SHADOW financial secretary Dan Carden MP’s resignation from Labour’s front bench sounds a warning signal, not only to the Labour and trade union movement, which is the traditional target of the secret state, but to everyone concerned about civil liberties.
The MP for Walton on Merseyside told Sir Keir Starmer that he planned to vote against the party whip and would oppose the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill “as a matter of conscience.”
When he said that he feared the government’s latest legislation would establish “dangerous new precedents,” he was putting the question as gently as possible.
That agencies of the British state feel able to conduct clandestine operations without bothering overmuch about the legality or otherwise of their actions is so much an established fact of political life that it is the commonplace stuff of films, TV series and books of varying literary and artistic merit.
In many cases art reflects and imitates real life rather exactly. So much so indeed that we can properly regard the buildings of MI5 and MI6 — respectively the domestic and foreign arms of the secret capitalist state that face each other across the River Thames — as two branches of a malign ministry of mimesis.
It is hard to imagine the reasoning in Labour’s leadership that resulted in Labour MPs being ordered to abstain when the Bill reappears in the Commons.
The law authorises and indemnifies undercover state agents and informers to commit crimes as part of their work.
Only an innocent satisfied by government assurances — that the law compels MI5 officers and others to demonstrate that any crime committed was “necessary and proportionate” — and that a senior judge will oversee these processes would rest easy.
A sizeable body of MPs of all parties are unhappy about the law but the official opposition position is that if Labour’s rather modest amendments to the Bill fall it should not be opposed in its final Commons stages.
Drawing on the extensive experience trade unionists have of the secret state’s subversion of legitimate trade union activity, Unite the Union criticised the Bill, arguing that there is a “well-documented history of state surveillance of lawful trade union activity and justice campaigns in recent years.”
Carden’s father Mike was a shop steward during the Liverpool dock dispute during the 1990s and was out of work for seven years after being sacked for refusing to cross a picket line.
When workers argue that state surveillance and subversion is not simply a historical question, of proven blacklist and persecution, but a threat to future trade union activity, they give voice to a realistic expectation that a capitalist state, especially in an era of neoliberalism, can be expected to continue its surveillance and subversion of anyone who resists.
Indeed there is ample precedent. In 1949 Pathe News proudly informed the nation’s cinema audiences that that year’s national docks dispute — when employers locked out thousands of workers after Liverpool dockers refused to unload a ship whose crew was in dispute over pay — was being investigated by MI5 as “communist inspired.”
The new MI5 director, himself with 25 years service, some of it seconded to industry, says Britain is facing a “nasty mix” of national security threats, including hostile state activity by Russia and China and right-wing terrorism.
Of course, trade unionists, “communist inspired” or not, are not the only targets of the secret state, but only the hopelessly naive would believe that state agencies play by one set of rules when dealing with terrorists or foreign states deemed hostile — and another confronted by what Margaret Thatcher called “the enemy within.”
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