Earlier this week, the ‘spy cops’ bill passed its first stage in Parliament. This was helped along by Keir Starmer whipping Labour MPs to abstain.
Officially known as the Covert Human Intelligence Sources bill, the new laws – if passed – would give a green light to police and secret service infiltration of trade union and left-wing groups, with legal immunity for serious crimes committed as part of undercover ‘operations’.
This episode follows on from the recent passing of the Overseas Operations bill. Similarly, this will give the forces of the state immunity against crimes committed – in this case, immunity for the actions of the British military abroad, such as torture.
This evening MPs are voting on the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill.— Zarah Sultana MP (@zarahsultana) October 5, 2020
The Bill would allow undercover agents to commit murder, torture and sexual violence. It would mean victims of scandals like Spy Cops would be denied justice in the future.
I am voting against this Bill.
It is little surprise that the Tory government are pressing these anti-civil liberties bills at this time. On the one hand, such laws strengthen the capitalist state, helping to secure the interests of the bosses, both at home and internationally.
At the same time, they provide a useful distraction from the Conservatives’ chaotic handling of the pandemic, allowing the Tories to whip up a mood of jingoism and present themselves as the party of ‘Queen and Country’.
On the other hand, the government also knows that they can now rely on Starmer and the Labour Party – with their recent and explicit ‘patriotism’ turn – to provide little opposition.
Instead of helping the Tories to pass such repressive laws, the Labour leaders should be mobilising the labour movement to fight these measures, which will no doubt be used against workers and their organisations.
Police and secret service infiltrators are not a new issue for left wing groups. Research by the Guardian suggests that of the one thousand groups infiltrated by the police in the last 50 years, only three were linked to the far-right.
State spies have been responsible for many scandals during this time. Undercover police agents, for example, have helped the bosses with their blacklisting of workers in the construction industry. And some have even formed sexual relationships with female members of left-wing groups in order to delve deeper into these organisations.
It should also be pointed out that infiltrators committing crimes without facing justice is not a new phenomenon. The role of British state spies in numerous murders during the ‘Troubles’ in Ireland is well known. Even David Cameron was forced to apologise after evidence of collusion with some murders emerged.
The bill itself will give certain authorities power to authorise law-breaking where necessary and proportionate “in the interests of national security, preventing or detecting crime or disorder, or the economic well-being of the UK”.
The list of authorities is so extensive that it even gives power to the Food Standards Agency and the Competition and Markets Authority!
It is also telling that the bill allows spies to commit crime to protect “economic well-being” – i.e. to protect the interests of British capitalism.
It is not hard to see how these provisions will be used in relation to trade unions, striking workers, and groups such as Extinction Rebellion, which have often been accused of causing economic damage.
The bill passed its first stage, with only 20 left Labour MPs voting against. All other Labour MPs followed the whip and abstained. Those voting against the bill included Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Bell Ribeiro-Addy, Zarah Sultana, and Apsana Begum.
Shame on Labour's frontbench for failing to give a lead on this.— Steve Howell (@FromSteveHowell) October 6, 2020
It's not as if we don't know about #spycops raping women, infiltrating the Stephen Lawrence campaign, colluding in a lawyer's assassination and aiding the blacklisting of trade unionists.https://t.co/Ely2OxgDp4
The Socialist Campaign Group of MPs have tabled amendments to try to remove the worst excesses from the bill. These include removing the “economic well-being” justification; preventing trade unions from being subject to the measures; and preventing authorisation of serious crimes, such as murder.
We should be clear, however: it is not certain excesses of the bill that are at fault, but the entire concept of state spying on left-wing groups.
Fighting the bill
With capitalism in a deep crisis, and a tidal wave of austerity and attacks looming, it is no surprise that the ruling class are attempting to legalise their infiltration tactics.
The bosses and Tories know that the class struggle is set to sharpen in the period ahead. The establishment are therefore preparing to use every tactic at their disposal to repress any opposition from workers, and to prop up their system.
Trade unions, anti-fascist groups, environmental activists, and other left-wing organisations have long faced infiltration and intimidation by the forces of the capitalist state.
It is damning that only a handful of Labour MPs have demonstrated a willingness to fight against such state repression. Grassroots activists from Labour Party and trade unions must mobilise to ensure that their leaders stand up and fight back.