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As a Blacklisted Worker, Labour’s Spy Cops Abstention Was a Betrayal

Last night – with a handful of honourable exceptions – the Labour Party abstained on the Spy Cops Bill. Dave Smith, a blacklisted worker and victim of spying, explains why the vote was a betrayal of the labour movement.

As one of the blacklisted construction workers spied on by undercover political policing units, I have heard the acronym CHIS on many occasions over the past few years – usually by well-paid police lawyers defending the ‘spy cops’ who stood on our picket lines.

CHIS is the official terminology for a British state spy, covering anyone from MI5 and Special Branch officers who keep political activists under surveillance to police informants, referred to as ‘agents.’ But I imagine most people reading this article only heard the term for the first time yesterday when the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill got its second reading in parliament.

If passed into law, the Spy Cops Bill would allow the police and the security services to commit crimes against anyone in the UK without fear of facing prosecution. There is nothing in the proposed law explicitly limiting which crimes are permitted; thereby providing blanket immunity from prosecution even for crimes such as murder, torture and rape. This has inevitably led to human rights groups such as Amnesty calling the proposed legislation a ‘Licence to Kill Bill.’

During last night’s debate, government minister James Brokenshire argued that there was no need for any concerns because the police and security services were subject to the Human Rights Act. He failed to mention that rabid members of Johnson’s right-wing government have long called for the Human Rights Act to be scrapped – or the fact that the government itself argued to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal that it does not apply to covert agents.

In addition, there is no legal oversight required for the state spies within the bill. It only requires an individual officer to believe that committing a crime is warranted. This is less than is required for the police to search your house or tap your phone. The proposed law will cover all undercover political police and MI5 officers, plus state informants, including children coerced by police to gather intelligence on genuinely dangerous criminals.

Undercover police spied on members of the Blacklist Support Group because of our trade union, anti-fascist and political activism. Carlo Soracchi, an undercover officer from the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), who turned up on our picket lines, has been accused by activists of inciting them to commit arson. Former head of the SDS, Bob Lambert MBE has been named in parliament by Caroline Lucas as the person responsible for planting the incendiary device that resulted in Debenhams in Harrow being burnt to the ground in 1987.

Operation Reuben, the police’s own internal investigation, has concluded that Special Branch, the security services and other political policing units provided intelligence to blacklisting organisations the Economic League and Consulting Association. The state colluded in the unlawful blacklisting of trade union members. Workers were repeatedly denied work: many defaulted on their mortgages and, on some tragic occasions, blacklisted workers committed suicide.

The documented history of state involvement in high profile cases in Northern Ireland, such as the murders of lawyer Pat Finucane, journalist Martin O’Hagan and musicians from the Miami Show Band provides an insight into the dangers of the Spy Cops Bill being passed. In many cases, state informants were allowed to literally get away with murder because they were protected by police and security services.

Dame Nuala O’Loan, the former Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland has publicly stated that MI5, Special Branch or RUC officers “operated outside the rules” and were responsible for the deaths of “hundreds and hundreds of people.” New evidence emerges in these cases on a regular basis – only last month a documentary, Unquiet Graves, aired on Irish public television alleging that British military intelligence encouraged a Loyalist hitsquad to attack a Catholic primary school.

Despite how they like to portray themselves, the spy cops are not James Bond-like figures defending the country from lawlessness. They are themselves a source of lawlessness, and their anti-democratic activities have for many years made working-class, migrant and BAME communities, as well as women and LGBT people, far less safe.

They are sent to spy on the families of racist murder victims, such as the parents of Stephen Lawrence and Ricky Reel. They manipulate young female activists into long-term sexual relationships to bolster their false identities; this misogynistic behaviour sanctioned by senior officers has been described as ‘state-sponsored rape’ by the women targeted.

The political police infiltrated environmental groups trying to save the planet, social justice campaigns such as the Anti-Apartheid Movement and Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and unions representing firefighters, miners and construction workers which were campaigning against deaths on building sites. They have also spied on justice campaigns for victims of police violence – such as Blair Peach, killed at an anti-racist demo in 1979, and Jean Charles de Menezes.

Blacklist Support Group is proud to stand alongside our sister organisations such as Police Spies out of Lives, Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance and the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign which have been fighting to expose the truth about the anti-democratic activity of the political policing units. For the past five years we have been involved in a war of attrition against the slow motion establishment cover-up which is the spy cops public inquiry.

Police have destroyed warehouses worth of evidence and Judge Mitting has granted anonymity to the vast majority of the undercover officers accused of wrongdoing. The proposed bill would allow all future undercover state surveillance to commit serious criminality with total impunity, throwing a forcefield over future human rights scandals by agencies of the state.

It is, in short, a spy cops’ wet dream. Anyone who wants to stop the slow drift to an authoritarian state should oppose this dangerous legislation.

Some Labour MPs made their name as human rights lawyers. You might expect them to be vociferous in their condemnation of this proposed law. But last night, with the honourable exception of 20 or so members of the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs, the Parliamentary Labour Party abstained on the Spy Cops Bill.

We have now been told that the PLP intends to table amendments at the next reading. But the idea that this bill can be amended into something useful is beyond any credibility.

If the complete and utter shambles at Westminster before the last general election taught us anything, it is that most people couldn’t give a toss about supposedly sophisticated parliamentary manoeuvring. We see a bigger picture and ask ourselves: which side are you on?