Paula Sherriff: Rights of freedom of speech versus rights of local people

Police at a Britain First rally in Dewsbury.
Police at a Britain First rally in Dewsbury.
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AS the MP representing Dewsbury, Mirfield, Denby Dale and Kirkburton, I hope you’ll forgive me if I start by singing my constituency’s praises.

Something which never fails to strike those who visit the area and spend some time getting to know its people is its wonderful diversity.

We have people with all different sorts of backgrounds and from all walks of life, and we are the better for it.

This isn’t a case of a politician buttering up the electorate, mark you. It’s a simple matter of pride.

This is why nothing riles me more than a handful of bigots and fear-mongers coming in from outside with the sole purpose of causing upset and division.

A little over a month ago, the far-right group Britain First brought their anti-Muslim rhetoric to our town centre.

They came to split communities and to spread their message of hate. They failed.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have rose-tinted spectacles when it comes to community cohesion.

If we want to enjoy the benefits of a peaceful, diverse society, we have to work at it.

Against a backdrop of difficult economic conditions, compounded by David Cameron and George Osborne’s austerity politics, and coupled with a migration crisis which has seen the biggest movement of refugees in Europe since the Second World War, people are rightly concerned as to what the future will bring.

But wanting a sensible, respectful debate about how Britain’s immigration policy should be shaped to meet the challenges of the 21st century is a world away from the vile nonsense spouted by Britain First and the like.

Likewise, the terror attacks in Paris, Sydney and Ankara, and the potential for home-grown terror threats, should make us question how we tackle the radicalisation of our young people.

But when such atrocities are couched in irresponsible anti-Muslim rhetoric by less-than-reputable journalists and in the darker recesses of Facebook and Twitter, it encourages a lazy prejudice, and it’s that feeling which far-right groups look to exploit.

Thanks to social media, it has never been easier for extremists of all persuasions to find one another, to egg each other on
and to convince themselves that they speak for “the silent majority”.

But don’t let the hate-filled internet rants fool you. The internet may give extremists the feeling that there are plenty of like-minded souls out there, but the plain fact is that Britain’s far-right has a declining reach.

Last week the anti-extremism organisation Hope Not Hate published their 2016 survey Fear and Hope which studied the views of over 4,000 people across England. They looked at attitudes towards race, immigration, faith and belonging.

To give a brief snapshot of their findings, nearly a third of people questioned were very positive towards our multi-cultural society, compared to five years ago when it was less than a quarter.

Likewise, the proportion of people who describe themselves as strongly hostile to immigration and multiculturalism has dropped from 13 to eight per cent.

Attitudes towards immigration have become more flexible and welcoming, despite continued record numbers of people entering the country.

Similarly, attitudes towards Muslims have improved, with 78 per cent of people saying it is wrong to stigmatise all British Muslims for the actions of a few extremists

I’m pleased to say that this has been borne out by what happened in Dewsbury.

On the day of their march, despite their national profile and considerable fanfare on social media, only 125 Britain First activists showed up. I was heartened to see that the people of Dewsbury carried on as best they could and showed that we will not be intimidated.

Kirklees Police led an exemplary operation to keep our streets safe. Local people were calm and dignified. They should be credited with creating that atmosphere in the face of such ugly provocation.

Nevertheless, local businesses were seriously affected on the day, and this is a significant concern.

With speculation that the English Defence League are planning on coming to Dewsbury, questions have to be asked.

Given the heavy cost to police these events, and the cost to the local economy and local businesses, is it not the case that extremists are taking advantage our right to freedom of speech to push a dangerous views held by only a tiny minority, at disproportionate cost?

What actions should the Government take to prevent these organisations from holding demonstrations, effectively at the taxpayers’ expense?

More needs to be done to curb the damaging activities of the small minority involved with far-right organisations. The right to freedom of speech must be balanced with the rights of local people to be protected from racial and religious hatred, with the rights of business to go about their work unimpeded, and frankly the right of Dewsbury and towns like it not to have its name dragged through the

Paula Sherriff is the Labour MP for Dewsbury.