Lord Walney’s anti-democratic threats

IssueJune - July 2024
More Jewish activists announced their identity on the London Gaza marches after the ‘openly Jewish’ controversy on 13 April. This is from the 27 April demo. Photo: PN
Feature by Milan Rai

The day before the UK general election was called, the government advisor on political violence and disruption published a 294-page report on Protecting our Democracy from Coercion.

The main theme of the report by lord Walney (John Woodcock) was the need for the government, the courts, the crown prosecution service and the police to crack down harder on ‘extreme protest movements’ such as Palestine Action, Just Stop Oil (JSO) and the organisers of the recent Gaza ‘Ceasefire Now’ marches in Central London.

Emily Apple, media co-ordinator for the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), said: ‘Far from being a champion of our democracy, Woodcock is a direct threat to it. He wants to trample over our rights in order to safeguard the profits of the arms industry.’

The Labour party hasn’t either criticised or supported Walney’s report. In 2023, they refused to commit themselves to repealing the Public Order Act 2023.

While Walney’s report does talk about right-wing terrorism and far right groups such as Patriotic Alternative, his real focus is ‘extreme protest movements’ such as JSO. What he means is groups that carry out ‘highly disruptive protests’ or that organise large, effective and frequent marches in solidarity with the people of Palestine.

Walney’s report mixes together all sorts of terrorism (al-Qa’eda attacks, far right violence and so on) with nonviolent protest.

For example, Walney writes that a terrorist recently got onto the grounds of the houses of parliament in London and that two MPs have been murdered in their constituencies in recent years. In the same paragraph, he warns that nonviolent protesters ‘harass’ politicians around parliament and ‘in their constituencies’, and ‘this can escalate to physical violence’.

Gail Bradbrook, a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, told the Byline Times Podcast: ‘When you conflate us with terrorists who threaten life, when we’re here to protect life, and you use words like “extremists”… one of the dangers is that one of us is going to get killed one day off the back of that.’

Walney is frustrated that the authorities cannot (at the moment) use the kinds of powers they have in relation to terrorism against people engaged in peaceful protest.

The government can ban or ‘proscribe’ organisations that either carry out or ‘promote and encourage’ political violence, but it can’t do the same to nonviolent groups.

Walney therefore urges the government to introduce what some call ‘proscription-lite’ measures; not actually banning organisations like JSO or Palestine Action, but ‘restricting these groups’ ability to organise or fundraise’.

Specifically mentioning Palestine Action, Walney says the new powers should include ‘restricting the group’s right to assembly’.

Walney sees some forms of disruptive nonviolence as very close to being violent, including ‘expressions of force such as blocking roads and making public spaces impassable’: ‘even when those responsible do not directly engage in violence, they can still have a significant effect on their victims’.

There should be a way for people who lose earnings because of ‘illegal disruptive protest’ to get compensation from protest organisers, Walney argues.

Walney also wants undercover police and informers to be used against groups such as Extinction Rebellion.

He writes: ‘The police were not authorised to penetrate closed systems used by Extinction Rebellion online or to deploy what are known as Covert Human Intelligence Sources or undercover officers to understand the group... because the risk of harm posed by [the] group did not meet the threshold for proportionality set out in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000’ (RIPA).

Walney calls on the government to revise RIPA ‘with a view to extending police use of covert surveillance to prevent serious disruption during protests’. Walney knows about what he calls the ‘problematic behaviour’ of spycops currently being examined in the undercover policing inquiry, but he has no hesitation in calling for more of the same.

Don’t march so often

Walney is clearly very angry with the Central London ‘Ceasefire Now’ marches, which he describes, dishonestly, as antisemitic (see below).

Walney wants police to have the power to ban marches on a particular date (Remembrance Day is probably at the top of his list) – and to be able to force organisers to reduce the frequency of marches.

He also wants the government to force protest organisers ‘to contribute to policing costs when groups are holding a significant number of large demonstrations which cause serious disruption or significant levels of law-breaking.’ This includes the Gaza marches, according to Walney.

Walney also wants it to be easier for businesses to claim damages from ‘extreme protest organisers’, mentioning arms companies and ‘energy providers’ in particular. Such companies deserve to have ‘protective buffer zones’ set up around them by the government.

Lord Walney used to be a Labour MP called John Woodcock. He is now a cross-bench (not connected to any party) member of the House of Lords.

He is also a paid advisor to the ‘Purpose Business Coalition’ lobby group, which includes arms manufacturer Leonardo UK.

Leonardo UK supplies weapons to Israel, including the laser targeting system used in the F-35 fighter jets currently bombing Gaza.


The Gaza marches

In his report on ‘extreme protest movements’, lord Walney smears the Central London Gaza ‘Ceasefire Now’ marches as antisemitic. He blames the marches, without providing any evidence, for ‘the explosion of antisemitic hate crime currently being experienced by many Jewish people coinciding with the Gaza protests’.

Walney also provides no evidence to back up his claim that the marches are antisemitic.

He claims that ‘antisemitic posters and banners’ appear ‘so consistently’ on the demos that it is no longer ‘realistic’ to distinguish between the marches ‘and the antisemitism that so often appears on them’ – ‘even if it is true that many who attend the marches are not antisemitic themselves’.

The only evidence Walney gives to support this damning conclusion is a single Sky News article about a single demonstration: the 11 November 2023 Ceasefire Now march.

The Sky News article shows photos of just four placards and one piece of graffiti. Even if all five were antisemitic, this would be a laughably long way from proving Walney’s case, given that this demonstration had hundreds of thousands of people on it, and this was only one of half a dozen major London marches that he’s referring to.

Included in the Sky News collection is a placard saying ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’.

It is true that many Jewish people interpret this as a genocidal threat to destroy the state of Israel and all its Jewish citizens.

On the other hand, there are those, like Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL), who say that it is no such thing.

According to JVL: ‘This historic slogan, alive once more, is a rejection of the current reality of settler colonialism, occupation and apartheid in favour of equal human rights and equal freedom for all in historic Palestine, whatever the political forms through which these goals are expressed.’

Walney also claims that antisemitic chanting is a big problem on these demos. But, apart from the ‘From the river to the sea’ chant, the only evidence he gives is two cases of chanting, in Arabic, on the 14 October march.

No one who has watched these heartwarming and compassionate marches go by, as I have done, would recognise Walney’s dishonest description of them.