Governments and police colluded with private agencies to blacklist activists, report confirms
An Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI) report, published 23 January 2023, has confirmed UK governments colluded with a private blacklisting agency and an intelligence-gathering agency.
The blacklisting agency is the Economic League (EL), which operated from 1919 until it went into liquidation in 1993 (this author played a key role in the EL’s demise). Businesses subscribed to the EL to access its files. Individuals were blacklisted if they were considered ‘subversive’ or a trade union activist.
The intelligence-gathering agency that focused on trade union militancy is the Industrial Research & Information Service (IRIS). In the early 1960s, IRIS received £40,000 from the Macmillan-led Conservative government. Ford and Shell also provided funds. That money helped to recruit undercover intelligence-gatherers to infiltrate trade unions. IRIS operated into the 1990s.
UCPI: government and undercover police colluded with blacklisters
The UCPI report included the admission that government and undercover police colluded with IRIS and the EL. It stated:
The records suggest that subversion in industry was the principal concern of Government. There was a wish to “…close the gap between knowledge about subversion and action to counter it”. In this connection there are references within the documents to IRIS Ltd. and the Economic League. It seems from the documents that government was aware of these entities, used them to further its agenda, encouraged their activities and considered them useful.
The report added how the Prime Minister’s office advised two industrialists to:
seek the help of the Economic League or Industrial Research and Information Service Limited (IRIS).
League Watch co-founder Mike Hughes told the Canary:
After forty years of studying the history of the Economic League I had given up hope of seeing this sort of conclusive evidence that the League was engaging not just with front line domestic security services, but were 100% integral to “counter subversion” policies at the very highest levels of government. And those were the governments of Wilson, Heath, Callaghan, and Thatcher.
In 2020 Unite the Union told the UCPI that trade unionists were spied on “for four decades”. Unite specifically referred to the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), a Special Branch unit that specialised in undercover operations. It cannot be ruled out that SDS intelligence may have been leaked to “organisations which used them for blacklisting purposes”, says the UCPI report. However, the report does not elaborate further on this.
IRIS as “anti-communist creation”
Hughes pointed out that IRIS was an “anti-communist creation of trades-unionists and Labour party members”. For example, IRIS directors included the heads of the Iron & Steel Trades Confederation and the Amalgamated Engineers Union.
IRIS appointed industrialists as trustees. They included construction magnate and former National Coal Board chair Lord McAlpine; and former chair of the National Coal Board Lord Robens.
One example of IRIS at work concerned the picketing in 1972 of firms in the Shrewsbury area. That was in support of a nationwide construction workers’ strike. 24 pickets were arrested, six of whom were convicted of a number of offences and three imprisoned.
In February 2021, the Canary reported an appeal court hearing by 14 of the pickets. The court heard that IRIS provided background information to an anti-union documentary, Red Under The Bed. It included footage of the picketing. There was also evidence that prime minister Edward Heath played a part in the production of the documentary. The documentary was aired by ITV as the prosecution closed its case. During the judge’s summing up it was broadcast a second time.
But justice prevailed. On 23 March 2021 the appeal court ruled that the pickets’ convictions were quashed.
Thousands of workers blacklisted
Conservative politicians and industrialists created the EL. At least 40,000 workers were blacklisted over several decades. It’s known that around 700 companies subscribed to the EL.
In Spies At Work, Hughes pointed out:
The Economic League’s blacklisting overlapped with the state’s domestic intelligence services… We know, definitely that in the years before the Second World War the League supplied and received information from Special Branch and Naval Intelligence and that during the General Strike it was reporting to the Prime Minister.
Michael Noar, EL director general 1986-89, admitted:
of course, the police and Special Branch are interested in some of the things we are interested in. They follow the activities of these groups in much the same way as we do and therefore they do get in touch with us from time to time and talk to us and say ‘were you at this demonstration or that’.
Jack Winder, who worked for the EL, told a parliamentary inquiry that he had meetings with Special Branch for “general chit-chat”. The 2016 Reuben report into blacklisting also confirmed that the EL was in contact with Special Branch.
Here is an example of an EL file (supplied by the author):
The threat of blacklisting
Thankfully, the EL and IRIS – as well as the EL’s cut-down successor, the Consulting Association – are now history. However, we should never ignore that history. Today, as when the EL and IRIS were active, anti trade union sentiment is largely driven by the government. The proposed anti-strike bill seeks to curtail strike action and could force strikers to work during industrial action. None of this is possible, of course, without mainstream corporate media doing what they can to denigrate striking workers.
If there’s one lesson we can take from the emerging information about the EL it’s that workers face stiff opposition in a fight for our rights. Whilst methods and technology may change, British governments have a demonstrably long history of trying to suppress union activity. It’s more important than ever that workers continue their commitment to achieving better pay and conditions for all.
Thus the class war continues – and we should prepare to meet every threat.
Featured image via YouTube screenshot/Reel News
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