Some 15,000 police officers were expected to march through London on Wednesday of this week against plans to cap their pay rise at 1.9 percent this year.
Officers around the country have been leaking statements to the press about the strength of feeling among the police and the results of informal ballots that show they are willing to strike to get a better pay rise.
The march will also be backed by senior officers and superintendents. Even the Association of Police Authorities – the employers’ body for the police – has pledged its support for the police campaign for more pay.
It is a sign of the state of Gordon Brown’s Britain that even those who are paid to uphold “law and order” are now protesting.
Governments usually accommodate police complaints over pay at the first sign of trouble – for instance in the run up to the Miners’ Strike in the 1980s.
Brown, in contrast, is for now more interested in maintaining the public sector pay limit than in keeping the police onside.
This is not the first time a Labour government has faced down wage demands from the police for the sake of a wider project of holding down public sector wages.
In the late 1970s Labour prime minister James Callaghan was prepared to face down threats of a police strike to try and maintain a cap on wages.
The government had imposed a 5 percent public sector wage limit, at a time when inflation had jumped to 15 percent. Callaghan said he would quit rather than give in to a strike threat by police.
In a bid to avert industrial action, the government offered 10 percent, but the Police Federation came back with a demand for a much bigger pay rise. Callaghan refused to back down and the police accepted the offer.
Police complaints over pay normally come at the beginning of a pay revolt and are settled before the police are required to intervene in other pay disputes.
In the 1980s the police became far more militarised. They were tooled up and sent in to smash groups of struggling workers, such as the miners during the 1984-85 strike and the printers at Wapping in east London.
The level of class struggle has not been as high under New Labour. The loyalty most trade union leaders have to Labour has helped hold back a major confrontation with the government.
Brown seems to be gambling that this loyalty to Labour will be enough to prevent any future confrontation over pay.
But if the pay dispute with the police is not resolved it could cause major problems for Brown. The same is even more the case when it comes to the dispute with the Prison Officers Association.
Despite his belligerent noises, Brown knows all too well that pay freezes can eventually trigger an angry backlash against the governments that impose them.
That raises a sharp question for the workers’ movement. If even the Police Federation can mobilise thousands to take to the streets over public sector pay, why won’t trade union leaders do the same?
Whose interests do police officers really serve?
Bitter experience has taught many people to be suspicious of the police. But there is still a great deal of confusion over exactly what political role they play.
The police are presented as heroes fighting against criminals for the good of society as a whole. But in fact they do little to stop or prevent crime.
Labour increased spending on the police from £8.6 billion in 1996-97 to more than £12 billion last year. This has made no difference to the amount of crime in society.
Behind the headlines about crime lie countless miscarriages of justice, stops and searches, beatings and abuses by police.
The police’s racism, hostility to working class people, culture of dishonesty and other crimes are not the “excesses” of a few “rotten apples”.
They are fundamental to the nature of the police – and they can only be dealt with by dismantling the force itself.
The police’s real role is as part of the state, alongside the courts and the army. They are there to do one thing – protect the property of the minority that owns it against the mass of the people who do not.
The state tries to ensure that it alone possesses a monopoly on physical force. Although it claims to operate in the name of society as a whole, in fact it operates as the instrument of the rich to oppress the poor.
So the police are not part of the working class, but are rather a method of holding back the working class.
That is why the police have little interest in protecting workers, who are the ones who suffer the most from crime.
The police roam working class areas harassing people, yet spend no time in the City investigating corporate fraud.
And the police never hesitate to unleash their full force at times of conflict, mass demonstrations or strikes.
There are rare occasions when the police rebel. In 1919 there was a huge working class revolt across Britain and a section of police went on strike.But that strike was broken with bribes and the army. Police unions were banned shortly thereafter.
In 1931 the police protested over pay. The unemployed workers’ movement responded with a leaflet which read:
“Today you are faced with a pay cut. Yet these same people rely on you to smash our fight against starvation. Why act as thugs against hungry men and women? Only by supporting our fight can you defeat your own cut in pay.”
The politics of the leaflet were sound. But the following week the police attacked unemployed demonstrators – proving once more that the police are beyond reform.