After a parliamentary rebellion over the Tories’ Overseas Operations bill, the Labour leadership has faced a larger one, in parliament and outside, over its failure to oppose the “Spycops Bill”.
Where the Overseas Operations Bill seeks to ease human rights abuses by British forces abroad, the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill would allow undercover police and other agents inside Britain to commit crimes in the course of their work. Murder, torture and sexual violence are not ruled out, and the frameworks to authorise criminal activity are very widely drawn. Given the history there is every reason to think these powers will be used in infiltration not just of criminal gangs – alarming enough given what that could mean for victims – but also trade unions, anti-racist and human rights organisations and environmental campaigns.
Activists previously subject to police infiltration and surveillance, including anti-blacklist campaigners in the construction industry and campaigners for victims of police violence, sounded the alarm with particular urgency.
Yet the Starmer leadership whipped Labour MPs to abstain. The Bill tells us something about the aggressive right-wing authoritarianism of the Tory government, but also the bankrupt political “strategy” being pursued by Starmer and co.
Unusually, all 34 Labour MPs who voted against were sent a formal written warning. (Claudia Webbe, currently suspended from the Labour Party on an unrelated issue, also voted against.) Six junior shadow ministers, mainly on the left of the Parliamentary party, resigned their positions in order to vote against – Dan Carden, Rachel Hopkins, Sarah Owen, Mary Roy, Kim Johnson, Margaret Greenwood, and Navendu Mishra. This follows Nadia Whittome, Beth Winter and Olivia Blake losing their positions over the Overseas Operations Bill. Interestingly, 16 of the rebels were only elected to Parliament last year.
27 of them joined the general secretaries of fourteen trade unions (Unite, FBU, BFAWU, CWU, TSSA, ASLEF, RMT, NEU, UCU, PCS, NUJ, POA, NAPO and UTR) plus organisations including Momentum, Open Labour and a range of human rights and justice campaigns in an open letter calling on Labour to oppose the Bill.
A number of leftish Labour frontbenchers – Andy McDonald, Imran Hussain, Marsha de Cordova, Cat Smith, Rachael Maskell, Sam Tarry, Charlotte Nichols and Alex Sobel – did not resign. LabourList reports that they have been promised Starmer will do more to promote “union issues”, including a bill for an Orgreave inquiry.
So in the same way that Starmer supports an Orgreave inquiry but not repeal of anti-trade union laws which would have made the miners’ strike completely illegal, he refuses to oppose a Bill that would have made state infiltration of the NUM easier and more dangerous… This is window-dressing, to provide those who failed to vote against and resign with cover.
Left-wing MPs taking positions in this leadership is a hopeless strategy, and always was. (We said that when Nadia Whittome and Lloyd Russell-Moyle took positions in April). Starmer has used the opportunity of the resignations to promote more right-wing MPs, including Wes Streeting, into positions. The end results can be a gain for the left if the rebel MPs use their new freedom to put consistent public pressure on the leadership while helping organise grassroots members and trade unionists.
We should work to make the uproar over the Spycops Bill the beginning of a more coordinated left opposition to and pressure on Starmer’s leadership. Part of that is votes for the (not very good, in our view) left slate for the National Executive in balloting which started 19 October. A bigger part is getting local Labour Parties (CLP) meeting again and discussing motions.
After some pressure, the National Executive licensed CLP to meet and make decisions again, online, after lockdown, on 15 July, a number of CLPs still haven’t met, or have met only to do National Executive nominations, or are starting to meet again only this month.
On Overseas Operations, Spycops, Brexit and many issues, strong opposition to Starmer is sorely needed. To be effective, and linked to progress for the left, it needs to go alongside a sustained and positive campaign for the left-wing policies passed by 2019 conference and for party democracy.