How a Labour MP became a rightwing figurehead – and enabled the clampdown on protest | Andy Beckett

During the final, beleaguered stages of the last Labour government, one of the stern young party functionaries who used to cluster protectively around the prime minister, Gordon Brown, on his visits to public places was John Woodcock, then one of Brown’s special advisers. Despite the government’s disintegrating poll ratings, Woodcock still had that New Labour cockiness, giving journalists disdainful glances as he strode past in a close-fitting suit.

At the 2010 election, despite Brown’s defeat, Woodcock became MP for the relatively safe Labour seat of Barrow and Furness. Three years later I interviewed him there for an article about the defence industry, of which he was a strong supporter, partly because Barrow is where Britain’s nuclear submarines are built. He was surprisingly affable company – perhaps seeking election had softened him – but his unyielding, militaristic politics were clear nonetheless. Talking about the local submarine business, he said: “This is a sort of shark. It’s got to keep going forward.”

Over the decade since, Woodcock has certainly managed that. He is now Lord Walney, a cross-bench peer created by Boris Johnson. He also works for lobbyists for the arms and fossil fuel industries, is a strong defender of Israel and a regular critic of the protest movements in Britain against those interests.

In 2020 Woodcock was appointed by the Johnson government as an “independent adviser on political violence and disruption”. He was asked to produce a report on the “increase in activity” by “far-right, far-left and other political groups”, focusing on “the points at which the activities of such groups can cross into criminality and disruption to people’s lives”. Within these vague and therefore expansive terms of reference, he was going to help redefine what kind of politics was permitted in our public spaces.

After months of briefings to the rightwing press, that report was finally published on Tuesday. Its many recommendations – including the creation of a “mechanism” by which businesses and even individuals who can show they’ve suffered “significant personal harm or economic damage” can claim damages from protest organisers – are not reassuring for anyone who believes in freedom of political expression. Yet another turn in the right’s anti-protest ratchet, it seems likely to influence legislation by this government or the next Conservative manifesto, or both.

How did such an authoritarian report, so close in tone and content to the Tories’ approach, come to be produced by someone with strong Labour roots? With the war in Gaza, the climate crisis, the Tories’ deliberately divisive policies and countless other issues of our acrimonious era likely to lead to more and more marches and rallies, Woodcock’s role as a kind of protest regulator has made him an influential politician, despite his relatively low public profile and unelected status.

What does his journey tell us about the workings of the British military-political complex, about the right wing of the Labour party, where his career began, and about its common ground with the Conservatives? With the Tories miles behind in the polls, the left marginalised and speculation mounting about a summer election, the Labour right will probably soon enjoy great power again.

Like many people who move rightwards, Woodcock grew up in a leftwing household. “I was taken by my mum on CND marches in the 1980s,” he told GB News in February. But by the time he was MP for Barrow and Furness, any sympathy he had for the peace movement was long gone. In 2013, he told me with scorn about a Labour predecessor who lost Barrow at the 1983 election after leading a CND march through the constituency.

Once Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader, Woodcock predictably became one of his strongest internal critics. In 2018, Woodcock resigned from the party, calling Corbyn “a clear risk to UK national security” and claiming that under his leadership “antisemitism is being tolerated”. For a year, Woodcock sat as an independent MP. Shortly before the 2019 election, he announced he would not stand again and urged voters to back the Conservatives.

These days, with a handful of Tories recently defecting to Labour, it’s easy to forget that during the dominant phase of Johnson’s premiership, the traffic was the other way. While Woodcock did not become a Tory, by accepting a peerage from Johnson – as did other Corbyn critics from the Labour right – he helped make Johnson’s sleazy, highly partisan regime look more respectable and broad-based.

More useful still for the Conservatives, Woodcock has helped keep one of their main bogeymen – any protesters who are not on the right – menacingly present in the public mind. Sometimes he does this in deceptively consensual language, telling the Jewish Chronicle: “There is common ground across the mainstream of politics to do more to … ensure that people’s right to protest peacefully is balanced with the public’s desire to go about their business without disruption or intimidation.”

Thus Woodcock performs a familiar but still effective establishment manoeuvre: playing up the supposed power and threat of movements against the status quo while neglecting to mention the more powerful and intimidating forces that sustain that status quo – or his professional and ideological ties to them. When accused of conflicts of interest, he insists that his work on protest is “objective”. But then he undermines that claim by saying his “non-parliamentary interests” are merely “declared as required” – the defence of ethically questioned British politicians down the ages.

Yet perhaps what’s most noteworthy about his career is not its opportunism but its consistency. There always was an authoritarian side to New Labour: Tony Blair’s government gave itself wide powers under the 2000 Terrorism Act and then used them against peaceful demonstrations. Given political cover by Woodcock, the Tories are taking these powers to their logical conclusion, defining all protesters as either legitimate or illegitimate, just as the right have long categorised the poor as either deserving or undeserving.

With the Conservative ascendancy to which he adjusted so smoothly seemingly at an end, Woodcock may be on the move again. In recent months, he has written articles praising Keir Starmer’s security-preoccupied Labour party. They were published by Fit for Purpose, the website of a business lobby group Woodcock advises. In Britain, street politics may be ever more circumscribed, but the politics of more private, elite spaces carries on.


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