Socialist Worker

How Labour Party has weeded out dissent

Issue No. 1851

NEW LABOUR laid into George Galloway last week, suspending him from the party for daring to speak out against the war on Iraq. The leadership want to shut him up. They know one effect of suspension is to rule him out of being nominated for a safe Labour seat in Glasgow. Their treatment of Galloway is in stark contrast to those who have certainly 'brought the party into disrepute'.

Peter Mandelson became Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in 1998. He was forced to resign over the revelation that he had bought a house with a £400,000 loan from then Paymaster-General Geoffrey Robinson. Robinson was under investigation by Mandelson's department at the time. Mandelson soon returned as Northern Ireland secretary. He had to resign again, following allegations of misconduct over a passport application for Millennium Dome sponsors the Hinduja brothers. He was never suspended from the party.

The Parliamentary Standards Committee last year upheld three complaints against Keith Vaz, the Leicester East MP. They criticised him for refusing to cooperate with an inquiry into his conduct and failing to declare cash donations. Vaz was found to have given 'misleading information' about his financial links to the Hindujas. Vaz is still a Labour MP.

Robert Maxwell was a Labour Party member until his death in 1991. Yet he is notorious for robbing £450 million from the workers' pension fund of his Mirror Group Newspapers. Before that, as a Labour MP, he agreed a takeover bid for his Pergamon group from an American firm.

It was then revealed that Maxwell had inflated Pergamon's profits to lubricate the takeover moves. Department of Trade inspectors found that Maxwell was 'not in our opinion a person who can be relied on to exercise proper stewardship of a publicly quoted company'.

Expulsions have occasionally been used against 'moderate' Labour MPs caught up in alleged personal or financial scandals. Galloway has not been suspended over any sort of 'scandal'. The party leadership claims the charges against him are not based on the 'documents' published in the Telegraph.

He has been attacked for his opinions. Expulsions for holding ideas are used only against the left - and they are used with plodding regularity. 1980s Labour's leaders launched a witch-hunt against the left as part of the early 'modernisation' project.

By the time it was finished, investigations of local parties and disciplinary action had affected party members in over 80 constituencies. The first targets included anyone associated with the Militant left wing newspaper. Six members of its editorial board were expelled in 1983.

But the net spread much wider. Between 1986 and 1990 Labour's National Constitutional Committee dealt with 251 disciplinary cases. Around 150 of them ended in expulsion.

Then in 1991 left wing MPs Terry Fields, who had served 60 days in jail for poll tax non-payment, and Dave Nellist were suspended from party membership. Both were expelled after a kangaroo court hearing. A certain Clare Short explained the 'justice' of the hearing in a press briefing. Nellist was so popular that he almost defeated the official Labour candidate at the next general election.

1940s A group of Labour MPs signed a telegram in 1948 to Pietro Nenni, the Italian Socialist Party leader, congratulating him on election successes. Labour's national executive committee had earlier sent a message of support to the smaller, breakaway anti-Communist 'Socialist Unity Party'. The offending Labour MPs were told that unless they withdrew they would be thrown out. John Platts-Mills MP, who had organised the telegram to Nenni, was soon expelled.

Labour's executive sent Konni Zilliacus MP a letter listing how his speeches and writings included 'attacks on the Labour government's foreign policy'. Zilliacus replied that it was his 'prime duty as an MP to stick to the foreign policy statements and pledges on which I fought the general election'. In 1949 Britain joined NATO. Zilliacus opposed the treaty, arguing that it went against the UN charter and would accelerate the arms race.

He voted against it along with five other Labour MPs. He and fellow MPs Lester Hutchinson and Leslie Solley were expelled. 1930s A group of Labour MPs helped set up the Socialist League to fight for left wing policies inside the party.

Its members worked alongside Communist Party members and the Independent Labour Party to agitate for unity against the rise of fascism. The league disbanded itself. But those members who continued to work in a broad front with Communists were punished.

In 1938 MPs Aneurin Bevan (later to be readmitted and become the architect of the NHS), Stafford Cripps (later to be a Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer), George Strauss, Charles Trevelyan, Edgar Young and Robert Bruce were expelled. Galloway's suspension is in this tradition - but is even worse. In the other cases there were suggestions, however trumped-up, that the targeted Labour MPs were organising a 'party within a party'. There is no such suggestion now.

Under Blair the party has come to its most naked intolerance of ideas that upset the leadership.
Charlie Kimber

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Article information

Sat 17 May 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1851
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