Michael Kelly: Ban protest marches for the good of democracy

Shots of protesters - faces distorted in ill-directed rage as they bring London to a halt in ineffective political action - argue that the simplest, safest and most economic choice would, in the interests of democracy, be to ban protest marches through our city centres.

The Tory Party has embarked on a programme to punish the weakest in our society for the sins of the banks. To counter this determination to skew society further in favour of the rich and powerful we are promised increasing, frequent and sustained public protest from those who would hijack legitimate grievances for their own anarchic ends. After the scenes of violent hooliganism and criminal behaviour during the recent student protests it is time to conclude that society is better served if those who want to demonstrate their views are required to find means less disruptive to the rest of us.

City centres are for all of us to use and enjoy. It is simply not democratic to allow them to be taken over by violent interlopers bent on harming people and property when the majority who use our cities on a daily basis just want to get to and from work or get on with their retail therapy.

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In the past marches may have been justified as one of the few ways in which the attention of parliament and the public could be grasped. Even then they were largely ineffective. The most famous of all, the Jarrow Crusade of 1936 when men from the north-east of England walked to London in a dignified and peaceful plea against unemployment and degrading poverty, produced no positive results. The prime minister refused to meet the marchers, who were given a pound each to get home by train.

Those who persist in defending the right to public protest today can point to no record of greater success. The Iraq war went ahead despite millions turning out on the streets. The G20 have not shied away from global capitalism. And the increases in student fees passed smoothly through both houses of parliament.

Given this ineffectiveness of marches it would be no loss to democracy if they were banned altogether. A lot less inconvenient for the public and a lot safer for the protesters. For going marching is a dangerous pursuit. Who can blame a poor, harassed police officer for taking a lethal swing at an innocent bystander? He's probably been verbally abused for hour after hour. True, officers should be comforted by the lucrative overtime they are building up in these days of economic hardship - an unforeseen consequence that many left-wing protesters must regret. But it is surely sensible if you are confronted by the type of person who likes to wear an unnumbered uniform and wander around with a truncheon and a riot shield to expect that person to have a rather short temper.Ever since Blair Peach was murdered in 1979 in Southall demonstrating against the National Front, demonstrators have known the risks involved in confronting the police. After Ian Tomlinson was hit with a baton last year and subsequently died, Alfie Meadows was this week discharged from hospital after brain surgery following a police attack during the recent incidents in London. So good are the police at hiding their own bad apples that rarely does anyone find himself in criminal court as a result of these atrocities. The policy clearly is "let the demonstrator beware".

It is essential to document these isolated cases, disgraceful as they are. But they should not hide the fact that many protesters set out to maim the police. Throwing a fire extinguisher off a multi-storey building is hardly the act of a true democrat. Protesters use violence deliberately to put the police in a difficult position. The authorities then either try the light-handed approach, as they did around Conservative headquarters last month and get accused of incompetence and complacency, or they turn out the full force of their numbers and risk being condemned as fascists. This certainly will be the way things go now, stripping out police resources from other parts of London, leaving them even more vulnerable to crimes such as burglary and car theft which seriously affect ordinary citizens. There is nothing in this scenario that is good for society.

Again, the extent of the protests is forcing police to take action that clearly infringes the right to protest. Kettling large numbers of people in restricted areas for hours on end is obviously illegal. And if it isn't it should be if the right to march is endorsed and upheld.

But the answer that gets to the root of all these problems is to remove the right to march large numbers through city centres. Large public protests are too disruptive and lead to too much violence. Let us put a stop to this before it descends to continental proportions with truck drivers being allowed to blockade ports and farmers snarling up motorways even more effectively than Stewart Stevenson.

We cannot be happy that fuel protesters were allowed to clog up the M8 by driving lorries in convoy at 30mph. Such demonstrations are completely out of date. In these days of simple and fast mass communication it is easy for groups to make their views know by phone, e-mails and websites and on innumerable radio talk shows.

Given the ease with which malcontents can publicise their often illegitimate causes, what is undemocratic about inviting protesters who want to show a physical presence to gather in public areas such as Hyde Park? They would journey there individually as they would to a football match or pop concert and hold a rally in a place that can readily and safely accommodate them.

But the really effective way to make a point is to have a face-to-face meeting with an elected politician.The Lib Dems will have the angry faces of constituents and the commitments never to vote for them again seared on their memory banks long after the fuss about marching has settled down. And nobody else is put out.