The Clapham Common vigil and policing in the pandemic

By Tim Le Couilliard

Many people will have been in two minds as to whether they attended Saturday’s vigil for Sarah Everard. We watched on in horror and dread as the news bulletins flashed up with snippets of the clashes on Clapham Common. For many, Saturday marked a sign of solidarity as women and men united at vigils across the country in both remembrance of Sarah and as a peaceful sign of protest against daily cases of female sexual harassment. However, along with resolving the important issues raised by Sarah’s death, questions have been brought to the forefront over the practices used by the police at protests. 

Although it was officially cancelled, the gathering has likely had an even more profound impact than anyone could have previously imagined. It feels like a turning point in the nation, with a divided country over policing, split by age, politics, and gender. At the moment, the only thing that feels united is the universal condemnation of violence committed by men against women, and the very recent and tragic death of Sarah Everard.

YouGov this morning revealed its snap polling on all matters relating to Saturday’s Clapham Common vigil. The topline findings are that 40% say that the vigil should have gone ahead, unopposed, with a similar number (43%) saying that it should have been cancelled. Women are generally split on whether it should have gone ahead (42%-39% in favour), and men are more inclined to suggest it shouldn’t have been allowed (47%-38% against). Generations too are split, with the young more supportive of the vigil but with decreasing support as one gets older. Tories are more likely to oppose the vigil, with Labourites far more supportive.

This weekend’s events have had a profound impact on the discourse of protests and on the policing at such events. Much of the airspace has been centred around Dame Cressida Dick, the Met Police Commissioner, whose organisation has been heavily criticised (and, yet, praised by some commentators) following Saturday evening’s response. Overwhelmingly, however, YouGov’s polling has found that Britons support the Commissioner to stay in her role 2:1, with 47% not calling for her to resign, compared to 23% who think she should. Of course, this varies with age, gender and political leaning, but all groups (besides 18–24-year-olds) support the Commissioner to stay in post.

When both the Government and the Opposition have come out in public and supported Dame Cressida Dick, this level of public support is perhaps less surprising than some would think. Boris Johnson and Sir Keir Starmer have both publicly lent their backing, with Sadiq Khan one of the only high-profile politicians not to. As the photos came in on social media on Sunday, a perfect storm was brewing, and calls for Dame Cressida Dick’s resignation were coming in thick and fast, and from all directions. But it appears, for now at the very least, that she is going nowhere, having no inclination herself to quit, and all those that could force her hand, not willing to do so, perhaps too of the opinion that the police were in an impossible position. And for now, the public isn’t calling for her to go either.

It is notable that in the immediate aftermath of the events, the Commissioner speaking live yesterday was not holding back in her defence of her officers. She was defiant saying that “I feel for my officers. They are policing during a pandemic. I don’t think anybody should be sitting back in an armchair saying what they would do differently.” This morning, however, speaking on the Today programme, she struck a far more conciliatory tone, offering the word “review” for the first time. She came across more heartfelt and understanding of the public outcry – perhaps urged by advisers that it would be in her, and the Met’s, interest to do so. This was too late for the papers, however, with most blasting the Commissioner on the front pages, with the Mail stating that the Commissioner is facing “mounting pressure to quit” and the Sun describing her response as “utterly tone deaf”.

And whilst Johnson has not offered much by the way of an opinion on Saturday nights actions by the Met, he has stated that he has “spoken with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner who has committed to reviewing how this was handled and the Home Secretary has also commissioned HM Inspectorate of Constabulary to conduct a lesson learned review into the policing of the event.”

It has been widely briefed that Johnson is today holding crisis talks with Dame Cressida Dick, senior ministers and the CPS, and the government’s Crime and Justice Taskforce to develop a plan to restore public confidence (and in particular in young women). At 3:30 today, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary delivered a statement off the back of the events of the weekend, condemning the footage from the policing of the protest and confirming the independent review. She also outlined the Government’s progress in related policies, such as the Domestic Abuse Bill that is currently going through Parliament. She also delivered an update on the Government’s consultation on improving women’s safety – which since reopening on Friday has received an additional 78,000 responses – an “unprecedented” increase on the response it received when originally open. Patel did, once again, urge people not to gather in large numbers (such as in protests) during the pandemic.

All this is set against a backdrop that the controversial policing bill, that gives extra powers to the police to manage Covid-19 comes to the Commons later today. This has now had its second reading, with many noting that there is not a single direct reference to women in the whole Bill. This issue is not going away any time soon.