Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 8 December 2000
Alf Lomas, the former Labour MEP for North East London who briefly led the British Labour Group in the European Parliament during the 1980s, was never my favourite politician. A numbskull Europhobe, he seemed to me to represent the worst of the old Labour left. I met him only once, when I debated the merits of the single European currency with him at a sparsely attended party meeting above a Labour club in Hackney. I remember him as extraordinarily rude – while I was speaking he made a point of noisily tearing up pieces of paper in a childish attempt to put me off – though I think his hostility might have been the result of some idiot telling him I was after his seat.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for him last week when he became the latest victim of the Sunday Times in its long-running campaign of naming and shaming supposed one-time Soviet bloc agents in the Labour movement. The allegation that he was an informant for the Stasi, the East German secret police, is not radically at odds with his publicly expressed sympathies for the police states of “actually existing socialism”. But given the Sunday Times ‘s record of making preposterous claims about reds under the bed – most notoriously when it claimed in 1995 that Michael Foot was a KGB agent – it is difficult to have any confidence in its judgment.
This sense is reinforced by what the paper did with what appears to be the most solid piece of evidence it has managed to dig up on this story, an index of key Stasi reports relating to Britain from the 1970s and 1980s. In print, the Sunday Times told a gripping tale of how it came to light, selectively reporting its contents to suggest that important figures in the Labour Party colluded with the East German spooks. It was only when readers went to the paper’s website, where the document was published without comment, that they could see what to any unblinkered observer is the real story it reveals – the extent to which the Stasi’s efforts in Britain were concentrated upon and directed against Labour and the non-communist left.
Dozens of the reports listed in the index relate to the internal affairs of the Labour Party: it is clear that the Stasi had informants, witting or unwitting, at party headquarters throughout the 1970s and 1980s. But far more of the entries are on the peace movement – with a particular emphasis on European Nuclear Disarmament, the campaign set up in 1980 by Edward Thompson, Ken Coates, Mary Kaldor and others to push for a “nuclear-free Europe from Poland to Portugal”.
END (of whose magazine I was deputy editor) made a point of opposing Soviet nuclear arms, supporting independent movements in the Soviet bloc against them. As well as playing a key role in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament – notably in ensuring that its pro-Soviet minority was effectively marginalised for most of the 1980s – its activists visited eastern Europe to engage in face-to-face dialogue with dissidents and peace groups. To the Stasi, we were the enemy, a “hostile peace movement”, and the Sunday Times document suggests that the East German spooks had at least eight people filing reports on our activities.
I was never so naïve as think the Stasi would have turned a blind eye to END, and last year a television documentary by the journalist David Rose revealed that it had a mole inside the organisation in London. But the scale of Stasi attention suggested by the Sunday Times document is genuinely surprising. END, though undoubtedly influential, was always a small group, with a core in Britain of some 200-300 people and perhaps a few thousand active sympathisers who read the magazine, came along to meetings and gave the group money.
So how come the Stasi took us so seriously? It doesn’t fit in with the Sunday Times view of the world, according to which everyone on the left is tainted by being “soft” on communism, but the reason is that we were a thorn in the side of the Soviet bloc authorities. By shouting loudly about Soviet militarism as well as Nato’s nuclear modernisation, we effectively undermined their efforts to portray themselves as the friends of the peace movement – which in turn ensured that the pro-Soviet caucus in CND never got anywhere. And by engaging publicly with dissidents and independent peaceniks in the eastern bloc, we challenged in a small way the legitimacy of single-party police-state socialism.
Of course, it’s ancient history now. But as long as the likes of the Sunday Times see fit to smear the left as dupes of Moscow and its satellites, it remains essential to make it clear that, in fact, most of us weren’t.