The erosion of liberty

By Jon Trickett MP

This year some of the cornerstones of our democracy have been chipped away. Our ruling elite are acting with growing authoritarianism as they feel their power is being threatened. The labour movement has won liberty for working people before and must do so again.

Let us examine the various ways that liberty is under threat in the United Kingdom today.

Firstly, our right to protest has come under attack. The Tories’ Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill essentially outlaws effective protest and introduces draconian sentences for peaceful protestors.

Our right to vote has also come under attack. The Elections Bill requires registered voters to show an identification card in order to be able to cast their ballot. We know that millions of people in our country do not have identification cards. Those without cards are mostly the poor, the elderly and people of colour.

A Parliamentary Committee has called for the government to halt the Bill because they predict it will prevent people from voting. But this is precisely the intention of the Tories’ Bill. They believe these new restrictions on voting will suppress the Labour turnout at elections.

Now the Human Rights Act (HRA) has come under attack. The Tories want to prevent human rights claims from getting in the way of their discriminatory policies, such as in cases where migrants are seeking asylum. The new Bill of Rights they intend to replace the HRA with would weaken the ability of all of us to hold public authorities to account.

There is also the continued threat of attacks on our trade union rights. The UK already has some of the most restrictive trade union laws in the so called ‘democratic world’, but in recent years the Tories have made clear their intentions to introduce minimum service requirements for industrial action in the transport sector. This would legally require transport trade unions to ensure their strikes are ineffective.

The Elections Bill would also restrict trade unions’ ability to campaign at elections. It is a brazen attempt to limit working class people’s involvement in politics.

These are just a few examples of authoritarianism that I could mention. What we are witnessing is a concerted attempt by the Tories to change the law to solidify their own hold on power and protect the elite interests they represent.

In doing so they are trying to roll back some of the many gains that have been won by the working classes through centuries of struggle. But why is this happening now?

The Conservative Party are clearly emboldened by their unassailable majority in the House of Commons. In one sense they are doing now what they might have done earlier had parliamentary arithmetic allowed it.

However, there is something else going on here. The Tories’ clampdown on our democratic rights and political freedoms are a coercive response to the challenges the ruling class has faced to its hegemony in recent years.

The climate movement and Black Lives Matter protests have done so much to shift public opinion and force government action on decarbonisation and race.

Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist leadership came so close to winning power in 2017 with an explicit commitment to shifting the balance of wealth and power to the many from the few.

And there is a new militancy in our trade unions that is slowly raising the power of workers against bosses. Trade union membership is growing and industrial action is increasing.

There is a radicalism in our country that threatens to upend the status quo. We know that authoritarianism is what elites resort to when they feel their wealth and power is under threat because we’ve seen it many times before.

In our own country we’ve lived through authoritarian moments in the not so distant past. Thatcherism emerged in the 1970s as a response to ruling class fears about the decline in their authority.

Thatcher smashed our powerful trade union movement through a combination of monetarist policies and police violence. She recentralised power in the hands of a Westminster elite by dismantling municipal councils. And she implemented discriminatory laws targeting black and LGBT people.

It is important to point out that authoritarianism is not only the preserve of the Conservative Party. 

In the last year we have seen many socialists within the Labour Party purged from elected positions and some even kicked out altogether. The leadership regularly echoes the Tories attacks on left wingers and has established a reputation for stitching up selections and ignoring democratic processes. The Tories’ authoritarian Bills have met tepid resistance from the opposition frontbench.

This is not dissimilar to what took place within the Labour Party in the 1970s and 1980s in response to the popularity of Bennism and other socialist groupings. Then, just as now, the right wing of the labour movement worked hand in hand with the elite in an attempt to eliminate socialism in the UK.

But authoritarianism masks an underlying weakness. It is what elites do when they lack the consent of those they represent. We can take inspiration from our movement’s great victories of the past. As Nye Bevan famously remarked, “We weren’t born with liberty, we had to win it.”

The Chartist movement and trade unions fought for and won the right for working men to vote in 1918. The Suffragettes and feminists fought for and won the right to vote for women with property in 1918 and working class women in 1928. Our trade unions are growing in membership and strength again because workers’ rights have been enshrined in law throughout the last century.

Democracy cannot be taken for granted. Political freedoms and democratic rights are the air that allows the labour movement and socialists to breathe. Without them it is much more difficult for the working class to win the economic security that would ensure everyone can live a good life and realise their potential.

In 2022 the labour movement must lead the resistance to authoritarian Tory legislation and challenge anti-democratic actions when they are perpetrated within our own ranks.

Jon Trickett has been the MP for Hemsworth in West Yorkshire since 1996, served in Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet and is a member of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs.

Image: Jon Trickett. https://api20170418155059.azure-api.net/photo/g2eLCe7R.jpeg?crop=MCU_3:4&quality=80&download=true. Author: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chris_McAndrew, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

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