“What has gone wrong in Sunderland?” asked Neil Kinnock. He was reacting news of my selection, in June 1985, as Labour candidate for the stronghold of Sunderland South. The Labour leader was on a visit to the north-east and, believing himself in safe company, began to express himself in language that was characteristically colourful. “First,” he said “Sunderland has an MP who is a boil on the arse of the Labour Party.” A reference to the estimable Sunderland North MP, Bob Clay. “Now they have gone and selected a certifiable lunatic.”
Looking back, I realise how fortunate I was. Despite my not being a favourite son of the local establishment – and a southerner to boot – and despite, to put it mildly, not having the imprimatur of the party leader, my candidacy was endorsed. I was duly elected MP for Sunderland South in 1987 and remained there for the next 23 years. How it worked out is for others to judge.
Even in those days before social media, I could be seen coming from a long way off. As editor of Tribune between 1982 and 1984 I had given Kinnock a very hard time and it would have been entirely understandable had he quietly let it be known that he wanted rid of this troublesome priest. And yet he didn’t.
Today, however, there are signs that a new wave of intolerance is sweeping the Labour Party. This time the architects are not old-style apparatchiks but a new generation of highly politicised young zealots, many of whom one suspects cut their teeth in student politics and have never quite developed the habit of tolerating views that diverge from their own. They are also not above twisting the rules to suit their own poisonous agenda – witness the Al Jazeera documentary series The Labour Files, released last September.
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Social media has gifted the present generation of party control freaks an array of new tools by which they can enforce ideological purity, and they are making full use of them. Not merely are they trawling through the Twitter accounts of prospective candidates in search of material that can be used against those who don’t fit the required profile but, to judge by the recent threat to expel the mildly left commentator Neal Lawson, they are even trawling the accounts of members who are not seeking office.
Long-standing members are being expelled merely for having “liked” an unapproved tweet, signed a petition in support of an unapproved cause or for attending or taking part in meetings organised by the growing list of banned organisations. What’s more the rules are being applied retrospectively – one long-standing party member was recently expelled for attending a meeting organised by one of the offending organisations before it was banned.
It is a characteristic of political purges that they rapidly get out of hand. The Gaitskellite purge of the mid-1950s began with an obscure Trotskyite sect and, by March 1955, the Labour national executive came within a single vote of expelling Nye Bevan, the architect of the NHS. Something similar seems to be happening this time round. What began as a search for alleged anti-Semites has morphed into something much bigger. Many of the recently purged are pro-Palestinian, pro-Corbyn Jews. At the time of writing more than 60 members of Jewish Voice for Labour have been expelled.
Among them is Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, who, remarkably, received notice of her suspension last September shortly after having been elected to the party’s national executive in a ballot of the entire party membership. She was expelled in December, for the offence of speaking at a meeting of a proscribed organisation. Whether she would have been expelled had she not been elected to the executive is a moot point. It is not without irony that her talk was entitled “McCarthyism in Starmer’s Labour Party”.
Do not misunderstand me. It is entirely reasonable that any political party serious about power should want to ensure that those standing in its name meet certain minimum levels of integrity and have no obvious skeletons in their cupboard. But given these boxes are ticked, it would be wise to leave the final choice to local party members instead of, as is happening at the moment, rigging shortlists to exclude those who might otherwise win a free vote.
The danger with the way the present process is being abused is that it will give rise to a generation of MPs adept at chanting the slogans of the hour, but unable or unwilling to think critically or to govern in the national interest. It will produce, in the words of Michael Crick, one of the few journalists who have taken a serious interest in what’s happening, “a government of junior ministers”. As things stand, I am in no doubt that, were I a candidate today, I would be instantly vetoed.
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