It’s fair to say that not all Labour activists will always have had a positive opinion of the police. Whilst I’ve always respected those who are willing to put themselves on the line to ensure public safety and maintain order, the Labour movement’s relationship with the thin blue line hasn’t always been simple.
In particular, the way that the miner’s strike was policed in the 80s – the Battle of Orgreave being the most obvious example – stirred up a great deal of discontent towards the forces of law and order. Many felt that Thatcher had used the police as her “boot boys” – a paramilitary extention of her own power used to brutally break opponents. The police did little to dissuade such thinking, with some boasting of the overtime pay they’d receive for policing the strike. They’d call it “Scargill Money”.
And the Labour movement was also integral to the long and hard campaign around Hillsborough, where the police clearly lied (even the Daily Mail says so) causing so much hurt to the families of the 96 who were lost. It took more than twenty years to finally get passed the cover ups and hidden evidence that sought to place blame where it didn’t belong.
So to say there is a healthy scepticism in the Labour movement at times about the motives of the police force would not be an overstatement. Yet when it appeared last year that Tory Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell had called a police officer a “pleb” and behaved in an incredibly unpleasant manner, most of us on the left – me included – took the accusations at face value. We mocked and joked and laughed at this silly Tory MP who had been caught bang to rights.
Or so we thought.
Because when the CCTV footage of the “incident” emerged via Michael Crick of Channel 4 news late last year, things suddenly didn’t make sense. The “row” didn’t seem to match what we could see in black and white. the timeframe didn’t seem to make any sense either.
Now the IPCC have suggested that three members of the Police Federation deliberately set out to discredit Mitchell in the days following the “Plebgate” splash. Theresa May has called for Mitchell to receive an apology and for any officers found guilty of wrongdoing. That seems like the least that Mitchell deserves.
It seems quite possible that Andrew Mitchell has been wronged by the police not once, but numerous times – and perhaps systematically.
Anyone who wants to see a fair and just legal system, and fears what happens when the police no longer feel themselves to be bound by the same rules that govern the rest of us, should be mortified at the prospect of Andrew Mitchell losing his Cabinet role whilst those who have wronged him seek to escape without sanction.
If the Labour Party – and the wider Labour movement – can do one small thing today, it should be to apologise to Andrew Mitchell for jumping on him when the facts were unclear. But more than that – if others believe, as I now do, that Mitchell has clearly been the victim of police wrongdoing, then we need to stand up for him, defend him and – yes – campaign for him.
Because the police need to be held to account whenever and wherever the overstep their authority. That’s something the Labour movement has always been good at, but if we’re being consistent we need to do it whoever the victim is. Even if it’s a former Tory Cabinet Minister.
Perhaps especially when it’s a former Tory Cabinet Minister.