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MPs Urged To Treat "Extreme" Protest Across The Political Spectrum As A Threat To Democracy

The report warned of the risk of “extreme protest groups” (Alamy)

3 min read

The government’s independent adviser on political violence and disruption Lord John Walney has urged the political establishment to "wake up" and regard "extreme protest movements" as a threat to democracy.

Walney, a former Labour MP, authored a 240-page report which has recommended a range of measures to the Government, including amending section 13 of the Public Order Act to give the police greater powers to recommend refusal of repeat protests when they are causing "high levels of cumulative negative impact" in a particular area, creating a mechanism to place restrictions on the activities of organisations which break the law to "coerce the public", and banning of the use of face masks to disguise identity during a protest.

It also argued for the intimidation of candidates and campaigners to be specifically criminalised before the next election, and for intelligence services and relevant Government departments should be given more resources to identify disinformation online.

He stated it would be for a future home secretary to determine which organisations fit those criteria, but noted that the "extensive ways in which Just Stop Oil and Palestine Action and other splinter groups deployed criminal disruption was sabotage in this regard". Walney made it clear he hoped the recommendations would not only be accepted by the current Conservative government, but also by a potential future Labour government.

Claiming he wanted the report to be a "wake up call" to the political establishment, he said "those of us on the centre and left of politics, who tend to have been brought up in an environment an environment of lively protest ourselves" needed to learn more about the risks associated with far-left political movements. He said there was a "serious blind spot in the state understanding of and focus on the wider ways in which extreme left wing ideology can undermine our liberal democracy".

Walney insisted that he did not intend for his recommendations to end pro-Palestine protests altogether, but cited public polling to argue that "it's time for the political world to catch up with the real world and view extreme protest movements as an unacceptable threat to our democracy is not an extension of it". 

Mandelson and Walney
Lord Peter Mandelson chaired a Q&A with Lord Walney on Tuesday (PoliticsHome)

"Polling commissioned for this review says 70 per cent of the public agreed that protest was an important way to raise awareness about cause, but by margins of two to one, those polled thought it was unacceptable for protesters to occupy public spaces, such as buildings and public transport," he said.

"By a margin of three to one, they believed it was unacceptable to disrupt people's journeys by blocking roads and public transport, and defacing public buildings and property was opposed by 93 per cent of those surveyed."

Walney said that the police powers recommended by the report were necessary to tackle "a level of disorder, anti-semitic hate crime and support for prescribed terrorist groups", which police at times appearing "unable fully to control".

Former cabinet minister under the New Labour government Lord Peter Mandelson chaired a Q&A with Walney, in which he doubted the "practicality" of some of the recommendations.

"You're asking the police and the security services to go into quite a lot of granular detail about the organisation behind the behaviour that you're describing, and the fundraising that they're undertaking, which is not necessarily an open visible activity," Mandelson said.

"This is quite granular stuff there that requires quite an amount of investigation way beyond the sort of scrutiny that the Charity Commission would give to an organisation. And this evidence that they find potentially puts them in breach of restrictions, has to reach quite a level for further action to be taken."

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