Rogue traders

The right wing of the Labour Party has long used MI5 and MI6 to manipulate the press. Now, the biter is bit. Why, asks Tim Luckhurst, are they complaining?
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There is no grudge like an old grudge, and the Labour Party's suspicions about a vicious conspiracy between the press and the security services is older than most. It was on 9 October 1924 that the Foreign Office received a letter, purporting to come from the president of the Comintern, Grigori Zinoviev, urging British Communists to prepare for class war. A fortnight later, the forgery was published by the Daily Mail. To the Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, and his first Labour government, the Zinoviev letter was a crippling blow. It cast their policy of rapprochement with the Soviet Union in a gravely unflattering light.

Harried by some typically forthright Mail headlines, including "Civil War Plot by Socialists' Masters" and "Moscow Order to Our Reds", Labour was defeated in the general election of 29 October.

Dr David Miller, of the Media Research Unit at Stirling University, says collusion between the security services and the press to undermine Labour governments did not stop then. "They forged allegations that Merlyn Rees (a Labour Secretary of State for Northern Ireland) was giving money to the IRA. They thought Harold Wilson was a KGB agent." Later, similar false allegations about Michael Foot were fed to The Sunday Times. Foot won the libel case.

So, to some Labour traditionalists, John Reid's astonishing claim last week that rogue agents are trying to undermine the Government may not look implausible. Richard Aldrich, professor of politics at Nottingham University, is an expert on the relationship between the Labour Party and the security services. Aldrich says, "On the left of the Labour Party, there is a streak of paranoia about the security services that is a mile wide. But the relationship between Labour's social-democratic right and the security services has usually been good. Jim Callaghan was very keen on them. Blair was, at least until last week."

Long before Iraq, the party became extremely adroit at using spies to manipulate journalists. The story began on the Queen Mary liner, shortly after the Second World War. Labour's Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, was returning from New York, where he had suffered a bruising at the hands of the Soviet delegation to the United Nations. Christopher Mayhew, a viscerally pro-American junior minister, persuaded Bevin that it was time to start making use of the security services to influence popular opinion. The result was the International Relations Department (IRD), a propaganda team made up of serving MI5 and MI6 agents and former members of the wartime Political Warfare Executive.

The IRD specialised in spinning anti-Communist Cold War propaganda to the British intelligentsia via the press, in the form of unattributable briefings, sometimes distributed via the Labour Party.

Aldrich says: "While Labour ministers were publicly complaining about spy paranoia, IRD was feeding this appetite with a stream of revelatory tales. The Labour Party used IRD to sell social democracy."

No doubt Reid and Tony Blair are aware of those episodes. But the bigger reality is that both men are veterans of the struggle between right and left factions within the Labour Party. Given that background, they should know that Labour's leadership elite has a fine tradition of spinning security information to journalists, and it is thus more often the aggressor than the victim.

This context raises doubts about the Prime Minister's claims that "rogue" agents are seeking to damage him by questioning the legitimacy of his assertions about Iraqi weapons programmes. Dr Simon Ball, Head of modern history at Glasgow University, says, "In government, Labour has tended to be very supportive of the security service. There is nothing in it for the security service in toppling a government. They are just defending themselves." The implication is that Mr Blair and Dr Reid are defending themselves against the fury of agents who know they have been exploited by Labour politicians, just as much as by Conservatives, and resent being scapegoated in the media by a party they have served with great loyalty.