Earlier this year, Socialist Appeal supporter and UNISON activist Terry McPartlan received a letter from Iain McNicol, Labour Party general secretary, stating that he’d been expelled from the Party after 36 years of continuous membership. We publish here an extended letter from Terry about his thoughts on the Labour purge.
Socialist Appeal supporter and UNISON activist Terry McPartlan arrived home one day in September to find a letter on the mat from Iain McNicol, Labour Party general secretary, stating that he’d been expelled from the Party after 36 years of continuous membership. We publish here an extended letter from Terry about his lifelong commitment to fighting for socialism in the Labour Party and his thoughts on the Labour purge of socialists from the Party.
I joined the Labour Party Young Socialists in July 1980, my mate was a member and he’d been talking to me about it for months. I’d become politically aware initially because of the “Troubles” in the North of Ireland, but far more so at the age of 14 when I was disgusted at the rise of the racist National Front. I was a Hammer and Discus thrower and travelled far and wide for competitions. In the course of which I met lots of black kids who were crazy about sport just like I was. It was very easy to see the NF for what they were a bunch of dangerous fascists.
I remember getting Marx’s Capital out of the library when I was 15. I didn’t get very far with it, but I didn’t really have much to go on. But that soon changed when Thatcher got into power. I remember braying on the local councillor’s door to get an application form to join the Party. I was 17, nearly 18.
Becoming active in the Party and particularly in the LPYS gave me access to so much collective experience and a world outlook. At the time, the left was in the ascendancy in the Party. Tony Benn, Denis Skinner and Scargill would speak at the LPYS conference and would be cheered to the rafters. But it was the Marxists who were the most consistent in their analysis, most serious and most convincing. By comparison much of the left was terribly confused and completely unprepared for the assault that Thatcher launched on working people and the Trade union movement. The Marxists explained that unless we fundamentally changed society, then sooner or later the bosses would seek to claw back all the reforms working people had won through decades of struggle. That was true in 1980, but it’s far more true today in the light of economic crisis and almost a decade of austerity.
The Party was very active in Whitley Bay where I lived. Around 40-50 people attended the meetings of Rockliffe, Marden and Central Ward and we discussed politics! At the Constituency General Management Committee there would always be a good debate. The Young Socialists would propose motions and the Tynemouth Fabians would try and convince us that we had to change the world a tiny bit at a time. I was unemployed and angry; they never convinced me of anything to be honest. It was the very old ladies from North Shields women’s section who supported us. I suspect that was because they remembered the 1930’s.
When the 1983 General Election was called, I remember the GMC meeting where the Constituency Treasurer announced we had no money. I demanded that we had a collection there and then and marched up to the front table with £5 from my dole money. By the end of the meeting we had a big wad of money. We lost in 83, but not because the Party was to the left; quite the opposite. In truth, it was the SDP traitors and the Falklands factor which allowed Thatcher back in. The LPYS organised mass canvasses in Tynemouth with 50 or 60 people turning out at weekends.
I could talk for hours about the work we did; they were days of hope and struggle. I learned a huge amount. Before long I was speaking at LPYS branches around the region on all sorts of subjects. I learned even more doing that.
So, this year 2016 was a bit of a landmark for me. I turned 54 and that meant that I’d been a Party member for two thirds of my entire life. I’ve been a socialist for 40 years. When I got home from a trip to London I found a letter on the mat from the Labour Party. It looked very thin to be my voting papers, but I was desperate to put my vote on for Jeremy Corbyn so I tore it open…
In fact it was a letter from Iain McNichol the General Secretary expelling me for the “crime” of being a supporter of the Socialist Appeal Newspaper. But that’s nothing new, I have been a supporter of Socialist Appeal since 1992. In fact, I helped to choose the name for the new magazine – as it was then. But apparently and quite coincidentally being a supporter of Socialist Appeal only became a “crime” at the same time as the Chicken Coup against Corbyn was launched in July this year.
To anyone who knows me the fact that I am a supporter of Socialist Appeal won’t come as a huge surprise. I’ve never hidden my Marxist ideas. Quite the opposite, I’ve always sold Socialist Appeal both in my union, UNISON and also in the Labour Party. This year I sold 86 copies at the Durham Miners Gala. While other groups walked out of the Party and launched pitiful phantom armies standing candidates against the Party, Socialist Appeal has always argued that when working people begin to move politically they will inevitably look towards their traditional organisations in the first instance. As such Socialist Appeal’s supporters have always been active in the Party as well as in the trade unions and amongst young people.
I’ve seen many Labour leaders come and go. Jim Callaghan, Michael Foot, Kinnock, John Smith, Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband. I’ve seen the rise and fall of the left around Tony Benn, Kinnock’s attempts to tack further and further to the right, and the rise and lingering death of Blairism and its attempts to asphyxiate the Party. I’m proud to have played my part in supporting the Miners in the great strike, in fighting the poll tax and defeating Thatcher. I’m proud to have played a role in building support for socialist ideas in UNISON Labour Link and in my union and most recently in Campaigning for Jeremy Corbyn.
The Corbyn movement
I think the movement around Jeremy Corbyn is the most significant political development in Britain since at least the 1930’s and probably since the foundation of the Party. Corbyn has connected with the mood of anger and profound discontent within the working class and particularly among the youth.
That is ultimately the reason for the purge that’s been launched by the Labour Party officialdom. A movement of hundreds of thousands of people cannot help but transform the Party. Two or three years ago I attended the AGM of my ward Labour Party, or rather of the Coast Group which at the time compromised four branches meeting together. There were maybe 20 people there. The party looked like it was on its last legs, 30+ years after I had joined the Party there was only one person in the room who was younger than me. Not to knock the old stalwarts, one or two of whom had been there when I joined, but the whole thing seemed moribund.
Yet now Whitley Bay branch on its own had 301 members in July 2016. We got just under 1,700 votes in the council election. So more than one in six of our regular voters are members. That is a huge change. It is inconceivable that these people or a large part of them won’t want their voices to be heard. That is what the right wing MPs and the Councillors are scared of. There has been some conflict on a local level already. The chair and secretary of the Coast Group resigned after I successfully moved a resolution condemning the bombing of Syria. They didn’t want us to discuss politics. After all, this is the Labour Party for heaven’s sake!
The Party and the Labour Movement have been a huge part of my life now for decades. I’ve avoided taking elected positions by and large, although I’m now a member of the UNISON Regional Committee and Branch Chair. I’ve been active for years as a member of the Regional UNISON Labour Link Committee and for a few years was Convenor for Children’s Services and Education in Gateshead representing about 1,500 mostly low-paid women members; front line workers facing massive stress and uncertainty while supporting and safeguarding the most vulnerable children.
In my experience the best trade union representative are the ones who express the aspirations and the concerns of the members they represent and who are prepared to stand up and fight for them. I’ve no truck with those who would do deals behind the members’ backs or urge a “dented shield” in the teeth of cuts, redundancies and wage freezes.
I’ve always understood that the Labour Party’s strength comes from its links to the organised working class. But the higher up the echelons of the party that link has always appeared weaker. Many MPs seem completely remote from the people they represent. The ideas they espouse reflect the pressure of the ruling class, the right wing press and media and the Tories. This pressure is reflected most clearly in organisations like Progress and Labour First with their big business backers. As last year’s leadership election demonstrated, they speak an entirely different language to the people we represent.
Protest the purge!
As such Corbyn has been a breath of fresh air. For the first time, we have a leader who seems directly linked to the movement at its base. That is a fundamental change. I’ve met Corbyn a few times and John McDonnell also. In Labour Party terms they are giants. Both have fought consistently for socialist ideas over decades. My only criticism is that they believe that they can solve the problems of working people without a socialist transformation of society. I think the experience of Greece, France, Venezuela and historically Chile and Nicaragua is that the whole system needs to be transformed. We need to take over the banks and big industry under workers control and plan the economy in the interests of working people. Otherwise all the reforms will be taken away.
This is precisely what is happening today. Tory austerity isn’t just about austerity. It’s an attempt to destroy all the gains we’ve made over decades; all the struggles of working people and all the battles fought by past generations. As such the right-wing snipers and gripers are only doing the Tories dirty work for them. Corbyn stands against austerity; what do the right wing advocate? What is their alternative? The silence is deafening.
I’ve been asked what impact my expulsion will have on my political work. The truth is that for most of the last year my branch and Tynemouth CLP has barely functioned; there has been precious little opportunity for anyone to be active in the Party. I’ve been far more active in my union for many years and I also do a lot of political education work, political discussion and writing. I’m involved with North Tyneside Momentum and with the Tyne and Wear Centre Against Unemployment.
I spoke at an excellent Vote Corbyn meeting in Hartlepool during this year’s leadership election. Hartlepool is the former seat of one Peter Mandelson architect of so called “New Labour”. One woman explained that when the right wing controlled the Party, the left loyally kept their heads down and got on with the job. Today the right wing seems bent on rule or ruin. Some individuals have behaved outrageously. It’s as if they are deliberately trying to provoke Corbyn and their own members. I can foresee the issue of compulsory reselection taking hold in the party regardless of the intentions of the leadership at this stage.
I’m very angry at the decision to expel me, not least because it’s clearly a factional decision. Socialist Appeal is attacked because it supports the struggle for socialist ideas in the Party and the trade unions and fights for workers’ democracy. Yet groups like Progress and Labour first who receive hundreds of thousands of pounds from rich backers to promote pro-capitalist ideas go unchallenged. It reflects a crisis in the party where there are now two centres of power: Corbyn and the members versus the bureaucracy and the right wing. That divide, in turn, reflects the class division in society.
I suspect that thousands of expulsions and suspensions will be overturned. But that process isn’t automatic – it requires the conscious intervention of party members to demand it.