Preston City Council was presented with a “Delegation of Powers” report at our full council meeting on Thursday of last week.
This sounds like a bureaucratic piece of local authority gobbledygook to most sane people. And it was the last item on a long council agenda – surely it couldn’t be important?
Actually the council was trying to push through a very significant report on the quiet.
It asked councillors to delegate powers to the “governance director” and the chief executive, under the Public Order Act (1986). In consultation with the leader of the council this would allow them to approach the home secretary to ban marches and assemblies that might cause “serious disorder”.
The timing is not accidental. Recently the racist English Defence League (EDL) has tried to assemble or march in various towns across Britain.
A few months ago Manchester City Council claimed it would like to ban the EDL, but couldn’t. Apparently, it had no authority to approach the home secretary for a banning order because the EDL was not marching – merely assembling.
This January hundreds of EDL‑supporting racists went on the rampage in Stoke, smashing up Asian businesses, overturning cars and attacking local Muslims.
So it’s understandable that some people are attracted to the idea of banning the EDL thugs and keeping them off our streets.
It’s against this background that local authorities have begun to look at their procedures for banning potentially unruly demonstrations.
Unfortunately the issue is not quite so simple or straightforward as banning fascist thugs.
The Public Order Act (1936) first formalised the banning of demonstrations and assemblies. It was supposedly introduced to control the British Union of Fascists which was trying to march through Jewish areas at the time.
Yet banning orders were rarely used against the far right. Indeed it was often argued that banning the fascists would merely force them underground and make the problem “even worse”.
Instead the orders have been repeatedly used against the left – against trade unionists, flying pickets, anti-war activists and global justice campaigners.
The Public Order Act is a serious threat to our right of assembly – our right to gather and protest against the injustice in our world. It could be used against us in Preston when we protest against the Israeli table tennis team, who are playing in the city on 2 March.
But there is another reason we should be wary of the public order bans. They suggest that the state is the best vehicle for defeating fascism.
Currently, the police and local authorities swing into action whenever the EDL announces a march.
They put a huge effort into meeting trade union officers, community leaders, and anyone who will listen. Their aim is to persuade people to stay away from the EDL and the anti-fascist counter-mobilisations.
Where they are successful – as they were to a degree in Stoke – they leave black and Asian communities vulnerable to rampaging thugs.
But as Birmingham and Harrow show, minority communities are safer when they organise alongside anti-fascists to protect themselves and to defend their communities.
Mobilisations on the streets will defeat and isolate the fascists, not banning orders and reliance on the state.
In Preston the report on “delegated powers” was defeated. I brought up all the points I have raised in this column at the council meeting.
In the process all the Labour councillors were won over and several of the Liberal Democrats.
Any request from the police to ban a march or an assembly in Preston will have to be debated before an emergency full council meeting.
A small victory, perhaps, but an important one in the present climate.
Michael Lavalette is an independent socialist councillor in Preston. He is a member of the Socialist Workers Party