The ongoing judicial inquiry into the so-called “spy cops scandal”, involving the actions of the Metropolitan Police Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), promises little relief for victims and an even smaller chance of systemic reforms. The SDS was the undercover body tasked with investigating workers’ organisations and left wing groups and campaigns from 1968 to 2008. As part of these undercover investigations, undercover operatives committed many egregious breaches of human rights and the law.

The organisations spied on by the police include many trade unions like Unite, Unison and the CWU, the family-led campaign for justice for the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence and socialist organisations, including our forerunner organisation International Socialists. Over more than four decades, at least 139 police officers were deployed undercover to monitor more than 1,000 political groups.

The motto of the SDS was “by any means necessary”, an approach liberally applied in their attempts to incriminate dedicated activists and trade unionists. The investigations were not designed to obtain evidence for use in criminal prosecutions; instead, police officers were encouraged to rely on “hearsay” and “tittle-tattle” in order to obtain “dirt” and “disinformation” which could be used to discredit and disrupt workers’ organisations. The police passed on intelligence on these groups to big companies, who then blacklisted activists from employment.

The aspect of these “investigations” which has garnered the most controversy is the use of sexual relationships as a means to gain access to political organisations. Male undercover officers were encouraged to use “promiscuity” to integrate themselves into radical circles, in at least three cases even leading to operatives having children with female activists.

The SDS was disbanded in 2008 because, according to a senior officer, it had “lost its moral compass”. However, long term infiltration of left-wing groups continued in another unit, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU). Additionally, the government, with the full support of the Labour Party under Sir Keir Starmer’s management, are currently progressing the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill, which will legalise criminal activity by undercover police officers.

Justice denied

Theresa May launched the public inquiry into the spy cops scandal in 2014 when she was Home Secretary. The inquiry promised to be “committed to transparency”. However, undercover officers have repeatedly delayed progress by making applications to protect their identities. The inquiry is currently expected to run until 2023, with further delays likely.

Many of these applications have been approved to protect the spies from “danger” or on the somewhat ironic grounds of protecting their privacy, despite the majority of these deployments being decades old and involving the infiltration of peaceful protest groups. This will prevent the victims from being able to challenge the claims made by these anonymous officers, as even their fake identities are being withheld.

It is clear that the true purpose of the inquiry is not to achieve justice for those activists and trade unionists who were victimised by the spies, or to hold the police to account in any meaningful way. Instead the aim is to provide a smoke-screen to diffuse public anger and deflect this into the labyrinths of the bourgeois justice system, resulting in delay and demoralisation. 

This strategy has already been successfully used in the cases of the Hillsborough disaster and the Iraq war. The appointment of Sir John Mitting, an establishment shill of the highest order, to lead the inquiry will inevitably yield further bias in favour of the police and makes the result a foregone conclusion.

The bourgeois justice system is set up to appear as impartial, and to be acting in the pursuit of justice for all people regardless of their class or background. However, as an organ of the capitalist state, it is in reality an institution designed to protect the state and private corporations against those who seek to obtain justice from below. 

The police are the front line of this system. Riddled at a general level with racism, anti-poor and anti-union prejudices, at its extreme reaches the state rewards its agents with the right to deadly violence with impunity and even sexual gratification. 

In order to obtain true justice for the victims of these disgraceful undercover operations, socialists should demand:

  • A full inquiry led by workers’ organisations, campaigns and unions – no whitewash.
  • Full disclosure of the secret identities and full names of those involved, so that victims can identify their persecutors, challenge their lies and seek justice.
  • Full access to police records, unredacted, so that the superior officers who ordered these tactics can be held to account.
  • For a mass movement, rooted in the workplace and community, against police harassment and racism – disband the TSG, and all secret and armed units.