After the spy cops rebellion

By Mike Phipps

After a major campaign alerting Labour MPs to the dangers of the covert human intelligence sources (criminal conduct) – or spy cops – bill, 34 MPs, including seven frontbenchers, broke the Party whip to vote against the measure at its third reading in the House of Commons.

Keir Starmer had whipped his MPs to abstain on the bill, which introduces specific legal powers whereby one of a wide range of agencies, including the police and security services but also HMRC, the Food Standards Agency and many others, can authorise an embedded agent on an undercover mission to take criminal actions as long as this is in pursuit of investigating criminal activity and “proportionate” to the threat being fought. The bill sets no limits at all to the nature of the criminality which can be authorised – so measures including torture, rape and murder could potentially be given the green light.

Writing for Labour List, shadow security minister Conor McGinn acknowledged that there were problems with the bill but justified Labour’s abstention, saying, “We have to deal with the legislation this government brings forward, and do so in a way that shows we are a responsible government-in-waiting. The … bill is imperfect, but voting it down would weaken national security and lead to weaker legal safeguards.”

“And there you have it,” responded one blogger. “Keir and friends have determined opposing this bill would make them look soft on security issues, which contributed to Labour’s toxicity among voters who went over to the Tories last year. Okay, if that’s the case why not follow the logic of Conor’s argument and critically support the legislation? Well, no, because this would weaken Keir’s standing among the swathe of recently-won Lib Dem voters. As for existing Labour supporters, who cares?”

So Labour abstained, which pleased nobody. As we argued some days ago, fence-sitting won’t stave off tabloid attacks and looks like a cynical calculation. Furthermore, the disunity in Labour’s parliamentary ranks demoralises Party supporters.

There were many organisations and high-profile individuals who opposed the bill. The general secretaries of 14 trade unions, Jeremy Corbyn, the co-chairs of Momentum and Open Labour and a number of campaigning organisations, including Reprieve, the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign and Justice 4 Grenfell, issued a joint statement expressing their concerns over the bill. Amnesty International also opposed the measure.

Commenting on the parliamentary debate, Diane Abbott MP wrote: “Noticeably the Labour frontbench mainly talked about undercover policemen in terms of criminal gangs. But there was huge concern about undercover surveillance of civil society including trade unions. Over four decades, undercover policemen had infiltrated nearly 1,000 political groups. These groups included environmental campaigns like Greenpeace, animal rights organisations and family justice campaigns like the Stephen Lawrence campaigns… As the scale of the infiltration became apparent, the controversial methods also caused concern. People were shocked that undercover police officers routinely had sexual relationships with female activists, even had children with them…. Even in terms of criminal gangs, many people… questioned why the bill did not exclude murder torture and sexual violence.”

Writing for Tribune, Jeremy Corbyn MP argued that the spy cops bill effectively granted immunity to undercover agents who commit grievous crimes and constituted a major attack on human rights. Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville Roberts argued it undermined a free press.  The Stop the War Coalition issued a statement saying “the passing of the bill represents a serious threat to all our civil liberties and to the freedoms of protest and dissent.” And Labour peer Prem Sikka argued that the bill was an obstacle to victims of spy cops ever getting justice.

Dan Carden MP who resigned from his front bench Treasury post to oppose the bill spoke powerfully against the measure at its third reading. He said, ““The bill is written so badly and broadly that it’s effectively a license to criminally disrupt working people taking action to support themselves, their co-workers, their families.”

Shadow education minister Margaret Greenwood also broke the whip. Parliamentary private secretaries Nav Mishra, Kim Johnson, Mary Foy and Rachel Hopkins – all members of the Socialist Campaign Group – also quit the frontbench to vote against, as did Sarah Owen MP. Others on the left, like Sam Tarry MP, toed the Labour line.

It is normal for MPs with shadow posts, however lowly, to lose their posts and return to the back benches if they defy the whip. But all the MPs who defied the whip – backbenchers included – received written warnings from Chief Whip Nick Brown, according to a Novara media report. This was a significant breach with custom: normally breaking a one-line whip – the least serious breach – is treated more leniently.  “They’ve gone straight for the harshest steps,” said one letter recipient. “It’s really heavy-handed.”

Such measures are aimed to instil fear into rebellious backbenchers. MPs who repeatedly break Party discipline could have the whip withdrawn – which would effectively place them outside the Party. That could lead the Party hierarchy pressurising the CLP to deselect the rebel, or even putting up a candidate against them at the next election – a rare but real possibility.

There’s a whiff of hypocrisy here, given Keir Starmer’s own inconsistent approach to party discipline in the past.  The hard line also further targets the Party’s left, which has taken a more principled stand on both this bill and the overseas operations bill, on which the leadership also called for an abstention at its second reading. This bill, which comes back for its third reading soon, would make it vastly more difficult for British soldiers who commit war crimes to face prosecution.

In a further blow to the left, Wes Streeting has been appointed to replace Margaret Greenwood as shadow schools minister. Streeting cut his teeth in the now discredited and disaffiliated Labour Students organisation before working for the right wing Progress faction. He made relentless attacks on Jeremy Corbyn from when he became leader to when he stepped down and backed Jess Phillips in the 2020 leadership election.

Whether Keir Starmer is simply trying to impose his authority on a sometimes disunited parliamentary party or is consciously seizing the opportunity to marginalise the left remains to be seen.

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.