If, as many Labour MPs believe, their party isn’t having a leadership contest but a troubled convention of ghosts from socialists past, then Dave Nellist is among the haunting elite.
The former MP for Coventry South, now 63, was among those expelled from Labour in the early 1990s because of his links with the group centred around The Militant newspaper. Although the increasingly likely prospect of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Labour’s next leader is a welcome “surprise”, he believes comrades on Labour’s left will have little to celebrate when the result, even if it’s a Corbyn victory, is announced next month.
Mr Nellist, currently the chair of the alliance of unions and left pressure groups called the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), told The Independent on Sunday: “Jeremy will be a prisoner inside the parliamentary party [PLP] . More than 90 per cent of them won’t be on his side. Labour’s annual conference will be weeks away. That won’t be enough.
“He’ll need to make an urgent call for a larger gathering where every organisation on Britain’s left should be invited to debate what happens next.”
The direction of travel, he says, is clear enough. “Tony Blair abolished Clause Four on public ownership and effectively changed Labour into what he wanted. Jeremy will bring it [Clause 4] back, and recommit Labour to policies abandoned over the past 30 years. That means, like Blair, Jeremy will need a new party.”
Militant, the entryist group influenced by the voices of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, was founded during the premiership of Harold Wilson in the mid-1960s. By the mid-1970s, it controlled Labour’s youth wing. Despite serial attempts to oust its supporters, it was the public denouncement of the Militant-controlled Liverpool City Council by Neil Kinnock at the 1985 Labour conference which led to the purge and ended Nellist’s career as an MP.
Living in Coventry well away from the Westminster bubble, and not expecting a call from Mr Corbyn to become his chief-of-staff, he denies being left in a political wilderness or exile since his expulsion. Serving as a city councillor for 14 years, he says: “I never left Labour, Labour left me and others like me.” He calls the unexpected rise of Mr Corbyn “an opportunity to repopulate the socialist ideas of the left” and U-turn Labour away from the “pro-business party it’s become”.
The rise of Mr Corbyn, he says, need not have happened. “Accidents happen in politics. John Smith’s early death left a vacuum that Tony Blair took advantage of. Jeremy had less than half the small number of nominations he needed to get into the contest. It was a surprise he was given them, but it’s less of a surprise what’s now happening.”
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As a member of the Socialist Party, the rebranded version of Militant, and head of the TUSC, Mr Nellist says his calls to BBC News during the general election campaign were ignored. “We were the sixth largest political group, fielding 750 candidates from constituent groups. We couldn’t get our message out there. We had no echo.”
Mr Nellist says Jeremy Corbyn is the voice the left has lacked. “He’s delivering a clear anti-austerity message, getting away from the language of focus groups and corporate power. The leadership contest has given him a platform for ideas he’s always had, and it’s attracting young voters, and energising others.”
Although politically close to Mr Corbyn, he admits the two haven’t met in person for two years. “We nearly met up at the Durham Miners Gala earlier this month, but I live in Coventry – and that’s not London.”
Mr Nellist regrets nothing , and doesn’t mention lost opportunities – apart from one. “In 1983 when I first became an MP, I was assigned a small 11-foot-square office in Westminster. It had no windows. I had to share with another of Labour’s new intake – Tony Blair. There wasn’t a lot of conversation between us. I can’t recall even one political discussion.”
After four weeks, Tony Blair complained and was allocated a new office. Mr Nellist recalls: “He moved in with Gordon Brown – and I think that was the nexus of New Labour’s birth. Maybe I should have talked to him a bit more. Could have saved Labour a lot of trouble.”Reuse content