Labour, Momentum and the police

By Ruth Cashman, Lambeth Unison secretary and candidate for Momentum for National Coordinating Group

The murder of George Floyd has sparked a global movement against police brutality and racism. Floyd’s death is not even the most recent a long line of police killings of black people in the USA. African Americans have suffered 30 police shootings per million since the start of 2015, compared to 22 per million for Hispanics and 12 per million for whites. The movement, which builds on years of Black Lives Matters organising in the US is raising politics that seemed unimaginable until recently. A majority of Minneapolis City Council has pledged to dismantle the local police department, to be replaced by “new model of public safety”. We don’t yet know what this will mean. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had already said he would divert money from the city’s police department to social services.

Momentum rightly reacted to the global protests with support. They released a video “Spot The Difference” outlining racism in the British criminal justice system and that racist policing is not an exclusively American problem. Nothing in their reaction has acknowledged the failures of the Labour left on policing since 2017. Under the left’s leadership Labour adopted a generally “pro-police” line, including campaigning vocally to increase police numbers.

In 2017 Labour’s manifesto promised 10,000 more police officers and 500 more border guards. In 2019 the party promised to top the Tories’ police recruitment by 2,000.

In the intervening two years more police was a major campaigning demand for Labour; sometimes it seemed like its only campaigning demand. In 2019 there was a day of action against police cuts. Many left-wing policies included in the 2019 manifesto were never even mentioned before then, let alone campaigned for.

Tellingly, for instance, the party never demanded the restoration of all the funding councils have lost since 2010 until it appeared in the 2019 manifesto. More police – but not reversing the council cuts which have devastated our communities!

Under left-wing shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon, Labour rightly criticised prison privatisation but said nothing about the crucial issue of reducing the prison population, let alone anything more radical (it was just about hinted at the in the 2019 manifesto). Nor did it discuss ending the disastrous reality of most drugs being criminalised (again the 2019 manifesto contained a nod).

At the 2019 London Labour conference, a delegate from Haringey, a young, BME, migrant woman, spoke against a “more police” motion and was heckled repeatedly – though she gave as good as she got and, despite losing heavily, made the case effectively.

In the face of a pro-police stance from our left-wing leadership, much of the left went quiet. Some endorsed the “more police” line most notably Momentum, who repeated promoted the demand and produced a video bracketing the police with firefighters and health workers and describing them as “heroes”. In 2017 Momentum promoted the Tory Police Cuts Calculator criticising Tories for defunding the police. In 2019 Momentum released the “You Are A Socialist” video, giving the police force as an example of socialism in action!

There is nothing wrong with changing your mind or an organisation changing its position. Hopefully the current movement will educate people on the role of state apparatus like the police in repression of working class struggle and oppression of minorities. But Momentum must be honest about its position and why has it changed. Are we the Momentum that supports the defund the police movement or the Momentum that calls for more cops on the street? Labour and Momentum activists cannot take part in and cheer on anti-police demonstrations without fighting for our party to adopt an adequate stance on crime and policing.

This is doubly important because under Keir Starmer the party seems likely to adopt even more regressive positions. His record as Director of Public Prosecutions was not good; and he has already criticised protesters for their disposal of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston.

There will be different views on the left about how comprehensively we want to see the police force as it exists transformed and/or abolished or replaced. But central to the debate needs to be the idea, at the moment largely absent from the official labour movement, that the police as they exist are fundamentally one of the problems confronting working-class people (particularly black, brown and migrant working-class people), not part of the solution.

The labour movement needs to drop the “more police” line, advocate serious measures to rein in police repression, violence and bigotry, and argue to radically transform society to at the very least radically reduce their role. Socialists in the labour movement must urgently engage with the anti-police movement now burgeoning to launch a serious debate about the demands we need.

Republished from Momentum Internationalists

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