Police tricked, lied and even established partnerships

Spycops and our response

Much to the shock and outrage of the liberal left, industrial-scale police infiltration has once again been exposed. But, Mike Macnair argues, for the capitalist state this is normal behaviour

The ‘independent public inquiry’ into undercover policing operations entered a new phase on May 9 and promptly received significant reporting of the extensive undercover operations against the far left, which were the subject of the current phase of evidence. The enquiry was originally set up in 2015 by Theresa May as home secretary, to be chaired by Sir Christopher Pitchford, a lord justice of the court of appeal. Pitchford had to withdraw in May 2017 due to a diagnosis of motor neurone disease, of which he died later that year.

The setting up of the enquiry had sufficiently kicked the issue into the long grass that the government was able to appoint as substitute chair Sir John Mitting, a securocrat-judge who chaired the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (secret rulings on deportations on political and security grounds) in 2007-12 and the investigatory powers tribunal (which rules against complaints against the security service) in 2015-17.1

According to Pitchford’s 2015 opening statement, the enquiry was expected to report in 2018, but now the date has been changed to 2023. While the loss of the first chair and the pandemic may well have caused delay, the enquiry website seems to show a tactic of drowning the issues in the enormous mass of heavily redacted documents generated by searches in the Met Police’s archives (one million documents received ...).2 There is a lot of stuff there, some of which is interesting, like the report that arrests of undercover policemen will have assisted their cover.3

But a great deal is not very informative. For example, there are a variety of reports of rumours about who is sleeping with whom.4 Names were important to Special Branch (but usually redacted for the publication); thus, for example, a report of a March 1978 meeting of Walthamstow Socialist Workers Party, at which “little of interest arose”, more than half the report being a blanked list of names.5 One report is merely a cover page for a photo of a gay member of Brixton SWP.6

A report of an International Marxist Group London aggregate meeting of October 1975 contains copies of the London perspectives document submitted to the meeting and the amendments accepted and defeated. Two pages of the three-page report are (blanked) lists of names; this is followed by nine pages of the documents submitted to the meeting. But the informant cited clearly has no understanding of the political content of what was going on. They report the decision to put a third of the organisation into Labour Party entry (in fact, with the perspective only of ‘organising the left’). This was claimed to be implementation of perspectives adopted at the IMG’s April 1975 national conference, but was actually a new perspective. It was the normal practice in the IMG for the leadership to obtain re-election on the basis of what it had been doing, but then to adopt a new perspective at the first meeting of the central committee after the conference. The amendments proposed and defeated are not recognised as being the product of an opposition faction (“tendency”).7

There has been a certain amount of liberal outrage about the spycops - which is, of course, why the undercover police inquiry was set up. But in reality there is nothing fundamentally novel about these operations except the form. Spying on dissent, and provocations to draw dissenters into illegal activity for which they can be prosecuted, goes back to the anti-Catholic operations of the regime of Elizabeth I. It continued under the Commonwealth and Cromwellian regime, in the Restoration, and after the Revolution of 1688. Radicals of the 1790s and 18-teens to 1820s, and the Chartists, were heavily penetrated by state agents and informers. The ‘official’ Communist Party of Great Britain was very heavily surveilled during its life.8 We have to expect that the largest possible effect of the Mitting inquiry is that the various spycop operations might be rebranded yet again.

Fake news

We should also bear in mind the other side of state ‘anti-subversion’ activity, which is the production of fake news. This too goes back to Elizabeth I’s regime.9 The Information Research Department was created by the 1945 Labour government to produce anti-communist propaganda, and came out with a wide variety of forgeries and false-flag materials until 1977, when it was shut down (actually, rebranded) because it had effectively been ‘outed’.10 In recent years similar operations have been conducted by the ‘Institute for Statecraft’ and its ‘Integrity Initiative’.11 Every such exposure will lead only to a rebranding.

The 171-page report to Special Branch of the June 1978 SWP conference consists of 18 pages of organisational preliminaries, 87 of substantive reports and 66 of appendices (the latter being the documents circulated to delegates), plus various names. The reports of discussions are very strikingly only of top-table speeches, plus resolutions, except in one case - electoral ‘strategy’ (meaning tactics) for the coming general election, on which the leadership was divided. It is not clear how far this is the bias of the informant (what delegates said from the floor was not worth reporting) or whether the conference was, in reality, totally dominated by the top table (which is quite possible). The fact that an attempt was made to stop Duncan Hallas speaking for more than five minutes on the election question on the grounds that he was not adhering to the ‘party position’ (meaning a leadership majority view) points to top-table domination and lack of real discussion (though the chair, in fact, ‘generously’ gave Hallas a further five minutes).

This report contains a gem at its beginning: Duncan Hallas is reported as commenting that the conference proceedings cannot be reported, even in internal bulletins, because “it has to be taken for granted that all internal party literature goes to the political police - the Special Branch”.12 The result is, of course, that Special Branch is informed, through its agents, while the general membership of the SWP is not. Still less is the workers’ vanguard in general - the broad layer of working class activists who pay any degree of attention to politics - informed about the views and perspectives of the SWP and what it thought was debatable.

The SWP is technically an illegal party, as is also true of the CPGB and all the rest of the far left and most campaigning groups, since we are technically producers of ‘seditious libels’ - newspapers, etc, which undermine confidence in her majesty’s government. But, although the Special Branch, Special Demonstrations Squad, Security Service, etc collect all this garbage information about us, we do not have comrades routinely arrested, convicted and imprisoned for organising local meetings, distributing papers, and so on. The Russian Social Democrats before 1917 did experience such routine repression. Indeed, the German Social Democrats were an entirely illegal party between 1878 and 1890, and continued to experience episodic arrests and prosecutions for lèse-majesté (sedition) down to 1914 (after which repression became concentrated on anti-war socialists). Yet both the SPD and the RSDLP (the latter using pseudonyms) published full stenographic protocols of party congresses. Why not the SWP, IMG, and so on ...?

How, then, should we respond? The first step is to recognise that capitalist states in general use spying, provocations and fake news against political opponents - including quite ‘moderate’ ones, and certainly including ones which are seen to threaten the constitutional order (even if they are very small). And the British state has done so throughout its modern history. The state is a coercive organisation - a mafia or protection racket - which has a political colour of ‘legitimacy’. It has to take measures to coerce opponents. Hence, Hallas was right to say that leftists have to assume that Special Branch (or its predecessor and successor organisations) will know our internal affairs.

Where Hallas was wrong was to imagine that anything could be seriously kept secret. The SWP has continued to make this mistake over the last 30 (40?) years. The immediate consequences were disastrous for the SWP in the ‘Delta’ rape crisis in 2013: the perceived cover-up was as important in the political damage to the SWP as the original mishandling of the dispute.13

There are longer-term negative consequences. The RSDLP was penetrated by agents from top to bottom (including, for example, the senior duma deputy, Roman Malinovsky) and very many clandestine organisations were rapidly broken up by police action. But the idea of the party spread widely in the Russian working class, with the result that clandestine organisations were repeatedly recreated.

This, in turn, rests on the underlying strategic conception of the parties of the Second International. They did not see their immediate task as organising insurrections, or even strikes and other direct actions. They sought to exploit the possibilities of legality or semi-legality, of electoral opportunities, however much limited by anti-democratic electoral structures, and so on. These were to be used to ‘educate, agitate, organise’ - that is, to spread the ideas of the socialist alternative to capitalism, expressed in the form of a party programme, but also in party publications; and to develop the self-organisation of the working class in all its practical forms.

This strategic orientation has the consequence that the idea of the party can live on, even if its immediate organisational structures are disrupted by repression; and it works against provocateurs being able to draw militants into terrorist dead-ends: on the contrary, the spies are compelled to work for the party’s political project, and so on.

The maintenance of secrecy of internal discussions works exactly against this broader cultural grasp of the idea of the party: because it inherently loses the sense of the party as one of self-organisation of the class, and turns it into a managerialist structure, in which those who have privileged access to information have property rights at the expense of the grunts on the ground. This dynamic makes for unprincipled splits, and thus the multiplication of small groups, none of which can be taken seriously. Equally, the concentration of ‘expertise’ in the full-time ‘cadre’ has the effect of rendering the organisation more vulnerable to decapitation, whether by repression or by mere accident.

In short, the ‘undercover policing enquiry’ should not lead us to hope we can campaign effectively to stop police spying (which is part of the core of the current constitutional order). Nor should it lead us to try to improve our ‘privacy’ or ‘security’ from police spies by increased measures of secrecy or paranoia (which would actually weaken us). It should lead us instead to think about the actual political tasks which face us, and use the maximum possible political openness as a means to achieve them.


  1. The Guardian May 31 2019.↩︎

  2. The official enquiry site is: www.ucpi.org.uk.↩︎

  3. www.ucpi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/MPS_0526785.pdf.↩︎

  4. Eg: www.ucpi.org.uk/publications/special-branch-report-stating-that-an-swp-central-committee-member-of-the-swp-and-the-south-london-district-organiser-of-the-swp-are-now-living-together. See also: www.ucpi.org.uk/publications/special-branch-report-containing-personal-information-about-a-member-of-the-swp-central-committee-and-the-full-time-organiser-in-the-industrial-department-of-the-swp.↩︎

  5. www.ucpi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/UCPI0000011893.pdf.↩︎

  6. www.ucpi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/UCPI0000015431.pdf.↩︎

  7. www.ucpi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/UCPI0000008865.pdf.↩︎

  8. K Morgan, ‘Within and beyond the law? British communist history and the archives of state surveillance’ in Political extremism and radicalism in the twentieth century Andover 2018. See also: www.gale.com/intl/essays/kevin-morgan-british-communist-history-archives-state-surveillance.↩︎

  9. The references to spying on opponents also include provocations and fake news production.↩︎

  10. There are extensive references at Wikipedia, ‘Information Research Department’.↩︎

  11. See P Mckeigue, D Miller, J Mason and P Robinson, ‘Briefing note on the Integrity Initiative’ (2018): www.researchgate.net/publication/337010006_Briefing_note_on_the_Integrity_Initiative. This contains a good deal of information. The evasive response of government to parliamentary questions on this issue - eg: questions-statements.parliament.uk/written-questions/detail/2018-12-18/203331 - tends to make the inference that this is a recent iteration of the government propaganda and fake news production regime.↩︎

  12. www.ucpi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/UCPI0000013228.pdf, at p4.↩︎

  13. There is various coverage of this in the Weekly Worker (March-June 2013).↩︎