Monday, 15 March 2010

The Far Left and State Infiltration

This is the Socialist Party's response to Sunday's revelations in The Observer that its early 90s anti-fascist group, Youth against Racism in Europe was infiltrated by the state. According to the piece by 'Officer A' this was done to foil violent extremism, and apparently he had to sleep with a couple of women to achieve this objective. There's more than a dollop of hyperbole in this account - anyone with a passing acquaintance with the work of the SP and its predecessor, Militant, know political violence has never been part of its tradition.

Below I reproduce the reply from Hannah Sell and Lois Austen, who were leading YRE activists at the time. Second is a letter to The Observer from Greg Randall, who says he remembers the "undercover" officer in question very well. The originals can be found here and here.

This deserves a couple of remarks. This isn't the first occasion former operatives of the intelligence services have come clean about undercover work in the far left, and Militant in particular. I remember a BBC documentary some years ago that revealed how the secret state kept tabs on the old CPGB, Vanessa Redgrave (in her life before she started
groveling before royalty) and Militant. In his interview for the programme, Dave Nellist expressed surprise that the spooks had taken an interest. In a way, these comrades should feel flattered that the state thought it was worthwhile doing a clandestine entry job on them. It'll be some time before the ra-ra-revolutionaries of the ultra left receive this sort of attention.

It also raises the question whether there are a few state agents knocking about the far left today. I doubt it - the endemic sectarianism and pig headedness does a far better job of keeping British Trotskyism in check than
agents provocateurs could hope to do. That isn't to say the state won't take an interest in future. As Greg notes in his reply, the best antidote to this kind of infiltration is open politics.

Youth Against Racism in Europe answers disgraceful Observer 'expose'

The disgraceful article in today's Observer (Undercover policeman reveals how he infiltrated UK's violent activists, 14 March 2010) claims to 'expose' how "an officer from a secretive unit of the Metropolitan police" was "working undercover among anti-racist groups in Britain, during which he routinely engaged in violence against members of the public and uniformed police officers to maintain his cover."

Lois Austin, YRE chair 1992-1996; Hannah Sell, YRE secretary 1992-1996

No one from The Observer contacted present or previous representatives of the anti-racist group he refers to, Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE) for our side of this story.

At the time we were secretary and chair of the YRE, which is a democratic organisation of young people.

Both supporters of the Militant Tendency (now the Socialist Party), we were elected to lead the YRE, which organised mass, peaceful protests against racism and in particular against the far-right thugs of the BNP and their ilk.

YRE began in 1992 with the largest ever European demonstration against racism, with 40,000 young people marching in Brussels.

During our campaigning, YRE often faced violence from the far-right and unfortunately also from the police.

We also warned of the danger of police and state infiltration of the left, which has now been proved to be correct, not just by this report but, also, in The Defence of the Realm - the Authorised History of M15, by Christopher Andrew, published in 2009.

Democratic and peaceful left wing organisations were infiltrated by the secretive and unaccountable forces of the state.

Ludicrously, the article refers to the undercover officer's "key success" being the discovery that the 1993 demonstration against the BNP's headquarters in Welling, South East London was going to be "far larger than thought".

Racist murders
This demonstration took place after four racist murders, including that of Stephen Lawrence, had taken place within two miles of the BNP Headquarters.

As organisers of the demonstration, we repeatedly told the police that it was going to be very large.

In the end it was 50,000 strong. We argued for the demonstration to be allowed to march peacefully past the BNP HQ. The response of the police, as the film on the Observer's website makes all too clear, was to attempt to stop the demonstration and then carry out an incredibly brutal attack on unarmed and peaceful young people who were carrying out their democratic right to protest against racism.

It is surely not a coincidence that this 'expose' has taken place now, at a time when a new generation of young people are becoming involved in campaigning against racism and the far-right BNP.

Yesterday, in Barking, where Nick Griffin is standing for parliament, Youth Fight for Jobs - an organisation of young people with the backing of trade unions, the YRE and the Socialist Party - marched under the same slogan we adopted in the early 1990s - 'Jobs and Homes not Racism'.

The Observer would do better to report this kind of anti-racist campaigning rather than attempt to smear the movement which successfully marginalised the BNP in the early 1990s.

Letter to The Observer

Dear Sir

As an activist with Youth Against Racism in Europe and Militant Labour in London in the mid-90s, and now with Militant's successor, the Socialist Party, I remember "Officer A" (your cover story, 14 March) well.

The combination of thinning hair on top and a pony tail at the back would be hard to forget.

What I don't recognise is the picture of our campaigns as secretive and violent. Having myself been bashed about by the police at the big Welling demo against the BNP, and in light of your revelations, I'd say that secrecy and violence was the prerogative of the police.

Officer A called himself Peter and joined Militant from a group at Kingsway College called the Revolutionary Internationalist League.

They were not then "up and coming", never having more than six members.

Public knowledge
We didn't organise in secret, so "Peter" wouldn't have found out anything that wasn't going to be public knowledge.

Police resources might have been more economically expended by buying a copy of
Militant every week and turning up at our public meetings.

Was the observational role described by Officer A his full mission? We were at pains to point out that defeating racist and fascist groups is a political task.

It needs patient activity in working class communities, not argy-bargy on the streets. I recall that "Peter" wasn't as convinced of our position as he could have been and tended to favour street fighting.

Perhaps he was sent in partly to act as provocateur?

You say that "Peter" found himself conflicted and in sympathy with campaigns against police brutality.

I remember him as a diffident individual who appeared unhappy in his own skin. Now I know why and the reason for his disappearance in Mid-1997, telling us that he was moving to Greece and donating the meagre contents of his rather grotty flat on the Holloway Road to be sold to raise funds.

Certainly, "Peter" seems to have come out of this the worst, being misused by his police bosses, as his subsequent ill health would show.

One has to have some sympathy for him.

Our campaigns weren't disrupted by "Peter" and didn't end because of police infiltration. They had a successful conclusion, with the BNP unable to openly organise in London for about a decade.

It was only thirteen years of New Labour that managed to boost the BNP again. That's the real scandal, and one that requires the building of a political alternative to racism that will fight for working people, thus undercutting the BNP and its ilk.

With regards
Greg Randall


Anonymous said...

It's actually not correct to state the cop was ever a member of the RIL, as is regrettably claimed in the Socialist Party letter to the Observer.

I explain why this is so at was never a member of the RIL).

This isn't at all a criticism of Militant (of whom he was a member); little can be done to stop infiltration.

But there are far bigger points about what we should do about how we organise, and our politics, which are discussed by me and others in the article that I link to.

Journeyman said...

I was involved in many of the events referred to in Officer A's story - and I am kicking myself that I can't remember the individual.

I don't know whether to laugh or cry: The infiltration may have been a disturbing reminder of what the state really exits for - but it was also comically inept.

It all sounds like a tale of a wannabe Andy McNab-come-Serpico. I believe squaddies refer to such sad individuals as 'walts'.

Maybe he is looking for a book deal ...

ModernityBlog said...

Was anyone really truly surprised at Vanessa Redgrave's 180 degree about-face?

I certainly wasn't, having run across such people since the days of the Socialist Labour league, you always got the distinct impression they were just thespians playing at being "radicals for a day". Too shouty by half.

As if they were auditioning for a part in a Russian melodrama.

Younger readers will remember that Peter Hitchens was a shouty member of the SWP, before reverting to form as a Daily Mail bigot.

I think what is surprising is that we are surprised when that happens, but surely they are merely reverting to form (or class in this case)?

skidmarx said...

anyone with a passing acquaintance with the work of the SP and its predecessor, Militant, know political violence has never been part of its tradition.
Well mostly

Anonymous said...

This is a new training video warning about strange men with ponytails:-

andy newman said...

"Younger readers will remember that Peter Hitchens was a shouty member of the SWP, before reverting to form as a Daily Mail bigot."

or older readers even???

bob said...

Thanks for posting these responses.

I only just got around to reading the article, couldn't believe how poor it was.

It is a terrible indictment of the British state, and indeed of the Observer newspaper.

My thoughts here, for what it's worth:

Neil said...

Hannah Sell responds in Comment is Free on the Guardian Online

If you can please put a comment after the story. Even if its something like 'Good article' the more comments that are on the higher up the front page it will go.

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Jamie Freeborn said...

At Faslane peace Camp in the 80s we sang to the sound of pink floyd's wall in self mockery,
"Hey, peacecamp, leave our subs alone,
All in all your all just bums on the dole"
And it was true that we ran exclusively on giro cheques, but it would be nice to know if someone was supplimenting their income by. Was there a mole at the peace camp?
If there was it never did the state any good because there was only ever one or two secret demos, and they went off without a hitch.