The Green Party was out in force on 4 October 2014, in the final weekend of campaigning in Heywood & Middleton, greater Manchester. Shahrar Ali joined Abi Jackson and local Greens in the town square of Middleton to meet with and canvass Saturday shoppers and other passersby.
Our political resolve was redoubled when security staff sought to intervene in our campaigning activity. We were allegedly interfering with people’s access to the trading stalls lining the market square and moreover did not have permission from the Council. A couple of us entered into discussion with the security, and we were later on joined by the self-professed manager of the square. Apparently we were going to be given permission to be there only on days when the stalls were not in operation, the majority of the days of the week, and this was something to be grateful for, we wouldn’t even need to put in applications and what not. To the contrary, I asked, there was a matter of principle at stake. Firstly, what was the manager’s relationship to Rochdale Council. By her own admission she was not the Council. Indeed, she was responsible for supervising aspects of the town square as sanctioned by a lease with the Council. However, we did not have that document before us and could not confirm what protections were in place for activity such as ours. Even without knowledge of those details, we were quite certain that ours was a claim worth fighting for, quite independently of the pretensions of a lease and the subcontracted nature of the challenge against us.
It was upwards of an hour before satisfactory resolution and reaffirmation of our rights to political association was achieved, and not without the assistance of the police. The management company got their lobbying in first, after all, it was they who had called them and the police first went over to the stall of our neighbour, “Don’t vote UKIP – say no to racism!” Our friends were in equally trenchant mood and quite prepared to pick a fight on the issue. Incredibly, the police had been given some false impression that Don’t vote UKIP and the Greens were not getting on with one another. Was this some desperate attempt of the management to cook up some artificial grounds for having us all moved on?
We debated some points of law and finally I got a very clear response from two officers. Firstly, we had every right to congregate there and our entitlements were granted as political organisations not as traders. The officers qualified their affirmations of my leading questions, with “so long as we weren’t harassing anybody.” The last part of the conversation was overheard by the security and management. We tried not to rub their noses in it, but clearly they left with egg on their faces. Moreover, it felt like it was we who should have been complaining of undue harassment. However, we were content to exercise our rights of freedom of political expression, just days ahead of the by-election. We also spoke with a resentful looking trader, and promised of course to leave her plenty of room for shoppers. In truth, trading was inevitably down that morning due to the damp nature of the start to the day. We had no desire to be seen to be impeding their trade. However, it was good for all to know about our entitlements to be there.