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Blue on Blue: Has the government set the Met up to fail at protests?

March For Palestine | October 2023 (Alamy)

7 min read

As tensions rise over the Gaza conflict, the Met has come under intense scrutiny over its handling of protests. Harriet Symonds explores whether the police are falling short or being put in an impossible position

On 11 November, London saw the biggest protest march since the start of the Israel-Hamas conflict. The Metropolitan Police estimate 300,000 protesters attended the event to demand a ceasefire in Gaza. They encountered far-right counter-protestors who clashed with police around the Cenotaph.

The march, which Rishi Sunak and others had urged the Met to proscribe, put the capital’s police force under intense scrutiny. So are police officers enforcing existing protest laws properly or are they taking the rap for gaps in the law?

Met officers made 145 arrests at the march on Armistice Day, at least 90 of which were counter-protesters. Kit Malthouse, Conservative MP and former policing minister, praises the Met for ensuring the protests went off largely peacefully. He says “given the numbers there, the police did a great job” at keeping separation with the counter-protesters who were “looking for trouble”. 

When people are committing other crimes like Just Stop Oil or BLM or pro-Palestine it seems the Met just turn a blind eye to it

However, officers have received heavy criticism for not arresting protesters chanting extremist slogans such as “Jihad” and “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”, which some consider advocates the annihilation of Israel. The Met say those chanting such slogans do not automatically commit an offence as they have a number of different meanings.

Lee Anderson, deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, says: “When people are committing other crimes like Just Stop Oil, or BLM, or pro-Palestine, it seems the Met just turn a blind eye to it.” He believes it treats protesters differently depending on the event or group, drawing a comparison between the policing of pro-Palestinian marches with the arrests of anti-monarchist protesters ahead of King Charles III’s coronation in May. He adds: “They can do it if they want to. So that looks like double standards.” 

These arrests were made just days after the Public Order Act became law and intense criticism was directed at the Met for over-policing the coronation protest. Former Met Police commissioner and crossbench peer Lord Blair dismisses accusations of police bias: “The idea that there’s a bias on a political position by the Met… is just not proven.”
“Whatever the police do in this situation, they will be criticised by one side or the other. That’s part of the job.”

Malthouse says: “The accusation against the police is unfair and I think it misunderstands the dynamics.” He explains the size of the crowd, the route of the march and the number of police officers available all play a part. “Very often these people can be brought to justice much more effectively after the demonstration,” he adds. 

Independent peer and former Labour MP John Woodcock (now Lord Walney), the government’s independent adviser on political violence and disruption, admits he is concerned that protests which glorify terrorism or chant racially charged slogans end up being policed “less effectively”. But he expresses sympathy for officers on the ground and the Met leadership who are still “getting to grips with new legislation” and have “a very difficult balance to strike”.

According to the Met there has been a “massive rise” in antisemitic hate crime since the attack on Israel on 7 October. As of 22 November, Jewish charity Community Security Trust (CST) has recorded 881 antisemitic incidents across Greater London since the start of the conflict. The charity says it has recorded more antisemitic incidents in the past six weeks than in the entire year prior to Hamas’ attack.

Woodcock tells The House it’s an “appalling situation where many thousands of Jewish people in the capital just simply do not feel safe” and says it should be “treated as an emergency”. He calls on the police to interpret the Public Order Act in the wider context of the “atmosphere of intimidation” that Jewish people are feeling at the moment. 

The Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Mark Rowley says the law around extremist language is unclear. In 2021, Rowley co-authored a report, Operating with Impunity, which revealed a “gaping chasm” in UK laws allowing “extremists to operate with impunity”. The report made three recommendations: to commission legal and operational frameworks to counter hateful extremism; to expand hate crime offences and strengthen the capability and resources of law enforcement; and to make the threat of hateful extremism a priority alongside terrorism. However, the government has yet to action any of the recommendations put forward. The Met chief maintains that the laws should be changed if politicians want to see police officers take tougher action.

Diana Johnson, Labour MP and chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, says the committee is “obviously concerned” about the policing of pro-Palestine marches, and reveals the committee is holding two hearings to look into this in early December with the aim of publishing findings before Christmas recess. She says the hearings will look at whether additional laws are needed for the police to “properly hold protesters to account… especially on this hateful extremism” identified by Rowley. 

There is a “live question as to whether the legal framework… is sufficient,” says Woodcock, an issue he is considering in his review into political violence and disruption, which was set to be published but was instead extended after the attacks on October 7.

“Our job is to balance rights,” cautions Malthouse, “between the protesters and those who are going about their lawful business.”

The Metropolitan Police also has a responsibility to balance the rights of protesters with the safety of MPs who are often targets for abuse over their stance on political issues. Woodcock tells The House his review will look at how to improve the safety of MPs in the space just outside the parliamentary estate, where they are vulnerable to “intimidation” if it’s not policed effectively.

“We have this living area that expands beyond this tight, confined security of the parliamentary state into nearby buildings, where there is a regular thoroughfare of MPs… we haven’t got the balance right at the moment.” 

The former MP admits: “There have been, I think, really troubling incidences of MPs being targeted.” 

He identifies 15 November, when MPs voted on an SNP motion calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Ahead of the vote, crowds of pro-Palestine protesters rallied outside Parliament urging MPs to vote for the amendment. Woodcock recalls, “I was one of many who ended up sandwiched between protesters trying to get to my office.”

There have been several incidents where MPs have been subject to harassment outside the parliamentary estate. In 2021, Conservative MP and communities secretary Michael Gove was targeted by anti-lockdown protesters hurling verbal abuse as he walked through Westminster to his department building. Although police officers helped Gove to safety, no arrests were made.

During the Brexit years, tensions between Leavers and Remainers were extremely high. In 2018 and 2019, former Change UK MP Anna Soubry was hounded down the street outside the parliamentary estate by hardline Brexit protesters who shouted abusive language at her, including: “Nazi”, “scum” and “traitor”. At the time, the Met was criticised for not taking stronger action sooner against protesters. 

Against a grim backdrop of two MPs being brutally murdered in the last seven years, Woodcock insists “MPs must be able to discharge their duties as elected representatives without fear of intimidation and without fearing for their personal safety”.

Instead of putting the blame on Met police officers for not making arrests, the government may have to reckon with the idea of updating extremism laws if it wants to see tougher action at protests. However, the right to protest is paramount and after introducing the Police, Crime and Sentencing Act and the Public Order Act in the last two years, Malthouse cautions against introducing any new legislation in the “heat of the moment… and in response to causes that they don’t agree with”.

He adds: “Protest is one thing, but hate speech is another and the police have legislation to deal with that.” 

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