Meet the Unelected Lord Shutting Down Peace Protests to ‘Save Democracy’

This arms-trade lobbyist is targeting Palestine campaigners.

by Simon Childs

20 March 2024

Lord Walney arrives at the ADS Group annual dinner in January. Mark Kerrison / Alamy Stock Photo
Lord Walney arrives at the ADS Group annual dinner in January. Mark Kerrison / Alamy Stock Photo

In February, as massive protests against Israel’s onslaught in Gaza continued, Rishi Sunak claimed that there is now a “growing consensus that mob rule is replacing democratic rule”. One of the loudest voices helping to create this apparent consensus is the government’s independent adviser on political violence and disruption, John Woodcock, AKA Lord Walney. This unelected lord is a former Labour MP turned arms-trade lobbyist, who is using his position to call for a harsher crackdown on protesters.

Woodcock grew up on protest marches. He told GB News: “People that come from our political tradition – we come from the left, we come from the Labour party – we’re all brought up in the tradition of protest … I was taken by my mum on CND marches in the 1980s.”

He has been on a journey since then, however, and is the author of a soon to be published, government-commissioned review of political violence and disruption. He has criticised the political left and centre for “viewing the idea of disruptive, angry protest as sacrosanct to democracy”. Protest actually “threatens the liberal democratic process” when taken too far, he told Channel 4 News. “There are so many channels that are open” for people to register their views, he said. “Being in one place shouting is only one of those ways.”

While we can’t know exactly what the report will recommend just yet, we can get the jist from the constant stream on innovative protest restrictions that Woodcock has extensively briefed in the rightwing press. Making protesters pay for the policing of their events; special exclusion zones around parliament and local town halls; a protests commission based on anti-sectarian measures in Northern Ireland; he seems to be throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks.

But while Woodcock is not keen on protesters influencing public policy, he welcomes arms companies paying for influence.

Woodcock fronts the Purpose Defence Coalition, a lobbying company which he says is “working to evaluate the positive impact UK defence companies are making in their communities and beyond.”

The group is sponsored by Italian arms giant Leonardo, which has been repeatedly targeted by protesters over its links to Israel. According to Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), the UK granted 26 export licences to Leonardo for military goods to Israel between 2008 and 2021.

Woodcock’s experience as an arms lobbyist may have coloured his attitude towards protesters. Speaking to GB News, he recalled attending a recent defence industry event where “everyone who ran the gauntlet was being shouted at, screamed at, horrific things said to them, megaphone in their face.”

It is likely that Woodcock was referring to the ADS Group dinner, a “delightful evening of entertainment, dinner and networking” hosted by arms companies, that took place at a fancy London hotel in January. In a picture passed to Novara Media, Woodcock is seen arriving at the event and walking past some protesters holding placards. Novara Media asked Woodcock to confirm that this was the event that he was telling GB News about, but he did not respond.

Emily Apple, a spokesperson for CAAT, said that the group’s protest had intended to confront attendees at the dinner with the horrible reality of selling weapons. “If he, or any of the other delegates, found the protest upsetting or uncomfortable – then good”, she said.

“The protest wasn’t designed to change the minds of arms dealers, it was to directly challenge them over their complicity in these horrendous acts. Unlike Palestinian people under attack from the British made weapons he promotes, there was no violence and no physical threat to anyone attending.”

Woodcock was the MP for Barrow-in-Furness, a town in Cumbria which relies on the defence industry for jobs. In 2018 he led a delegation to Saudi Arabia to discuss the UK’s “defence partnership” with absolutist monarch King Salman. Woodcock called the partnership “good news for the thousands of BAE workers on the Typhoon programme in Lancashire whose jobs rely on Saudi orders.” Ever a defender of democracy, he declared himself, “hugely struck by the king’s ambition to modernise the country”.

His links to the arms trade come as no surprise, then. But is someone who is paid by weapons companies the most appropriate person to take an independent view on anti-war protests?

Then there is Woodcock’s longstanding support for Israel. He became chair of Labour Friends of Israel in 2011, having been elected as an MP in 2010.

In January 2024 – four months into the war on Gaza – Woodcock joined a “solidarity mission” to Israel with the European Leadership Network (ELNET) which aims to “empower friends of Israel across Europe.”

The delegation was led by Peter Mandelson, and included a dinner at which he “emphasised that this war differs from any other in Israel’s history as it resembles the first jihadi war – in opposition to a territorial war – and that Hamas not only poses an immense security threat to Israel, but to the whole western world,” according to ELNET’s write up of the event.

The dinner was attended by Gideon Sa’ar, an Israeli minister who said that Gaza “must be smaller at the end of the war” – which has been criticised as an endorsement of the war crime of collective punishment. Again, you might think this raises questions about Woodcock’s independence when he’s advising on protests against such war crimes.

“It is time to reset the balance and put our prized liberal democracy first,” Woodcock wrote in the Sun newspaper on 2 March, calling for MPs and councillors to refuse to engage with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign until they “cut the hate from their marches”. The fact that he is an unelected Lord is an irony apparently lost on him.

Woodcock was ennobled as Lord Walney by Boris Johnson after he quit from Labour in 2018. A former chair of Blairite think tank Progress, he claimed the party had been “taken over by the hard left” under Jeremy Corbyn, and urged voters to back the Conservatives at the 2019 election. It was during his run-in with Corbyn that Woodcock developed his dislike of “the mob” – he complained that he had been made a scapegoat for “Corbyn fans to vilify in earnest”.

At the time he left the Labour party, he was refusing to cooperate with a party investigation into claims of sexual harassment against him. Woodcock vehemently denied these claims, saying that the process was rigged and politically motivated.

Woodcock’s view on protests puts him at odds with a former head of UK counter-terror policing, who said that banning Palestine protests would increase the risk of terrorist attacks, and Brendan Cox, husband of the murdered MP Jo Cox, who has said police already have enough powers.

When the protests against the war on Gaza started last year, they were labelled “hate marches” by Robin Simcox, the government’s commissioner for countering extremism, whose background is in neocon think tanks which cheer-led the war on terror. Woodcock appears to occupy the same kind of position – an “independent” adviser whose main purpose seems to be to add to an increasingly shrill chorus of authoritarian voices.

“Far from being a champion of our democracy, Woodcock is a direct threat to it,” said Apple. “He wants to trample over our rights in order to safeguard the profits of the arms industry.”

Novara Media contacted Woodcock and the cabinet office to comment on these matters but they did not respond.

Simon Childs is a commissioning editor and reporter for Novara Media.


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