Town Hall chaos as Church sticks to his guns

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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

Walsall Council leader "Citizen" Dave Church and 14 fellow left-wing activists were effectively expelled by Labour yesterday for setting up a "party within a party".

The move comes less than a month after Mr Church, his deputy, John Rothery and the former council leader, Brian Powell, were suspended from the party by its national executive committee, pending an investigation by John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader, into claims that they were operating within a splinter organisation, the Walsall Socialist Group.

The row leaves the West Midlands council with two competing Labour factions - and the future governance of the district in disarray and uncertainty.

Labour's action - subject to ratification by the National Constitutional Committee but a virtual foregone conclusion - came after a defiant Mr Church, supported by Mr Rothery and 13 other councillors, insisted at a council meeting on Monday night that he remained council leader, with Mr Rothery his deputy, despite the suspensions.

The chaotic turn of events comes after an unrepentant Mr Church vowed he would not "go quietly" after being suspended. "The people of Walsall voted me in and this is where I will stay until they vote me out again," Mr Church declared after the meeting.

Of his controversial "power to the people" decentralisation drive, he said: "If the national party is worried that trying to introduce more democracy in Walsall is embarrassing, that's up to them."

A furious Labour HQ swiftly invoked section 2A.4(b) of the Labour Party rules, the provision used to expel members of Militant and other entryist groups, which says: "A member of the party who joins and/or supports a political organisation other than an official Labour group or other unit of the party shall automatically be ineligible to be or remain a party member."

A spokesman claimed the group had effectively "expelled themselves" by their actions. They would be prevented from re-applying for membership for at least five years.

Ray Farrell, a moderate, was elected by the official Labour group as council leader last week, in place of Mr Church.

A Labour spokesman said: "In the Walsall Socialist Group we are dealing with a Militant-style organisation. The earlier allegations about a party within a party were absolutely accurate and well-founded."

The spokesman went on to castigate Tory and Liberal Democrat councillors for failing to support moves by the official Labour group to to install new committee chairmen and vice-chairmen in place of Walsall Socialist Group members who had resigned. Five of six Liberal Democrats voted with the Walsall Socialist Group. None of the chairmanships was settled.

Mr Rothery described Labour's likening of the group to Militant as "total nonsense; it's just completely untrue."He said Labour's move had given control to the Tories because the official Labour group had been cut to 19 councillors, compared with 20 Conservatives.