Publications Index | Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’s Internet Archive

Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 179 Contents

Socialist Review, October 1994

Notes of the Month

Criminal Justice Bill

It’s all against the law


From Socialist Review, No. 179, October 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Criminal Justice Bill seems set to become another time bomb for the Tories – and may even prove fatal to its architect, home secretary Michael Howard.

The bill has engendered opposition right from the start, especially among young people over its outlawing of raves and squatting. The 80,000 demonstration in July showed just how wide this opposition is, and activities since then include protests as far apart as Edinburgh and Brighton. This month’s London march promises once again to pull in tens of thousands of activists from around the country.

In many ways the bill’s targets read like a list of Tory Party conference scapegoats: new age travellers, opponents of road building, hunt saboteurs, ravers, squatters. But at its heart is a restriction much more fundamental than the attacks on any of these groups: a curtailment of the right to organise and protest which, if successful, will make it harder for strikers, demonstrators and defenders of civil liberties.

The bill’s promoters intend to incorporate into the law the police and judicial experience of the miners’ strike in 1984–85 and the Wapping dispute in 1986. This will put great restrictions on assembly and movement.

In addition, the right to silence in criminal proceedings will be abolished, so that the silence of the accused will be taken as an admission of guilt – a provision which will only add to the growing number of cases of miscarriage of justice.

As one resolution to this month’s Labour Party conference describes it, ‘The legislation particularly targets minority groups and interests but lays the foundation for an attack on any who oppose Tory policies and fight for change in society.’

This fact still hasn’t penetrated sufficiently among many trade union and Labour supporters, who probably oppose the bill, but do not see what relevance it has to them. Once again Labour has failed to use the issue to attack the Tories. The official Labour opposition line was to abstain on the bill, claiming that it had some good things in it. Much more likely was their fear of accusations of being ‘soft on crime.’

Despite the official line 44 Labour MPs voted against the bill at its third reading. It also received a mauling in the House of Lords. Howard still has real problems getting it through in the shape that he wants it. A huge demonstration can help to mobilise the very large coalition of opinion which is against the bill.

In addition, Howard’s political stock is at rock bottom. He has increased the prison population by 25 percent in under two years, reversing previous Tory and Home Office policy which recognised that prison sentences did nothing to stop crime or help offenders. This change in policy was carried out for the most blatantly populist reasons.

Now Howard finds that Home Office civil servants do not trust him. In addition, the planned privatisation of the prisons has led to deep disaffection among the prison officers, a group who at one time the Tories would have regarded as natural supporters.

Even the Tory faithful are likely to be less than enthusiastic about Howard’s rhetoric at this year’s conference since, as the Financial Times editorialised: ‘he has presided over the loss of the Tories’ advantage over Labour as the party of law and order.’

The Tories’ weakness on the issue means that it should be possible even at this late stage to defeat the bill – it would certainly be defeated if Labour came out strongly in opposition.

Even if the bill eventually becomes law, that same weakness may make it hard to implement. Although there are signs that the police in some areas are already keen to attack groups like squatters, there are also signs that when various protests arise they can be very hard for the law to contain.

If a protest over roads, closure of hospitals or whatever is able to gather enough support, and if that support can be harnessed to working class organisation, then the authorities may be reluctant to use the law. Many of the pickets of signal workers have been larger than the six already stipulated by law, but there has been no attempt to break them up.

Protests of various sorts are growing, not diminishing, in Britain today. The Tories have to get this law through parliament – not such an easy task as they once envisaged. They also have to implement it, which is a very different matter.

See interview with Mike Mansfield.

Socialist Review Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 1 July 2017