Entryism or racism?: Labour turns down one in four Asians for party membership amid fears of a local take-over

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The Independent Online
THE PROBLEM for Manchester Gorton Labour party began with a thud on the doormat. In early 1993, the post for local officials became unusually heavy with new membership applications made to national party headquarters in London and reported to the constituency.

'They came out of the blue, computer printouts from Walworth Road with hundreds of applications, all Asian names,' a local party official said. 'Alarm bells rang.'

The Gorton party had not expected such enthusiasm for membership. Activists were still shell-shocked after the 1992 general election defeat, and in the deprived streets of south Manchester apathy seemed the defining political mood.

The constituency, just beyond the city centre, is a run-down residential area which might well expect a significant Asian element in its local party; it has an Asian population, mainly from Pakistan, of about 15 per cent, and three out of eight local city councillors are Asian. But it was the scale of the new applications that raised eyebrows - and the timing.

Gerald Kaufman, the member of Parliament for the area for 22 years, had announced in July 1992 that he would relinquish the post of shadow Foreign Secretary and return to the backbenches.

'Some ambitious people here interpreted that as meaning he would not contest the next general election,' a leading Asian member of the Gorton party said. 'There was the prospect of a vacancy.'

Party officials in London and Manchester began investigating the influx of applications; 18 months later, mutual allegations of Asian entryism and racism have not been fully resolved, despite a court case.

Similar cases of alleged entryism have been reported in other constituencies with large Asian communities. They share a common pattern: large numbers of Asians abruptly apply to join the party. If successful, they allegedly attend meetings only when an important vote is anticipated.

Subscriptions are paid by one individual, who claims this is an administratively convenient way of collecting and paying membership fees, but suspicions are aroused that political power is being purchased.

Those who control the Gorton constituency, including Asians, believe an attempt to take over the party has been made by individuals who have recruited supporters for the singular purpose of securing the seat for a Muslim or Urdu-speaking candidate. If party rules have not been broken, the spirit of the Labour movement certainly has, they claim.

Those whose membership has been challenged - or whose acceptance has been delayed during protracted investigations - claim they want to participate fully in Labour Party affairs, but have been rejected because they are Muslims.

Entryism is a Labour Party tradition as old as trade unionism. Various devices have been used to secure votes at important local party meetings, but rules were changed last year to prevent organisations or individuals outside a constituency influencing its affairs. A member now has to be on the electoral register in the constituency where he or she wants to join the party.

The first batch of applications to join the Gorton constituency party contained 376 names. The party rejected 62, most of them because the applicants were not on the electoral roll. Others gave addresses which did not exist.

Investigation of a second batch of 249 names led to the rejection of 116, mostly because the applicants gave false addresses or were not on the electoral roll. Gorton officials became convinced that a deliberate recruitment campaign was under way. A rejection rate of 28 per cent of applications was strikingly high.

'Recruitment was clearly orchestrated, a canvassing process in the Asian community,' a party official said. 'We learned they were knocking on doors, telling people that Gerald was retiring and that there ought to be a Muslim MP for Gorton. We believe people were asked to join the party not to become involved in the Labour Party, but to get someone elected.

'An enormous number of applications were for the pounds 5 subscription rate for unemployed members. The investigations made us suspect that some of these were false, and that someone was paying these subscriptions.'

Further alleged abuses came to light on polling day for European elections in June this year. Local party members arrived at their polling station to discover that the electoral roll had been amended without their knowledge.

Their homes were, according to the register, now occupied by men with Asian names, a 'cuckoo vote' which corresponded to the influx of applications to the Gorton party.

Party officials concede that investigations were time-consuming. Even when the national executive accepted new members into the party, many endured long delays before their party cards were issued. Some 'new' members had been lapsed by the time their cards arrived. The new Asian members believed Labour was subjecting them to scrutiny which would not have been applied had they been white. And their exclusion coincided with important dates on the constituency calendar, convincing many Asians that officials were using time-wasting tactics to protect Gerald Kaufman. He had confirmed he wanted to stand at the next election, and last week he secured two-thirds of all nominations for the Gorton candidacy. As the sitting MP, his two-thirds majority means he will be Labour's candidate at the next general election.

But if the bulk of the new Asian applicants had been able to participate, would the outcome have been different?

Three of the new members who believe it would, last week took the Labour Party to court, alleging discrimination under the Race Relations Act.

Although they failed to obtain an injunction halting the candidate selection procedure, Labour undertook to give further consideration to their complaint. Mr Kaufman's confirmation as candidate by the party's national executive will be postponed, and the matter may yet return to the courts.

'This episode has caused a great deal of upset in the party,' a local official said. 'There have been one or two quite unpleasant meetings, constant allegations of racism, an attempt to steal a membership list - the same thing will happen over selection of council candidates.

'The root causes are mandatory re-selection of candidates and Omov (one member, one vote). Re-selection means there is an open season on sitting MPs or councillors. Omov is fine in principle, but it means recruitment is more important than debate.'

For Asians trying to increase their influence, the party's suspicions sound like euphemisms for racism.

'We were prevented from taking part in the political process because we are Muslims,' said one. 'You would have thought the Labour Party would welcome Urdu-speaking candidates.'

(Photograph omitted)