A few weeks ago, Neal Lawson came to speak at the launch of Lewes Compass. Like many, if not most Labour members, he is in favour of working together with those in fellow opposition parties against this, and previous, Tory governments. He spoke most powerfully on this theme. Yet at the same time Neal’s entire speech was predicated on this being part of getting Keir Starmer into Number Ten.
Now we hear Neal is being ‘investigated’ by the Labour Party, asked to explain a two-year old tweet, and if he cannot come up with a satisfactory explanation the most likely consequence will be expulsion.
I’ve known Neal since the mid 1980s. He was a key organiser of Labour’s soft left. I was working for the magazine Marxism Today. I wasn’t a member of the Labour Party; the magazine was published by the Communist Party. Yet Neal was interested in the ideas we were producing – most notably by Bea Campbell, Doreen Massey, Eric Hosbawm and Stuart Hall. Neal wasn’t alone: Bryan Gould, Clare Short, David Blunkett, Robin Cook, famously Neil Kinnock, were interested too. They appeared in the magazine, spoke at our events, and praised what the magazine was doing. All are part of what Labour once proudly called its ‘broad church’.
As ’97 approached Neal and I were less in touch. Marxism Today had closed in ’91, and while I was helping develop a discussion and events group ‘Signs of the Times’, Neal was working for Peter Mandelson and became a lobbyist. In ’98, Marxism Today produced a one-off comeback issue, a critique of Blairism, with a front page headline that simply read: ‘WRONG’. Like many of the soft left, Neal disagreed with us. He felt we were being premature, but he came to the launch, engaged in the discussion.
We next crossed ideological swords when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister. It was at a seminar organised by the journal Soundings. I felt that despite the apparent Blair-Brown differences nothing fundamental would change in new Labour’s direction. Again, Neal thought such a critique was premature.
But we kept in touch and I was excited by the Jon Cruddas deputy leadership campaign in 2010, which Neal was a key part of, and the emergence of a new soft left.
Then, in 2015, the Corbyn leadership campaign. Neal is not, and never has been, part of the Labour hard left. Indeed, his entire political trajectory has been as a critic of such politics. Yet he wrote a superb article for the New Statesman, ‘surfing the wave’ about how far under Blair, Brown, Miliband, Labour was hollowed out, that there was a reason for the enthusiastic, particularly generational, support for Corbyn and he’d be voting for him while remaining a critic. This precisely described my feeling. More than anything else it was what persuaded me to join Labour.
And then, on a train last Friday, I heard about this threat of his expulsion. It shattered what remaining belief I have in the point of remaining a Labour member.
Read his tweet Labour has taken 2 years uncover. Choose to agree or disagree with it, but nowhere does Neal commit the original sin for Labour members: calling for support of another party – nor does he endorse the particularities of Lib Dem MP Layla Moran’s original tweet he was commenting on. He simply states that working together is what opposition parties should do. And this is the grounds for the possible expulsion.
Meanwhile, Labour welcomes back former Labour MPs who left to form their own party and a Tory MP defecting to Labour. I support such a welcome, but the contrast with the two-years late forensic examination of the intent of Neal’s tweet is startling.
Does any of this matter?
Expelling Neal Lawson isn’t going to harm Labour’s poll lead, nor the banning of umpteen prospective parliamentary candidates from shortlists for selection, or expelling members for supporting ‘proscribed’ organisations… before such organisations were subscribed.
But in a year or so, if the polls are anything to go by, Keir will likely be Prime Minister. Last week Labour couldn’t promise to reverse the Rwanda deportations once in office because it may be ‘too busy’, nor will it renationalise the corrupt sewage leaking water companies because it’s ‘not in the business of expropriation.’ It has, however, promised to delay the £28billion a year green investment fund before it even gets into office and continues to ignore the overwhelming vote at conference by both Labour members and affiliated trade unions in favour of PR. Well it doesn’t take a genius to work out these decisions – and expect more where that sorry lot came from – are going to provoke a wave of disquiet from Labour members, affiliated trade unions and supporters once the joy of defeating the Tories has passed. The fact Labour is choosing now to parade its intolerance of any difference of opinion as a badge of honour should be a point of serious concern, whether we agree with Neal or not.
So what will I do?
There’s no need for the Labour Compliance Unit to take two years to discover my grounds for investigation and expulsion, or not. Decide now, it’s very simple.
In Lewes, where I live, our district council has a Green-Labour alliance as a majority. I consider such co-operation between opposition parties an entirely good thing and have said so publicly. I work with the Greens and Lib Dems on food bank collections. Again, I consider such co-operation an entirely good thing. We disagree on some things but agree on much. Different parties, not just allies but friends. I describe myself as a pluralist, a coalition-builder-by-trade first, a member of a political party second.
I live in a constituency Labour has never won, not even come close in ’45 or ’97. Since 1974 Labour here has fallen behind the Lib Dems to become a distant third, sometimes 4th. The 2023 local elections revealed zero sign of a recovering Labour vote here under Keir. Instead, the Greens overtook the Lib Dems. The two may well be linked.
The Tories can lose here. Labour can’t win here.
When the General Election campaign comes I will campaign, as I did in 2017 and 2019, with many other Labour members from this constituency, not in Lewes, but where Labour can win. How I vote is between me and my ballot paper. If a compliance unit that took two years to track down an offending tweet can get hold of mine to prove to prove how I voted, good luck to them. I look forward to hearing from the compliance unit the result of their investigation.
And Neal? No, he didn’t choose the best example of cross-party co-operation to retweet and it was understandable in 2021 if some Oxford Labour members in 2021 were upset. A quiet word then yes, but wait two years to totally misrepresent his intent, no. And he’s gone public too – but this is what is known as ‘politics’. An intolerant party culture that can only be challenged behind closed doors? I’m sorry, but to put it politely, that’s an oxymoron.
See sense, hear Neal’s appeal, agree no further action, but most importantly learn the lessons. A party thrives on listening and learning from differences of opinion.
In the meantime, I would encourage all to sign the Compass statement in support of Neal Lawson.
Mark Perryman is a member of Lewes CLP.