After the new Lawrence scandal, the Met can't afford to come up empty this time

The long era of the cover-up has unravelled, for perhaps the last time. Transparency now is crucial to any credible effort to restore trust.

The most troubling aspect of Peter Francis’s allegations that his role as an undercover police officer included instructions to "find dirt" on the family and supporters of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence is how much less shocking this news is than it should be.

The revelations in last night’s Dispatches programme, and a new book on undercover policing from Paul Lewis and Rob Evans, have led news bulletins and led to emergency statements in the House of Commons. If Francis’s allegation of a conscious decision to withhold the knowledge of the existence of the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) involvement in the Lawrence case from a public inquiry is true, that would be the most indefensible of cover-ups. Yet this would also fit the pattern of earlier revelations, over the years, about this historic failure of policing.

The truth is that the Met Police has always remained deeply conflicted about the Lawrence case. Indeed, it is that long, defensive pattern of ambivalence over being called to account which helps to explain why, even two decades on, the force is embarking on yet another process to discover how deep its own failures went. The official line was that the force held its hands up, pledging to learn the lessons and bring about change, yet the Met often seemed to calculate how little it could escape with admitting. So former commissioner Sir Paul Condon apologised to the Lawrence family, part way through the Macpherson inquiry after the complacency of its earlier reviews of the case had been starkly exposed in cross-examination. He could admit that the family had been failed, but resisted any acknowledgement of what the inquiry called "institutional racism", though perhaps using that most emotive of terms rather than "discrimination" for the systemic racial disadvantage in outcomes made this harder. The Met pledged significant change after Macpherson and did make some serious attempts to make progress yet this ambivalence about the inquiry’s outcome also established a habit of challenging the recommendations as an impediment to effective policing, not a driver towards it. Given that the challenge was of cultural change, this set important limits on how deep it would go.

Duwayne Brooks was with Stephen Lawrence when he was killed. The Met acknowledged at the inquiry that they had never properly supported him as a victim of crime. This was not simply a sin of omission. Significant resources went into investigating a victim, while the murder inquiry went nowhere, except to be damaged by the additional pressure put on a vulnerable witness. Brooks’s own book Steve and Me, published in 2003, offers a jaw-dropping account of a gruelling campaign to destroy his reputation. He was later awarded damages from the Met. A proper inquiry into the SDS exercise might help to explain how this happened.

Brooks, now a Lewisham councillor, has shown impressive resilience to survive these successive ordeals. It is a sobering thought, yet it is almost certainly true, that had he been murdered and his friend Stephen survived, none of the events that were to change social, political and legal history would have happened. For even for a measure of justice to be done for Stephen Lawrence, it somehow had to be established, well beyond any reasonable doubt, that the teenager was the very archetype of a blameless victim; and that nothing could be pinned on his family or even the broader campaign in his support. Duwayne Brooks’s personal story, he had left home and was living in a hostel, may have failed to meet the excessively high threshold for a crime shocking enough for us all to care about the failure to solve it. The stark failures would have remained safely under the carpet.

The long failure to protect the vulnerable victims of sexual grooming shows the cost to justice paid when a focus on the credibility of victims can hand impunity to perpetrators.

The Lawrence family also faced several, ultimately unsuccessful, attempts to marginalise their own campaign. It took four years for Stephen Lawrence’s case to gain a sustained national profile. Many rightly consider Paul Dacre’s "Murderers" front-page of February 1997 as the Daily Mail’s finest hour. It was a crucial and transformative intervention, and was an important staging post to new Home Secretary Jack Straw’s decision to announce a public inquiry.

Things might have turned out very differently. The Mail’s very first report on the Lawrence case had been a more sceptical one, under the headline "How Race Militants Hijacked a Tragedy", in May 1993, the month after the murder. The report questioned the role of campaigners who had "brought in Nelson Mandela on the short path towards the making of a cause" and looked at how a march on the BNP headquarters in Welling had led to violence and rioting.

The Lawrence family worked closely with a range of trusted, anti-racist activists to promote the Justice for Stephen campaign. Yet the Lawrences also took care to avoid the type of support which could distract from or discredit their cause. They immediately condemned the violence in Welling as a dangerous distraction and, in its wake, formally wrote to warn particular groups, including Panther UK, who they feared were less interested in campaigning for justice than in using their son’s name and tragedy for their own ends. It could turn out that these efforts to protect the campaign’s purpose and integrity were a highly prudential way to frustrate the undercover effort.

Anybody who lived near Eltham in the 1990s will also know that there were significant BNP-inspired attempts to fuel a street counter-narrative of rumour and smear in the Eltham and Greenwich area for several years in the 1990s, a phenomenon explored in depth in Roger Hewitt’s excellent Cambridge University Press book White Backlash. Ranging from unfounded allegations that a black gang may have committed the murder to attempts to smear the victim’s character. It would be important to investigate that the undercover police dirt-digging exercise did not play any role in fanning this rumour mill.

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Policing has changed since the early 1990s but too slowly. There has been good work on engaging communities on tackling gun crime, yet disproportionate stop and search ratios have barely shifted. Richard Stone, an adviser to the Macpherson inquiry, pointed out in his recent book that efforts to diversify the Met leadership have stalled, with a fall in the number of potential non-white candidates reaching the rungs just below the apex. That story of gradual, and sometimes glacial advance is reflected in sensibly cautious public attitudes. Six out of ten people believe there was a deep-seated problem of racism in the Met when Stephen Lawrence was killed, with only 7 per cent disagreeing with that broad consensus. A similar proportion are hopeful that the response today would be quicker, fairer and less racist, but Londoners and non-white Britons are less likely to think so. Only one in three ethnic minority Britons believe that policing is generally fair.

The challenge to win confidence in policing is not only a question of race. British Future returned to Eltham this spring to hold a citizens' jury on the 20th anniversary of the Lawrence murder, bringing together 38-year-olds who were Stephen Lawrence's peers with 18-year-olds in the area today. This Eltham citizens’ jury agreed that race relations had improved considerably. It was possible to identify an "integration consensus" when that would not have been the case in the much more racially polarised mid-1990s.

The most contentious issue was policing - but this was now as much a question of age as race. Across ethnic and class backgrounds, the 18-year-olds had a shared experience of mutual mistrust from their experiences of policing. They found the police’s presentation to the jury group unpersuasive. David Lammy and Gavin Barwell, who attended the event to hear the citizens’ jury findings told the participants that the same story could be heard across London, from Tottenham to Croydon. They agreed with the Eltham participants that there were too few Londoners in the Met, including white and non-white Londoners.

"Policing can only work through consent", said Gavin Barwell, a point he has reiterated in stressing the importance of investigating the new allegations. A constructive reform agenda might emphasise issues which demonstrate how good community relations will enable and assist good policing, rather than impede it. A CCTV camera in every police van, for example, would protect the reputation of good police officers while offering securer protection for citizens too.

What hope for deeper change this time? Many may take much persuading. Yet it is that long history of reluctant retreat which makes the tone of the initial response from the Metropolitan Police quite striking. "At some point it will fall upon this generation of police leaders to account for the activities of our predecessors, but for the moment we must focus on getting to the truth", said the Met on Sunday night as the news broke. Curiouser still, precisely the same line was used to respond to revelations about the McLibel case at the end of last week, before being recycled and reused a second time as the Lawrence story broke. There is a clear hint that Commissioner Hogan-Howe could decide it is in his interests to cross the Rubicon by standing decisively on the side of robust disclosure, external rather than internal scrutiny and cleaning house. But it would be a big strategic choice, and he would have to move quickly and robustly, to avoid being stranded mid-river.

There will surely be internal pressure for the Met not to have the type of "Khruschev moment" which the statement implies. Hogan-Howe’s holding statement yesterday - emphasising the practical difficulties in piecing together information from reluctant ex-colleagues – sounded like an effort to manage expectations.

The Met cannot afford to come up empty this time. The long era of the cover-up has unravelled, for perhaps the last time. Transparency now is crucial to any credible effort to restore trust.

A general view of a sign outside New Scotland Yard in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.