Why it’s unfair to single out Jeremy Corbyn over MI5 surveillance

Ever get that feeling you’re being watched? Corbyn with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, 1995. John Stillwell/PA Wire/PA Images

The Telegraph newspaper has been making loud noises about its “exclusive” that Britain’s Security Service (MI5) opened a file on Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn in the early 1990s.

Corbyn was being investigated because of concerns about his “support for the Republican cause” in Ireland. A former insider with links to the investigation told the newspaper:

If there was a file on someone, it meant they had come to notice. We opened a temporary file and did a preliminary investigation. It was then decided whether we should open a permanent file on them.

It was unclear whether a permanent file was actually opened.

MI5 wasn’t the only organisation monitoring Corbyn. Peter Francis, a former officer in the Metropolitan Police’s controversial Special Demonstration Squad, revealed in 2015 that Corbyn was one of a number of Labour MPs – including Tony Benn, Peter Hain, Dennis Skinner and others – watched for their links with “radical causes or protests”.

Claims about Corbyn’s links with Sinn Féin and the IRA have become centre stage in the general election campaign. When interviewed by Sky News, the Labour leader refused to single out the IRA for its role in The Troubles, saying that “all bombing is wrong”. Corbyn’s team has defended his stance suggesting that links to Republican groups were to “bring about a peace process”.

Controversial stance

Corbyn’s links to prominent republicans is the subject of ongoing controversy. In 1984, shortly after the IRA killed five people in a bomb attack on the Conservative party conference in Brighton, Corbyn and fellow left-winger Ken Livingstone invited prominent figures in Sinn Féin to the House of Commons.

Then, two years later, Corbyn was arrested when attending a picket in London arranged by the Republican Troops Out Movement to protest the trial of Brighton Bomber Patrick Magee. In 1988, following the killing of eight IRA gunman in an SAS ambush at Loughgall, Corbyn told the Wolf Tone Society: “I’m happy to commemorate all those who died fighting for an independent Ireland.”

During the IRA’s campaign of violence, it’s suggested the Labour leader was involved in at least 72 events linked to pro-republican groups. Other members of Corbyn’s frontbench team – the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, and Diane Abbott have also come in for criticism for similar comments they’ve made.

Eyes on Labour

That MI5 opened a file on Corbyn isn’t a complete surprise, despite The Telegraph’s exclusive. We know that MI5 kept files on many people involved in certain movements at the time. These included trade unionists, those involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and other “radical” issues. In fact, there’s a long tradition of Labour MPs having MI5 files.

In the 1920s and 1930s MI5’s blanket surveillance of left-wing groups meant that a number of Labour MPs elected in 1945 had files on them. Stafford Cripps, wartime ambassador to the Soviet Union and a future chancellor of the exchequer, had an MI5 file owing to his support for the Communist-backed Popular Front Movement. Fears about Communist penetration of the Labour party meant that many left wingers were watched.

Corbyn joins a Bloody Sunday anniversary march in 1992. Jim James/PA Archive/PA Images

In 1947, MI5 provided the then-prime minister, Clement Attlee, with a list of several Labour MPs suspected of being crypto-Communists or “fellow travellers”. It included some of the party’s most visible figures – among them Elizabeth “Bessie” Braddock and political writer Harold Laski, who was briefly party chair. MI5 also monitored suspect Labour MPs in the 1950s and 1960s; the agency’s authorised history reveals that in the late 1960s, defector Joseph Frolik helped uncover links between Czech agents and three Labour parliamentarians.

MI5’s monitoring of MPs took a blow in the 1960s with the Wilson Doctrine. This banned the “tapping of the telephones of members of parliament” without Downing Street’s permission. Successive governments upheld the policy, though subject to strain in recent years.

Ironically, Harold Wilson himself was the subject of an MI5 file, held under the pseudonym “Norman John Worthington”, stoking conspiracy theories that the service tried to undermine him. The file was opened when Wilson first became MP and remained open during his tenure as prime minister from 1964 to 1970 and 1974 to 1976. However, he wasn’t the target of active surveillance.

Allegations about MI5’s surveillance of Labour MPs continued. In 1985, the MI5 whistle-blower Cathy Massiter revealed the service’s widespread monitoring of left-wing groups, especially the National Council for Civil Liberties, which had close links to the Labour party. Massiter’s claim that Patricia Hewitt, NCCL’s general secretary, and the organisations legal officer and Labour MP Harriet Harman were watched sparked a case before the European Court of Human Rights forcing the introduction of the 1989 Security Service Act.

Another MI5 former insider David Shaylor alleged in the 1990s that his service held files on Labour MPs, vetting them before elections. The names of Harmen and Joan Ruddock, CND’s chair between 1981 and 1985, were sent to the Labour party leadership. Livingstone was labelled a “dangerous subversive” and, like Corbyn, suspect because of links to Sinn Féin.

Others included Jack Straw – ironically a future home secretary and foreign secretary, responsible for MI5 and MI6 – who was considered a “communist sympathiser”. Peter Mandelson was also reportedly the subject of “two thick volumes” because of links to the Young Communist League while at university.

The suggestion that MI5 investigated Corbyn aren’t really a surprise. MI5’s history shows it has monitored other Labour MPs because of links to left wing and radical groups. These claims are yet another chapter in the stormy relationship between Labour and the security service. That said, the story has reignited a debate about Corbyn’s links to Irish republican groups just weeks ahead of the election, potentially damaging further his image with the British electorate.