Nearly two-thirds (65%) of Critical Mass readers say they are less likely to protest because of a fear of being arrested. However, 44% say it will make no difference. Interestingly, of those less likely to protest, the vast majority (95%) still support the right to disrupt everyday life as a means of protest. As one person wrote:
“Freedom of speech and protest is the most fundamental right in a democracy. Without it, there is no democracy.”
It is worth noting here that, of those less likely to protest, 83% had taken part in protest previously — which is hardly different to the 85% who had taken part in protests previously and said the legislation would make no difference to them doing so in future.
The sense that our rights are under threat and that we must take action was a common theme of those who responded, summed up succinctly in this comment: “It’s the only legitimate way to hold power to account and to ensure they work for the majority’s best interest – democracy dies without protest. Counter protests ensure fascists fall, not western “democratic” governments, who often incorporate their thinking.”
Forty per cent of those who responded cited human rights as the reason to support non-violent direct action; another 35% cited defending democracy. Typical of those citing rights were these comments: “People should have the right to protest if they aren’t happy with their employer or government. Without the right to protest you are living in a dictatorship”, “Protest is a basic human right. Also, there are other laws which are effective if protest becomes violent or unsafe”, “Public protest is a democratic right and often the only means of being heard”, “The right to protest is a human right. Whether you agree or disagree with the protest everyone is entitled to voice their concerns over actions by others, whether its a school syllabus or an arms factory supplying an apartheid state”, “Without a right to voice my opinion there is no democracy” — and there were plenty of others.
For those who cited democracy, these were a few typical responses: “Without protest and disruption, nothing will change. Our rights to democracy and dissent has been grossly eroded”, “We live in such an unequal, undemocratic society that protest and withdrawal of Labour are the only means we have of preventing things getting even worse”, “The parliamentary system is rigged against people power. Protesting may help to partially restore a modicum of democracy”, “Protesting against injustice is a part of democracy”, “Protest is the cornerstone of any democracy. It is a way of holding the government and/or the elite to account between elections”, and finally, a warning: “There are already laws in place against one major form of protest – striking. These need to be repealed. Protest is a basic democratic right. Legislation won’t stop people protesting. At best, protestors will become more adept at evading arrest, at worst protestors will feel if they’re going to be arrested they may as well do something serious that is ‘worthy’ of arrest – ‘You might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb’. There are laws in place already, such as those on criminal damage, assault, etc., that may also occur during protests. There should be a right to counter protest.”
Critical Mass/Sunday Socialist have tended to take a supportive view of the members of such groups as Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion, and assumed, rightly or wrongly, that our readers would do so too.
For those who agreed with disrupting the lives of ordinary people, we gave a list of things protesters might do and asked them to choose all of those which they considered to be legitimate forms of protest. The results are summarised below:
As you can see, preventing people from entering their place of work received the most support. In retrospect, we rather suspect that this was being regarded as picketing which, whilst one way in which we might prevent people from entering their place of work, was not strictly what we had in mind. It reminds us that in survey work it is important to be clear with wording. In this case it hardly invalidates the responses, but we are not entirely clear that they have answered the question we thought we were asking.
There is, though, no ambiguity about the second choice. Most readers of CM have no issue with protest that disrupts sporting events. Indeed, 79% overall and 85% of those who supported disruptive action were in favour of this as a form of protest. There were then a range of protests that had slightly less support — disrupting local councils supported by 65% overall (69% of yeses), holding up the traffic by 63% (68%), and stopping people from entering shopping centres by 57% (61%). Meanwhile, hacking into computer systems was not something most people thought was okay, with only 39% (42%) seeing this as a legitimate form of protest. To be fair, very few people have the technological skills to do so, which makes this an elitist occupation. On the other hand, many people (for family and work reasons) are not keen on being arrested, so confrontational protest is unlikely to be mass protest unless circumstances change to such an extent that it feels like the only option we have left.
Those who were against disruptive protest were not right-wing and were concerned about the consequences of their choices. All of them cited “It is important that protests maintain the support of ordinary people” and “Disrupting everyday life could create a backlash against important protest movements”. Most of them also cited “Ordinary people are not the enemy”. Clearly, even those CM readers who opposed the use of disruptive action are not anti-protest as such, but rather want the tactics to be correct. Maintaining the support of the public is important — but an over-emphasis on public support may be overly influenced by whatever the current media obsession is, particularly where elites feel threatened. An interesting academic paper by Ruud Wouters found that ordinary citizens were likely to support protests if they could identify with the protesters — in order to identify with them they needed to know they existed; visible protest is a key component of that identification. In an age where media outlets are invariably hostile to protesters from the left (though interestingly, less so from the right) dissenters are being forced to adopt ever more disruptive tactics simply to get themselves seen and heard. In this respect, 97% of respondents thought the media was invariably hostile to protesters.
Many CM readers, as we have seen, have a history of political protest — 84% had taken part in a political protest in the past (only 84% I hear you say!) — of those, the majority (93%) had attended a demonstration or signed a petition; 63% had taken part in a picket line, whilst only 15% had taken part in an occupation or blocked traffic.
The main reason people had not taken part in protests was that they were too far away, or personal circumstances which prevented them from taking part, including child care and disability. Interestingly, only one person said “I guess I don’t see much point”, though another added “I’m probably not enough of an activist to go out of my way”, which has the advantage of being honest.
How does this compare to the rest of the UK (with apologies to readers who are outside the UK)? According to a House of Commons Research Paper from 2019, around 23% of the population are what they call ‘engaged representative democrats’, meaning they talk about politics most days — I think most of our readership would certainly fit that definition. What are referred to as ‘stealth democrats’, about 14% of the population, have little interest in politics and tend toward right-wing libertarian views around strong leaders. ‘Dissatisfied democrats’, around 19%, do care about politics and are probably on the left, but they are dissatisfied with the current system. Meanwhile, ‘engaged direct democrats’, representing some 38% of the population, do pay attention to politics, are keen on referendums, but don’t think politicians care about people like them. Indeed, none of these groups thought politicians care about people like them, revealing that the British public may be more astute than we often think. The remaining 6% were ‘unsure’ about everything, not seeming to have any opinions or being certain about anything. If ignorance is truly bliss, then 6% of our fellow citizens may well be deliriously happy!
Our next question asked people to rank five forms of protest — from signing a petition through to occupying a building — to find what kinds of protest people were most likely to take. The results are hardly astounding: on first choices alone, sign a petition (57%) and attend a demonstration (30%) were by far the most popular; nobody placed occupy a building first. However, when we combine first and second choices, whilst signing a petition (76%) was by far the most popular action, write a letter to an MP or newspaper (54%) was as popular as attending a demonstration (54%). If we extend this and see how many people put each action in their top three, then attend a demonstration (95%) comes top, with sign a petition (88%) marginally behind. The fact is that the first choices of sign a petition were incredibly high to start with and it is easier to do, especially with so many online sites, so it would be a surprise if it was not the top choice.
The bigger question is what we think about the right to protest. We asked a series of statements, and our analysis suggests there are few differences of any note among CM readers. Differences tend to be a question of nuance rather than principle.
‘Everybody has the right to protest’ had almost universal support with 93% strongly agreeing — which is probably not a huge surprise amongst readers of a left wing journal — 84% that there was one law for the rich and one for the rest of us, and 75% strongly agree that the UK is now governed by an authoritarian elite. Taken together, these three statements give a strong indication that people on the left support protest, but partly at least because the UK is being run as a playground for the rich. There are plenty of everyday examples to support this view.
One rather surprising result was the 36% who strongly agreed that even fascists should have the right to protest: this rather suggests that socialists are more libertarian than those who call themselves libertarians. The issue is not one of abstract rights to protest, but also the context in which protest takes place — most left protests are aimed at oppressive governmental structures, whereas most right protests profess to be about the right of individuals (such as Brexit and Covid), but you do not have to scratch far below the surface to find an insidious racist and authoritarian undertone. It is clear that the ‘no platforming’ strategy has come under attack, not least from the government who are happy to ‘no platform’ anybody on the left but will always defend free speech for those supporting authoritarian, racist, and homophobic hate speech.
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Socialist of many years. Former Labour member. Currently presenter of The Socialist Hour.