Spying on socialism

Almost six years after it was set up, the first phase of the Undercover Policing Inquiry – the Mitting Inquiry – finally took place for fourteen days from 2 November 2020. HANNAH SELL looks at the lessons to be learnt, and introduces the opening statement to the Inquiry made by the legal team for three Socialist Party members.

The first tranche of the Inquiry covered the formation of the ‘Special Demonstration Squad’ (SDS) in 1968, then known as the Special Operations Squad, and its activities up until 1972. The next phase, covering from 1973–1982, is due to take place in the spring of next year. The Inquiry as a whole, chaired by the retired judge Sir John Mitting, is expected to finish as late as 2026.

Moving at a snail’s pace the Inquiry is also not very public. Unlike other recent public inquiries the first phase was not livestreamed as demanded by core-participants. It has not released the names of the big majority of the organisations spied on, nor has it given us the real – or even the cover – names of the majority of spies. The ‘non-state core participants’ – those who were spied on – have in almost all cases still received none of the police files relevant to them. The SDS reported to MI5, the domestic secret security service, but the latter’s actions are not part of the Inquiry.

Even so, for anyone wanting to understand the role of the police and other state agencies the Inquiry has already provided valuable material. The callous sexism of undercover officers’ behaviour has been starkly revealed. “If you ask me to infiltrate some drug dealers, you can’t point the finger at me if I sample the product”, was how one ex-undercover officer giving evidence attempted to defend the widespread and highly-abusive practise of spycops having relationships with women while undercover. The previous attempts of the Metropolitan Police to argue that this practise was not sanctioned from the top have been completely discredited. More than thirty women are known to have been deceived in this way, the earliest from 1975.

The intertwining of the SDS and blacklisting organisations, resulting in thousands of trade unionists being unable to work, has also been confirmed. The Consulting Association was a secret body of most major construction firms which kept a blacklist of thousands of construction workers. The police’s internal spycops investigation, Operation Herne, produced a report which concluded that police, “including Special Branches and the Security Services, supplied information to the blacklist funded by the country’s major construction firms, The Consulting Association”. Beyond the construction industry the Special Branch Industrial Unit was set up in 1970 “with the aim of monitoring trade unionists from teaching to the docks”. This was effectively a resource for employers: a government-funded national blacklist of trade union activists.

Most illuminating, however, is the central justification that the various police and state barristers gave for their actions.  About individual instances they are willing to admit – now – that many were pointless. The second woman to be recruited to the SDS, for example, wrote reports on the Women’s Liberation Front’s plans to bake for a children’s Christmas party and to hold a jumble sale. Both reports were copied to MI5 but, giving evidence to the Inquiry, the ex-spycop had to admit that her work had “not really yielded any good intelligence”.

Unconvincing attempts were made to deny that the SDS had ever set out to infiltrate black justice and family campaigns, often grieving the death of a family member at the hands of the police or racist gangs. They could not deny that they had been spied on, however – including Stephen Lawrence’s family. The Home Office described them as victims of “collateral collection of intelligence”.

Fear of revolution

But the right to spy on the left was vociferously defended. SDS was set up specifically in response to the anti-Vietnam war movement. Without exception the legal representatives of different state agencies justified this on the grounds of fearing revolution. As a barrister for the spycops put it, “1968 was marked by an upsurge in unrest and disorder: the Prague Spring and the subsequent Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; near-revolution in France; student protests across Europe”.  The Inquiry’s Queen’s Counsel (QC – senior barrister) concluded “there were fears, in official circles, that the same was occurring in London and could grow out of hand”.

The SDS was founded as a result of fear of revolution and its brief was to counter “subversion”. The Inquiry’s QC pointed out that the security services at the time were functioning under the 1952 ‘Maxwell Fyfe Directive’ which declared that their job was to protect the country from “persons or organisations” that might be “judged to be subversive of the state”. He explained that the definition of subversive activities written into the Secret Services Instruction Manual, under which he claimed SDS operated, was “those which threaten the safety or wellbeing of the state and which are intended to undermine or overthrow parliamentary democracy by political, industrial or violent means”.

What would be the overthrow of parliamentary democracy by ‘political’ means? Clearly as far as the security services were concerned, it included the policies of Militant (now the Socialist Party) which aims to build mass support for a socialist programme – meaning the nationalisation of the major corporations and banks that dominate the economy, allowing the development of a socialist planned economy allied to a massive extension of democracy.

Marxists point out that the capitalist state is not neutral, but ultimately acts to defend the interests of the ruling class. The Inquiry confirms in every detail that this was the role of the SDS. Almost all of the organisations infiltrated by spy cops were on the left.

It seems that Militant, now the Socialist Party, was mainly spied on directly by M15, rather than the SDS. No doubt this was because we organised effective mass struggles that took on and defeated Thatcher’s government – including in the leadership of Liverpool city council and then spearheading the poll tax non-payment campaign. Whistle-blower David Shayler reported to the Socialist newspaper in 2001 that, when he first started working for MI5’s counter-subversion unit in 1992, Militant’s headquarters were bugged. In their book, Defending the Realm, partly based on interviews with Shayler, Mark Hollingsworth and Nick Fielding estimate that there were 30 MI5 agents within Militant in the same period. The exclusion of MI5 agents from the Inquiry means that nothing is likely to be revealed on their infiltration of Militant or other workers’ movement organisations.

Spycops in the Socialist Party

In addition, however, we also had our own ‘spycops’. The whistle blowing of one of them, Peter Francis, was one of the catalysts for the Inquiry being instigated. Starting in 1993 he infiltrated Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE) and Militant over several years. As a result Lois Austin and I, then national officers of YRE, were granted core-participant status. In addition Socialist Party member Dave Nellist is a core-participant – as a BBC documentary had already revealed back in 2002 that the West Midlands police spied on him, at the behest of M15, when he was the Labour MP for Coventry South East from 1983 to 1992. An edited version of our legal team’s opening statement to the Inquiry follows this article.

Correctly the statement makes demands on the Inquiry to “end all political policing” and for “a police force which is democratically controlled and accountable to the communities that they should be serving”. There is no prospect of this being the result of the Inquiry, however. The Opening Statement for the Metropolitan Police declared that “undercover policing continues to be a vital and sometimes the only way of combating crime and protecting the safety and security of the general public”. Their lawyers attempted to disguise the reality of this statement by referring to the role of undercover policing in combatting crimes including “drugs dealing, firearms dealing, contract killing” and more. This was a complete diversion as even they do not attempt to accuse the organisations SDS infiltrated of being involved in such crimes, and undercover officers tasked with uncovering serious crime are part of another department not dealt with by the Inquiry.

The real meaning of the Met Police position was clear from what followed, where their QC highlighted the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill, the ‘Spy Cops Bill’ currently in parliament, and specifically that it allowed spying for the purposes of “preventing disorder, or in the interests of the economic wellbeing of the United Kingdom”. The bill does not only give legal cover for spying by state agents in general, but would also explicitly protect them if they commit crimes while under cover.

The QC for the Home Office followed up by declaring that “subversion was a real phenomenon in the 1970s and 1980s; and it is still a real phenomenon now”. Referring to the past, he went on: “It follows from the fact that the main threat to public order resided with political and protest groups and that the main source of subversion was political and protest groups that there was a great deal of overlap between the work of the SDS and MI5”.

It is very clear that, as far as the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police are concerned, it remains justified to infiltrate organisations because they organise mass protests, or strikes, that threaten the profits – or ‘economic wellbeing’ – of sections of the capitalist class, or more broadly because they are popularising a socialist programme.

It is true that – while defending their right to continue spying on the left – the lawyers for various state agencies also argued that after the collapse of Stalinism, the “far left became of less interest to MI5 and the SDS”. Defending the Realm also says that MI5 infiltration of Militant and other socialist organisations decreased markedly from the mid-1990s. It is probably true that, in the period of capitalist hubris that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, their temporary confidence in the seeming triumph of their system did lead to a lessening of their fear of the left.

That era is long past, however. Capitalism is in its worst crisis since the 1930s. Discontent at the existing order is on the rise and with it a growing interest in socialist ideas. There is no doubt that, among the tools the capitalist class uses to defend its system, spy cops and their ilk will continue to feature. As in the past, however, they will ultimately be able to do nothing to stop the growing success of the socialist movement but, by reporting on it, will only increase the fears of their masters that their system’s days are numbered.