“The party machine is no longer run in this long and rich spirit of pluralism. It has been captured by a clique who see only true believers or sworn enemies. They are behaving like playground bullies.”Neil Lawson, Director of Compass
By Labour Hub
In a move that has shocked even seasoned observers of Keir Starmer’s repressive leadership of Labour, Neal Lawson has been expelled from the Party.
Lawson is director of the centre-left cross-party campaign Compass and a member of 44 years’ standing. He has worked closely with many senior Labour figures over the years – proof, if it were needed, that having friends in high places is no guarantee of immunity from the current leadership’s purges.
Lawson received the expulsion notice on Friday. Writing in today’s Guardian he says: “They wrote coldly to tell me that back in May 2021, I’d committed a crime: retweeting a Lib Dem MP’s call for some voters to back Green candidates in local elections, accompanied by my suggestion that such cross-party cooperation represented ‘grownup progressive politics’. My punishment? Expulsion.”
Lawson and Compass have long been supporters of cross-party cooperation, arguing that the UK’s regressive electoral system favours the Tories because splits in the progressive vote mean that votes for smaller parties are wasted.
But they are also ardent advocates of the principle of political pluralism, which the Labour Party was originally founded on, but to which the current leadership seems perversely hostile.
Drawing on Labour’s experience in local government in particular, Lawson states that “governing with others is better than losing alone.” He goes on: “This is where I stand – on the shoulders of giants such as John Smith, Neil Kinnock, Robin Cook, Mo Mowlam and today, Ed Miliband and Andy Burnham. So, why use an uncontentious tweet from over two years ago to try to expel me?”
In the most hard-hitting section of his article, Lawson says: “The reason is that the party machine is no longer run in this long and rich spirit of pluralism. It has been captured by a clique who see only true believers or sworn enemies. They are behaving like playground bullies.”
Linking the current expulsions to the leadership’s wider policy retreats, Lawson writes: “It doesn’t seem matter to the cliques at the top that even mildly radical policies are being junked or watered down – from rent controls to the £28bn-a-year green transition – or that Labour’s leader chooses the Rupert Murdoch path to power over the progressive majority route,” a reference to Keir Starmer’s recent attendance at the right wing newspaper magnate’s annual party.
On a personal note, Lawson says:
“I feel a deep sadness that I’ve tried to do my bit to make Labour a more hopeful, ambitious, generous and compassionate place, and everything has come to this end. I feel the hurt of seeing my MP and activist friends cowed by the fear that they may be next; that they must walk some arbitrary line that keeps them constantly watching their backs. I feel shocked that the factionalism I warned against at the start of the year in these pages has taken its revenge and pretty much proved the point: it’s a petty tyranny. It will be tragic if this is the culture Labour takes into government, because it will fail. And it’s not party bureaucrats who will pay the price, but the nation.”
He concludes: “Labour’s persecutors and witchfinders aren’t the best of the party, just the people who currently happen to be at the top. They are hard but brittle. Inevitably, like all bullies, they have to be generously but firmly stood up to.”
A spokesperson for Momentum said: “This is yet another shameful attack on democracy and pluralism from Starmer’s Labour machine. Neal Lawson is a highly respected campaigner for electoral reform and a more cooperative politics. Yet because he has criticised Starmer’s leadership on issues like proportional representation and an anti-democratic party culture, he has now been purged from the party. It is clear that for this authoritarian Starmer leadership, no progressive voice is acceptable.”
There is speculation that Lawson’s expulsion may also be revenge from the Party machine for the role Compass played in highlighting the Forde report. The Labour leadership tried to bury Martin Forde QC’s forensic and damning Report which found “deplorably factional and insensitive, and at times discriminatory, attitudes expressed by many of the Party’s most senior staff.” Earlier this year Compass hosted an event at which Forde explained his shocking findings.
Lawson had also made enemies in leadership circles by speaking out against the Party apparatus’s factional interference in candidate selection processes. “Favoured candidates of the leadership are being waved through, whatever their past actions, while those on even the ‘soft left’ – often with broad trade union support – are being targeted,” he noted.
The result was that the central Party both “narrows the range of political candidate choices available and in the process weakens our democratic culture – signalling that control trumps democracy and pluralism.”
Earlier this year, Lawson attacked Starmer’s purge of the left, saying that when political leaders adopt such behaviour, “they sign their own death warrant. The demand for obedience is the opposite of the feedback, challenge, creativity and innovation that successful modern politics demands. Withdrawing into a corner and defining anyone who fails to support you as an enemy just narrows the scope of your own vision and capacity to act.”
The real danger, however, is not the damage Keir Starmer might do to himself, but that which he is inflicting on Labour’s electoral chances. The unrelenting attacks on grassroots members and the headlong retreat on policies is not just destroying the morale of the Party’s rank and file, who will be called on to knock on doors sometime in the next year or so to mobilise Labour’s vote.
It’s also undermining the potentially huge popular enthusiasm for Labour across society more broadly, as voters lose heart in Labour’s increasingly diluted vison and wonder: if this is how Keir Starmer treats his Party loyalists, how on earth will he run the country?
Stop press: As news of Neal Lawson’s expulsion broke, Labour officials scrambled to limit the damage, claiming he had not been expelled, merely served with a “notice of allegation”, to which he has 14 days to respond before a final decision is made. Others speculated that this was merely an attempt to soften the blow of a decision that has already effectively been taken.
- This article was originally published by Labour Hub on June 30th, 2023.