Increasing political activity focuses attention on the spycops scandal
This month, victims of undercover policing have reacted to moves by the Inquiry towards greater secrecy. Angered by the Inquiry’s plans to row back on openness, women targeted for relationships by undercover police, have written a letter to the Home Secretary, asking to meet her and denouncing the institutional sexism of the police. It also questioned the role of the new Chair, John Mitting. whose is controversially moving the Inquiry away from previous commitments to openness. All this at a point when campaigners are focusing attention on the party political world.
One of the fascinating aspects of the undercover policing scandal has been the spying on elected politicians. Long thought forbidden under the 1966 ‘Wilson Doctrine’, the extent to which elected representatives have been subject to political policing is steadily coming to light.
In 2015, whistleblower Peter Francis revealed that, while undercover in the 1990s, he had spied upon MPs Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott and Bernie Grant. Diane Abbott and Grant’s widow, Sharon Grant, along with former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, Dame Joan Ruddock and Lord Peter Hain have all now been granted core participant status at the public inquiry into undercover policing.
Baroness Jenny Jones of the Green Party, who came to prominence holding the police to account on the London Assembly’s watchdog body the Metropolitan Police Authority, has also revealed that she became a target of police surveillance, noting that her file begins after she became an elected representative.
However, with the exception of Baroness Jones, who has demonstrated nothing but the strongest support for those spied upon, there has been little public comment from many of these politicians. It seems they are playing wait and see. Finally, when during prompted during his appearance at the Lush Creative Showcase last week, Corbyn commented:
The Pitchford Inquiry is going on into the role of undercover policing, and having seen it at one end – the way in which some groups were infiltrated and the hurt that was caused to people as a result of it – that Pitchford Inquiry has got to conclude its business and work.
Not the strongest of statements, but something to give heart to campaigners struggling with the new, secretive direction the inquiry is taking under its new chair, John Mitting, that Labour is still backing their corner.
Meanwhile, Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell gave much stronger indications regarding another aspect of the scandal, the blacklisting of trade unionists. It is now established that undercover policing units passed on information that ended up on industry blacklists. The Blacklist Support Group has conducted a tireless campaign on the issue, which the Shadow Chancellor has been a part of from the start. Labour have a manifesto promise to set up a public inquiry to examine that issue specifically. which McDonnell recently re-asserted their commitment to. McDonnell was also a leading supporter of the family of the murdered Ricky Reel, who themselves have been given core participant status at the Inquiry.
Other Labour MPs such as Richard Burgon are also stepping up. The Shadow Justice Secretary will be among those giving a talk on spycops at a meeting co-sponsored by the Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance and the Haldane Society at next week’s Labour Party conference.
Grassroots campaigners have also increased their efforts in the political arena. A significant move was a meeting in the European Parliament earlier this month where Irish MEPs hosted a meeting at which researchers, lawyers and those spied upon spoke about the issue. With only 23 British spycops officers exposed - barely 10% of the true total – 15 countries are known to have been visited. As legal battles are now happening in several countries, cross-border spying is being dragged into the spotlight, with lack of oversight being a key point.
Having already been raised in the German, Scottish and Irish parliaments over the last two years, there is hope among campaigners that the issue is starting to gain traction among lawmakers on an international level as something that needs urgent addressing. Not least as there were regular exchanges of undercovers between countries, giving rise to concerns over just how much the UK spycop scandal taints other countries.
Labour MSP Neil Findlay continues to ask questions and apply particular pressure to the Scottish Parliament. We also learned recently that the review into spycop activities in Scotland, commissioned by Justice Minister Michael Matheson from HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland, is completed and due to be released soon.
More pressure on ex-spycop Andy Coles
Finally, pressure is mounting on former spycop Andy Coles to step down from his roles as school governor and City Councillor in Peterborough. After being exposed in May he immediately resigned as Cambridgeshire’s deputy Police and Crime Commissioner, yet continues to cling to his other public roles. ‘Jessica’, the animal rights campaigner targeted by Coles for a relationship while she was a teenager, has been stepping forward to call out his behaviour.
Earlier this month she met the Conservative leader of the council, Cllr. John Holdrich. This was followed by a well-attended meeting last Saturday, 16th September, where the public heard her give her account in person. Those in attendance expressed outrage over his past activities, though several were unsurprised, recounting anecdotes of more recent behaviour. More local campaigning there is being planned. Already he pulled out of a community meeting he was due to attend this week, where there was a protest outside, and homes in his council ward are being leafleted this weekend.
Mitting’s attempt to change the nature of the Inquiry may suit the police, but it has caused palpable anger among campaigners. However, coming at a time when the issue is returning to the political arena, he will struggle to justify it in the face of wider political and public questioning of how that balances out with the Inquiry’s previous commitments to openness.