Ten years ago today, the Guardian broke the story of an illegal blacklist orchestrated by the country’s largest building contractor. The Consulting Association spied on construction workers who had the temerity to stand up for their rights or raise concerns about safety. It directly carried on the work of the notorious Economic League, an organisation that kept a list of alleged leftwing “trouble makers” who were often denied jobs. When it was closed down in 2009, the Association’s database held personal information on more than 3,000 workers, who were repeatedly denied work and endured long periods of unemployment and family hardship as a consequence.
On this anniversary, a new released police report proves that it was not just the building firms spying on us. The UK’s secret political police were also supplying information to the blacklist. Operation Reuben was the internal police investigation into blacklisting launched after disclosures in the media and parliament. The report by ex-chief constable Mick Creedon on Operation Reuben’s findings unequivocally states: “Police, including Special Branches and the security services supplied information to the blacklist funded by the country’s major construction firms, The Consulting Association.”
It continues: “Special Branches throughout the UK had direct contact with the Economic League.”
The Metropolitan police even had a Special Branch Industrial Unit that specifically monitored union activists “from teaching to the docks … attending conferences and protests personally, and developing well-placed confidential contacts”.
The unit also received intelligence gathered by undercover police officers from the now disgraced Special Demonstration Squad (SDS). As revealed by the Guardian, this unit broke official rules and ignored ethical issues by hiding evidence, forming relationships with female campaigners and spying on the family of Stephen Lawrence. Mark Jenner, an SDS officer who infiltrated the construction union UCATT for three years, provided intelligence on over 300 individuals.
But the police admission didn’t come easy. The Met repeatedly denied any involvement in blacklisting. Far from being open and transparent; the Creedon Report (which is exempt from freedom of information requests) sat on the desk of the Met commissioner for two and a half years because of its political sensitivity. A bland summary was released to the public. The full report was only disclosed to the Blacklist Support Group because of our status as core participants in the public inquiry into undercover policing overseen by Sir John Mitting.
Operation Reuben looks more like a preparation for the police defence at any public inquiry than a forensic attempt to uncover wrongdoing. One simple example demonstrates the police approach. In 1999, three union activists were spoken to by police while on a demonstration against the National Front laying a wreath at the Cenotaph. The Creedon Report names the uniformed officer and the various different departments within the Met Special Branch that the intelligence was provided to. This same very specific information is recorded on The Consulting Association blacklist files for the three same individuals, with the information provided by a construction company with proven links to Special Branch. The internal police investigation concludes that there is no evidence to suggest the information originated from the police. This is laughable.
Like many core participants in the public inquiry who have been kept under surveillance by the SDS, blacklisted workers have lost all faith in the police to deliver a truthful account of their undercover operations. Do we expect justice from the inquiry? No. But if we keep shaking the tree, we will see what else falls out. The Creedon Report is one fruit from that strategy.
If Mitting releases the cover names of all the undercover officers and forces the police to disclose all the evidence – not just to the unions but to all the family justice campaigns, political parties, anti-racist and environmental groups – then perhaps the inquiry will produce something worthwhile. Unfortunately, teams of silver-tongued lawyers acting on behalf of various arms of the state (and funded by the taxpayer) are trying to convince the inquiry to grant anonymity orders to former SDS officers and allow crucial evidence to be withheld. Mitting seems more than willing to follow the lead of the police on these issues. This should not happen.
Ten years ago, if someone had told me undercover political police were spying on my union activities I would have dismissed them as a conspiracy theorist. I was wrong; things like this do happen in the UK and they continue to this day. Neither the blacklist nor the spycops scandals were exposed by the police. In fact those in authority have done all they can to cover up human-rights violations by the state. Democracy has been served by activists, investigative journalists and campaigning lawyers. We’re not going away.