New evidence reveals that police in the U.K. were deployed to spy on small left-wing political parties and groups for a period spanning almost four decades.
An investigation by The Guardian and the Undercover Research Group, a network of activists that scrutinizes police espionage, found that a total of 124 environmental, anti-racist, anti-war, human rights and other progressive groups were infiltrated by undercover police officers.
Among these groups was the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which was subjected to at least one undercover officer being secretly implanted into the party almost continuously for a period stretching from 1970 until 2000.
The Guardian and the Undercover Research Group compiled a database of the groups that have been spied on by police, dating back to 1968.
The biggest infiltration was that of the SWP, an anti-capitalist party founded in 1950. As the Guardian reported last week, four of the police spies deceived female members of the SWP into carrying on sexual relationships while under false identities. One undercover officer even met one of his wives during deployment of the group and had a child with her.
An organization that opposed the Vietnam War was also infiltrated by nine officers between 1968 and 1972. Campaigns against apartheid, nuclear arms, the arms trade and even trade unions were penetrated and spied on by the police.
Twelve animal rights groups and eight groups focused on the conflict in Ireland were also included on the database of infiltrated organizations, along with 16 campaigns that were managed by families or their supporters fighting for justice after alleged police misconduct.
The database draws on investigations of the Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI). The purpose of the Inquiry, which is being led by the retired U.K. judge Sir John Mitting, is to investigate and report on undercover police operations carried out by the English and Welsh police forces since 1968.
As the UCPI website states: “The Inquiry will examine the contribution undercover policing has made to tackling crime, how it was and is supervised and regulated, and its effects on individuals involved – both police officers and others who came into contact them.”
Mitting’s inquiry paints an even more disturbing picture of police surveillance of progressive left-wing groups in Britain, disclosing that the information of more than 1,000 political organizations have been collected and stored by police spies throughout the 37-year period. Many of the spies stayed with the groups under fake identities for as long as five years, reporting on the activists’ actions and what protests they were planning.
One such undercover officer was Peter Francis, who was deployed to spy on anti-racist organizations such as Youth Against Racism. Francis later became a whistleblower, revealing how undercover police officers infiltrated the campaign to bring the killers of Stephen Lawrence – a black teenager who was murdered in a racially motivated attack in south east London in 1993 – to justice.
For years, Francis disclosed details of the undercover infiltration tactics of his former unit, the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), which, according to Francis, went much further than the infiltration of the Lawrence campaign.
The Special Demonstration Squad and its fellow undercover unit, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit, have since been disbanded and, according to the Metropolitan Police, will be fully scrutinized by the public enquiry.
What is arguably the most concerning component of the four-decade-long program of police spying is the fact that the list of targeted groups uncovered, so far, are overwhelmingly left-wing, progressive groups that challenge the economic and political status quo.
As the Guardian notes, only three far-right groups have been identified as being infiltrated by police spies: the British National Party, the United British Alliance and Combat 18. Such aggressive police targeting of anti-racist, environmental and anti-war groups, many of which were small, is sparking reaction from those who seek to stamp out unscrupulous police practices and hostility toward left-wing activist groups.
As Guardian columnist Owen Jones posted on social media in response to his paper's investigation: “The left is dismissed as tinfoil hat wearing conspiracy theorists when it talks about this, but the British state infiltrated left-wing movements on a small scale, and it could be delusional to believe that it isn’t happening now.”
While today’s police spying might not be as blatant as the example of an undercover officer living a lie as a fellow activist among a group of protestors, contemporary policing comes under the guise of electronic surveillance.
The exploitation of spying technology on citizens through electronic means is so prevalent that the European Court of Human Rights recently ruled the U.K.’s mass surveillance program exposed by U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden to be a violation of privacy.
The ECHR’s watershed ruling on Britain’s electronic surveillance program resulted from a challenge brought to the ECHR by a coalition of human rights groups, civil liberty organizations and privacy advocates – ironically, groups that are likely to have been infiltrated and spied on by undercover police.
Meanwhile, as British authorities seem to predominantly target progressive, left-wing groups, the U.K. is experiencing a rise in right-wing extremism, with attacks on Muslims on the rise along with the emergence of neo-Nazi groups and other far-right extremist organizations promoting anti-immigrant and white supremacist views and propaganda.