Why abstaining is not good enough

By Mike Phipps

In the event, twenty Labour MPs defied the party whip to vote against the covert human intelligence sources (criminal conduct) bill at its second reading in the House of Commons on Monday night. The list of rebels was very similar to that which voted against the overseas operations bill a fortnight earlier, but they were joined this time by Dawn Butler MP.

There are real concerns from across the movement about the bill. Unite the Union issued a briefing, highlighting the danger of the danger of “unlawful interference with the legitimate activities of trade unions and any other protest organisations”. 

In 2018, it emerged that police and Special Branch operatives infiltrated trade unions and provided information to the construction industry about a blacklist of workers. Dave Smith, secretary of the Blacklist Support Group, has described the decision by Labour to abstain on the bill as a “betrayal”.

Labour MP Kate Osborne who voted against the bill stated: “Since 1968, over three thousand trade unionists have been blacklisted, over one thousand organisations have been spied on by undercover police, and tens of thousands of ordinary citizens have had files held on them by Special Branch.”

She also highlighted the gendered impact of the proposed legislation. Referring to the instance of an undercover police officer having a long-term sexual relationship with a Reclaim the Streets activist, one of dozens of such cases, Osborne asked, “What does this say to the women who were effectively the victims of a conspiracy to rape at the hands of undercover agents?”

Bell Ribeiro-Addy MP, who also voted against the bill, said: “A former head of MI5, no less, has pointed out there are ‘no limits’ to the crimes that covert agents can commit. Not only does this Bill make it impossible to prosecute these crimes, where they do overstep the mark, it actually allows for prior authorisation to commit crimes, with no judicial oversight. In other words, this legislation is completely counter to the rule of law.”

Amnesty International also condemned the bill. “It is deeply alarming that the proposed law does not explicitly prohibit MI5 and other agencies from authorising crimes like torture and killing,” it said. “In Northern Ireland, we have seen the consequences of undercover agents in paramilitary organisations operating with apparent impunity whilst committing grave human rights abuses, including murder.”

In 2012, Prime Minister David Cameron admitted there had been “shocking levels” of collusion between the British state and Loyalist paramilitaries in the murder of lawyer Pat Finucaine, who was shot 14 times at his family home in front of his wife and children.

Referring to the intention of the bill to set out legal limitation to the activities of the security services in this field, Amnesty said: “Such criminal acts do not become any less serious when placed on a legal footing.”

As Labour Hub pointed out earlier this week, “Even as the Public Inquiry now being led by Sir John Mitting (formerly the Pitchford Inquiry) hears evidence, the Government is moving to introduce a procedure which would deny future victims any civil redress, and which would allow agencies of the State to license criminal behaviour in future.” The ‘spy cops’ Inquiry set up by Prime Minister May has yet to report, so it is suspicious that this bill is being enacted before it does so.

Research shows that the majority of groups spied on by the state are on the left, with very few far right organisations being targeted. There is every reason for the whole labour movement to be concerned. So why did our elected representatives abstain?

Keir Starmer’s team say the bill at least put onto a statutory footing the circumstances in which the state spying on its own citizens may or may not be legitimate. In any case, with a big Tory majority, the best way forward is to engage with the intentions of the legislation and seek to improve it with amendments.

Guardian columnist Owen Jones has a different interpretation. He suggests “some senior Labour figures brief that this posture is necessary to win back the former red wall heartlands, where voters, they believe, need to be convinced of the party’s commitment to national security. Those same shadow ministers and their advisers applied the same logic just two weeks earlier when Labour also abstained on the overseas operations bill.”

The problem is that both bills fundamentally undermine the rule of law. The overseas operations bill makes it more difficult to prosecute war crimes committed by UK troops abroad. Government ministers may claim that both service personnel and spy cops are still subject to the provisions of the Human Rights Act, but this flagship piece of Labour legislation is also being targeted by Tory outliers. Labour’s abstention on these bills also undermines its vocal concern over how the rule of law is being undermined by Boris Johnson’s rewriting of the agreement to heave the EU. Why does the rule of law matter there but not on these two pieces of legislation?

If Keir Starmer thinks that not voting against these bills will neuter tabloid scaremongering that Labour is bad for national security, he’s wrong. They attacked the Party anyway for abstaining.

This is the problem with abstention: what Starmer thinks is constructive engagement looks to others like fence-sitting, a failure of nerve, or a cynical calculation. It supports neither side and pleases nobody.

After the 2015 general election, acting Labour leader Harriet Harman proposed Labour abstain on the Tories’ welfare bill, to reflect the wishes of the electorate who had just voted. It was a terrible error – but one that led to a surge in support for Jeremy Corbyn’s bid to offer a more principled leadership for Labour in opposition.

“Labour voters believed we left behind a core Labour value of protecting the most vulnerable in society,” argues Lloyd Russell-Moyle MP, who voted against both the overseas operations bill a fortnight ago and the covert human intelligence sources (criminal conduct) bill on Monday.

Abstention also demoralises Labour supporters and highlights Party disunity, demonstrated by the recent parliamentary rebellions and the withdrawal of the whip from three members of the Starmer’s shadow ministerial team after they voted against the overseas operations bill two weeks ago.

The job of the Opposition is to oppose. Labour won’t win any support by abstaining and Keir Starmer needs to break this bad habit now.

Image: Keir Starmer speaking at the 2020 Labour Party leadership election hustings in Bristol on the morning of Saturday 1 February 2020, in the Ashton Gate Stadium Lansdown Stand; Author: Rwendland; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.