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The secret state is out of control: our privacy and freedom is threatened

big-brother-1984In recent days a whistle blower has revealed that I was under surveillance by Special Branch in the nineteen eighties and nineties. I cannot say it comes as a complete surprise. Ever since the beginnings of the Labour movement, the state has made use of spies and informers. The recent revelations have been specifically about ten Members of Parliament. But I imagine that many readers of Left Futures have a Special Branch file somewhere as a result of their activities on the left or in their trade union.

When the issue was debated in parliament, there was stress on the fact that for the Special Branch to continue keep left activists under surveillance once they were members of parliament was a clear breach of parliamentary privilege. As the Guardian newspaper put it: 

this is both a grotesque breach of police power and a grave intrusion on the privilege of elected MPs, a privilege that exists to allow them to be guardians of their constituents’ freedoms”.

And, as I pointed out in that debate, it was also a clear intrusion on the campaigns that I was involved in, notable the Stephen Lawrence campaign. I was the first person to raise the Stephen Lawrence campaign in parliament. Far from trying to undermine democracy, I was trying to strengthen our democratic system by giving a voice to the Lawrence campaign and others who did not think that they had a voice. The Guardian has also pointed out:

But this is not just a matter of history. Last year, we reported that the activities of the Green party peer and former London mayoral candidate Jenny Jones had been monitored for more than a decade by the Metropolitan police, and her records kept on a database set up to track the activities of domestic extremists. The police were unable – or perhaps unwilling – to say how many other politicians they were monitoring. There is also confusion around the protection MPs have under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. Successive regulators have argued that now that all interception requires a warrant, there are sufficient safeguards. Then it emerges that communications between prisoners and their MPs have been recorded.”

However this is not just about parliamentary privilege. The fundamental question is why should the state keep anyone under surveillance, who is not suspected of planning a crime, just because they are political dissenters? During the Cold War the police and the security services obviously got into habit of monitoring the left and trade unionists, on the pretext that they might be involved with a “foreign power” But this practise has increasingly been abused: with under cover policemen taking the identities of dead babies and engaging in long term sexual relationships with female activists only to disappear leaving the women involved traumatised.  

I am demanding to see my Special Branch file. And, even more important, I want to know who authorised the surveillance of myself and others and on what grounds? With the rise of the internet and the Edward Snowden revelations it has become increasingly clear that the “secret state” has got out of control. But we need to return to first principles. Ordinary citizens should have an expectation of privacy.  Yet it seems currently that shadowy figures can authorise the surveillance of citizens either by spying at meetings, listening to their phone calls or intercepting their emails. We need accountability and an end to a state that spies on its citizens merely because they are suspected of being political dissenters   


  1. gerry says:

    Good article – I am sure all of us who were even vaguely on the left in the 70s and 80s especially have our own personalised Special Branch files, and indeed would be really disappointed if I didn’t have such a file…good luck in getting access to your own, but I think this ties in with the even more serious worker blacklisting that was (maybe still is) rife back then, with so many decent trade unionists and others secretly prevented from even getting employment in many areas, maybe even the public sector too.

    And Diane – you know that recently police informers were revealed as having infiltrated groups like Defend Education and Defend Council Housing, a testament, in fact, to those groups’ effectiveness that they so scare the establishment! So we also need to know – who decides who gets surveilled and infiltrated? How far up the po!ice/minister and security service hierarchy does the decision making go?

    Don’t get me wrong – the security services should rightly be targeting those who threaten us all in the UK, i.e Islamic extremist groups violent and nonviolent, Nazi and Neo Nazi groups, Irish Republican terror groups etc…but the focus on left groups or environmental groups or animal rights groups and trade unionists has always been unjustified and unfair, even today.

  2. David Pavett says:

    This is a really important issue and I hope that Diane Abbott and others will keep it alive. This stuff was going on under Labour governments. Labour MP’s were being spied on under Labour administrations. Who was in control? Who sanctioned these actions. If it was government ministers then we need to now that. If it was not then we need to know why not.

    I hope that there will be a team of Labour MPs (and MPs from other parties if they wish to join in) in the next Parliament who will make a nuisance of themselves (it is certain that it will require that) to get some answers to the many questions raised.

    I hope too that Diane Abbott will let us know from time to time on Left Futures how the work on this is going.

    1. Billericaydickie says:

      What I can’t understand is why Ms Abbott was considered subversive. She has always talked rubbish. It could be that in the seventies like people such as Darcus Howe she espoused a black revolution and killing white people but, like Howe, she didn’t mean it and was only there for the money.

        1. gerry says:

          Billericay Dickie – Diane Abbott never “espoused black revolution and killing white people” – that is your twisted rewrite of 70s history. Darcus Howe might have said things like that though – he had a reputation for thuggish hyperbole and overblown “revolutionary” rhetoric. But you – and John Reid – should take her article seriously if you really are on the left or a progressive . Why?

          Because the security services wasted time and millions of pounds targeting left wingers and trade unionists when the real threat to the UK was never “communism” but was and still is Islam’s many fascists, Nazi and neo Nazi groups, and the myriad Irish republican terror groups.

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