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The Walney Report Is a Threat to Democracy

Former Labour MP John Woodcock has published a report calling for a clampdown on protest to safeguard democracy. What it really means is making war criminals and climate profiteers immune from political accountability.

The Walney Report, authored by John Woodcock, proses toc curtail basic democratic freedoms.

The last few years have seen a sustained effort on the part of the UK government to clamp down on protest labelled ‘disruptive’ and ‘illegal’. After the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act of 2022 and the Public Order Act 2023, we are now presented with John Woodcock’s ominously titled report Protecting our Democracy from Coercion. It targets not just certain activist groups but our understanding of democracy itself. Emphasising the ‘rule of law’, the report imagines a democracy reduced to a fixed set of rules and institutions insulated from popular control and contestation.

Woodcock (ennobled Lord Walney) is a former Labour MP who resigned from the party amid sexual harassment allegations before endorsing the Conservatives in the 2019 general election. He was subsequently nominated for a life peerage and appointed as the government’s ‘independent advisor on political violence and disruption’. His 291-page report focuses particularly on non-violent activists on the left, such as climate and pro-Palestine groups, who employ strategies of disruption and lawbreaking. The threat of these, Woodcock claims, lies in the economic damage they may cause, in the draining of police resources, and in their potential ‘to undermine faith in our parliamentary democracy and the rule of law.’ Although recent changes in policy would suggest otherwise, he insists that these dangers have so far been overlooked and little understood. The recommendations of Woodcock’s report range from establishing channels for businesses to claim compensation from protest organisers, charging them for the cost of policing, and calling on governments and elected representatives not to engage with or consult any activists employing strategies of lawbreaking.

Woodcock has a limited understanding of democracy, one in which the people are reduced to the status of ‘voters’. He regards the law as being beyond question and is intolerant of resistance to it. Championing ‘the rule of law’, he writes ‘that if a movement advocates systematic law-breaking as the means for political change, then that organisation crosses a line for what is and is not acceptable.’ This disregards the fact that protests that involve lawbreaking and civil disobedience have a historical legacy of democratisation that extends from the suffragettes to the US civil rights movement — and are recognised as democratic practices by liberal democratic theorists such as John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas.

Woodcock, in contrast, insists that all this is obsolete because ‘the UK’s liberal democracy’ guarantees citizens’ right to vote. This reduces the people to an audience allowed to express their consent or disapproval every few years on the invitation of the government. It also disguises the reality of a corporate lobby drowning out electoral voice. The ‘independent advisor’ Woodcock is himself a case in point: it is difficult to believe that his activity as a paid lobbyist for arms manufacturers and fossil fuel companies did not affect his report’s recommendations to constrain climate and pro-Palestine activist groups in particular. Making acts of popular protest more and more difficult ultimately also makes it easier for corporate power to shape government policy in its interest.

In 1999, the philosopher James Tully wrote that ‘[p]olitics is the type of game in which the framework — the rules of the game — can come up for deliberation and amendment in the course of the game.’ Protests that break the law are both an extreme and exemplary case of this peculiar feature of the democratic game: whether they call for a ceasefire or for the end of fossil fuel subsidies, these activists show that democratic participation sometimes requires challenging and even breaking the law. Clearly, such acts establish avenues for popular influence on political institutions that all too often seem unresponsive to common concern and, as the case of Woodcock himself demonstrates, are primarily shaped by economic interests. More fundamentally, they insist that the principles and institutions of our political system are always themselves a political question. In a democracy, how to organise our political life and how to relate to each other as political agents cannot be answered once and for all but has to remain a question of democratic debate and, sometimes, resistance.

25 years after Tully, Woodcock now suggests that we should play a different ‘democratic’ game in which the rules are fixed and thoroughly enforced. Insisting that ‘the law must be applied uniformly irrespective of the cause’ and calling for the depoliticisation of courts, Woodcock recommends further closing off avenues for popular participation in politics. This will result in ‘ordinary citizens’ finding themselves subject to rules beyond their control — formulated most likely by a political and economic elite. This is clearly in tension with an understanding of democracy as the ‘rule of the people’.

It is instructive that the cornerstone of Woodcock’s reductive understanding of democracy and of his hostility towards politically motivated acts of lawbreaking is the notion of the ‘rule of law’. Although generally an accepted aspect of democratic societies, the ‘rule of law’ is not by itself a democratic principle nor incompatible with highly undemocratic political systems.

Indeed, neoliberal thinkers have infamously invoked the rule of law in defence of authoritarian and dictatorial regimes. In many ways, Woodcock’s report can itself be understood as a product of a neoliberal worldview that is suspicious of democratic participation and anxious to preserve the power of elites.

Woodcock begins his report with the observation that we find ourselves ‘at a crossroads in our democracy.’ This is certainly true. However, the threat lies not with activist groups and does not consist in their ‘coercion’ of political actors. Instead, we are facing the possibility of losing central democratic practices, routes of participation and contestation. If Woodcock’s recommendations become policy, the ‘democratic game’ played in the UK will be one in which its rules are no longer open to challenges by the people but are formulated and imposed by those in power and those wealthy enough to influence them. This ultimately means giving up on the ideal of an inclusive democracy shaped by the people. We are at a crossroads in our democracy — and Woodcock is sending us the wrong way.