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30 June 2023

Neal Lawson: the Labour Party is a bully

The director of Compass speaks out against his potential expulsion.

By Freddie Hayward

Pluralism in Labour is under threat. The Labour leadership has accused the director of the progressive think tank Compass, Neal Lawson, of supporting another party, which is likely to lead to his expulsion. Lawson is being investigated because he quote-tweeted a Lib Dem MP’s tweet about her cooperation with the Green Party, labelling it “proper grown-up progressive politics”. 

The Labour Party’s evidence.

“It feels odd. It feels incredibly disappointing,” Lawson told me when I met him in his midcentury decorated flat beside the River Thames. He wore a smart black polo, fringed with red and white stripes, and thick-rimmed glasses. A copy of Daniel Chandler’s Free and Equal lay on the table. Lawson wouldn’t share the direct contents of the email he had received containing the allegation because the Labour Party had said it was confidential. But he is speaking out because he doesn’t want his fate decided in the “bowels of the Labour Party in a sealed room”.

He refutes the allegation of supporting another party. “I’ve not done it, because all I’ve said is that it’s a good thing for progressive parties to cooperate,” Lawson said. “Which I’ve done a million zillion times. That’s all Compass does.”

A Labour Party spokesperson said: “Mr Lawson hasn’t been expelled. He was served with a notice of allegation seven days ago, putting claims to him that he expressed support for candidates from other parties. He has 14 days to respond. He is yet to do so.”

“That’s all true,” Lawson said when I read out the statement. “I will put in a response to them, and I will refute the allegation. But I’ve got no faith in the internal process.” He said no other evidence besides the tweet was included in the party’s letter.

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Lawson has been a member of the Labour Party for 44 years. He’s no raging Trotskyite, embittered Corbynista or wailing extremist. He even described himself as a former member of the Labour establishment. “I’m not the hard left, I’ve never been of the hard left,” he said. He wrote speeches for Gordon Brown, who frequently offers advice to Keir Starmer, and he worked for Peter Mandelson during the 1997 election campaign. His father was a printer on Fleet Street and Lawson stood on the picket lines at coalfields in Nottingham when he was a student. “That is me and the Labour Party is me,” he said, his eyes moistening. “I’m almost getting emotional telling you about this.”

Lawson sees the attempt to expel him as part of a wider move against those arguing for party pluralism and decentralisation, particularly advocates of proportional representation and cross-party cooperation. What started with preventing candidates from the left of the party from becoming parliamentary candidates, Lawson now thinks is creeping towards the centre. “They’ve started making moves against people on the much more mainstream left of the party, which is very different [to the hard left].”

He has little confidence that the party will exonerate him, and if the accusation is upheld he would be automatically expelled. “The rules are so arbitrary,” he said. “And these people act with such impunity that you don’t know what they’re going to do, and that is the practice of the bully: to act in an arbitrary way… so everyone’s completely on their toes all the time.”

Lawson thinks this authoritarian approach represents a failure of imagination within the leadership, a symptom of its insecurity. “In the absence of a deep intellectual cultural project it seems like there’s a bureaucratic project,” he said. “And so, therefore, [they are] focusing on control over ideas and vision.”

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