At least six members of Tony Blair's governments have been monitored by MI5.
During the Cold War the service believed Soviet agents were infiltrating trade unions. It kept a file on John Prescott for two decades, detailing his links to dangerous agitators in the Sixties alongside agents' fears he was an idealist open to Communist subversion. No longer active, the file contained transcripts of bugged meetings of the National Union of Seamen, which Prescott advised during the 1966 seamen's strike and later worked for as an official.
Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary, asked in 2000 to see his file after discovering MI5 had kept records for 25 years on the false accusation that he was behind a botched raid on Barclays in 1975. He was acquitted at the Old Bailey after a 10-day trial. The leading member of the anti-apartheid movement suspected MI5 and Boss, the South African security service, of plotting to frame him. His file was allegedly vetted before the 1992 general election and again in 1997.
Jack Straw, now Foreign Secretary, was monitored while president of the National Union of Students between 1969 and 1971. Phone conversations of Peter Mandelson, a member of the Young Communist League in 1972, long before he became a minister or the EU commissioner, were monitored to determine if he was a covert Soviet "sleeper". Mandelson's file was still active in 1992.
Patricia Hewitt, now Health Secretary, and Harriet Harman, the Constitutional Affairs minister, were classified as Communist sympathisers during their time at the National Council for Civil Liberties - now Liberty.
Tony Blair was once a Trot!” Variations of this headline appear on most news sites today. In an interview with historian Peter Hennessy on Radio 4, Blair has spoken of how Isaac Deutscher's masterful biography of Trotsky briefly drew him to revolutionary socialism.
“Here’s this guy Trotsky, who was so inspired by all of this that he went out to create a Russian revolution and changed the world,” Blair recalled. “I think it’s a very odd thing – just literally it was like a light going on.” Pressed on whether he was “briefly a Trot”, Blair replied: “In that sense I was.”
The story isn't strictly new. Blair has previously cited Deutscher's Trotsky trilogy (The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed, The Prophet Outcast) as one of his favourite works. In a 1982 letter to Michael Foot, unearthed in 2006, Blair wrote: "Like many middle class people I came to Socialism through Marxism (to be more specific through Deutscher's biography of Trotsky)". But the story is perhaps eye-catching enough to be worth telling twice.
Yet Blair is actually rare among New Labour figures in having only, as he puts it, "toyed with Marxism". Peter Mandelson, one of the project's architects, joined the Young Communist League, rather than Labour, in protest at Harold Wilson's support for the Vietnam war. The future business secretary attended a youth conference in Cuba (a visit recorded by the British intelligence services) and sold the Morning Star outside Kilburn tube station.
John Reid, another future Labour cabinet minister, was also a member of the Soviet-aligned Communist Party of Great Britain. “He told us he was a Leninist and Stalinist,” Jim White, a fellow party member later recalled. “Although I was suspicious about his transition, we couldn’t tell if he was acting. We let him join.”
Others, dismayed by the Soviet Union's degeneration, were drawn to Trotskyism. Future chancellor Alistair Darling was a supporter of the International Marxist Group, the sect to which soixante huitard Tariq Ali belonged. "When I first met him [Darling] 35 years ago," George Galloway once recalled, "Darling was pressing Trotskyite tracts on bewildered railwaymen at Waverley Station in Edinburgh. He was a supporter of the International Marxist Group, whose publication was entitled the Black Dwarf. Later, in preparation for his current role he became the treasurer of what was always termed the rebel Lothian Regional Council."
Stephen Byers, the future transport secretary and Blairite-ultra, was a supporter of Militant, the entryist group later expelled from Labour by Neil Kinnock. Alan Milburn, who served as health secretary under Blair, was another youthful Trotskyist, running Marxist bookshop Days of Hope (known to locals as “Haze of Dope”).
Though all renounced their revolutionary politics, some detected remnants in New Labour's fondness for "command and control" (reminiscent of Leninist democratic centralism). And while Labour has never been a Marxist party, Marxism has long been a strain within it. Tony Benn, a rare example of a politician who moved leftwards with age, regularly cited the lessons of Das Kapital and the Communist Manifesto. Asked to name the "most significant" influences on his thought in 2006, John McDonnell (who was then standing for the Labour leadership) replied: "The fundamental Marxist writers of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, basically."