A free press is essential to expose the revolving door between public and private surveillance

The line between those paid by the state to protect us, and those paid by corporations to protect themselves is increasingly blurred. We need proper public interest journalism to make sure stories like this can be told.

I wanted to write about press reform this week, but I got distracted by something I read on the internet. It was a story from last month’s Guardian, and it was about the energy company E.ON. You may have heard this tale , but it didn’t get the reaction it deserved, so it bears repeating. It was about a 2010 meeting between Dr Paul Golby, who was then the company’s CEO, and Ed Miliband, who was then the energy secretary. You’d think such meetings would be about infrastructure and investment, incentives for customers - that sort of thing. But Golby wanted to talk about something else.

He was there to talk about the sentences handed down to environmental protesters at the company’s power plants (protesters involved in direct action at Kingsnorth had been acquitted; another group were due to be sentenced for aggravated trespass at the Ratcliffe-on-Soar site). He wanted them to be given stiffer sentences. It transpired he’d raised this issue on several occasions prior to this, even writing to the department to "express his concern and highlight the impact upon the attractiveness of the UK's energy market for global investors". Letters had previously been sent to the business secretary, home secretary and justice secretary.

We’re not supposed to know about any of this: the details of the meeting were apparently released by accident due to a botched redaction by the Department of Energy and Climate Change in response to a Freedom of Information request. Ed Miliband has made no statement on the meetings, so we don’t know know whether, as a result of this, the department got in touch with the CPS or took any other action. You might be fine with all this. You might think that it’s a company’s right to protect its assets, right up to attempting to influence the justice system. But then you have to ask yourself, how far is it prepared to go beyond that? Which brings us back to Ratcliffe-on-Soar. In April 2009, police carried out the biggest pre-emptive raid on the environmental movement in history, arresting 114 people who were planning a protest at the station.

It would later transpire that they were acting on a tip-off from Mark Kennedy, the undercover policeman who infiltrated the environmental movement for seven years. Twenty-six protesters were charged. At the court of appeal, three judges would rule Kennedy unlawfully spied on them and arguably acted as an "agent provocateur". They would also say they shared the "great deal of justifiable public disquiet" about the case. But Kennedy was just a cop, doing his job on our behalf, right? Yet how close the ties between the company and the state seem around this time. Only that month, we would learn that officials from the then Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) handed confidential police intelligence about a planned demonstration at a proposed site for a coal power station to E.ON. How did it come by the information? David Howarth MP would say. "It is as though BERR was treating the police as an extension of E.ON's private security operation.”

And once you go down this rabbit hole and start to draw connections, you don’t half start to find some uncomfortable links between the private and public sector, in particular the revolving door between those paid by the state to protect us, and those paid by corporations to protect themselves. For instance, you go back to Kennedy. Kennedy was a public sector employee. But having left the police he set up a company at the work address of a former director of Global Open, a private security firm set up by Rod Leeming, a former investigator from special branch. Leeming would later tell the press that he had infiltrated operatives into protest groups while in the police, but that his company only advised others on security. Nevertheless, one of its clients was...E.ON.

And Global Open wasn’t the only private security firm engaged by E.ON. It also hired a company called Vericola, which in 2011 was found to have snooped on environmentalists’ emails. Vericola was also hired by Scottish Power, whose head of security, Gordon Irving, worked at Strathclyde Police for 30 years before taking the job. Vericola’s head, Rebecca Todd, was alleged by the press to have previously been an employee of C2i International, another private security firm, which prior to this had one of its operatives unmasked in the most calamitous manner imaginable (n.b - do click this link and read a staggering little story). This company was run by a former army officer, who now has a new company, Lynceus. Then you start digging around, and you discover in an old issue of Private Eye that one of its advisers is John Dearlove. The firm says Dearlove was “a member of the Cabinet Office Security and Intelligence Secretariat during the premiership of Mr Blair” but doesn’t mention that he is also the brother of Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6. So by now you've realised the revolving door from public to private surveillance is not only commonplace - it involves some very powerful people. By this point not only are you jibbering like Jack Nicholson at the end of Chinatown; you're wondering how impartial those who spy for the state can be.

And then you start to contemplate wider questions about surveillance in our society. This month alone, you hear two more stories. One, that an 88-year-old campaigner has won a lawsuit against the police for labeling him a “domestic extremist” and logging his records on a secret database, and you’re not remotely surprised to find it was done by the same unit for which Mark Kennedy worked. Two, that more than £3.9m has been spent by public bodies including the Department for Transport for surveillance work - including snooping on their own staff. And you think to yourself: I’m glad someone’s watching the watchmen.

Because someone is: journalists. Everything in this blog has been publicly reported, though not in the same place and not at the same time. The papers who reported on this are taking huge risks by covering the deeds of corporations that will fight tooth and nail to protect their interests - right up to the litigious lunacy of taking out of a £5m civil lawsuit against protesters who occupied a power plant.

I’d planned to write about the the staggeringly naive, snowballing incompetence of our political class’s attempts to reform the press this week, but I realised we've heard too much wailing from hacks. Moreover, the very fact I could construct this narrative simply by looking at publicly available works of journalism was as good a defence as any of why we do what we do, and why powerful people don't like it. Politicians pay lip service to dissent, but in practice it's part of their job description to silence it. If you want a great illustration, how many of you noticed what Chris Grayling has been up to this week?

Better journalists than I have explained why this week may very well make it harder for me - let alone you, until a last-minute panic - to hold power to account. The act of spying on the public - whether by private security firms working for the energy sector or by News International - needed to be exposed. We shouldn’t forget it required a more positive form of espionage to uncover both.

The crimes that lead to the Leveson Inquiry were horrific - but they were just that: crimes. Their victims won't be protected by a system reliant on a powerful libel system that generally operates only for the wealthy backers of the pro-regulation lobby. A free arbitration service is a better idea, but without safeguards the voices of genuine victims risk being lost once more. Many of the noises you'll have heard from journalists have been hysterical. I don't fear the prospect of a tougher code - indeed, I welcome it. But the Royal Charter's implementation has been a mess from day one. I seriously fear not for the sudden death of free speech, but for its gradual erosion.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Chuka Umunna calls for "solidarity" among Labour MPs, whoever is voted leader

The full text of shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna's speech to Policy Network on election-winning ideas for Labour's future, and the weaknesses of the New Labour project.

There has never been an easy time to be a social democrat (or “democratic socialist” as we sometimes call ourselves in Britain). Whereas the right can demonise the poor and extol the virtues of the market, and the hard left can demonise the market and extol the role of the state, our position of constraining the domination of markets and reforming the state is, by definition, more complex.

It is nonetheless the case that social democracy has a historic responsibility, in every generation, to renew democracy and preserve a civic culture. This is achieved not through soundbites and slogans, but through the hard-headed development of a progressive politics that reconciles liberty and democracy, new comers and locals to our communities, business and workers, in a common life that preserves security, prosperity and peace.  This historic mission is all the more urgent now and my determination that we succeed has grown not weakened since our election defeat last May.

But, in order to be heard, it is necessary to make balanced and reasonable argument that both animates and inspires our movement, and which is popular and plausible with the people.  The first is pre-requisite to the second; and there is no choice to be made between your party’s fundamental principles and electability. They are mutually dependent - you cannot do one without the other.

We are in the midst of choosing a new leader and it is clear to anyone who has watched the UK Labour Party leadership election this summer that amongst a significant number there is a profound rage against Third Way politics – as pursued by the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and others - as a rejection of our fundamental values.

In the UK there is a view that New Labour accepted an uncritical accommodation with global capital that widened inequality, weakened organised labour and we were too close to the US Republicans and too far from the European left.

I do not believe this is fair, not least because we rescued many of our public services from the scrap heap when we came to office in 1997 and there were very significant achievements  we should celebrate.  New Labour renewed our National Health Service in a fundamental way; we built new schools and improved existing ones; we set up new children’s centres all over the country; we brought in a National Minimum Wage; we worked with others to bring peace to Northern Ireland; we introduced civil partnerships.  Just some of our achievements.

However, though we may take issue with the critique, I do not think we can simply dismiss out of hand those who hold critical views of New Labour. Like any government, the New Labour administration made mistakes - it could and should have achieved more, and done more to challenge the Right’s assumptions about the world. In the end, it is not unreasonable to be ambitious for what your party in government can achieve in building greater equality, liberty, democracy and sustainability. It is far better we acknowledge, not reject, this ambition for a better world, as we seek to forge a new politics of the common good fit for the future.

Realising our values in office has been disrupted by globalisation and the surge of technological forces that are displacing and reshaping industry after industry.

Some argue that globalisation as an ideological construct of the right. But we must recognise that we live in an increasingly integrated world in which markets have led to an unprecedented participation of excluded people in prosperity, a rise in living standards for hundreds of millions  of people and a literacy unprecedented in human history – this is particularly so in emerging economies like my father’s native Nigeria. And the internet has led to a level of accountability that has disturbed elites.

Yet, this has been combined with a concentration of ownership that needs to be challenged, of a subordination of politics that requires creative rather than reactive thinking, and these global forces have exacerbated inequalities as well as helped reduce poverty.

So it is important that we understand the sheer scale and impact of new technologies. At the moment we are engaged in a debate about Uber and its threat to one of the last vestiges of vocational labour markets left in London, those of the black taxi cabs and their attainment of 'The Knowledge'. But the reality is that within the next decade there will be the emergence of driverless cars so we have to intensify our exploration of how to support people in a knowledge economy and the realities of lifelong learning, as well as lifelong teaching. As people live longer we will have to think about how to engage them constructively in work and teaching in new ways.

Once again, I'm addressing all of this, Social Democracy requires a balanced view that domesticates the destructive energy of capital while recognising its creative energy, that recognises the need for new skills rather than simply the protection of old ones. A Social Democracy that recognises that internationalism requires co-operation between states and not a zero sum game that protectionism would encourage.

Above all, Social Democratic politics must recognise the importance of place, of the resources to be found in the local through which the pressures of globalisation can be mediated and shaped. Our job is to shape the future and neither to accept it as a passive fate nor to indulge the fantasy that we can dominate it but to work with the grain of change in order to renew our tradition, recognising the creativity of the workforce, the benefits of democracy and the importance of building a common life.  Sources of value are to be found in local traditions and institutions.

This also requires a recognition that though demonstration and protest are important,; but relationships and conversations are a far more effective way of building a movement for political change.

One of the huge weaknesses of New Labour was in its reliance on mobilisation from the centre rather than organising. It therefore allowed itself to be characterised as an elite project with wide popular support but it did not build a base for its support within the party across the country, and it did not develop leaders from the communities it represented. It was strong on policy but weak on strengthening democratic politics, particularly Labour politics.

Over half a million people are now members, supporters or affiliated supporters of our party, with hundreds of thousands joining in the last few weeks. Some have joined in order to thwart the pursuit of Labour values but many more have joined to further the pursuit of those values, including lots of young people. At a time when so many are walking away from centre left parties across the Western world and many young people do not vote let alone join a party, this is surely something to celebrate.

So it is vital that we now embrace our new joiners and harness the energy they can bring to renewing Labour’s connection with the people. First, we must help as many them as possible to become doorstep activists for our politics. Second, I have long argued UK Labour should campaign and organise not only to win elections but to affect tangible change through local community campaigns. We brought Arnie Graf, the Chicago community organiser who mentored President Obama in his early years, over from the U.S. to help teach us how to community organise more effectively. We should bring Arnie back over to finish the job and help empower our new joiners to be the change they want to see in every community – we need to build on the links they have with local groups and organisations.

I mentioned at the beginning that in every generation Social Democracy is besieged from left and right but the achievements of each generation are defined by the strength of a complex political tradition that strengthens solidarity through protecting democracy and liberty, a role for the state and the market and seeks to shape the future through an inclusive politics. Solidarity is key which is why we must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office.

Yes, these are troubled times for social democrats. All over Europe there is a sense among our traditional voters that we are remote and do not share their concerns or represent their interests or values.  There is surge of support for populist right wing parties from Denmark to France, of more left wing parties in Greece and Spain and in Britain too. There is renewal of imperial politics in Russia, the murderous and abhorrent regime of ISIL in the Middle East, volatility in the Chinese economy and in Europe a flow of immigration that causes fear and anxiety.

But, the task of Social Democracy in our time is to fashion a politics of hope that can bring together divided populations around justice, peace and prosperity so that we can govern ourselves democratically. We have seen worse than this and weathered the storm. I am looking forward, with great optimism to be being part of a generation that renews our relevance and popularity in the years to come.

Chuka Umunna is the shadow business secretary and the Labour MP for Streatham.