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Police in London, March 2011. Photo: xpgomes5 / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

Police in London, March 2011. Photo: xpgomes5 / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

The Labour Leader is jeopardising civil liberties in his pursuit of approval from the establishment, argues Sean Ledwith

This week has witnessed another shameful example of Keir Starmer’s painfully obvious agenda of trying to make himself acceptable to the British establishment. On Monday night, he instructed Labour MPs to abstain on the second reading of the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill. In simple terms, this government-backed measure is about giving the British security services a blank cheque to conduct undercover operations against alleged internal threats to national security. Needless to say, most of these alleged threats strangely turn out to come from political left, rather than Britain’s far right organisations.

Only twenty Labour MPs, including John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, were willing to defy Starmer’s abysmal collusion with this latest power-grab by Johnson’s increasingly authoritarian government, and to speak out against the bill’s insidious attack on civil rights in general and the labour movement in particular. Former Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, concisely expressed the deep reservations of many in trade union, environmental and anti-racist groups who fear the CHIS will be used to shackle their activities (as well as reminding us what was lost when Starmer replaced him as leader):

I have grave concerns regarding the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill. It could enable unnecessary and unlawful interference with the legitimate activities of trade unions, environmentalists, anti-racists & other campaigners. We must always stand up for human rights.

Licence to kill

The potential consequences of the CHIS are almost too awful to contemplate. Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland spokesperson, Grainne Teggart commented that the bill effectively hands a licence to kill over to the shadowy forces of the British state to eliminate political opponents, adding:

It is deeply alarming that the proposed law does not explicitly prohibit MI5 and other agencies from authorising crimes like torture and killing. It must be amended to do so.

Teggart is speaking with the experience of those in the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland who encountered, over many decades, the malevolent and murderous collusion of the British state with Loyalist sectarian gangs that were responsible for the slaughter of the Miami Show Band and nationalist lawyer, Pat Finucane, among many others.

The most threatening aspect of the legislation is the formalisation of the ominous sounding Third Direction policy of the security services which effectively permits them to operate outside the law when they deem it appropriate. In the bureaucratic jargon of the spooks who no doubt have helped draft this appalling bill, its purpose is to:

authorise conduct by officials and agents of the security and intelligence services, law enforcement, and certain other public authorities, which would otherwise constitute criminality.

As if this wasn’t vague enough for their nefarious agenda, the Tories have included other scenarios that would facilitate the further erosion of civil liberties:

  • In the interests of national security.
  • For the purpose of preventing or detecting crime or of preventing disorder.
  • In the interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom

It is not difficult to envisage how any protest against Johnson’s calamitous handling of the pandemic, for example, could fall into one or more of these catch-all categories and be classified as subversive. A Guardian investigation in 2017 revealed that, of 1000 groups identified as threats to national security by MI5, only three were from the far right of the political spectrum and the rest were trade unionists, eco-activists, campaigners against blacklisting and other groups more obviously linked to the left. Only the most hopelessly naïve observer could believe that the secretive core of the British state would be even-handed in its operations against protestors-someone as naïve as Keir Starmer in other words.


Zarah Sultana MP in her speech denouncing the bill drew attention to one of its most shameful aspects-the potential for recurrences of the infamous state sponsored rape cases in which undercover cops were encouraged to have intimate personal relationships-and even children-with alleged subversives in order to protect  the secrecy of operations. She commented:

This evening I voted against the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill. I can't support legislation that could give undercover state agents the licence to murder, torture and commit sexual violence.

Starmer’s craven submission to this expansion of the repressive powers of the state comes only two weeks after he ordered a similar abstention by Labour MPs over the de facto legalisation of war crimes by British soldiers fighting overseas. As the battle intensifies between the state and the labour movement over the political fallout from the pandemic and the looming recession, it is glaringly apparent that Starmer’s Labour will provide negligible protection for those who oppose the Tory agenda. We will need to look to workplace and street organisation for effective resistance to the dark forces at the heart of the British sate.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters


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