5 April 2014

A police spy in Exeter in the late 1980s

In the late 1980s the socialist group, Devon Labour Briefing, was briefly infiltrated by a police spy.

In the second half of the 1980s, the people involved in Devon Labour Briefing met regularly in our house in Exeter. There was plenty of planning to do preparing for Labour Party meetings; attempts to expel me and two of my colleagues from the Labour Party had required court action; and there was a perennial need to discuss politics. Into one such meeting came a new alleged supporter of Briefing, a young man in his late twenties, fit but prematurely balding and overflowing with enthusiasm. My clearest memory of him was his squatting under the window in our front room and trying to chat with everybody present.

Before the start of the meeting, I had a short chat with him. Where had he heard of Devon Labour Briefing? Well, he had bought our magazine in a town bookshop, had become overwhelmed with interest, and so had decided to come along. Great! No, he was not a member of the Labour Party yet, but was very interested in joining. How exactly he had got hold of my address was left unsaid, but of course he was welcome to come in and meet the group.

I did not denounce him to the meeting because, although I thought he was a police spy, I couldn’t be one hundred percent sure at that point. I went out into the kitchen with a senior Briefing colleague and I discovered that we both had the same opinion. The last thing we wanted to do was insult someone wrongly who might go on to join us and boost the strength of the group. My knowing that he was probably a police spy allowed the tables to be turned at least half way: we could observe him, too.

I can’t now recall the flow of discussion in the meeting, but I do remember thinking about him during the meeting. In fact there was very little reason for concern: nothing that we did was illegal and most of our actions and pronouncements were in the public domain anyway. He could report what he liked to his superiors; and I supposed that he had only been sent along because there was little worthwhile undercover work to do in the south-west of England. How long would his infiltration last? What would happen if he were denounced? The danger, it seemed to me, was not what he would do in the group, but how to handle the fact that he was there. Should we state publicly the fact that Briefing had been infiltrated. What were the dangers involved in doing so?

If we published the information in Briefing, the news would spread immediately to Exeter Labour Party. For the right-wing Labourites who were tryring to expel Briefing supporters from the party the fact that the police were interested in Briefing would be a publicity coup. “Ah,” they would say, “Look, these Briefing people don’t just cause us problems, but they are criminals. Why else would the police worry about them?” I didn't see any advantage in letting that happen. The news would hardly help Briefing internally, either. By the mid 1980s Briefing had recruited supporters among Exeter University staff and other professionals, mostly in the education sector. I had always detected in many of them a desire for respectability, and telling them about police infiltrators might give them grounds for moving away from Briefing.

But there was another reason, too, for keeping all this quiet. Discussion of police infiltration, spying and surveillance in small close-knit groups often becomes a fascinating topic for its members and can lead to all types of paranoia and silliness. The focus of Briefing had to be our own survival in the Labour Party and our continued promotion of the issues that mattered. Getting excited about spying and police infiltration was a distraction.

A few years earlier a supporter of Briefing, who was not in Exeter Labour Party on the grounds that he was a member of the Party elsewhere, had offered to arrange to put one particular right-wing Labour opponent of ours in hospital “if it was useful.” I had heard first-hand accounts of his work with violence and disapproved strongly. We stuck firmly to the view that in the struggle inside Exeter Labour Party, we would not be the first to use violence.

Now it occurred to me that if anyone associated with Briefing in the past had been a police agent, it would have been that practitioner of violence himself. Had we accepted his poisoned ‘invitation,’ we might well have been entrapped. Additionally, if we had possessed a department which concerned itself with violence and other forms of illegality, this current infiltration by police would have caused a problem. The end result would have been that everything we did became concerned with undercover activities with the result that our political purposes would have suffered under the weight of such distractions.

At the end of the meeting the police spy expressed his continued interest in Briefing and asked whether we had any political literature for him to read. Genuine new recruits need it pushed down their throats. I had duplicates of nearly everything we had published and I handed them to him. He offered to pay for them, but I refused the money, telling him he could return them at a future meeting. Surely, he saw the importance of saving trees! Quite obviously, he had been told to pay for anything he took away, so was quite put out by my refusal to accept money.

A few days later the postman delivered a large A4 envelope containing all the propaganda material I had given him. Everything was in order and neatly clipped together. Inside the envelope was a scribbled note saying that he was no longer interested in Briefing. I have to admit that I felt a little let down because we hadn't warranted a more serious police investigation.

A week or so afterwards, I was walking down Exeter High Street when coming towards me was the young police spy. I put on my friendliest smile and greeted in him the warmest terms, giving every indication that I wanted to speak to him. He abruptly told me that he was in a hurry and almost ran away.

The 1980s were a time when the Thatcher government were interested in curtailing the rights of trades unions and restricting the powers of left-leaning local councils. They had little interest in attempting to control and repress the rest of civil society; that had to wait for the arrival of New Labour. No doubt, had that meeting in my house taken place twenty years later, FIT police officers would be openly filming everybody attending. But in those days we didn't see ahead to what our right-wing opponents in the Labour Party would do when in office.