20 Days Remaining

Wednesday 16th
posted by Morning Star in Features

We need a united front against state snooping, writes BRIAN RYE

IT was George Orwell who first coined the phrase “Big Brother is watching you.” For ordinary trade unionists, that phrase has been proved to be all too true.

In recent months evidence has slowly been unearthed that members of the now notorious Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), a unit of the Metropolitan Police, were involved in spying on trade unionists.

Earlier this year Ucatt revealed how Mark Jenner, a member of the SDS, infiltrated the union. He was a member from 1996 to 1998, paying his subscription by direct debit.

Jenner had assumed the name and identity Mark Cassidy. He claimed to be a joiner living in Hackney, east London. During this time Cassidy inveigled himself into many left-wing groups, including some involved in union issues, and had a long-term relationship with one of the female activists he met.

While it is disturbing enough that the police infiltrated unions and were spying on workers involved in entirely legal activities, there is a far more sinister aspect to these revelations.

This relates to the blacklisting of construction activists, involving virtually all the major contractors in the industry, under the auspices of an organisation called the Consulting Association.

There is clear evidence that information on the files of workers who were blacklisted by the Consulting Association came from the police.

The raid which shut down the Consulting Association — ironically for failing to register as a data controller — was undertaken by the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Its investigations manager Dave Clancy has gone on record to confirm the police’s involvement in ruining workers’ lives.

He told an employment tribunal: “There is information on the Consulting Association’s files that I believe could only be supplied by the police or the security forces.”

Jenner was certainly not a lone wolf. Shortly after Ucatt’s revelations, another former member of the SDS, Peter Francis, who has turned whistleblower, stated that as well spying on activists in construction unions he was also involved in spying on members of the NUT, CWU, FBU and National Union of Students.

These revelations are probably the tip of the iceberg. It is likely that other SDS officers were involved in spying on trade unionists.

However, despite making a series of freedom of information requests, our campaign to find the truth has been blocked, with the Metropolitan Police constantly “refusing to confirm or deny” our questions, often on the grounds of “national security.”

The SDS has become so notorious that Home Secretary Theresa May has been forced to launch a public inquiry, chaired by Lord Justice Pitchford, into its activities.

It would seem natural, given the revelations about police infiltration of trade unions and given that information from these operations almost certainly ended up on the files of an illegal organisation, that blacklisting would be one of his lines of inquiry.

However the silence on this matter has been deafening. Neither Pitchford nor May have ever said whether the SDS’s involvement in the blacklisting scandal will form part of the inquiry, or if these disturbing revelations will be quietly swept under the carpet.

Therefore everyone affected by the blacklisting scandal, including the TUC, needs to be placing as much pressure and presenting as much evidence as possible to force Pitchford’s hand.

The SDS was not the only Met Police unit linked to the Consulting Association. In 2008, a year before it was closed down, detective chief inspector of the National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit Gordon Mills gave a presentation to the Consulting Association.

It is difficult to believe that the Met was the only police force involved in spying on trade unionists.

It is likely that other forces also embarked on similar methods, especially during entirely legitimate industrial disputes.

Since the blacklisting scandal was first revealed in 2009, more and more information has slowly come to light. However it is clear that we will not have the full truth about how and why the lives of construction workers were destroyed, without a full public inquiry.

Even if Pitchford does examine the SDS role in blacklisting, it is no substitute for a full inquiry, which will be able to properly examine the role of the construction companies in blacklisting workers and also discover which other sections of the state were involved in this disgusting practice.

For instance, given the length of time of the Consulting Association’s existence, the scale of the blacklisting operation and the close relationship between the Conservative Party and the industry, it is difficult to believe that no-one in government was aware of what was occurring.

If they weren’t aware, then answers are still needed about on whose say-so sensitive and private information about trade union members was passed to the blacklisters.

That is why the debate this week on police surveillance is so important, in order for the guilty to realise that this issue is not going away.

Lives were ruined, people’s fundamental rights were ignored and the police, who are meant to be dealing with criminality, were spying on law-abiding trade unionists.

The entire labour movement led by the TUC must show a united front and demonstrate that we will do whatever it takes to find the truth, get justice for the victims and make sure that the police can never again operate in this way.

• Brian Rye is National Secretary of Ucatt.