Opinion

Violent or not, protests have little impact on democratic policy-making in the UK

When reading an article on the first ‘Kill the Bill’ protest in Bristol on the 21st March, my first thought was ‘surely this will not help the cause.’ The initially peaceful protests turned into violent clashes with police as police vans were set on fire and arrests were made. I thought that responding to a bill designed to curb disruptive protest with further violent disruption would send the wrong message to a government that has proposed and is seeking to pass the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

The controversial content of the Bill is centred around restricting protests that would prevent ‘public nuisance’ by criminalising failure to follow protest restrictions, even where protesters may not be aware of these. Such restrictions have been added to the bill as a reaction to the protests of the Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter movements and their actions. Responding to a Bill fuelled by fears of disruptive protests with further disruption and violence, I worried, would be counterproductive to the goals of the protests themselves.

However, I soon began to reflect on what protest methods are effective; few, whether violent or peaceful, have truly achieved their policy goals in the UK since the implementation of universal suffrage in 1928. In this article, I argue that the majoritarian nature of UK democracy and the emphasis on after the fact accountability leaves little space for the influence of mass participation on government between elections.

The majoritarian and pluralitarian nature of UK democracy allows governments to implement policy unilaterally and without compromise, leaving no space for protesters’ influence. Majoritarian democracies are systems based on the rule of a majority through majority votes in parliament and referendums. In general elections, our voting system sees many candidates with a mere plurality of the vote – more votes than any other candidate – taking office. Boris Johnson’s Conservative government has a majority of 38 seats in the House of Commons with only 43.6% of the vote. Following a 2019 election win, the government’s mandate is solidified in their seat share. Such a government can rely on the power of the ‘silent majority’ to make and implement policy despite protest; protests do not threaten the government’s political legitimacy or affect decision-making unless they can show majority support within the population. Even the largest protest in UK history – the anti-war protests of 2003 –  could not display such support with a 1.7 million turnout. Our majoritarian democracy relies on decisions made by the majority, so protests have relatively little legitimacy, and the government can afford to repress rather than concede.

The fate of the Bill is in the hands of MPs, and the second reading showed all but 6 of the MPs in the governing party voting in favour. For the bill to be stopped, or at least revised, 39 Conservative MPs would have to rebel. Given the strong cohesion of the party, demonstrated in the second reading’s vote, this seems unlikely. In addition, all MPs representing Bristol are members of the opposition and have already voted against the bill. If any avenue is accessible for protesters, it would be their local representatives. In this sense, Bristol protesters are left preaching to the choir. Clearly, our democracy is flawed: Boris Johnson’s Commons majority can pass legislation, making intense parliamentary, and extra-parliamentary, opposition obsolete. The government’s mandate rests on the approximately 40% of registered voters that voted Conservative in 2019. Due to the nature of conservative ideology, it is unlikely that many of these voters are participating in these protests. Under Boris Johnson’s majority government, this conservative ideology dominates policy decisions and leaves little space for compromise with opposition – governments with a strong, cohesive majority in the Commons are so legislatively powerful that they have often been termed ‘elective dictatorships’. Protesters against government policy, both within the population and within parliament, in the absence of Conservative dissent, are almost voiceless until the next election in 2024. The minute influence of protests until then betrays democratic ideals.

These problems are intensified by a political emphasis on ex-post accountability. UK democracy is increasingly reliant on the auditing of government performance only in elections, after a five-year term of policy decisions. As a consequence, protests are left unresponded to, save for in the realm of public opinion. These opinions, however, only have a true and reliable voice in elections.

The premierships of both Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher ended in part due to their disregard, or repression, of protest topics. The 2003 anti-war protests saw almost two million protesters, and yet the Blair government, often termed an ‘elective dictatorship’ as a result of the legislative dominance of its large majority, dismissed the protesters’ demands and waged the Iraq war. The ensuing involvement in the war significantly contributed to Blair’s declining popularity and subsequent resignation. Nevertheless, here we see the insufficiency of ex-post accountability; British involvement in the war went ahead, despite the demands of protesters, cost lives and was ultimately deemed severely misguided.

Parallel occurrences can be seen in the Poll Tax riots of 1984-5, which faced repression as well as dismissal. The Poll Tax was implemented by Thatcher’s majority government, the reaction to which partially led to her losing power. The policy was immediately reversed by Major in 1991, leaving more than enough time for the feared effects of the tax to take root.

A political decision-making process of trial, error and reversal without taking into account extra-parliamentary mass participation is unsustainable. Having protest only be successful in contributing to the removal of governments, years after the policy has been implemented, is insufficient influence. In both cases, mass protests signalled to the government concerns that were unheard at the crucial moment of implementation and reversed only after failure became clear. Both governments could afford to ignore these claims because of their strong parliamentary majorities, and in the name of electoral accountability – postponing the policy influence of the general population until election time.

Mass and varied political participation is a crucial element of democracy, and it is clear that a democratic system that leaves little space for this element is flawed. These flaws are painfully evident in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill, both in the government’s repressive response, and the content of the Bill itself. Although protests and mass participation are crucial for democratic participation between elections, the conception of them as rights or necessities is not enshrined and is not sufficiently influential in our democracy. This issue is emphasised by the Bill under contention, where the government is not only passing it despite protest but also actively curbing the strength of future protest. Consequently, we see the escalation of protests, in Bristol and elsewhere.

That the method of resistance is exactly what is being curbed by the Bill is ironic. The more frequently that protests occur, the stronger the government’s resolve to pass the Bill and disregard protest will become, in turn increasing the frustration of protesters. We are facing a vicious cycle. 

Whether through constitutional change or a change in political culture, democratic governments in the UK need to take into account more frequently more varied perspectives and opinions. If governments continually fail to do this, they risk alienating the public from participation and political culture.

Image credit – davidChief