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Special branch ‘political police’ spied on Wapping leaders

Reports unearthed by SOLOMON HUGHES show “anti-violence” officers kept secret files on union chiefs and MPs who dared to support striking printers

JUST how much did the Police Special Branch spy on trade unionists, campaigners and members of Parliament?

Former undercover officer turned whistleblower Peter Francis says he collected data for files on MPs including Diane Abbott, Jeremy Corbyn and the late Bernie Grant.

This month Professor Keith Ewing and his fellow researchers revealed in the Morning Star (M Star April 12) how their research in the archives showed an incredible level of Special Branch spying on one minor trade unionist.

Special Branch pestered Bert Edwards, a regional secretary in a car makers’ union — including spying on his kids and warning employers off giving him a job — from the 1930s to the ’50s. If the secret police spies could pursue Edwards, a good man with a small role, then logically they must be spying on many more activists.

I can take some of the same story into the ’80s.

In 1986 Rupert Murdoch locked out 6,000 printworkers by moving all of News International’s press operations to a new, fortified printing plant and newspaper offices in London’s docklands. Demonstrations and pickets by printers and their supporters took place outside the plant for around a year before the dispute died out.

In 2005 I asked for “Special Branch files relating to the Wapping dispute between the Print Unions and News International.” 

The Metropolitan Police gave me the 215-page file, which includes regular — often daily — reports of the picketing and demonstrations by Special Branch officers.

It shows how the police “anti-terror” squad monitored Labour MPs and trade union leaders. The papers very strongly suggest Special Branch had files on trade union leaders, and that they may have had files on MPs including John Prescott.

A typical “special report” covers the TUC-Labour Party “Joint May Day” March and Rally near the Wapping plant.

The Special Branch report describes the numbers of marchers and variety of political organisations involved.

It includes full reports of speeches by Ron Mates, then-MP John Prescott and trade unionists like Jim Knapp of the National Union of Railwaymen and Ken Cameron of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU).

The Special Branch undercover cops write that: “John Prescott MP spoke as both shadow spokesman on employment and as a representative of the National Union of Seamen. He pointed out that the NHS had given the miners total backing during their strike, and could always be relied on to show such solidarity. He then castigated government trade union legislation and said that everyone present must work and vote for the return of a Labour government at the next general election if the balance was to be redressed.”

The other speeches are reported in a similar level of detail, including the fact that “Ron Mates MP castigated Rupert Murdoch and suggested that such a man, being a United States citizen, should be deported.

He called upon all trade unionists to halt distribution of News International publications, and prevent movement of newsprint and ink. He said that in his opinion SOGAT, NGA [the print unions] were making too many concessions to News International in their negotiations.”

The report has an appendix B listing those who “were speakers at the rally,” with their names checked against a column marked “SB(R).”

This means their names are being checked against the Special Branch registry, the place where individual files were kept.

This little bit of admin shows the union leaders definitely had files, but is a bit more ambiguous about the MPs. Jim Knapp of the National Union of Railwaymen, Ken Cameron of the FBU and Ben Rubner of the Furniture, Timber and Allied Trades Union all have redacted text (blacked out text) under the SB(R) column, showing they had file numbers — and hence files. The two MPs are listed as “MP” in the SB(R) column, which may or may not have meant they have files.

In a report of an another demo, Special Branch note Tony Benn talking about the “butchery practiced by the police,” and the presence of Tony Banks MP.

A March 17 “Special Branch threat assessment” report shows that Special Branch took a very political view of the MPs, accusing them of encouraging violence. It talks about an “increasingly held view that the cause is lost” for the Wapping strikers.

It added: “It is this sense of ‘hopelessness’ which drives many of the strikers present to vent their frustration against the police and the sparks of violent confrontation so generated are then fanned by factions of the left who may be relied upon to exploit such conflagrations for their cynical propaganda purposes in which they receive much able, and valuable, assistance from members of Parliament and other prominent political figures of a similar persuasion, some of whom are known regularly to attend the Saturday pickets in the role of ‘observers’.”

The government like to maintain that the Special Branch dealt with “political violence” and “subversion”. The latter is a handily vague concept. But in reality Special Branch often acted as political police, spying on perfectly legal forms of protest and trade union activity — and even on MPs.

It tried to cover all kinds of “illegitimate” activity under the blanket of “national security.” It is important to note that they were not fighting crime, but political challenges to the Establishment.

Indeed there is a strong evidence they actually covered up crime. While some Special Branch officers spied on MPs at Wapping, other Special Branch officers helped quash regular police inquiries into then-MP Cyril Smith’s sexual abuse of young lads.

In a bizarre twist, while the Metropolitan Police did release these Wapping files to me in 2005, they have since refused all requests from other people for copies of the files, for “national security” reasons. They were not secret in 2005, but they are in 2015.


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