LAST month, eight of Britain’s biggest construction firms paid out £75 million in compensation and legal fees to building workers victimised by “blacklisting”. A shadowy consortium called the Consulting Association had compiled a secret database on 3,200 workers, storing their addresses, national insurance numbers, newspaper clippings about them, and negative comments from managers. Building firms paid to access the database, to keep “undesirables” (read: trade unionists) from getting jobs.

Like the 1980s conspiracies I discussed last week – Hillsborough and Orgreave – this scandal has tentacles all across the British establishment. Nobody is untouched. Yet this ruling passed almost unnoticed, exciting few responses in mainstream newspapers: some covered its minimal details, while others ignored it completely. That in itself is a scandal, because this case reveals so much of the anatomy of the many-tentacled vampire squid that we call British business.

The Consulting Association grew out of the Economic League, a pro-capitalist grouping funded by Britain’s biggest companies. The League’s main role was spying on trade unionists and leftists. When it fell apart, Ian Kerr, the League’s main link to the building trade, founded the Consulting Association with a £10,000 loan from the company Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd. Kerr used the League’s blacklist to start his own at the Consulting Association. A total of 44 big companies signed up.

The construction industry accounts for about six percent of all jobs in Britain. Firms such as Balfour Beatty, Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd, Laing O’Rourke and Amec are invited on British trade missions abroad. They are also politically influential in a more direct sense. Lord McAlpine of the building family was Thatcher’s party treasurer and personal link to big business donors during the riotous heyday of Conservative rule in the 1980s.

In return, the industry raked in cash from “reforms” like private finance initiatives. Indeed, they have been lavished with public money by all sides of Westminster. Most scandalously, while Balfour Beatty and Sir Robert McAlpine were taking on new workers for the publicly-funded Olympic Stadium in London, they were vetting workers against the blacklist. Indeed, in that period, McAlpine Ltd ran an incredible 63 blacklist checks per day, according to Ucatt, the construction union.

And that’s just one of many tentacles. Closer to home, Balfour Beatty made a fast buck from the disastrous Edinburgh Royal Infirmary PFI scheme; they also profited from PFI hospitals in Fife and Mid-Argyll. Carillion, another blacklister, took the spoils from Glasgow’s Southern General. Kier, another, pillaged Hairmyres Hospital. All of these are confirmed blacklisters; all were part of last month’s compensation pay-out. Thanks to the work of trade unions and campaigns like the Blacklist Support Group, the Scottish Government have introduced some checks, for example, excluding businesses with a history of blacklisting from gaining public contracts. The legislation is a positive move to restore justice to the sector, but plenty of concerns about its application remain.

All of this is only part of the story.

Another tentacle reaches to the security services and the police. Much of the information available to the Consulting Association hints that police spies shared information with the blacklisters. Kerr admitted to a two-way information exchange with undercover agents, and said that some of his descriptions of blacklisted workers (e.g. “Irish ex-army, bad egg”) deliberately mirrored Special Branch codes.

Then there’s the health and safety tentacle. The first thing anyone knows about construction is that it’s bloody dangerous. It has the highest death-at-work rate of any industry, with the main risks coming from falling from heights, collapsing objects and contact with moving machinery. Equally, of the 13,000 deaths in Britain each year from past exposure to harmful workplace conditions, many are construction-related. Working around asbestos, fumes, dust and chemicals causes occupational cancers and breathing problems. These conclusions are hardly radical.

Yet raising health and safety issues has often been the quickest route to blacklisting. Simply for doing the basic, decent thing and taking forward a problem in a treacherous industry, you’re liable to find yourself labelled a troublemaker. And once some jumped-up, bonus-hungry manager has pegged you, that’s your work life over. In construction, no good deed is left unpunished.

Finally, perhaps the most bizarre arm of the blacklisting beast reaches into our lives as political activists. Former SSP MSP Rosie Kane and law lecturer Dr Nick McKerrell both found their names on the Consulting Association list. With neither having any links to the building trade, we can only speculate as to why their names were held in a filing cabinet in that London office; much of the evidence had been destroyed. Both Nick and Rosie were involved in protest politics and in particular the 1990s campaign against the controversial M77 extension. This campaign brought them into direct contact with the construction industry. Having never been construction workers, the only way that their names could be added to the blacklist is for all these tentacles to work together as one giant fist: police collaborating with private industry to spy on a political activity. As I said last week, conspiracies do happen, and in rare cases, like Hillsborough or Bloody Sunday, some kind of justice can be served. With blacklisting too, justice can be served. The £75 million payout can’t return livelihoods to those who lost them to the Consulting Association. As a bare minimum, the Pitchford Inquiry should be extended to Scotland. But really, only a full public enquiry into blacklisting alone can hold all parties, police, politicians and private industry to account.