Armed police. Photo: Tom Hisgett / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0, license linked at bottom of article Armed police. Photo: Tom Hisgett / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

We shouldn’t imagine that we are powerless and have to accept this assault on our civil liberties lying down, argues Shabbir Lakha

It is perhaps unsurprising, but shocking nonetheless, that the Tories would use this moment – in the middle of a pandemic that they are utterly failing to get to grips with – to rush through the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Spy Cops) bill to allow state forces to commit crimes.

Shocking as it is, it is the latest in a trajectory of authoritarian state legislature in recent years. When Stop the War was founded in 2001, it rightly identified that an inevitable by product of the War on Terror would be the erosion of civil liberties in Britain.

Indeed, as the wars began under the Blair government, we saw gross violations of human rights in the countries that were invaded including the mass killing of civilians and the use of torture and rendition. And on the home front, we saw the expansion of counter terrorism legislation, including the Prevent agenda, which gave sweeping powers to the police and border agencies.

This was the forming of an overtly Islamophobic security apparatus predicated on mass surveillance and intimidation. In the first 5 years of Prevent, Muslims made up 90% of referrals and the proportion remained as high as 78% when it was made law by the Tories in 2015. Children as young as 3 years old have been referred to Prevent, a teenager wearing a “Free Palestine” badge was referred. The loose guidelines on “signs of radicalisation” have meant school teachers have referred children for using Arabic words and GPs have reported patients for wearing headscarves.

This is important to note because we must understand that our foreign policy is not divorced from the domestic, and as we’re witnessing, an attack on one group of people becomes a precursor for a wholesale attack on the civil liberties of everyone.

In the last couple of years, we’ve seen an acceleration of this trajectory and especially focused on campaigning, trade union and left wing organisations. Last year the government commissioned a report on “left wing extremism” which identified groups like Stop the War, and a police handbook on extremism listed climate campaigning, anti-war and anti-racist organisations in the same vicinity as fascist groups.

Last year, the police also banned lawful Extinction Rebellion protests, raided their warehouses and forcibly removed permitted protesters from Trafalgar Square. Using this as a precedent, the Police Federation urged the Home Office to allow the police to ban Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year.

So we can see this accelerating crackdown on civil liberties, free speech and freedom to protest. Recently the government has sought to ban “anti-capitalist materials” and to dictate the parameters of discussions of racism in schools. In this context we can see how dangerous the Spy Cops Bill is.

Of course the police infiltration of political and trade union organisations has long been a feature of police activity. The first stage of the undercover policing inquiry revealed a disturbing level of police infiltration in environmental, peace and justice campaigns – including in the Stephen Lawrence family campaign for justice. It also showed the extensive monitoring of trade unionists and MPs like Jeremy Corbyn for decades, and outlined horrific abuse of power in deceiving women into relationships. The true extent won’t be uncovered for some years – and maybe never fully given evidence of the police shredding documents.

The Spy Cops bill allows the police and other state organisations to not only continue doing the same, but to go further. The bill sanctions would allow state agents to commit murder, sexual violence and torture with impunity.

Given this, it is an absolute shame on every MP that voted for this bill, including the tacit approval from the Labour leadership by whipping MPs to abstain. Credit must be given to the MPs that broke the whip and in some cases, like Dan Carden MP, resigned from positions in order to vote against.

Because the government has so badly mishandled the pandemic, leaving millions to risk their lives and without necessary support, trade union and workplace organising has become the only defence for many to protect their lives, livelihoods and conditions. It’s at this moment that this bill is being rushed through Parliament, which stipulates that state agents can commit crimes to maintain “economic well-being” and to “prevent disorder”.

The bill also comes months after the mass mobilisations for Black Lives Matters which specifically took a stand against racist police brutality. It’s unsurprising that a Tory government led by Boris Johnson and Priti Patel who called anti-racist protesters “thugs” and “extremists” would respond by increasing police impunity in committing crimes.

Another example of how the bill is connected to foreign policy is the close proximity with the passing of the second reading of the Overseas Operations bill which makes it harder than it already is for victims of torture and abuse at the hands of British soldiers to seek justice.

However, what we’ve seen in the last 9 months since the outbreak of the pandemic is a government in severe crisis, and growing dissatisfaction and collective resistance against them. Since March, the government has been forced into u-turn after u-turn as a result of pressure from parents, teachers, Marcus Rashford, and ordinary people everywhere.

So we shouldn’t imagine for a moment that we are powerless and have to accept this assault on our civil liberties lying down. We must strengthen our movement in every part of the country, get organised and make a lot of noise. If amendments are passed in the House of Lords, the bill will return to the Commons again and we must ensure every MP knows the scale of the opposition to it passing.

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Shabbir Lakha

Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.