According to Stephen Bush in the New Statesman, the Labour Party machine’s spate of expulsions and bannings in the run-up to the leadership election which Jeremy Corbyn won was talked about as “Operation Ice-pick”.
The name echoes the sick in-jokes popular among leaders of the Labour student organisation in the 1970s and 80s; they admired the Stalinist assassin who used an ice-pick to kill Leon Trotsky in 1940.
Bush reported that “Twitter [was] ablaze with activists who believe they have been kicked out because they are supporters of Jeremy Corbyn”. The purge was not systematic. According to Bush, Labour Party head office had “little money and fewer staff — many [had] left after the general election... neither the personnel or the resources for a genuinely exhaustive search”.
As the leader ballot approached, the apparatchiks looked overwhelmed. A number of people who had been summarily expelled were reinstated.
There are contradictory signals now. One activist who stood as a Socialist Alliance and Socialist Unity candidate a few times against Labour has had a letter indicating that probably there will be “no objection” to her rejoining.
Yet on 14 October Edward Maltby, a member of Hornsey and Wood Green CLP, was told that his motion tabled for his ward on 18 October could not be discussed because he’d been expelled. Later he got a letter from Labour Party head office (dated 14 October) saying that he had been expelled as being a member of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. Without charge or hearing.
Liam McNulty, another member of the same CLP, had had a letter expelling him during the leadership campaign, on grounds of association with an unspecified “political organisation other than an official Labour group” (CND? What?) Many CLP activists protested. He got an email from a Unite union official telling him that the matter had been taken up centrally and he would be reinstated. He remained active in the CLP. Now the word from some CLP officials is that his expulsion is “on” again.
New protests against these expulsions are under way. They may signify head-office people on a sneaky counter-offensive, aimed at subverting Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership by “criminalising” his most active supporters. Or they may be a local blip. We don’t know.
The Labour Party used to have a “proscribed list” of groups whose members were banned, mostly groups linked to the Communist Party. That list was abolished in 1973. In principle the only grounds for expulsion from the Labour Party (other than racist misbehaviour or the like) should be opposition to a Labour candidate in an election.
The minimal rule seems fair enough, but even that has never been strictly applied. In the 1987 general election, Frank Field, then and still now a right-wing Labour MP, publicly refused to back the left-wing Labour candidate in a neighbouring constituency. Many right-wingers have advocated “tactical voting” — voting Lib-Dem against Labour where the Lib-Dems have a better chance of beating the Tories. In 2000 many Labour left-wingers backed Ken Livingstone when he stood against Labour for London mayor, and won, and were not expelled.
The paper Socialist Organiser was banned by a specific Labour Party conference decision in 1990. There is a continuity of political attitudes between Socialist Organiser then and Workers’ Liberty now. That can’t justify a sort of “hereditary expulsion” rule against people who were toddlers in 1990.
Workers’ Liberty was involved in the Socialist Alliance, and the SA stood some candidates against Labour (in seats where there was no chance of letting in the Tories) in the early 2000s. Workers’ Liberty people contested some elections after 2003, mostly under socialist unity banners, but have backed no anti-Labour election campaigns recently, and have taken themselves off the Electoral Commission list of electoral parties.
The Independent Labour Party, which was a founding group of the Labour Party in 1900, then split away in 1932. It attempted to reaffiliate in 1939 and was refused. It contested parliamentary elections against Labour up to February 1974.
In 1975, it decided to redefine itself as a “political pressure group”, Independent Labour Publications, but was explicit that the new ILP continued the old ILP. It was accepted back into Labour, and rightly so. It’s still around.
The same approach should apply to Workers’ Liberty as to the ILP. And, what is more to the point, no-one should be excluded for “thought-crime” of being interested in the ideas of Workers’ Liberty, circulating Solidarity, or attending discussions organised by Workers’ Liberty.