Why Was I Banned from Labour Conference?

Yesterday, Extinction Rebellion activist and elected Labour Party delegate Sam Knights was banned by police from entering Annual Conference. Here, he tells his story.

Sam Knights with actress Emma Thompson at a recent Extinction Rebellion demonstration.

In 1896, Emmeline Pankhurst organised a public meeting in her local park. 

Perhaps that sounds like an entirely innocent act and, in many ways, it was. Before the suffragette movement had been properly conceived, it was important for female activists to find public spaces in which they could meet, debate, and protest. A local park seemed as good a place as any.

But it was also, of course, an act of protest. A subversive act in which the power of the state was being directly and openly challenged. If women were refused the right to vote, it followed that every space in which they existed must be carefully controlled, such that all democratic expression was ultimately discouraged. 

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the authorities declared this meeting unlawful. Police arrived at the park, attempted to disperse the crowd, and rounded up the leaders of the movement. In total, they arrested six people for “causing an annoyance” and, amongst those arrested, was the first leader of the Labour Party, Keir Hardie. 

Every right we hold now – the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of conscience, the right to free assembly – has been fought for and won by generations of brave men and women, who, in putting themselves on the right side of history, have found themselves – ironically – on the wrong side of the law. 

The Labour movement has a long and impressive tradition of protest. It is a tradition deep in our bones, a tradition that we should be proud of, not embarrassed by. From Keir Hardie to Jeremy Corbyn, the leaders of this movement have stood up to authority with integrity and compassion. They have been arrested and gone to prison, because their cause was just. They knew what they were doing was right.

Last year, I made my way to Parliament Square to organise my first ever protest. It was nine o’clock in the morning in the middle of the working week and, surprisingly, a thousand people turned up. They included the Labour Party politician Clive Lewis, the journalist George Monbiot, and a fifteen year-old girl named Greta Thunberg, who came all the way from Sweden in an electric car with her dad. 

Since then, I have worked with Extinction Rebellion full time, demanding we take immediate action on climate change. In April, I coordinated our political negotiation strategy with my friend Farhana Yamin. In Parliament, I met with members of the cabinet and the shadow cabinet and, the day after our meeting with the Environment Secretary Michael Gove, the UK became the first country in the world to declare a climate emergency. 

So I was somewhat surprised to be banned from the Labour Party Conference.

On Thursday, I was sent an email which informed me that I would not be attending conference because I had not passed the “necessary police security checks”. Previous case law confirms that you legally have the right to appeal this decision and make representations to the police, but in my case it was not granted and there was no further explanation. I still have no idea why I was banned.

I am going to be honest with you, it hit me hard. I have been a member of the Labour Party since I was eighteen years old. I was not going to the conference to protest. I was there as an elected delegate, sent by my constituency party as their only youth representative. 

I am not a troublemaker. I am certainly not a firebrand. I am a calm and peaceful man who, at school, never even got a single detention. I graduated from Cambridge University two years ago with a first class degree in English Literature. Since then, I have worked in the charity sector and last year, at the UN Conference on Climate Change, I worked with climate vulnerable countries to demand more ambitious climate policy. Earlier this year, I edited This Is Not A Drill, a collection of essays published by Penguin Random House and with an afterword by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. I am about as establishment as they come.  

I do not have a criminal record. I have no criminal convictions whatsoever. In fact, my only interaction with the police was getting arrested earlier this year for peacefully protesting outside of a fossil fuel conference. My trial is ongoing and I have not been found guilty of anything.

Peaceful protest is protected under the European Convention on Human Rights. It is a vital part of a healthy and flourishing democracy. So why then have I been banned? And why – more broadly – are we allowing the police to target peaceful protestors?

My case is not unique. Last year, the journalist Michael Segalov took the police to court in a very similar case. He had been banned from the Labour Party Conference, with internal documents describing him not as a journalist, but as an “extreme left wing activist”. The court ultimately ruled in his favour and he is now allowed to attend conference, but his case shows evidence of extremely dangerous thinking within the police force itself.  

Unfortunately, the Labour Party still allows the police to have the final say over accreditation, which opens up activists, minorities, and other oppressed groups to police interference and censorship. 

We are lucky in this country that standing up to corporate power is not an immediate death sentence. Every week, four climate activists are killed for standing up for the future of our planet. Disproportionately, the people who are being murdered now – often by paramilitary forces closely linked to fossil fuel companies – are the indigenous people on the frontlines of this struggle. We must honour their bravery and their courage, and we must be led by their tireless fight. We must raise their voices and make sure their story is being heard. 

In London, we are not being murdered for our activism, but we are being targeted. The police have a long and well documented history of infiltrating activist groups and recently Extinction Rebellion activists have had their houses raided, their possessions seized, and their lives disrupted in all manner of different ways. It has been suggested, by Netpol and others, that this marks a new phase in the state’s attitude to Extinction Rebellion. It appears that peaceful protestors like me are in danger of being – or, worryingly, may already have been – officially labelled as “domestic extremists”. 

My first experience of being described as a “domestic extremist” was in a report commissioned by the right wing think tank Policy Exchange. The report argued that because we were demanding system change in order to tackle the climate crisis, we should therefore be regarded as “extremists” by both the government and the police. It named me directly as a prominent member of Extinction Rebellion.

The day after it was published, it dominated news coverage. The author was given a prime-time slot on the BBC’s flagship Today Programme and many of our activists began to see platforms withdrawn, invitations rescinded, and opportunities disappear. I hope it did not also influence the police force’s decision now. Policy Exchange have refused to deny the report was paid for by an oil and gas company.

Because that’s the real crux of this issue, isn’t it? Peaceful climate activists pose no real threat to anyone or anything, other than the future profits of the fossil fuel industry. I am not demanding anything more than an inhabitable planet, a world in which human life is put above private profit. 

As the world shifts from a reformist mode of politics to a more activist mode of politics, we will see more people of my generation start to get arrested. We see in the Climate Strike movement a generation of young people that knows its rights, have a nuanced analysis of the current political moment, and are deciding to break the law to protect their future. This generation will grow up with an understanding of politics deeply connected to a more radical tradition of civil disobedience. It will be a part of their political expression, and our political parties should acknowledge and welcome that energy. 

The Labour Party must stand resolutely against this democratic interference.

Make no mistake, the people who are going to be affected most by police meddling in our democracy are the people who need it most. Young people, people of colour, the poor, the disabled, women, children, trade unionists, and the working class. Should the Labour Party now be banning those of us who have convictions for union activity, like those involved in the Shrewsbury pickets? The answer is, of course, no. We should be doing the opposite, protecting and extending our rights. 

Working class activists secured the right to vote. They have fought for our fragile democracy at every step of the way. And we need to place these censorious attacks in their appropriate historical context. Time and time again, we see democratic freedoms undermined. And, time and time again, we see protest as the most effective way to resist. 

When Emmeline Pankhurst and Keir Hardie were arrested in 1896, it did not stop them from organising further demonstrations. They recognised what they were fighting for was nothing less than democracy itself. The right to protest, to talk, to debate, and to organise.

In the months that followed their arrest, more public meetings were organised in the same small park. Tens of thousands of people turned up to hear speakers and to show their solidarity. And, unsurprisingly, they won. With pressure mounting and the threat of arrest slowly losing its meaning, the Parks Committee, following a remarkable intervention by the Home Secretary, ruled that such meetings were lawful after all and most of the charges were dropped.  

Since the very beginning, the labour movement has been actively engaged in the struggle for democracy. We have secured the right to vote from women and the working class, but the fight is not yet over. In the coming years, democratic rights will continue to be undermined by corporations and special interests. It will be under threat and under strain, as we have never experienced before.

We are seeing the beginning of this already. As refugees sit in detention centres and school children walk out of their schools, the lines on which this struggle will play out are quickly being drawn. 

Ultimately this comes down to a very simple choice. Do we take action as the generations before us took action, or do we allow the rights they fought for to slip slowly away?

Ordinary people must now have a say over their own future. After all, we have seen what happens when climate policies are balanced on the backs of the poor, not the wealthy. We have seen what happens when ordinary people are shut out of this debate. And we have seen too what can be made possible when we leave the intransigence of factional politics behind; when we empower ordinary people to dream of a new world; when we give people permission to imagine the future. Imagine what we can do together.

As this moment of crisis, we need democratic rights now more than ever. And we also need people who are prepared to protect them.

So, finally, what of my case? Well, last night I launched an emergency judicial review against the decision of the police and this morning my solicitor received a letter conceding they had acted improperly. I am forever indebted to Ravi Naik, my solicitor, who worked through the night to ensure the law was upheld.

Friends, see you at conference. Let’s get a Green New Deal.