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Editorial Spycops and class collaboration: lessons in state power

LABOUR MP John Spellar must address questions over his possible role in meetings with Thatcher’s cabinet minister Norman Tebbit during the 1980s when he was political officer at scab union EETPU.

Lord Tebbit’s recent admissions on the scale of state spying on trade unionists – including that he was briefed in detail on their private lives – come as the power of state agents is increasing.

The government has already passed legislation – the so-called Spycops Act – allowing a wide range of state agencies to authorise personnel to break the law if doing so advances various loosely defined causes (such as maintaining “economic wellbeing”).

It has paused, but remains committed to, legislation criminalising peaceful protest.

Recent police behaviour – the shocking violence meted out to protesters in Bristol as well as the disgraceful manhandling of women marking a vigil for a woman murdered, almost certainly by a police officer, that took place in Clapham – demonstrate how dangerous unaccountable power in the hands of the police can be.

Avon and Somerset Police have retracted claims made following earlier clashes in Bristol that officers had suffered broken bones and a punctured lung. The claims were untrue.

This is not at all unusual. Police forces up and down the country have a long history of mendacious claims. 

We might recall the smears against innocent electrician Jean Charles de Menezes, executed by the Metropolitan Police in 2005 in an operation overseen by current Commissioner Cressida Dick. And the lies told about the death of newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson after he was shoved to the ground by officers at a protest in 2009. 

Further back, the false stories fed to the press about the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, or – in the news last week – the destruction of witness statements that helped send the Shrewsbury pickets to prison in the 1970s.

What unites all these cases is the basic fact that we cannot trust the police. Evidence of police dishonesty is far too widespread. 

Law which gives police additional powers to define criminality – the paused policing Bill leaves it to the police’s judgement whether a protester is causing sufficient “annoyance” to be acting criminally – is exceptionally dangerous.

And we know these powers are used politically. The vindication of the Shrewsbury pickets last week confirmed what they had said all along: their convictions were a political stitch-up.

Lord John Hendy QC points out that we have learned during the Undercover Policing Inquiry that the Shrewsbury Two defence committee, which campaigned for the release from prison of Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson, was “penetrated” by police. 

In fact we are aware of widespread police infiltration of entirely legal campaign groups and trade unions, as well as appalling abuse carried out in the course of such activities, most notoriously the deception of women into long-term sexual relationships, some of which resulted in children. 

The questions the Blacklist Support Group asks of Spellar refer to the related issue of trade unionists providing the government with secret briefings on their supposed comrades. The more light that can be shed on the extent of class collaboration during a decade that saw a ferocious, and largely successful, war on British trade unionism, permanently weakening the labour movement, the better.

But the ultimate lesson is again one of trust. Many on the left have had their eyes opened in recent years by the manoeuvres of the media and the supposedly neutral state to discredit former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, learning that Britain is not the healthy democracy, complete with free press, that it pretends to be.

The extent of state infiltration of the labour movement is another lesson in the anti-democratic character of the British state, and its intrinsic hostility to working-class organisation.

That has to inform everything we do as trade unionists and, in the first instance, unite us in resistance to Tory laws making security forces more unaccountable than ever.

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