Labour wouldn't let me join

Observations on getting involved

Does the Labour Party really want a mass membership? I lapsed a dozen or so years ago, but I decided this year to rejoin. So I sent in the application form and a year's subscription. I had not realised that there was any more to it than that.

First, I received a call from Labour's head office. A woman demanded to know why I had decided to join. Because Labour is a mass party capable of implementing progressive socialist policies, I said, or words to that effect. "So you agree with the party's policies?" asked the woman. "I didn't say that," I replied, and repeated what I had said before. After all, the party's revised Clause Four states that Labour is a "democratic socialist party".

A week later, a letter came from Peter Watt, head of the legal and constitutional unit. Officers of my local party, Battersea, would make "further inquiries" into my application, Watt told me. "I will write to you again once I have been informed of the constituency party's decision and you will have the right of appeal should they decide to reject your application."

On 20 March, I wrote to Watt asking why I had been chosen for investigation. On 1 April, a woman rang to explain the delay, which was because the Battersea party was too busy with the May local elections to deal with my application. I pointed out there were no such elections in London this year. Well, it was also because the local party had been "inundated with applications", she blurted. Did that mean everyone was being investigated? She didn't know.

In mid-April, a letter from the Battersea party summoned me to a tribunal of officers on 6 May. I demanded a reason for this interrogation before I would agree to attend. As none was forthcoming, despite several letters and e-mails to the party, I declined to do so. There the matters rests.

I keep asking myself what the problem is. I am not and have never been an adherent of Militant or anything like it. Unlike several new Labour figures, from the general secretary downwards, I have never been a member of the Communist or any Trotskyist party either. Even after my membership lapsed, I never stopped thinking of Labour as "my" party, one I'd been born into and whose fortunes I have followed like a favourite football team. As a freelance journalist, I do most of my work for trade union journals.

This year may seem an odd time to rejoin, with membership reportedly down to 180,000 from 400,000 in 1997 and after Tony Blair's support of the war in Iraq. Indeed, it may well have been the e-mails I sent to my local Blairite MP, Martin Linton, about Iraq ("The main aim of this government . . . is to avoid a war," he assured me in February) that aroused the party's suspicions. But it was actually the Iraq war that clinched it. I was persuaded by anti-war MPs who urged that this was the time for natural Labour supporters to join the party, not leave. Labour, however, seems set on a narrow membership base. It used to be joked that those who quit the Communist Party in the 1950s and 1960s comprised the biggest political party in Britain. A rough headcount among my acquaintances suggests that this is now true of former Labour Party members.

Before I finished this article, I rang the party's press office for a comment, telling them I was a journalist. I called six times in 24 hours and received - along with a nervous little laugh from one press officer when I called myself a socialist - only one call back. I was promised that someone would phone the following morning. I wasn't surprised when no one did.