Britain's new special adviser for counter-terrorism linked to Turkey lobbyists

John Woodcock, a British member of parliament who left the opposition Labour party after a sexual harassment scandal and disputes with the leadership, has become very friendly with the Turkish government in recent years. 

In 2017, he gave an interview to Daily Sabah, where he stated: “I have been among the many people in the UK who have always considered Turkey as an ally and chiefly on the basis of our long-time relationship within NATO”.

This trip was organised by the Bosphorus Centre for Global Affairs, whose mission is “primarily dedicated to generating public(ity) for political and social actors”. Bosphorus Global, as it is called for short, is part of the media empire of Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak (the son-in-law of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) and his brother Serhat.

It is also apparently the public face of a group called Pelican, a collection of Erdoğan/Albayrak loyalists attempting to influence Turkish public opinion. Their news feed shows numerous visits by British parliamentarians, largely from the Labour Party.

Woodcock is on the right of the Labour Party in Britain. He was a special advisor to the last Labour prime minister, Gordon Brown, chaired the Blairite Progress group within the Labour party and the Labour Friends of Israel, and is married to Isabel Hardman, an editor at the right wing Spectator magazine.

Since leaving the Labour Party, he has decided to stand down as an MP, but is apparently now being made a special envoy on counter extremism by the Home Office. Pro-Kurdish groups in Britain, like the Kurdistan Solidarity Campaign, criticised the Home Office for this move, because they believe that he wants the government to proscribe the People’s Protection Units (YPG) as a terrorist organisation, a move that could criminalise dozens of British citizens who travelled to Syria to fight with the Kurd group against Islamic State (ISIS).

Woodcock seems to be the kind of politician who supports the military interests of governments both at home and abroad, and especially so where these military interests are linked to the British economy. He remains the member of parliament for Barrow and Furness in the north of England, where the huge arms company BAE Systems makes the Trident nuclear submarines.

As well as being continually impressed by the Turkish government’s political reform efforts, Woodcock is equally impressed with the Saudi government, who he visited on a fact-finding mission in 2018. During this trip, he was of course keen to discuss “the longstanding defence partnership which sustains thousands of BAE aerospace manufacturing jobs in the northwest of England.”

In April 2018, Woodcock was suspended from the Labour Party following allegations of sexual harassment, saying that he would submit himself to an independent parliamentary investigation into his conduct. This investigation by the parliamentary Complaints and Grievances Scheme, will apparently go ahead, even though Woodcock is resigning his parliamentary seat.

In the United States, paid lobbyists for foreign governments are required to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, although this law seems to have been frequently broken by people like General Flynn, who had to admit being paid $500,000 to lobby for the Turkish government in their attempts to extradite Erdoğan’s former ally-turned-enemy Fethullah Gülen.

In Britain, it is supposedly mandatory to register with the Office of the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists, though the Conservative Party watered down its lobbying legislation, and the current legal situation contains numerous loopholes. However, current members of parliament are banned from lobbying, and have to declare any interests (although this did not stop current Home Secretary Priti Patel being repeatedly accused of violating this rule with few consequences). 

Looking at the Register of Members’ interests for Woodcock shows that he has been bought expensive flights to Riyadh by the Saudi government a couple of times, and that his December 2017 trip to Turkey was covered by Bosphorus Global and cost £3,941.08. 

It is not too hard to imagine that there may be a potential conflict of interest between Woodcock’s role as a member of parliament, and the perception that he is not just taking the Turkish government’s side politically, but is benefiting, or may benefit financially from this relationship in future. Media supporters of the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has been a longstanding supporter of Kurdish rights, have made no secret of their distaste for Woodcock, with NovaraMedia’s Aaron Bastani even calling him the “right honourable member for the AKP”, referring to Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party.

Voices on the pro-Corbyn left have good reason to oppose Woodcock, but since Woodcock will now be working for the British state as an official with responsibility for counter-extremism, it puts Woodcock’s support for the Turkish and Saudi governments in an awkward new light. Woodcock’s support for the Turkish government has even seen him posing for pictures with members of the far right Nationalist Movement Party. 

With trips abroad being paid for by the Saudi government, as well as trips paid by the Kurdistan Regional Government, and hospitality provided by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Woodcock has opened himself up to the allegation that he is not just an independent parliamentarian, soon to become a government official, but that he benefits from his relationships and support for these governments.

Before he became prime minister, David Cameron called lobbying “the next big scandal waiting to happen”. Such a scandal never happened, but the lack of trust in politics created by the perception that officials can take advantage of their positions of power has certainly not gone away.

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.