John Woodcock Has No Idea What the ‘Far Left’ Is and Frankly nor Do We

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by Simon Childs

23 May 2024

Lord Walney arrives at the ADS Group annual dinner in January. Mark Kerrison / Alamy Stock Photo
Lord Walney arrives at the ADS Group annual dinner in January. Mark Kerrison / Alamy Stock Photo

John Woodcock, the government’s nominally independent advisor on political violence and disruption, AKA Lord Walney, released his long-awaited review on Tuesday. Ironically titled “Protecting our democracy from coercion”, the report comes to 100,000 words, and makes 41 recommendations for cracking down on protests.

Among a bewildering array of measures, Woodcock suggests proscription-light for activist groups that fall below the threshold for terrorism but which he would nevertheless like to ban; extending police surveillance of protesters; and expanding the grounds for banning a protest on a particular date (an apparent reference to former home secretary Suella Braverman’s failed attempt to ban a march for a ceasefire on Armistice Day last year). He also recommends making his role “permanent with appropriate resourcing”.

To substantiate his laundry list of anti-democratic measures, Woodcock reels off a list of apparent threats to democracy – or things Woodcock finds “unhelpful” – among them “ascribing violence and brutality to the police” or suggesting that media attacks undermined Jeremy Corbyn.

Woodcock is explicit that his report focuses on what he deems the far left, believing that the British state has already got its grips on the far right. He recommends that several government agencies including parts of MI5, the police and the Home Office “address the gaps in knowledge … of the ideologies, tactics, and actors within Extreme Left Wing and Anarchist protest movements and the repercussions on democracy and British society.”

This may be in part because, unlike the far right, leftwing and environmental protest is a threat to Woodcock’s clients.

Activists have sounded the alarm about Woodcock’s lobbying for the Purpose Coalition, which works for arms company Leonardo and oil firm BP, and Rud Pedersen, which works for Swiss mining firm Glencore and oil and gas firm Enwell Energy. Woodcock himself has become the story, as many in the media have started to raise conflict of interest questions that Novara Media and others started asking two months ago.

Woodcock is slippery under scrutiny. On an episode of the News Agents podcast released on Friday, he dismissed questions about his longstanding support for Israel, specifically his chairing of Labour Friends of Israel from 2011 to 2013, by focussing on the use of the term the “Israel lobby” which he said is antisemitic.

Asked about his chairmanship of the Defence Purpose Coalition, Woodcock protested that this was just “a coalition of purpose-led groups including some defence related companies who value the contribution that they make to the UK economy” – whatever that means.

The website of the Purpose Defence Coalition was more clear about its role as a cheerleader for arms companies, saying: “We work to demonstrate the positive impact of the UK defence sector and the opportunities investing in the sector provides.”

That webpage was changed last week. In its place is a message saying: “The Purpose Defence Coalition was a “one off project” led by Lord Walney in 2023 to host a “Solidarity for Ukraine event.” Was it really just a solidarity event though? In a writeup by Italian arms giant Leonardo, which sponsored the event, Woodcock said that the war in Ukraine had “rightly” prompted investors who had been put off by ethical investment guidelines to “look again at the sector”.

Some of Woodcock’s recommendations raise an eyebrow in light of his arms industry connections – in particular, his recommendation that the government “consider ways to ensure increased resilience of supply for defence manufacturers and energy providers whose operations are being disrupted by illegal protest.”

But it would be wrong to suggest that this is purely about conflicts of interest. We can assume Woodcock – a former Labour MP from the right of the party – actually believes in what he has written. He thinks that protests that threaten his clients are a threat to democracy. That’s not a contradiction, it’s just congenial. And anyone who disagrees is on a slippery slope to extremism.

As an example, he offers Youth Demand – an offshoot of Just Stop Oil – which campaigns for an end to oil and gas drilling and an arms embargo on Israel, and which sprayed the Labour party’s headquarters with paint in April. Woodcock writes that these “hybrid causes”, support his view that “far from being single-issue groups there is common ideological ground – and shared personnel – between so-called progressive social movements within the far left subculture in the UK.”

That’s weird, because Woodcock spoke about the paint incident in an appearance on GB News when it happened just six weeks ago. There, he said that environmentalists taking action for Gaza “shows a level of cynicism” because climate activists “have not been getting the publicity that they hope that it would because of the dominance of the Gaza protests”.

So which is it? Cynical attention-seeking from single issue opportunists or a sinister ideological bond between hardline subversives? Surely Woodcock doesn’t just say whatever makes leftwing protesters sound bad?

It’s tempting to think that Woodcock is so compromised that nobody will take him seriously, and that none of this will get implemented anyway. But he will find ideological allies in the government, whoever wins the election. On the News Agents, Woodcock said he had spoken to “senior Labour people”, including “Keir’s team” and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, and that the conversations had been “really encouraging”. The anti-democratic crackdown on protest could continue into the next government.

Simon Childs is a commissioning editor and reporter for Novara Media.

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