ONLY a couple of years ago, when the Blacklist Support Group (BSG) first started talking about police collusion in the Consulting Association (CA) blacklisting conspiracy, we were viewed as lunatic conspiracy theorists. One Blairite shadow minister once told me that we were “joining the dots,” inventing something that wasn’t really there. That undercover police infiltrated unions to spy on activists is now such mainstream knowledge that TUC Congress is debating the issue today.
Between 1996-98, Special Demonstration Squad officer Mark Jenner was a paid-up member of Ucatt under his false name Mark Cassidy. He attended Hackney branch and even chaired rank-and-file campaign meetings. I stood next to him on numerous picket lines. In 2008 DCI Gordon Mills from another police spying unit the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit (NETCU), gave a Powerpoint presentation at one of the illegal TCA meetings and agreed a “two-way exchange” of information.
Ex-undercover cop turned whistleblower Peter Francis has admitted spying on the family of Stephen Lawrence. It was this revelation that led to Teresa May setting up the Pitchford inquiry into undercover policing. But Francis also admits spying on activists from the construction unions, RMT, CWU, Unison, NUT and FBU, sometimes under instruction from the Home Office and MI5.
Blacklisting is not a conspiracy theory: it is a real-life human rights conspiracy between construction employers and the police against trade unions. In any major industrial dispute the state is not neutral, it is always on the side of big business. For the Britain’s political police units, deploying spies to disrupt perfectly legal union action is standard procedure. This is hardly a shock revelation to anyone involved in the miners’ strike, Shrewsbury, Grunwick, Cammell Laird or Wapping. All of which now have evidence about agents provocateurs and infiltration by undercover police or the security services. Yet the remit drawn up by Teresa May for Pitchford makes no reference to unions or blacklisting whatsoever. We cannot allow this to stand. The full undemocratic scandal needs to be exposed.
We know that the police spied on us. We even know that this intelligence was supplied to blacklisting organisations and major employers. In response to a complaint by the BSG back in 2013, the Independent Police Complaints Commission told our lawyers “that it was likely that all special branches were involved in providing information about potential employees.”
What we don’t know for certain is the full extent or the level of political oversight. No-one is suggesting that any of the undercover officers personally handed over intelligence to the blacklisting companies. The most likely method of transfer is via the “industrial section” of Special Branch, which is specifically tasked to spy on trade unions and supply information to employers. Senior industrial relations managers involved in blacklisting have openly admitted that meeting and sharing information with Special Branch was a routine part of their jobs.
The Pitchford inquiry should carry out a comparative study between CA blacklist files and intelligence held on the Special Branch registry files and the NETCU database. But there are other serious questions that need to be answered. What is the remit for the Special Branch industrial section? Do they liase with the public sector as well as private business? How widespread is the practice of supplying information about workers to industry? Which directors of blacklisting firms, HR managers or even trade union officials are recorded as informants?
The first major difficulty will be that vast stores of evidence have already been destroyed by the police. The Met Police claim that not a single document held by NETCU is now in their possession, despite the fact that they took over the operation when the Huntingdon-based intelligence unit was closed down. Where has all the paperwork gone?
It is possible of course that, like every other part of the public sector, state spying has now been outsourced to private companies. There is a virtual conveyor belt of senior police officers and undercover cops who are now either employed by or have set up their own private spying companies providing information to multinational corporations. It seems likely that these new security consultants are targeting the very same individuals and organisations as when they were public servants. Are they acting as a privatised state spying network? Being outside of freedom of information and public scrutiny is an advantage for such covert operations.
State surveillance of trade unions is now carried out under the auspices of SO15 Counter Terrorism Command at the Met.
The secret state still views trade unions as the “enemy within” and many activists will appear on the British “domestic extremism” database. Every citizen is able to make a subject access request to find out what intelligence the police hold him or her.
Unfortunately even when it is beyond doubt that the police are spying on us, “national security” is used as the reason to justify refusal of freedom of information requests. This has happened to both Ucatt and the BSG in recent months.
Continued use of the farcical “neither confirm nor deny” defence by the police will make the entire Pitchford inquiry a charade.
Trade unions and activists may have trouble finding out what the state holds about us, but the intelligence was certainly known to politicians.
Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd, the main instigator of the blacklisting scandal, was a major funder of the Conservative Party. The links with the political Establishment are plain to see. Just how high up did the anti-democratic intrigue go? Did the home secretary and employment minister know about the spying operations or did they just receive the intelligence?
Was the prime minister implicated? It is well documented that Thatcher received intelligence about the NUM during the miners’ strike, but the undercover spying operations took place under Labour as well as Tory governments. What did the likes of David Blunkett, Jack Straw or Tony Blair know about spying on our movement?
The election of Jeremy Corbyn is a victory for the trade unions over the Blairites. We now need to encourage grassroots activism to rebuild our movement. But we should be under no illusions that the full armoury of the state will be thrown against us. The Trade Union Bill is an open attack but the secret state will use deceitful methods too. We shouldn’t be downhearted. The Suffragettes, US civil rights movement and ANC were all spied on by the state, and all of those historic campaigns for social justice won. So will we.
Dave Smith is co-author, with Phil Chamberlain, of Blacklisted (New Internationalist).