Edges of protest

Should climate protesters picket an MP at home?

Our national politics is so noisy, and often so trivial, it can be hard for important messages to cut through in the media.

Ministers are considering proposals to ban MPs from engaging with certain types of protest groups like the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion. 

Rishi Sunak’s characterisation of voters peacefully protesting as ‘mob rule’, and his subsequent urging of the police to use the all legal means to stop protests is dismaying: in a first-past-the-post system, it’s easy to feel ignored. And when your government isn’t listening, street protest is our strongest, lawful recourse. 


What isn’t present in Sunak’s approach is any sign that the Prime Minister understands that this ‘mob' is comprised of voters in this country. And the fact they are on the streets, week after week, is a sign of the strength of their conviction. 


He seems to want neither to listen or engage. I’m guessing he assumes that the Gaza protestors wouldn’t vote Conservative. And his treatment shows he isn’t interested in governing for the whole country. It’s arguable that George Galloway’s by-election win in Rochdale is the peoples’ retort. But that would be too bold a claim given a voter turn out of just 40 per cent.

Both the frequent street protests and the low by-election turn out signal a democracy in trouble. Yet neither of the parties in contention for government want to see those signs. They both have too much invested in winning our creaking first-past-the-post system.

So, it’s no wonder that frustrations have led to a recent spate of protests at MPs homes and offices, both for climate organisations and pro Gaza ceasefire protestors. 

And this has raised a crucial issue: which of these spaces are legitimate, and which not, for protest. 

There have been the well-publicised cases of Gaza protests at the homes of Tobias Ellwood in Bournemouth East,  and of Mike Freer in Finchley and Golders Green. The latter has now chosen to leave politics altogether at the next election.


All this is tough on climate and nature activists. Our cause is both very pressing and very difficult to sum up in sound bites that cut through a noisy news cycle. 

About ten days ago The Mail on Sunday had story leaking Just Stop Oil’s plans to occupy MPs offices and homes as we move towards the election which has caused a lot of knee jerk reactions and GB News posturing. Lord Walney called for a ban on protests at MPs homes, offices, at council offices and at the Palace of Westminster. 

So where is the line? Firstly, it should be acknowledged that the dismaying deaths of Sir David Amiss and Jo Cox rightly overshadow this discussion. No one thinks our representatives should work in fear of their lives.

Nor are MPs lifestyles always glorious. Though the money isn’t bad, Rory Stewart showed in his recent autobiography, Politics On the Edge, how nasty and brutish the life of an MP and government minister can be. And of course it can be cut short by an election at any point. 

Our national politics is so noisy, and often so trivial, it can be hard for important messages to cut through in the media.

There are other rigours too: the whipping system is harsh, as is the remorseless barrage of social media trolling. The life of an MP has challenges enough surely without being scared for their lives and those of any partner, children or live-in parent? Surely that kind of fear would render public life intolerable for all but the most robust.


But MPs behaviour is not itself beyond reproach. Many acted very like mobs themselves during the Brexit tribulations. And then, more recently, when the Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lyndsey Hoyle, decided not to schedule the SNP motion on a Gaza ceasefire, the scenes in the House of Commons were unedifying.

The right to speak to our MP is an old one, as exemplified by the green card system in which constituents turning up at parliament can call their MP for a consultation. This access to the politician notionally ‘representing’ you and fellow constituents is a valuable one that we should seek to protect.

Let me declare my own interest in this debate. A little over a year ago we set up MP Watch. The vision is of a network of local constituency lobby groups in 650 constituencies to pressurise MPs to speak honestly in all maters in particular the climate and nature crises we face with all the urgency called for by the many IPCC reports.

The idea is that constituents monitor their own MP's stance, and positively engage in order to shift the debate: one MP at a time. Constituents celebrate good practice and find MP allies where they can. They are critical friends to others, and they actively campaign to unseat climate deniers and others guilty of lying. We think if your MP is guilty of lying you can’t trust them on any issue.

We believe in a respectful but honest engagement and we’re non politically partisan. But we do seek to unseat MPs such as Rees-Mogg, Steve Baker, Liz Truss Suella Braverman and Labour’s Graham Stringer, the latter being the only Labour member of the climate-denying Global Warming Policy Foundation. We talk to those MPs who have actively lied or blocked Net Zero policies. 


MPs often feel complacently that voters only see them on Fridays when they are in their constituencies. So it’s a service to other constituents to share information in the local media about what the MP is doing at Westminster, posting out where they follow the whip and where abstain. And this kind of visibility helps keep representatives accountable.

Because of the industrial quantities of misinformation that swill around online and in our public life, MPW has felt the need to widened our brief to also cover truthfulness. This is complicated by the fact that the Conservative Party under Rishi Sunak has now become a delayist party slowing down our legally-enshrined commitment to Net Zero. We have found that many Conservative MPs genuinely believe the version of ‘the science’ they are getting from Conservative HQ.

The best outcome for our campaign is a future in which either we achieve proportional representation or in which we have formed such strong allegiances with MPs that they are prepared to break the party whip in order to push the climate and honesty agenda. But so far both those solutions seem a distant dream. 

So there’s the sticking point in order to do this work we need access to MPs. And our fear is that by rendering MPs defensive and fearful, we lose this access and the ability to bring our representatives onside.

That said, in our own campaign, we have one group Steve Baker Watch who do campaign their MPs constituency offices and have done most weeks for eighteen months. Steve Baker is an ally of the Global Warming Policy Foundation and in the past has served as a trustee. 


Though gave up that roll when he took a job in the Northern Ireland office, he has never disavowed his climate denying statements. Indeed he has threatened his local Watch group with defamation suits, questioned whether they are sticking to electoral rules, called them names such as ‘child abusers’, muppets and most recently ‘clowns’.  

The Steve Baker Watch group that MPs office, paid for out of the public purse, are fair game for peaceful protests that makes their aims clear and are careful not to intimidate staff or neighbours. But in the light of recent qualms and the Prime Ministers speech, they are debating whether to continue.

For MP Watch the national network that unties the individual groups venturing outside MPs homes is a step too far. MPs have a right to a private life. Of course a house near the road is a different thing to a country manor with a wall around it like say that of Jacob Rees-Mogg. And it’s also hard to fault the Greenpeace action at one of Sunak’s country houses while he was abroad.

The direct connection between constituent and MP is a precious one. It also provides a lever for us and for groups such as us at MP Watch, and climate allies such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, to influence the government. MP Watch believe strong relationships of trust with helpful MPs will enable us to move us out of the policy stagnation that we face. 

But the irresponsible hyperbole recently expressed by Rishi Sunak about ‘mob rule’ puts all that at risk.

This Author

Jessica Townsend is the founder of MP Watch.

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