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21 February 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:17pm

“The most vulnerable targets”: Why the Soviet Union loved both Labour and Tory MPs

During the Cold War, MPs from both main parties were wined, dined and pumped for gossip. 

By Daniel Lomas

Jeremy Corbyn has vigorously refuted claims by The Sun that he was targeted by Czechoslovak State Security (the Státní bezpečnost StB). The paper published a file from the Soviet-era archive, and claimed Corbyn was vetted by an agent posing as a diplomat. A spokesman for the Labour leader said Corbyn was unaware that the diplomat was a spy, and Corbyn himself later called the reporting ridiculous smears”.

Critics of the right-wing media have pointed to previous attempts to link Labour leaders to lurid warnings of “reds under the beds”. And indeed, even without the mischief-making of right-wing tabloids, Soviet-era files reveal a tendency by agents to overstate and exaggerate. Nevertheless, the allegation serves a useful reminder that Members of Parliament can become easy targets for foreign intelligence activity.

MPs were actively targeted during the Cold War. They were influential, tended to enjoy a gossip, and always had the chance of promotion to the frontbench. Their jobs involved meeting foreign dignitaries, union officials and campaign groups. They were well placed to pass on information – however minor. StB defector Frantisek August believed that, of all the possible British targets, MPs were “the most vulnerable”. 

In 1972 MI5’s Director-General Martin Furnival Jones told the Franks Committee on the reform of Britain’s Official Secrets Act that MPs were routinely targeted. “If the Russian Intelligence Service can recruit a backbench Member of Parliament … and climbs the ladder to a Ministerial position, it is obvious the spy is home and dry,” warned Furnival Jones. At the very least, Russian spies wanted information on “what they should be looking for in other places”. Tittle-tattle and gossip could be useful. The Soviet Union’s security agency, the KGB, had a “voracious appetite for party political information”, the committee was warned.

KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky identified several categories of MPs. The most important were fully signed up agents regularly meeting with their handlers. Others did “little jobs” or “ran errands”. Many more were classified as “confidential contacts”. These links would develop “on the basis of ideological and political affinity, [and] material interest”. The final group could include MPs sharing gossip with Eastern Bloc diplomats or (unknowingly) intelligence officers.

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MPs from both main parties were targeted, with mixed results. In the 1960s, KGB officer Mikhail Lyubimov was posted as press attaché to the Soviet Embassy. He frequented London’s smoke-filled bars searching for recruits. “I went to the parties. I even danced with the Conservative members,” recalled Lyubimov about his time at the 1962 Conservative Party conference. Lyubimov enjoyed modest success; he recruited an MP’s personal secretary, yet had little luck with anyone else. He was expelled from the UK in 1965.

One Conservative victim of KGB entrapment was the MP for Harrow Anthony Courtney. During a visit to Moscow, Courtney fell for a classic “honey trap”, allowing the KGB to covertly take pictures of him in a hotel room with a young woman, Zina Volkov. Several years later, back in Britain, the pictures were sent to Labour and Conservative chief whips, his constituency party and new wife. Rejecting pressure to spy, Courtney’s marriage fell apart and he lost his seat at the next election.

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Other Conservative MPs were targeted while visiting the Russian Embassy – something done by MPs of both sides. It seems that some veteran politicians were also happy to be freeloaders, though. The KGB’s Oleg Gordievsky revealed that former Minister Julian Amery was a regular visitor to the Embassy who “enjoyed himself … but always upheld the British line”. 

One paid-up StB agent was Ray Mawby, Conservative MP for Totnes, who provided information to the Czechoslovaks for a decade ending in November 1971. Much of the information was of little importance. Rumours about fellow MPs, Parliamentary Committees and general small talk ended up in Czech hands.

Labour MPs were the most vulnerable and provided willing recruits. Tom Driberg, Labour MP for 28 years (pictured above), a one-time Labour chairman, was listed in Soviet files as a KGB agent (codenamed Lepage). Raymond Fletcher, the MP for Ilkeston was named as working for the KGB and StB by the Soviet defector Vasili Mitrokhin, while Czechoslovak defector Josef Frolik gave the names of three Labour backbenchers – John Stonehouse (whose colourful career also involved faking his own death), Bernard Floud and Will Owen – who provided a range of information to their handlers. 

More Labour MPs fell into the “confidential contacts” category. Widespread anti-Americanism, fear of nuclear war and an affinity to socialist ideology led many on the left to talk to Eastern Bloc diplomats and spies – however unpalatable this may seem now. The diaries of Kremlin insider Anatoly Chernyaev describe Labour General Secretary Ron Hayward glowingly calling the Soviet Union a “clear guarantor of peace” during a secret visit to the Soviet Embassy. Hayward’s left-wing views made him a possible intelligence target, yet the East German Stasi declared him “unsuitable” as a source.

Hayward’s case underlines an important point. The avowed pro-Soviet policies views of many on the Labour left often ruled them out as intelligence assets. Labour’s Tony Benn was deemed too “stupid” to be a KGB source. “He was an unnecessary simpleton, who told left-wing fairytales and falsified stories,” Gordievsky later confessed. Even those identified in Eastern Bloc archives, such as Corbyn allegedly is, were in no position to provide detailed information, just small talk. Intelligence reports were often sensationalised. In 1978, the KGB’s London residency even took credit for a parliamentary question from Labour’s James Lamond. In fact, Lamond had no links to the KGB, yet Moscow Centre was happy to receive these distortions as proof of success.

Fully paid-up assets such as Driberg, Owen and others were a minority. While many left-wing MPs knowingly talked to Eastern Bloc officials out of ideological affinity, MPs from both sides of the House of Commons could also become unwitting sources of information. Some would be actively cultivated, even if they were unaware of the approaches. 

Today, in the new information age, intelligence agencies and hackers can easily steal information online. In June 2017 Iran carried out a “brute force” cyber attack on Parliament lasting more than 12 hours and compromising around 90 email accounts. The hackers targeted the accounts of MPs and parliamentary aides with “weak” passwords. Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen said the attack could “absolutely” have left some people open to blackmail

But traditional methods can still be used. While the collapse of Communism marked an end to the ideological spy, vices like drink, money and sex remain. In 2010, police detained the parliamentary aide of the Liberal Democrat MP Mike Hancock, Katia Zatuliveter, who was a young Russian national. Although an immigration panel later cleared her of any wrongdoing, the furore around the case showed the sensitivity that remains around the subject. MPs will also impart information to diplomats, journalists and businesspeople, unaware that these nuggets may eventually reach a foreign power. The UK’s intelligence agencies currently judge that China and Russia pose a significant threat to UK security, with economic, defence and political information high on the agenda. It’s only to be expected that MPs will remain a target.

Dr Dan Lomas is a lecturer in international history and the programme leader for the MA in Intelligence and Security Studies at the University of Salford.