War protesters banned from Labour conference

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Indy Politics

Labour chiefs have been accused of trying to stifle free speech after the grieving families of servicemen killed in Iraq were banned from demonstrating outside the party's annual conference in Manchester.

The city's Labour-controlled council has denied them permission, on health and safety grounds, to set up a "peace camp" to coincide with the start of the conference on 24 September.

Its organiser, Rose Gentle, whose 19-year-old son Gordon was killed in 2004, claimed that councillors wanted to avoid causing Tony Blair embarrassment.

She said yesterday: "They just don't want us there. There are only about 10 military families taking part and we were just going to camp outside the conference building for three days.

"We've done it in Downing Street and Trafalgar Square, so I don't see why we can't do it in Manchester. The police have no problem - it's just the council."

She insisted that the peace camp, which is being organised by Military Families Against the War, would go ahead, raising the possibility of police being forced to arrest mothers and widows of dead servicemen while senior ministers address the conference.

The ban revived memories of Walter Wolfgang, the 82-year-old peace activist who was manhandled out of the Labour conference last year when he heckled Jack Straw, the then Foreign Secretary.

Mr Wolfgang said: "Those responsible for this are idiots. This is very heavy-handed and it sounds like the same people responsible for the treatment given to me. They are very foolish."

Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, said: "As long as there is any debate in this country, people will discuss the Iraq war.

"How can a foreign war fought in the name of freedom justify such crushing of freedom and debate at home? Let the grieving parents have their protest."

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "The right to protest is at the very heart of democracy. No government should have the audacity to curtail dissent.

"Outlawing protest in Parliament Square, criminalising trespass on a barrage of "designated" sites, limits on the right of assembly - this is not the Britain we want."

A spokeswoman for Manchester City Council, which is responsible for Albert Square, where the protest was planned, confirmed that the protest had been banned. She said that the square had already been booked for another demonstration for two days and could not be used for a protest camp because it did not have camping facilities such as toilets and running water.

She added: "We're talking to them about alternative arrangements. We believe in the right to protest - other demonstrations are taking place throughout the conference."

Downing Street declined to comment on conference policing matters. But the Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "People have many opportunities in which to express their view. The Prime Minister is perfectly relaxed about the fact that they do."

No one was available at the Labour Party's national headquarters to discuss the ban.