Why the Police Oppress the Working-Class

The history of the police is the history of class oppression. Thus, the police have always played an essential role in disciplining ordinary people for the ruling-class, particularly those who fight for a different and fairer society… a socialist alternative. Writing in 1845 Frederick Engels described how the police back-up the state’s overbearing legal powers like this:

“True, the law is sacred to the bourgeois, for it is his own composition, enacted with his consent, and for his benefit and protection. He knows that, even if an individual law should injure him, the whole fabric protects his interests; and more than all, the sanctity of the law, the sacredness of order as established by the active will of one part of society, and the passive acceptance of the other, is the strongest support of his social position. Because the English bourgeois finds himself reproduced in his law, as he does in his God, the policeman’s truncheon which, in a certain measure, is his own club, has for him a wonderfully soothing power. But for the working-man quite otherwise! The working-man knows too well, has learned from too oft-repeated experience, that the law is a rod which the bourgeois has prepared for him; and when he is not compelled to do so, he never appeals to the law. It is ridiculous to assert that the English working-man fears the police, when every week in Manchester policemen are beaten, and last year an attempt was made to storm a station-house secured by iron doors and shutters. The power of the police in the turnout of 1842 lay, as I have already said, in the want of a clearly defined object on the part of the working-men themselves.”

At the time Engels wrote these wise words the police had just been constituted after the Metropolitan Police Bill of 1829 had sailed through Parliament. The question of forming a police force was not new, but it was only at this point in history that the ruling-class finally (collectively) recognised that they needed a more nuanced way of crushing the working-classes organising efforts. The police provided a more flexible and less brutal means of oppressing workers and heading off a potential revolution, that is, less brutal compared to the elite’s previous preference for military repression which is well illustrated by the Peterloo Massacre of 1819.

“Many members of the propertied classes were now prepared to argue that unless new agencies of social discipline were created, ‘secret societies […] working in the gloom of night, may surprise us when surrounded by the noblest, the best, the fairest of our land, when music floats through our halls—may even strike us in the house of God on that day devoted to prayer, may render our homes desolate, and involve country and city in one common ruin’. By the 1840s this type of rhetoric was not uncommon among the bourgeoisie. Under such circumstances not the military, nor a band of special constables, but only a strong police securely lodged in the working-class neighborhood ‘could preserve property—the countless millions possessed by the wealthy, the industrious, the prudent; the trade of the merchant; the works of artists; the factories of manufacturers; […] the hospitals for the sick; […] the schools; […] lastly those sacred edifices from which flow those pure streams which prepare man for a future and eternal home’.”[i]

The police as a new force in society therefore played a critical role in suppressing the Chartist movement – a mass workers’ movement that fought not just for democratic demands but were also engaged in a revolutionary struggle to change society. “For these reasons the police received an omnibus mandate: to detect and prevent crime; to maintain a constant, unceasing pressure of surveillance upon all facets of life in working-class communities—to report on political opinions and movements, trade-union activities, public house and recreational life.”[ii]  It is not for nothing that the hired thugs that composed the developing police force were nicknamed the “Bloody Peelers.”

Edwin Chadwick, the architect of the 1834 Poor Laws, also played an important role in evolution of the national police system. As a leading elite social reformer of his day, Chadwick recognised the utility of having an institutional means of attacking working-class organisations.

“Chadwick…felt that a new-style police might be useful in dealing with trade disputes. He argued that even in Sheffield in 1868 a force of 245 was insufficient to cope with a ‘turn out of associated trades’. He urged that flying squads of London police be used to deal with ‘picketting and terrorism’ anywhere in England. This would strike a useful blow against the ‘pot-house conclaves’ who he felt ran the trade unions.”[iii]

In a tragic echo of the polices abuses of “stop and search” powers today, in the nineteenth century, one critic notes how the imposition “of the hated ‘move-on system’ as a standard item of police policy” was found to be “most disturbing of all” to ordinary people trying to live their lives.[iv]

Fast-forward to the 1970s and the police were still being weaponised by the state to obliterate workers’ rights. As one historian of such state-initiated violence surmised:

“In April 1976, a women-led strike took place at the Grunwick factory involving workers who were striking for the right to form a trade union. The pickets soon realised that a ‘special relationship’ existed between the Grunwick management and senior officers. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Robert Mark, announced publicly that the Grunwick management had ‘courageously and successfully stood firm against politically motivated violence.’ In his book released in 1978, Mark had even stronger words for the Shrewsbury pickets. In 1973, the police charged 24 flying pickets in the construction industry with conspiracy. Some had been given what appeared to be excessive jail terms, including three years for Des Warren and two for Ricky Tomlinson. The jailed construction workers continued to maintain, to the present day, that they were jailed because of their political beliefs and because they had demonstrated successful picketing techniques. Commissioner Mark argued that the pickets had ‘committed the worse of all crimes –even worse than murder –the attempt to achieve an industrial or political objective by criminal violence.’ Mark went on to compare the Shrewsbury 24 to Hitler.”[v]

This anti-democratic role for the police only intensified in the following years…

“In November 1981, the workers at the Manchester engineering firm, Lawrence Scott, went out on strike. Picketing the front entrance of their site, the workers were bewildered when bus-loads of police arrived without explaining their purpose. Soon after, police helicopters flew in, so that the management could break the strike by airlifting the goods out, right over their heads. The airlift had been laid on by the Thatcher loyalist and Manchester Chief Constable, James Anderton. Anderton was known for launching public, right-wing tirades in which he would rail against what he described as Britain’s ‘moral descent,’ in which ‘left-wing groups and factions within the ethnic minorities’ were ‘pecking away at the foundations of society.’ A newspaper report from 2012 alleged that Thatcher was forced to step in to save Anderton’s career after he said that Aids patients were ‘living in a cesspool of their own making.’ Rather than acting as unbiased agents of the law, some senior officers appeared to be becoming more and more politically aligned. An open, publicly-stated animosity was emerging toward those on the political left. In 1980, Peter Wright’s predecessor as the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police explained on television that it was ‘common sense to keep files on anyone with an affinity to communism.’ He also wanted files kept on homosexuals and anyone found guilty of ‘indiscipline in schools.’ The hard-right rhetoric being espoused by the country’s most senior policemen was indistinguishable from the law-and-order dogma being expressed by Margaret Thatcher and other members of the Conservative Party. In 1981 the Head of the Police Federation, Leslie Curtis, went further by openly questioning the willingness of the British police force to work under any future Labour government.”

Leicester also gained some fame during the Miners’ Strike of 1984/85 when a “highly secretive” Central intelligence Unit (CIU –known as the Leicester Unit) was formed with the support of the Home Office, MI5, and Special Branch in a desperate effort to jail the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers. Ironically, although it was known as the Leicester Unit, the police spies had actually set-up their operations at Leicestershire Constabulary’s Communications Centre in Enderby: a location that “would give the CIU physical proximity to the front-line [of the miners’ strike] without being close enough that its existence might be publicly discovered.”

“Since its inception, a chief concern for those involved with the Leicester Unit was that the existence of the Unit, the number of state agencies involved, and the nature of its intelligence-gathering directive, might become known to the public. An operation which brought together the Home Office, the police (ACPO and Special Branch) and MI5 to produce a dossier of evidence against Scargill or anyone else might be difficult to legitimise. The involvement of the Security Service meant another reason for secrecy. Moreover, the Home Office was now using a large amount of taxpayers’ money to directly fund the CIU. However, the installation of the Met’s CPAP [high-tech computer] system in Enderby was uncovered by Guardian journalist Richard Norton-Taylor. Looking further into the nature of CPAP’s proposed installation in Leicester, Norton-Taylor had accidentally stumbled upon the existence of the Leicester Unit. The journalist wrote an article, published on the 25th October [1984], which reported the existence of the Unit and its location. Norton-Taylor’s report had many inaccuracies. While the journalist correctly asserted that ACPO were involved in the Unit, there was no mention of either Special Branch or MI5. Also unaware of the direct involvement of the Home Office, the article assumed that the Leicestershire Chief Constable, Alan Goodwin, was coordinating the Unit. In truth, Goodwin had no involvement. Norton-Taylor seemed unaware of the significance of his discovery. The journalist did not know that the Unit was being coordinated nationally by three different agencies, nor was he aware of the Unit’s remit to link crimes in order to target Scargill. The existence of the Leicester Unit had been revealed, but its intelligence-gathering directive had not.”


[i] Robert Storch, “The plague of the blue locusts: police reform and popular resistance in Northern England, 1840–57,” in Mike Fitzgerald et al. (eds), Crime and Society: Readings in History & Theory (Routledge, 1980), p.72

[ii] Storch, “The plague of the blue locusts,” p.73

[iii] Storch, “The plague of the blue locusts,” p.76.

[iv] Storch, “The plague of the blue locusts,” p.85.

[v] Phil Rawsthorne, “Thatcher’s Culture of Conformity: The Disintegration of Party/State Distinctions and the Weaponisation of the State in Response to the Miners’ Strike 1984/85,” PhD. Thesis, Edge Hill University, 2019, pp.109-10.

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