Nigel Jones

Labour purges are nothing new

Credit: Getty Images

Sir Keir Starmer’s determination to prove to voters that Labour has changed, by purging the party’s far left, may look like cruel contemporary opportunism to his opponents. However, it actually fits a pattern that has recurred throughout the party’s history.

Ever since Labour’s foundation in 1900, the party has been an uneasy coalition between a minority of mainly middle-class Marxist intellectuals, and the less ideological working-class masses in the trade union movement. Repeatedly during the 20th century, the hard left infiltrated and attempted to take over the party – but just as often they were purged and expelled by the Labour right as a result.

The chief excuse for purges was once the left’s sympathy for communism and the Soviet Union, whereas today it is their alleged anti-Semitism, associated with the existence of the state of Israel and latterly the Gaza war.

Sometimes the purges have reached the very top of the party’s leadership. In November 1939, during the opening months of the second world war, Sir Stafford Cripps, a future chancellor in the 1945 Labour government, and Aneurin Bevan, the sainted future architect of the NHS, were both expelled from the party for advocating a popular front alliance of the left to include the Stalinist British Communist party.

In 1940, Denis Pritt, a pro-communist lawyer and KC who sat as Labour MP for Hammersmith, was expelled from the party for his communist views. Pritt continued his pro-communist politics until his death in 1972, and won the Stalin Peace prize from the Soviets in 1954. After Labour’s triumph in the 1945 election landslide, Pritt was joined in parliament by a group of crypto communists who sat on the Labour benches. One of them, John Platt-Mills, was kicked out in 1948 for backing Italian communists, and three more far left Labour MPs, Konni Zilliacus, Leslie Solley, and Lester Hutchinson, were expelled in 1949 for refusing to sign Nato’s founding treaty.

The expellees formed their own party, the Labour Independent Group, in parliament, but all lost their seats in the 1950 election: a warning to those left wingers who try to pursue their socialist politics outside Labour. In Nye Bevan’s words to his wife Jennie Lee when she left Labour to join the leftist Independent Labour party in the 1930s: ‘You will not influence the course of British politics by a hair’s breadth …. I tell you it is the Labour party or nothing.’

The same pattern of hard left infiltration and a belated Social Democratic reaction was repeated in the 1970s when various Trotskyist sects adopted the tactics of entryism to take over local Labour parties, and in the 1980s when the more organised Militant Tendency mounted a full scale attempt to seize the party’s organisation and took control of Liverpool’s ruling Labour council. Militant were the hard spearhead of Tony Benn’s far left faction whose advances within the party spurred some Labour social democrats to break away and form the SDP in 1982.

Militant were succeeded in the 21st century by Momentum, who finally succeeded in the far left’s  eternal goal of seizing the Labour party’s commanding heights when Corbyn was elected leader by the party members in 2015. Labour were now mirroring the same situation as the Tories, with ideologically motivated party members forcing a far left leader on the parliamentary party who was disliked and distrusted by his fellow MPs.

One of the major differences between Labour’s purges in the past and present is the clinical efficiency with which Labour dispatched far leftists from its ranks in the 1940s and 1950s. Under its general Secretary Morgan Philipps – like Bevan a former Welsh miner – the party’s ruling National Executive Committee swiftly sacked any  MP who deviated from the party’s pro-Nato, anti-Soviet line at the dawn of the cold war.

Today, judging by the mess that they have made by martyring Abbott, the Starmerites controlling the NEC couldn’t organise the proverbial drinks party in a brewery.