Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn met a Soviet Bloc intelligence officer in the late-1980s, a report in The Sun newspaper revealed. Based on documents found in Czech archives, the paper reported that Corbyn – then an outspoken Labour backbencher – was approached by Czech State Security (the Státní bezpečnost or StB). Corbyn is reported to have warned a Czech agent about British Security Service (MI5) surveillance. While it sounds like the stuff of spy novels, the reality is more mundane and Corbyn was certainly not the only MP to fall foul of Eastern bloc spying methods.
The documents reveal that Czech StB thought Corbyn was “reserved and courteous”, occasionally “explosive” on human rights, but often “calm and collected”. The reports noted that the Labour backbencher was “negative towards the USA, as well as the present policies of the Conservative Government”. It said he took a “positive” view of the Eastern Bloc and was supporting a Soviet-backed peace initiative. The documents also claimed that Corbyn was “well informed” and knowledgeable on people in contact with anti-communist agencies.
Corbyn was initially approached by Tony Gilbert, the general secretary of the anti-colonial civil rights group Liberation, and another campaigner, Sandra Hodgson, before meeting the Czech officer in the House of Commons. The StB were keen to maintain contact and even assigned the future Labour leader the codename COB.
Labour has been quick to deny the reports and a spokesperson said: “Like other MPs, Jeremy has met diplomats from many countries. In the 1980s he met a Czech diplomat”. They added that Corbyn “had not offered any privileged information to this or any diplomat”.
The claims raised questions about Corbyn’s leadership credentials. “Mr Corbyn says he didn’t know, but it shows breathtaking naivety from someone who wants to head the British government”, intelligence academic Anthony Glees suggested. Conservative MP Michael Fabricant called Corbyn an “embittered fool” while MEP Daniel Hannan suggested that the “story would (if true) disqualify Corbyn from holding any elected office”.
‘Owns dogs and fish’
But the fact is that there is very little in this report that is revelatory. Corbyn’s views on the Thatcher government, US policy and Eastern Europe were known to many at the time. Contributions to Hansard and public speeches would have provided all this. After one meeting in October 1987, the StB reported that the conversation had focused on national liberation movements and Western policy in the Gulf. But the information – as even The Sun reported – “could not be utilised” as it was “limited to general nature”.
In other words, it was mere tittle-tattle or small talk. The intelligence was limited. As a backbencher on Labour’s fringe with little frontbench prospect, there wasn’t much information for Corbyn to give. “Owns dogs and fish,” the Stb reported back to Prague – hardly the crown jewels.
The Czechs may have wanted to cultivate Corbyn for information on the Labour Party and the Westminster bubble. The same report mentions that the StB officer met Corbyn in the Commons to “strengthen mutual recognition” and develop trust. But it would appear that contact was broken off shortly afterwards.
Spies, MPs and new recruits
In the 1960s, Czech defector Jozef Frolik revealed that three Labour MPs – John Stonehouse, Bernard Floud and Will Owen – had links to the StB. Stonehouse had been privy to sensitive information, but disappointed his handlers on the information he provided as a junior minister. Owen provided defence information and was known as “greedy bastard” in StB circles thanks to his demands for money and all-expenses paid holidays.
In 2012, claims also emerged that Conservative MP Raymond Mawby had provided information to the Czechs for a decade, including sensitive information about parliamentary colleagues. Mawby had been enticed to spy for the StB during off-the-record discussions about politics and trade unions, before being asked to provide “documents from Parliament”.
The StB reported that it paid Mawby for his information, gradually, “deepening the compromising of his position”. Mawby was vulnerable and loved gambling and money but provided little top secret information. Most was on internal Conservative Party politics, documents have since revealed. He eventually stood down in 1983 and died in 1990.
Eastern Bloc intelligence agencies were always on the lookout for new recruits. In 1975, the East German Stasi even tried to recruit Labour’s general secretary Ron Hayward – though he was likely unaware of the Stasi’s interest in him as a possible agent. “He likes chatting to women and is a heavy drinker”, reported the Stasi. Hayward was approached during a visit to the East Germany city of Dresden and commented on the “pulsating life” and wanted to avoid talk of “ideological differences”. Instead he wanted to focus on “united labour and the SED” (Socialist Unity Party). The approach failed and the Stasi quickly forgot about Hayward.
One of the more prominent targets for Eastern Bloc recruitment was Labour’s Harold Wilson. In 1956, the KGB gave him the codename OLDING and opened an “agent development file” in the hope of recruiting him. “The development did not come to fruition”, the KGB was forced to admit.
Trawling Eastern Bloc archives for names can also be problematic. Like their East German and KGB counterparts, the StB would embellish reports to justify meetings or show off growing influence. In the case of the KGB, the number and significance of contacts in the West were often exaggerated to impress the leadership and maintain funding.
So was Jeremy Corbyn a spy? Well the material proves very little other than the fact he met someone from the StB. Corbyn maintains he thought the individual was a diplomat – a cover regularly used by intelligence officers during the Cold War. Does this make Corbyn stand out? Absolutely not. How many other politicians, civil servants, businessmen and women and ordinary travellers unknowingly met Eastern Bloc intelligence officials during the Cold War? The number is certainly high.
The now Labour leader may well have been someone the StB wanted to cultivate but Corbyn provided little information that couldn’t have been obtained elsewhere. The story provides more on StB techniques and tradecraft than it does about 00-Corbyn.