Issue 179 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review

Kill the Bill

The power of ordinary people

The Criminal Justice Bill is an attack on our right to demonstrate. Mike Mansfield, a well known criminal lawyer who has fought many miscarriages of justice, spoke to Rose Wilson and Gary McFarlane and argues that the CJB is also a direct attack on the trade union movement itself

How much do you think the government has learnt from how it used the law in the miners strike to putting together the CJB?

Mike Mansfield
Mike Mansfield

There is a clear historical link with the experiences during the miners' strike and even before that. The best example is the way in which the government used road blocks in the miners' strike to prevent what should be quite lawful and ordinary passage from one place in the country to another. So Nottinghamshire was sealed off and people wanting to go from Kent through the Dartford Tunnel were stopped. The government didn't have a specific Act for that, and although at that point it was tested through the common law by suggesting such movement threatened breach of the peace, it then put a bit in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act about road checks, as they then became known. That got through parliament, but left out one or two interesting phrases, like whether the officer thought there was going to be severe or substantial disruption to the community, although that has now come back in with the CJB. It was then developed for acid house parties and stopping the movement of people in cars socially. So anybody who seemed socially disruptive could then be stopped and moved on.

The existing Public Order Act gives the police the power to say that you can't have a demonstration at all or you can only go this route, and how many people you can have on it. And if you disobey the directions then it is a criminal offence. That's pretty severe for trade unionists, it seems to me, because trade unionists are very active in support of all sorts of groups of other workers who may be low paid or may find their rights being infringed. The current strike by the RMT is a good example. If the signal workers were to organise certain types of demonstration, there is a risk that the police might use their powers under the Act to say you can't have that demonstration here, you have to have it over there. They already have all those powers, so the CJB is really the icing on the cake. Now they are saying, never mind public demonstrations, we've already got enormous powers to deal with those, now we will go further. The particular clauses, which I think have changed numbers, but were originally clauses 52 to 55, are criminalising other forms of demonstration. If you want to demonstrate against the closure of a hospital by getting people together, going to the hospital and standing on the steps or in the corridors or whatever, that will be land to which the public has a limited right of access. The police in those circumstances--even if the owner of the property doesn't say anything about it or object--are entitled to stop it if they think that the demonstrations may be intimidating other people or obstructing the activities of other people on that land or property. They can obviously say you can't do it. And if you disobey that instruction, as is rather similar to the Public Order Act before it, it becomes a criminal offence and you can be prosecuted for that.

Now that's called aggravated trespass, but they've gone further than that. It's relevant to what was happening in South Africa before Mandela took over, which was what they call trespassary assemblies. They are saying that where a number of people gather on land to which there is a limited right of access and the assembly of the group of people is being held without the permission of the person who occupies the land, and in the view of the police officer it may cause serious disruption to the life of the community, or if there is property that may be damaged in the view of the police officer, then that assembly can be prohibited. Clearly the sorts of demonstrations affected by this are those over roads at Twyford Down, Batheaston, the M11 link road.

All those are now at risk under this Bill. I don't think people would have recognised the extent of the threat if it were not for the Coalition against the CJB. People just think, it's the Criminal Justice Bill and it's got loads of different things in it. Unless you read it carefully--and if you're not a lawyer there is no reason why you should--you are not going to be aware of what is going on.

To what extent did the government break the law to win disputes like the miners and Wapping?

It's difficult to say that the government breaks the law. It changes the law so that it suits. Now the government wants two ballots, one to have a strike and one to continue the strike, so it is bringing in legislation to legalise its activities. In my view, the police broke the law in the way they set about preventing the demonstrations, which were legal really. There have still been virtually no prosecutions of any police officer in relation to any intrusions incurred by miners during that time. The government is making the law, and if it wants to it makes a new law, which is why the employment laws are so draconian. But the other question is how the police operated within the framework and undoubtedly there were infringements.

On the run--the miners strike 1984-85
On the run--the miners strike 1984-85

What do you think are the implications of the CJB for future disputes and why do you think the government has felt it necessary to extend the existing anti trade union laws?

It wants these laws on the shelf so that it can use them, but it won't use them every time. It will possibly use them if the RMT dispute goes on much longer. If the government sees an industrial dispute which threatens its stability and so becomes a political dispute then these laws will be used. If, as with the ambulance workers, public support is being generated and is increasing, and the government is not wanting those on strike to feel reinforced by demonstrations, then I think the police will be given orders which effectively will say, start redirecting or preventing demonstrations or put them in a place where they will have no real effect. For instance, on the last big anti-racist demonstration they were all trapped down an alleyway. It was exactly like Orgreave all over again. That's why I call it the icing on the cake--it's the final move. There isn't much more that the Tories can do after this because they have already made life pretty difficult in terms of vocal opposition. They recognise that the way opposition abroad has been successful and brought down governments is mass protests on the streets. At the end of the day it isn't the power of guns or anything else--it's the power of ordinary people standing together and saying, we are not going to be trampled over. The Tories saw that real strength during the poll tax protests. They said, we are not going to let this happen again, we have got to tighten the loophole. They used vagrants, beggars, gypsies, travellers and ravers as scapegoats because they hope everyone is going to say they are not bothered about them.

So do you feel that the government is getting ready for when there are bigger upheavals?

Yes. It wants legislation on the statute book that it can fall back on and say, well, we are a democratic country, the parties passed the laws through parliament. Which is why the Labour Party's position on this is so intolerable. I'm not saying Blair could bring down the government, but he ought to be doing his duty which is opposing this Bill on all fronts.

Why do you think the Labour Party is going along with the CJB? Do you think it is possible to pressurise the Labour leaders into changing their minds?

It is possible to pressurise the leadership and governments. They get so worried about what is going on that they do begin to respond. That is what democracy is about. The ballot box has become a sort of powerless institution, you put your vote in and then after that the government just gets on and does what it wants anyway. So the only other way to exercise any kind of influence is by showing that you mean business and that there are a lot of people prepared not just to sit at home but to get out and combine together. The Labour Party's position is governed entirely by the need to win over what it sees to be middle England and continue the process of virtually being indistinguishable from the Tories, so that in fact Tory voters will vote Labour because it's as blue as the other side. I don't believe that Tony Blair's espousal of socialism is spelt out when he actually talks about his policies. The idea that just before his election he was talking about a minimum wage and then after he's been elected he's already engaged in secret meetings saying, we'll have a minimum wage but we can't meet the target.

A lot of people feel that the Criminal Justice Bill becoming law will outlaw their whole way of life, be it ravers or travellers. But we don't have to be paralysed by it. What can trade unions do to oppose the bill?

What appals me is that the major source of opposition hasn't come from the Labour Party. The rallies that people have tried to get together have not even been organised by the trade union movement. The trade union movement has the experience of organising big demonstrations. Its members know how to steward, they've got the funds, they've got the resources, they've got the experience. They are going to be affected as much as anybody else, they should have been organising this campaign rather than a voluntary coalition of people who've got together with no resources and have tried to put something together. They have done it quite well, but they are threatened every time by the police presence. If they have the opportunity to steam in with batons flying, then they will. So far it hasn't happened, but that is more by luck than judgement. The last occasion I was in Trafalgar Square I was pretty horrified by the way the police behaved.

The coalition is a good idea and the trade union movement should have been doing it. If the trade union movement was involved it would make it more difficult for the police to portray the campaign as just squatters and ravers.

March against the CJB 9 October assemble l2 noon Embankment


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