Police restrain anti-Vietnam war demonstrators outside the US Embassy, Grosvenor Square, London. (Photo by John Minihan/Getty Images)

May 7, 2021   6 mins

Sandra lived in a shared house in Paddington, back in 1971, and said she was studying at the University of London. She liked to wear jeans but no make-up and would spend many evenings at political meetings where the talk was all about building a patriarchy-free society.

The trouble is ‘Sandra’ wasn’t a student. She was a police spy who had been sent to gather information about the Women’s Liberation Movement. Sandra wasn’t even her name. One of her key targets, Diane Langford, now 79-years-old, has only now spoken publicly about how she was watched by at least six undercover cops who were part of the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) formed after protests against the Vietnam war at Grosvenor Square in 1968.

SDS were set up to gather intelligence about groups that were organising public protest — ostensibly to assist with the more effective policing of such protest. But as evidence emerges it seems they served a wider purpose, gathering intelligence and potentially disrupting the activities of anyone who might be regarded as a subversive.

The way male police officers inveigled their way into protest groups was exploitative and callous: the gravest possible interference with their targets’ private lives. The officers posed as fellow activists with a lifelong commitment to whichever cause the groups were pursuing, with many forming intimate sexual relationships with the women, meeting family members and, in two known cases, even having children with the women they were spying on. In some cases the undercover officers had wives and families to return to on their days off.

It seems extraordinary that the authorities were so worried about the risk women posed to national security that they sent spies to gather information from children’s Christmas parties and jumble sales. But it would seem that this indeed was the case.

The scandal of police spy abuse broke ten years ago, when the Met tried to explain away the Mark Stone affair as the action of a lone rogue officer – he had been spying on a woman in the climate change movement who became his lover. His conduct was described by the Met as unacceptable. However, the uncovering and naming of Mark Kennedy encouraged more women who had been targeted to come forward. The overriding feeling was that the surveillance had come close to abuse. The collective battle by these women put the lie to the rogue officer theory and laid the foundations for an allegation of institutionalised sexism.

The Sarah Everard case and the ensuing public outcry about the misogyny within the police force is but one example of the failure of police to get rid of locker room culture. Last year, the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ) filed a super-complaint to the Police Inspectorate highlighting systemic failures women are experiencing when reporting domestic abuse perpetrated by police officers and others employed by the police.

According to the evidence amassed by CWJ, the culture of “institutionalised sexism” within the police condones and trivialises violence against women. Cited are the levels of sexual harassment reported by police employees, concerning levels of power abuse by police officers for sexual gain, and high numbers of reports of sexual assault by police officers who then face no sanction. Women who report such cases have very little trust or confidence in the police when they seek help because their abuser is part of the system intended to protect them.

In 2015, following the startling revelation that the Stephen Lawrence family had also been targeted by the SDS using unorthodox methods, the then Home Secretary Theresa May announced a public inquiry with an aim to get to the truth about undercover policing across England and Wales since 1968, and provide recommendations for the future. It took the inquiry five years to gather evidence and eventually, amid worries about protecting former undercover operatives from exposure, the first public hearings took place last November. They are ongoing today.

It has gradually emerged through the hearings that a range of women’s groups were reported on during the course of the SDS’s deployment, including Greenham Common Women’s Support Group, the Spare Rib collective, Women in Ireland, Women Workers League, and Brixton Black Women’s Group. Langford was aware that she and comrades in a Marxist-Leninist study group had been spied on in the early 1970s by an undercover cop using the name Dave Robertson, who was rumbled when he was recognised by a friend of hers as a police officer. Then, sometime in the 1980s, she tried to get a visa to go to the United States: “I went to the US Embassy, was taken to a cubicle and this guy took out an enormous file and dumped it on the desk and said, ‘ma’am, you are not a fit person to go to the USA’.” It’s true Langford was a high-profile activist — she had set up the Women’s Liberation Front with her partner Manu Manchanda. But was she really a danger to national security?

Definitely not, claims Langford. She thinks they were targeted following a bomb explosion at the Miss World competition in November 1970. Langford was one of 150 women who attended the first NWL conference at Ruskin College, where plans for a protest at the beauty competition were drawn up.

But only hours before the feminists started gathering outside the Miss World venue with flour bombs, rattles and leaflets in their handbags, members of the far-Left militant Angry Brigade had slid a home-made bomb under one of the TV lorries. It is possible that Special Branch had conflated the two separate incidents, believing the feminists to be part of Angry Brigade, and colluding in the bombing. Even though, as Langford insists, “We hated that macho posturing and would have absolutely condemned these actions at the time.”

Sandra, who was deployed as an undercover officer between September 1971 May 1973, told the Inquiry that she remembers very little detail about her time spying on the Women’s Liberation Front. “As far as I recall, I was just instructed to attend a meeting: to look, listen and feedback any plans, including demonstrations or potential disorder.”

“I was there to observe people come who we regarded as being on the fringes of society,” she continued. “They all conducted themselves within the bounds of the law.”

As Langford insists: “there wasn’t any decent intelligence to get. Everything that we did was in the public anyway, so they could have just bought a women’s liberation newsletter or gone and picked up a leaflet from the local leftist cafe.”

Reports submitted to SDS by Sandra and other undercover officers confirm this. But they don’t show the police in an exemplary light. They expose some deeply offensive attitudes, without determining whether or not the infiltrated groups posed any danger to national security.

One report on a women’s group meeting in 1976 describes a member as having, “a typically Jewish lilt to her … and rather prominent nose, always scruffily dressed in blue jeans and T-shirt (without a bra).” Another from the same year: “A negress was in the audience”, and a gay man was described as having an “effeminate manner”.

Sandra’s report on the National Women’s Liberation Conference in 1972 states: “Lesbian friends in particular made exaggerated and noisy displays of affection openly kissing and hugging each other. These displays were common-place throughout the conference, and it was not unusual to see two girls entwined in a corner.”

Although aware that a number of male undercover cops had previously targeted groups she had been involved in, Langford never knew she was being spied up on by Sandra until a researcher with the Undercover Research Group read Langford’s blog about Dave Robertson.

The researcher told Langford that a female officer had also been involved and that Langford’s name was on a number of her reports to SDS. “That was the first time I heard of Sandra,” says Langford. “I felt completely soiled and disgusted, and felt as if I had to handle the evidence files with tongs when I had to read through it,” she says. “This woman had been in my house where I lived with my child and my partner, and around all my personal belongings. I felt totally violated.”

For Langford, there is no doubt that her life has been affected by the past actions of the SDS. “I’ll never know what career opportunities were denied to me, or what other barriers have been placed in front of me during my life. I’ll never be certain whether unpleasant incidents, for example, being denied credit or visas, or break-ins at my home, were connected to the surveillance I was being subjected to.”

As more evidence emerges it is now clear that the operations of the SDS were the well-kept secret lurking behind a pretence of an open liberal democracy — where anyone expressing dissent and opposing the establishment, from environmental and animal rights activists to trade unionists and Left-wing MPs, from anti-apartheid campaigners and peace activists to black justice campaigns and women’s liberationists, could he subject to a form of spying that at its most extreme included officers forming long-term intimate sexual relationships with targets. The discovery of this deceit has caused targets long-term psychological harm; it is a grave violation by agents of the state.

The SDS has long been disbanded, and the Inquiry will hopefully lead to greater police accountability, but root and branch reform is needed before trust in the police is restored. “It’s harrowing to learn of the pernicious attitudes of officers masquerading as comrades and sisters who inveigled their way into our homes, families, meetings and lives,” says Langford. “The betrayal of trust is unforgiveable.”

Julie Bindel is an investigative journalist, author, and feminist campaigner. Her latest book is Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation. She also writes on Substack.