly intended to curtail protests rather than prevent crime or ensuring Chessum’s attendance at court.

The deadline for charges to be brought in the Magistrates Court is six months from the original offence. While protesters are typically arrested on the demonstration itself, charging decisions tend to be made near the end of the six-month deadline. This delay is capable of justification since it gives the state the maximum opportunity to gather all the information required to make a charging decision. In all legal proceedings, criminal or civil, litigants tend to issue near to the deadline rather than as soon as an act occurs. But the delay maximises the inconvenience faced by the protester, who knows that if they breach their conditions they will probably be arrested and held in custody before appearing before the courts.

By participating in the occupation of Millbank Tower, students made themselves vulnerable to being charged under the Public Order Act 1986, but which is the appropriate charge is not straightforward. The first three offences under the Act are Riot, Violent Disorder and Affray, carrying maximum sentences of 10 years, 5 years and 3 years respectively. The statute provides similar definitions of each, making each charge potentially appropriate where there has been conduct so that a hypothetical bystander might fear for their safety.

As researchers from Defend the Right to Protest have shown in a recent briefing (, the original Law Commission report which recommended the creation of the offence envisaged a crime of great seriousness as would happen, for example, if a crowd of people threw a series of missiles with the intention of causing injury. In subsequent guidance on charging produced by the Crown Prosecution Service, this intention was subtly altered, and prosecutors were guided to charge protesters with violent demonstrators if there was serious disorder at a public event and any missiles of any description were thrown. At the Gaza protests in 2010, demonstrators faced charges of violent disorder for being within crowds from which empty water bottles or placards sticks had been thrown.

Overcharging has the practical result that the trials take place in the Crown Court rather than the magistrates’ courts, with the greater delays of a lengthier, more formal system, and the risk of a longer jail term if the defendants are found guilty.

A further consequence of over-charging was that juries were put on notice that demonstrators faced lengthy sentences and this (as well as genuine shock when jurors were confronted with images of police violence prior to the supposed disorder) may have contributed to the very high acquittal rate after the student protests, with 18 of the 19 defendants who pleaded not guilty to violent disorder being acquitted.

In most of the high profile political prosecutions, around half of the demonstrators have been acquitted and in some cases, the acquittal rate has been higher still. There were 126 arrests made by police in 2013 of anti-fracking protesters objecting to a Cuadrilla exploration site in Balcombe in West Sussex in 2013. Ninety defendants faced 114 charges but only 29 of the charges resulted in convictions.

At Balcombe, rather than overcharging as such, the Sussex police attempted a different approach of reviving antique criminal charges, in this case, the anti-picketing offence of “watching and besetting”: “A person commits an offence who, with a view to compelling another person to abstain from doing or to do any act which that person has a legal right to do … wrongfully and without legal authority … watches or besets the house or other place where that person resides, works, carries on business or happens to be…”

Had this strategy proved effective if it might have gone some way towards making the act of protest outside any workplace unlawful. Instead, the relative obscurity of the charge may have contributed to the high acquittal rate: the courts were unwilling to countenance an extension of the legislative prohibition against protest.

Yet if protesters have largely avoided criminal convictions; in the civil courts, the decisions of the judiciary have generally narrowed rather broadened the rights of demonstrators. In the main St Paul’s case, the Mayor Commonalty and Citizens of London v Samede, the Court of Appeal found that “while the protesters’ Article 10 and 11 rights”, that is their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights to freedom of expression and association, “are undoubtedly engaged, it is very difficult to see how they could ever prevail against the will of the landowner, when they are continuously and exclusively occupying public land.”

A year earlier, in Hall and Others v Mayor of London, the most significant case involving protesters’ occupation of Parliament Square, the Court ruled that a permanent protest camp outside Parliament could not be sustained. The Court of Appeal accepted the findings of the High Court that the Democracy Now protesters were preventing others from demonstrating outside Parliament, and that if Parliament Square was left in the unfettered control of the Mayor of London, other protesters would have greater access to it than they had at the time.

The Court insisted that evictions were justifiable as a step towards a wider freedom to protest: “It is important that the Democracy Village members are able to express their views through their encampment on [Parliament Square Green], just opposite the Houses of Parliament. However … it is equally important to all the other people who wish to demonstrate on PSG that the Democracy Village is removed.”

The consequence of the Mayor of London’s zeal to protect the rights of protesters can be seen in the establishment of the barriers that met the Occupy Democracy protesters, accompanied by signs warning protesters that any demonstration might damage the grass. Claudia Grigg Edo was there with Occupy. “It was pretty clear to all of us that the fact the ‘keep off the grass’ cordons were put up just before our openly-publicised 9-day occupation was not a coincidence. On one occasion, when one of fellow protesters asked what they were for, one policeman said ‘to keep you lot out’.” Fences threaten to become the default response of the police to any protests by any demonstrators in the vicinity of Parliament.

Demonstrators who were schooled by the experience of marching against New Labour will tell you that the principle factor determining the response of the police to a protest is usually a political assessment of the public support for the protesters’ cause. So, TUC marches against austerity, or marches against the Iraq War, will be subject to light-touch policing, since the police know that the causes themselves have the support of either an actual majority of people or of a sufficiently large minority of people so that it would be inadvisable to confront them. By contrast, anarchist opponents of the capitalist system or those perceived as sympathetic to terrorism may expect a much more intrusive style of policing.

Protesters who are shaped by the experience of protesting under the Coalition government tend to see things differently. In their explanation, it is not the degree of support for the cause which is decisive, but the tactics adopted by protesters. The paradigm example is something like the Balcombe protests, which had very wide support within the local area, with the Women’s Institute and church groups attending. The protesters even had their own a knitting circle. And yet, for all their local legitimacy, demonstrators were still subject to the full rigour of a police action in which any protest was treated as criminal.

Asked to explain why there has been a shift towards greater hostility on the part of the police in the face of protesters, Kevin Blowe of Netpol begins his explanation with a shift towards more diverse and mobile tactics by the demonstrators. There has been a modest but definite shift he argues against the demand for large “A to B” marches in the style of the anti-war movement that reached its peak in 2003. Instead, protesters are seeking to employ a range of tactics: ranging from at one point the occupation of spaces, to at the other extreme, rapid movement from place to place, with the intention above all of keeping away from police lines or the risk of being kettled. “If two million people was not enough to change the politicians’ minds, it followed that protesters needed to do something different. With social media, protests have become easier to organise and harder to police.”

“Many of the infamous examples of mass arrests”, Blowe suggests, “have happened when the police encountered a new social movement which they did not understand. The arrests at Fortnum & Mason seem to have been about the police needing a better understanding of UK Uncut. The police were unfamiliar with who belonged to what networks, and so they pulled in people in large numbers. It was the same with Critical Mass and the Anti-Fascist Network. The police were looking – in vain – to see if they could find out who the leaders were.”

Tom Wainwright, a barrister who has represented several of those charged in protest cases, including Zak King, Caroline Lucas MP and a number the Critical Mass and Balcombe defendants, has a similar analysis. “The police view is that a legitimate protest is a bunch of people waving placard sticks. As far as they are concerned if you put people in a pen, some distance away from their considered target, you have struck a proportionate balance between people’s right to protest and the business’ right to carry on doing regardless whatever it was already doing. But people are fed up with ineffective protests which do nothing to stop an action. Protesters are experimenting with occupations, lockdowns, and actions intended to have a real effect. The police regard any expansion of protest as inherently problematic.”

Reviewing the last four years a whole; while it can certainly happen that hostile policing has the effect of only encouraging further protests, the experience of some activists has been that the struggles are leading rather to fatigue and the new activists who brought their optimism to the various protests have then retreated, demoralised by the hostility of the state.

There is no single statute at work here, no authoritarian legislation masquerading Blair- or Cameron-style as reform, no single policy that could be opposed by a well-targeted petition, but the incremental way in which values have changed and an extra dose of iron has entered into the soul of the state.