The left is taking up the fight against the new authoritarianism- the labour movement and civil society should take their lead

By Mark Buckley

The Queen’s Speech marks a turning-point in the drive towards a new authoritarianism in Britain. To their credit, elements of the left such as Diane Abbott and the Morning Star have immediately responded to the dangers and sharply criticised the government’s legislative plan.

There should be no doubt that other leading left figures will take up the fight, as Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have a long track record in fighting for civil liberties. But the gravity of the threat means that the entire labour movement and wider civil society, including NGOs, charities, local authorities and campaigning organisations should all be at the forefront of opposing the government’s draconian plans.

Empowering the state and its agencies

These measures are undoubtedly draconian. The planned Bills include new curbs on the right to protest, new restrictions on freedom of academic expression (while protecting racists and the far right), new voter photo ID requirements which are obviously aimed at voter suppression as well as legislation to block appeal to the courts against government decisions, effectively placing the government above the law.

As Diane Abbott explained, “In effect the government is curbing the right to free speech if it does not agree with you, curbing people’s right to protest against their policies, blocking the courts from holding the government accountable to the law and preventing millions of people from voting who are more likely to vote Labour.”

A Morning Star editorial argued that, “Like the proposed amnesty for soldiers who commit atrocities such as the Ballymurphy killings, this is about one thing: empowering the state and its agencies and reducing our power as citizens to hold them to account.” The editorial went on, “It is an ambitious and far-reaching agenda from a ruling party that is aware of the collapse of confidence in the system in recent years, and determined to shut down challenges to it. It requires an equally ambitious response from the left.”

These points are completely correct and highlight the pressing requirement to broaden and deepen the opposition to the government’s agenda.

Of course, the editorial’s reference to the Ballymurphy Massacre, where eleven innocent Irish people were gunned down in a reign of terror by British soldiers over a period of three days, shows that the British state is well versed in brutality. This state is also a notoriously undemocratic one, with even a former Tory law lord calling it ‘an elective dictatorship’.

Even so, these new powers come in addition to the Overseas Operations and Covert Human Intelligence Acts and the Policing, Sentencing and Courts Bill still passing through parliament. Together they represent a new, hardening of these brutal and anti-democratic features of the state and place them on a legal footing. The first two Acts provide legal immunity for armed forces and police respectively to commit torture, rape and murder, while the remaining Bill further curbs the right to protest and has already been the subject of big mobilisations following the police brutality at the Sarah Everard vigil on Clapham Common.

Opportunism and strategy

Clearly, the Tory government faces no immediate threat. It has an 80-seat majority in parliament and a completely supine leader of the Labour Party to rely on. The nascent and scattered protests against the government are only now emerging and it will take major struggles before a new political leadership can challenge the government.

Its motivation for such bold, reactionary measures is a combination of opportunism and strategy. Opportunistically, it knows there is barely any anti-democratic outrage that it is willing commit that will be opposed consistently by the Labour leadership, although even Starmer is obliged to criticise the efforts to suppress voters as they directly affect Labour elected officials and their prospects.

Strategically, since Thatcher, post-Second World War Britain has only ever been challenged from the right. Decades of attacks on the working class and the oppressed were placed at risk by the emergence of the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party. From the perspective of the British and US ruling classes, the threat to post-Thatcher Britain was way too close for comfort. There is a determination to ensure that cannot be repeated for the foreseeable future, which also explains the ongoing attacks on Corbyn and his supporters.

The emergence of the strong state and an authoritarian government is a response to these factors. It is not the same as the degenerating fascist or military dictatorships we saw in southern Europe until as recently as the mid-1970s, the types of dictatorial government that the US still regularly installs around the world.

Instead, the combination of strong state and authoritarian government is more in the model of de Gaulle in France, which Macron himself is now also emulating. It is combination which is a major threat to the entire labour movement, to Black and Asian communities, to the potentially re-emerging women’s movement and every type of campaign, from abortion rights, to climate change, to student protests over rents, to the campaign against ‘fire and rehire’ and the struggles against racism. It is already a threat to hard-won gains in Ireland in its efforts to undermine the Good Friday Agreement.

Socialists should do everything possible to oppose these measures and raise opposition to them in every type of campaign, union branch and Labour Party body. The ongoing ‘kill the bill’ protests are very important. It should also be clear that these measures would be used against the major mobilisations in support of Palestine if the authorities believe they can get away with it.

The task of the labour movement is to defend itself and wider society against this onslaught.

One of the next major opportunities to raise all these issues will the national demo of the People’s Assembly Against Austerity on June 26.