Labour Purges: what if Nye Bevan had been on twitter?
The vote for the Labour leadership has been bedevilled by issues about who can vote and as the deadline for voting nears, who has actually got a vote.
Some well-known long serving Labour Party members such as Bakers Union General Secretary Ian Hodson have been suspended, apparently for posting comments on social media. Others claim that they have been debarred because they tweeted in the past about supporting a particular Green Party statement.
Officially this is all done properly with a panel of Labour NEC members (split between Owen Smith and Jeremy Corbyn supporters) reviewing evidence as to whether someone can get a vote.
Material posted on social media is quite often controversial and sometimes illegal, but making this a criteria for whether someone should or should not be a member of a political party does seem disproportionate.
Imagine, for example, if Owen Smith’s favourite politician Nye Bevan had had access to social media. His well-known ‘Tories are lower than vermin’ remark was made at a time when political rhetoric was arguably more robust than it mostly is now. Even so one suspects a furore had Nye been around in 2016 and tweeted those words.
The reality was however that Nye Bevan did not need social media to find himself suspended from the Labour Party and even in the 1950s threatened with expulsion.
The Webb’s 1918 Constitution formed the basis for the Labour Party until the New Labour period when Blair successfully changed Clause 4, but in practice, whatever the Webb’s intention, it meant that Labour, at least at the top of the Party, less often at the grassroots, was unhappy about any move by Party members to engage in activity with the wider labour movement that had any form of permanent structure.
Attempts by the Communist Party to become part of Labour in the 1920s were eventually rebuffed, but it was in this period when the purges not just of members but of whole Constituency Labour Parties started.
The National Left Wing Movement in the mid-1920s was an attempt to get Labour and Communist supporters to work together to move things to the left. Ralph Miliband in his book on the history of the Labour Party, Parliamentary Socialism, notes that the Labour leadership had watched with ‘angry concern’ the rise of the NLWM. It’s 1927 conference saw 54 CLPs present causing yet more ‘alarm’ amongst the Labour right.
The 1930s saw the disaffiliation of the Independent Labour Party from Labour. It also meant various attempts to reconfigure the left to allow a united fight against the rise of fascism and the threat of war.
At this point in the late 1930s Nye Bevan was one of a handful of leading Labour Party figures who were briefly expelled from the Party for urging it to be part of a progressive united front.
After the war in the 1950s Bevan and what were known as the Bevanites, similar in some ways to Corbynistas, became a focus of hatred for the Labour right.
Just before the 1955 General Election Bevan had challenged Attlee on whether British nuclear weapons would be used against an enemy who did not have them.
The Parliamentary Labour Party voted by 142 to 112 to expel Bevan from their number with the aim of once again getting him expelled from the Party.
The 1955 General Election intervened and Bevan subsequently and notoriously in the view of many, rather changed his mind on nuclear weapons.
Even so reviewing the career of Nye Bevan is a reminder that purges are nothing new.
this post appeared in the Morning Star on 7th September