28 Mar 2011

Labour MP backs anti-cuts group after hundreds of arrests

As senior Labour figures scramble to distance themselves from anti-cuts protesters involved in disorder in London this weekend, one left-winger is refusing to toe the party line.

Members of UK Uncut were arrested after staging a sit-in at the luxury West End food emporium Fortnum and Mason on Saturday

A former Labour leadership contender has told Channel 4 News that he still supports an anti-cuts group which was involved in disorder in central London at the weekend.

Members of UK Uncut were arrested after staging a sit-in at the luxury West End food emporium Fortnum and Mason on Saturday.

The incident was part of a number of unofficial protests that coincided with Labour leader Ed Miliband’s speech to peaceful demonstrators at a TUC rally in Hyde Park.

Read more: Cutsmap - show us the spending cuts

Left-winger John McDonnell was one of 16 Labour MPs who signed a Commons Early-Day Motion (EDM) last year urging “that this House congratulates UK Uncut for the role it has played in drawing attention by peaceful demonstrations to tax evasion and avoidance and to the need for firm action to secure tax justice”.

Asked if he had changed his mind in the wake of the group’s conduct at the weekend, Mr McDonnell said: “I support UK Uncut. I drafted the EDM and recently expressed my support in the House for them.

“As a group they are pledged to non-violent, peaceful protest and have done a great job exposing the lack of tax justice in this country.

“There is no link between UK Uncut and any political party. That is the whole point of them being an independent grassroots body with no political affiliation.”

John McDonnell MP

“From what I have seen of them, they are a large number of young people who have not been involved in campaigning before and have been motivated by the immorality of tax avoidance and evasion whilst services are being cut.

“I fully agree with them on this. They are a breath of fresh air.”

Other MPs who signed the EDM said they had withdrawn their support for the group following Saturday’s arrests.

Sir Gerald Kaufman MP said: “I am opposed to any illegality and condemn what these people have done. I signed the Early Day Motion at the request of constituents and not at the request of UK Uncut.”

Around 500 activists took part in a peaceful occupation of Fortnum and Mason – nicknamed “the Queen’s grocer” – after organisers told them to head to the shop in a last-minute message on Twitter.

A Met Police spokesman said 145 people were arrested for aggravated trespass in connection with the incident.

UK Uncut claims the store’s owners, Whittington Investments, have a 54 per cent stake in Associated British Foods, who they say have “dodged over £40 million in tax”.

Police have charged 149 people with various offences in connection with the disorder, which followed the peaceful protest by hundreds of thousands of people against public spending cuts. About 201 people were arrested after trouble flared away from the main demonstration.

Demands for apology

Labour’s Deputy Leader, Harriet Harman, has led calls for the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, to apologise, after he said senior Labour figures were “satisfied” by the disorder.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Mr Johnson said: “In spite of their crocodile tears, Balls and Miliband will feel quietly satisfied by the disorder – a token, they will tell themselves, of the public feeling that is out there to exploit.”

Ms Harman said: “He should withdraw this disgraceful allegation immediately.”

Urgent question over police powers

Answering an urgent question in the Commons, Home Secretary Theresa May said police had changed their tactics following allegations of heavy-handedness at last year’s student protests.

But she denied their response had been too soft, saying: “The police might not have managed to prevent every act of violence, but they were successful in preventing wider criminality and are now actively engaged in investigating the perpetrators so they can be brought to justice.”

Mrs May added: “I have asked the police whether they feel they need further powers to prevent violence before it occurs.

“I am willing to consider powers which would ban known hooligans from attending rallies and marches, and I will look into the powers that police already have to force the removal of face-coverings and balaclavas.”

Earlier, Metropolitan Police Commander Bob Broadhurst admitted that the police operation had “failed in parts”.

He added: “I think probably our plan prevented much more widespread violence and disorder.”

Officers had been following “chatter” on the internet about possible attacks on London landmarks ahead of the march, but did not have sufficient evidence to carry out arrests in advance or to be certain exactly where problems would arise.

“If you look back at what was said on the internet beforehand, they were targeting practically every premises in London,” Mr Broadhurst said.

“We had a plan that did our best to respond wherever they went. If they had not gone to Fortnum and Mason and we had protected that, they may have gone elsewhere.”