Labour Conference Diary: Ricky Tomlinson, the last Royle to be locked up makes a flying (picket) visit

More than 40 years ago, Tomlinson  was one of 24 building workers arrested in North Wales and charged with various offences including conspiracy

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Indy Politics

Manchester is to receive a Royle visit. Ricky Tomlinson, who played the couch potato Jim in The Royle Family, will be in town to promote a play – not as an actor, but as an activist.

More than 40 years ago, he was one of 24 building workers arrested in North Wales and charged with various offences including conspiracy. The Conservative government of the day was worried about the rise of union militancy and the new tactics they were using. Tomlinson and the rest were acting as “flying pickets”, turning up unexpectedly outside construction sites to persuade the workforce to join the first ever national builders’ strike.

Tomlinson, now 74, was judged to be the worst of the lot, and was sentenced to two years in prison. The youngest of the arrested pickets, Terry Renshaw, is already at Labour’s conference, as part of the perennial campaign to get the verdicts overturned. “I can’t visit the US,” he complains. “I wanted to go there with a friend in 2012, and it cost me £65 to find out that they wouldn’t give me a visa. My MP wrote them a letter and got a reply saying I could go for an interview in London or Belfast. It would cost me £150 to be interviewed, and they didn’t hold out any hope – because I’m a subversive. And I only got a suspended sentence.”

Muzzled by control freaks

Labour Party conferences ceased long ago to be places where anything much is decided, so it is a wonder that anyone thinks it matters what they talk about. The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy resolution does. They have distributed a news sheet that claims: “This year, 65 good motions were ruled out of order, several on dubious and obscure grounds. Many Constituency Labour Parties made appeals but none were successful. New Labour control freakery unfortunately lingers on.” At least somebody cares.

Where giants once walked

Something else that somehow does not seem to matter any more is the annual elections to Labour national executives. This used to be a huge event in the political calendar, featuring political stars such as Tony Benn and Shirley Williams. It was Neil Kinnock’s route to the leadership. Jon Lansman, a veteran of the old Bennite left, claims that in this, the year Tony Benn died, those who keep the Bennite flame alight have had their best result at a national executive election in 30 years. But nobody noticed.

The battle for Bootle

Interest in who will be the new Labour candidate in Bootle faded somewhat when Euan Blair, the son of the former Prime Minister, did not enter the contest, despite speculation in the Liverpool Echo that he would. Still, Bootle was in recent times the safest seat in the UK, so the local Labour Party is  not just choosing a candidate: they are choosing an MP. It looked like a shoo-in for the leader of Sefton Council, Peter Dowd, after a local panel made up of fellow councillors chose a shortlist of four, leaving out Alex Flynn, who works for the GMB union, and Matthew Doyle, who works for Tony Blair. But the national executive has intervened, and added two names to what is now a list of six. So even though Mr Blair’s son is not in contention, one of his more loyal protégés is.