Labour suspends 'loony' local party after

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A Conservative strike designed to expose so-called "loony left" councils drew blood yesterday when Labour announced the suspension of the Walsall District Labour Party.

As Dr Brian Mawhinney, the Tory party chairman, visited the West Midlands to "highlight the difference between New Labour and Real Labour", Frank Dobson, Labour's local government spokesman, revealed that an official had written to the local party on Monday informing it of the suspension.

Dr Mawhinney had gone on the attack against Dave Church, Walsall's Labour leader, for sacking the council's nine heads of department and devolving power to 54 directly elected neighbourhood committees.

Mr Dobson conceded that the policies of the council's new left-wing leadership were unpopular. "We have said to people in Walsall running the council that although we favour decentralisation, it needs to be properly thought out." The present plan went "too far, too quickly" and "may very well go wrong", he said.

But the disciplinary move, described by Labour's West Midlands Secretary Fiona Gordon as "tough action to ensure the party is not damaged and that the interests of the people of Walsall come first", was in fact aimed at the local party organisation rather than councillors. In her letter to the local party, she said the suspension would allow "worrying reports of intimidation and abuse at District Labour Party meetings" to be investigated.

Party officials refused to give further details. But Councillor Brian John, a former leader of the Walsall Labour group, said: "The borough party has been far too dominant and intolerant. If you go to a party meeting and express an opinion contrary to the majority, which is left wing, you are hissed, booed and belittled." Officials later said another ground for the suspension was the irregular constitution of the Walsall party, which allowed direct trade union delegates - lending weight to Dr Mawhinney's claim that the suspension was a "panic measure" in response tohis trip. "It seems that it takes the visit of the Chairman of the Conservative Party to a Labour council to force the party to act," he said. John Rothery, Walsall's deputy leader, standing in for Mr Church who is on holiday, accused the national Labour Party of "hypocrisy" and said "I can't believe it's a coincidence" that the suspension was announced on the same day as Dr Mawhinney's visit. Bruce George, Labour MP for Walsall South, welcomed the suspension as a "warning" that the Labour leader Tony Blair would not tolerate "politically unacceptable" policies.