What We Learned from the Spy Cops Bill

The government intends to wage a sustained attack on human rights in the coming years – and the Spy Cops Bill shows that we can't rely on Labour's leadership to fight back. It's time to build grassroots resistance.

Last week, the so-called ‘Spy Cops Bill’ – or, to give it its full title, the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill (CHIS) – was passed at its third reading in the House of Commons. The vote saw a modest Labour rebellion, with 34 of the party’s MPs, mostly from the Socialist Campaign Group, breaking the whip to oppose the bill.

A series of amendments were tabled and inevitably, given the large Tory majority, fell. As such, the bill that now heads to the House of Lords contains no requirement for a judicial warrant before certain state operatives (including such august bodies as the Food Standards Agency and the Gambling Commission as well as MI5, the police and various others) can break the law, no prohibition on undercover agents infiltrating trade unions, and no outright ban on these agents killing people in the course of their ‘duties’. 

Many lives have already been ruined, of course, by provocateur ‘spy cops’, and more will certainly follow. Even MPs from the Labour Party’s right wing and centre have themselves been targeted by state surveillance operations in the past: these include Harriet Harman, Jack Straw and Peter Hain, none of them radicals by any means, yet who were nonetheless spied on into the 1990s, well after their respective elections to Parliament.

The alarming civil liberties implications of CHIS have already been discussed at length, including by some right-wing outlets. What is clear is that this is a direct attack on the labour movement and allied campaigns, hampering their ability to pursue legitimate, non-violent objectives – so long as these are defined, nebulously, as contrary to Britain’s “economic well-being” or potentially conducive to crime or disorder. To the great shame of the Labour Party, and its leadership, 166 of its MPs waved it through once the amendments failed. 

In all likelihood, CHIS presages further attacks on the labour and trade union movement, and on democratic freedoms in general. In their 2019 manifesto, the Tories committed themselves to introducing an “update” of the Human Rights Act (HRA) following Brexit. The nature of this “update” remains unclear, and the Tory manifesto was coy about what it might entail, but the act has been in the party’s crosshairs for years.

This raises the question of what sort of a response we can expect from Keir Starmer’s Labour Party. Starmer’s token opposition to both the Overseas Operations Bill – another scurrilous piece of legislation, and one which would make it much harder to prosecute British services personnel for abuses committed abroad – and now CHIS strongly suggests that a principled, forthright defence will not be forthcoming.

Just as the economic and anti-poverty gains of the New Labour years were rapidly unravelled after 2010, so now the Tories, armed as they are with an 80-seat majority, are accelerating the unpicking of its human rights gains as well. What makes this all the more worrying is that the nominally liberal centre (which rapidly caved in to austerity) has so far been so unwilling to fight in defence of its own past achievements, both legislative and redistributive.

It is unlikely that a single wavering voter has been won back to the Labour Party by its abstentions on the two bills. The ‘Red Wall’ – one of the few places in the country with enduring trade union density – is hardly demanding that its unions be infiltrated as they were during the miners’ strike. If the Labour leadership was hoping that by abstaining it would avoid any Tory attacks on its patriotic credentials, it was – entirely predictably – mistaken.

By this point, then, Labour’s direction of political travel under its ‘new management’ seems clear enough. The party’s leadership hopes that by distancing itself from the trade unions, moving right on law and order (and in particular, anything in relation to state security), and abandoning any real pretence of anti-imperialism, Labour might be considered unthreatening enough to eventually be permitted a spell in office.

As a result, the defence of our ever-more-constrained democratic freedoms looks set to fall to the trade unions and the socialist left; the same people so commonly maligned as authoritarians and autocrats by the same centrists now hailing Keir Starmer as a master tactician for sitting on his hands. In fact, sitting on his hands is a charitable description – Labour MPs who rebelled and voted against the bill are being threatened with reprisals by the party whips.

Unite’s recent decision to reduce its affiliation to the Labour Party, and hence its funding, was met with raised eyebrows in some quarters. It has to be said, however, that subsequent events have only vindicated it. Why should any union uncritically bankroll a Labour Party that refuses to stand up for those of its members who’ve had their lives turned upside down by the state for legitimate trade union activity?

There are, no doubt, plenty of people on the Labour right who would be happy to see Unite disaffiliate altogether, being instinctively far more comfortable with the idea of chasing property developers and bankers for their money rather than accepting it from a left-wing trade union. For them, this would be a long wished-for dream scenario.

Likewise, it is doubtful that Starmer and his advisors will be losing any sleep at the thought of left-wing Labour members cancelling their Direct Debits. Rather than crudely purging members by going to the trouble of throwing them out, picking public fights such as these may be working much more effectively for the Labour right by demoralising socialist party members and prompting them to leave of their own volition.

Yet Starmer won his mandate to lead Labour (and a very clear one it was) on a platform of party unity; pledging in effect to retain the bulk of existing policy but complementing it with a more professional operation. Had he told Labour members after last December that as leader he’d demur to defend the rights of socialists and trade unionists not to be harassed by the state if it were politically inconvenient, it would have been a very different campaign.

Few can blame Labour leftists for feeling demoralised. But as Ilyas Nagdee has argued, the struggle to defend human rights and civil liberties is only beginning, and a broad front of socialists, trade unionists and social movement activists is needed. There is, unavoidably, an important struggle now to be had around these issues within the Labour Party itself – and we can’t afford to be browbeaten about it by soothsayers with their visions of election night 2024.