Funny, but I had picked up the idea, especially over the past year or two, that the Left was rather fond of the concept of street protest. Every time I am in Central London I seem to run into hordes of placard-holders protesting against ‘austerity’, student tuition fees, animal rights, save the NHS, war in Syria, Universal Credit and what have you. While I might disagree it has never occurred to me to try to challenge the right of these people to take to streets to make their views known. I just hope they have a good day out.
But there are limits, it seems, to the Left’s enthusiasm for street protest. It only seems to extend to people with whose causes it agrees. Protest about something which is considered to be a conservative cause – abortion, for example – and the streets, it seems, are no place for making your voice heard.
This evening, Labour-controlled Ealing Council will debate a motion over whether to issue a Public Space Protection Order – a measure which replaced Asbos and which is supposed to be used for tackling anti-social behaviour – outside a Marie Stopes Clinic. The motion has been put up at the instigation of a pro-abortion group which takes exception to pro-life campaigners holding vigils and handing out leaflets to women visiting the clinic.
Writing in the Guardian, Rupa Huq, Labour MP for Ealing Central and Acton, demands:
“The council needs to pass this motion, and a more permanent national solution needs to be found, so we can ensure that the pavement is a safe space for women accessing NHS services”.
Another supporter of the motion puts it:
“These vigils put you in the position of having to explain to your kids why these people are there. A discussion on the merits or otherwise of our abortion laws is one I’d like to have with my kids when they are ready – not because of this group.”
In other words – we can’t possibly have people poisoning the minds of the young by standing up for the rights of unborn children (I suspect it would be a different matter if the protesters were defending the rights of laboratory rats). The peaceful expression of conservative views are unacceptable in a public place. Yet you can imagine the outrage – and quite rightly, too -- which would ensue if a Conservative council attempted to use Public Space Protection Orders to tackle non-violent protesters complaining about austerity or waving ‘Tories Out’ placards.
Not that Conservative MPs can complain too much about the misuse of Public Space Protection Orders. They did, after all, vote for the regulations paving the way for them when they were introduced by the then Home Secretary Theresa May in 2014. How many asked themselves: could these vague powers – which allow councils and police between them effectively to create criminal offences on a whim – be misused for political ends by outlawing legitimate protest? Sadly few. If activists on local councils start using these powers to turn the streets into extensions of the ‘safe spaces’ which have come to afflict university campuses the fault will lie with those who nodded through the legislation with little thought for the consequences.