Progressive Alliance: 'Shameful' Labour Party expels longstanding activists for organising bid to oust Jeremy Hunt

Activists who have been Labour members for 50 years punished for uniting with Greens and Lib Dems behind NHS doctor seen as best chance of ousting Health Secretary

May Bulman
Tuesday 09 May 2017 18:26 BST
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Steve Williams, Kate Townsend and Robert Park, all members of the South West Surrey Labour Party, were expelled by head office on Monday
Steve Williams, Kate Townsend and Robert Park, all members of the South West Surrey Labour Party, were expelled by head office on Monday (Twitter)

Three members of the Labour Party have been expelled for aligning with other parties in a bid to oust Jeremy Hunt from his seat in the general election.

Steve Williams, who sits on the executive of the South West Surrey constituency party and has been a member of the Labour Party for 46 years, received a letter from the party's head office on Monday stating that he was “ineligible” to remain a member because he had "publicly stated support for a party that is standing against the Labour Party in the 2017 general election".

Kate Townsend, who is secretary on the executive committee of the constituency party, and Robert Park, who stood as a candidate in the constituency's local elections and has been a member of the party for 50 years, were also expelled with the same reasons given.

The letter Mr Williams received, which The Independent has seen, cites as a reason for his expulsion his recent work for think tank Compass, which has been promoting and facilitating the “Progressive Alliance” movement across the country.

Over the weekend, Mr Williams chaired a meeting on behalf of Compass and with the support of Ms Townsend and Mr Park, during which members of the South West Surrey Labour Party agreed to unite behind an NHS doctor and leader of the National Health Action party instead of the official Labour candidate standing in the constituency.

The letter, signed by the Labour Party’s head of disputes Sam Matthews, states: “It has been brought to our attention with supporting evidence that you have publicly stated your support for a party that is standing against the Labour Party in the 2017 general election which is incompatible with membership of the Labour Party.”

It proceeds to cite Chapter 2.1.4.B of the Labour Party’s rules, stating that that a member of the party who “joins and/or supports a political organisation other than an official Labour Group or unit of the Party or supports any candidate who stands against an official Labour candidate”, or “publicly declares their intent to stand against a Labour candidate” is automatically ineligible to be or remain a party member.

The letter then states: “You are therefore ineligible to remain a member of the Labour Party and have been removed from the national membership system. You are no longer entitled to attend local Labour Party meetings," and proceeds to say that Mr Williams “may apply for re-admission” to the NEC, but that such applications should not normally be considered until a “minimum of five years has elapsed”.

It provides as "evidence" of Mr Williams' alleged misconduct a copy of a letter he distributed offering local party members the opportunity to sign an open letter calling on the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats to withdraw their candidates.

It also provides a transcription of a short interview aired on BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Monday in which Mr Williams states that he has "no doubt whatsoever" that the majority of local Labour Party members in the constituency would support Ms Irvine instead of a Labour candidate.

A “progressive forum” chaired by Mr Williams on Saturday saw the Green Party withdraw their candidate from the race completely, while Liberal Democrats and Labour members agreed not to campaign, after members from all four parties selected the leader of the National Health Action party as the best-placed candidate to oppose the Health Secretary.

Mr Williams chaired a separate meeting at the end of April during which the South West Surrey Labour Party made a unanimous decision not to back a Labour candidate in the constituency, and instead divert funding elsewhere in the country in order to boost the chances for a stronger candidate from a different progressive party of ousting the Health Secretary from the seat.

After receiving the letter, Mr Williams told The Independent he was "disappointed" that the national Labour Party had not agreed to make an exception to their hard stance against progressive alliances in the bid to unseat Mr Hunt and pave the way for improvements in the NHS.

Dr Louise Irvine is said to have the best chance of defeating Mr Hunt
Dr Louise Irvine is said to have the best chance of defeating Mr Hunt (National Health Action Party)

“You’ve got three very active people from South West Surrey Labour Party trying to work collaboratively across parties in the constituency to unseat Jeremy Hunt. Between us, we’ve been members of the party for more than a century,” said Mr Williams.

“I’m disappointed. I’ve been a Labour Party member for 46 years. I support the Labour Party and I want to see a Labour government. I want to see Jeremy Corbyn at No 10 Downing Street, and I will continue to work for the Labour Party and try to secure a Labour government or a Labour-led government as the outcome of the election. But obviously I’ve been restricted in the extent to which I can do that.

“I know the Labour Party has taken a position of saying no to any kind of deal, but I do think there could have been an exception in this particular case for Labour with the Lib Dems and the Greens to stand aside for a candidate who is uniquely placed to oppose Jeremy Hunt and fight him on his record of damaging the NHS.

“Louise Irvine is incredibly able and articulate, and as a GP and someone who is totally passionate about the health service she would be a very good unity candidate to oppose him. That’s all we were trying to do – trying to get the Labour Party to see the sense in having a single candidate to hold Mr Hunt to account for what he’s done to the health service – which is a key issue in this election.”

Following the expulsion of Mr Williams, Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas slammed both Labour and the Lib Dem’s leadership for failing to fully engage with the idea of electoral alliances despite the strong wishes of their members and the wider public, and accused the two parties of “betraying the people they represent”, describing Labour’s treatment of Mr Williams as “both shameful and shortsighted”.

“Both Labour and the Lib Dems have betrayed the people they represent by not fully engaging with the idea of electoral alliances,” said Ms Lucas.

“Though the Lib Dems were happy to have informal discussion, they never delivered on ruled any meaningful alliances. Labour were even more intransigent – with no hint from their leadership that they were interested in talking about how we best beat this rotten Tory Government.

“Labour’s treatment of Steve Williams in Surrey is both shameful and shortsighted. There was a real chance to unite around a pro-NHS candidate to beat Jeremy Hunt, but Labour might well have no blown it.”

The co-leader went on to announce that her party would now “move on from alliances” and redouble efforts to win votes across the country, saying: “Labour and the Lib Dems defied their own members on the ground – and the time has now come for the Greens to focus entirely on winning votes up and down the country.”

Mr Williams said other members of the South West Surrey Labour Party were “angry” about the expulsions, and that in a party meeting on Monday evening – which he was unable to attend having received the expulsion letter – many maintained the position that they would not support the Labour candidate.

“People have been angry about the stance that the stance the Labour Party nationally has taken on this, and the fact that three of the senior members of South West Surrey have been expelled,” Mr Williams said.

“From my understanding, they maintained the position that we had held previously, which was that they will not put funds into the local campaign and will not do support and fundraising for the candidate."

He added that he and the other two expelled members planned to appeal their expulsions, but that regardless of the outcome, he would continue to support Labour in the election, while also driving forward with the progressive alliance movement.

“We will be appealing but we really should not be in that position. We weren’t expecting this to happen. But regardless, I’ll continue to campaign for progressive alliance and I’ll continue to campaign during this election for Labour candidates up and down the country. I haven’t resigned from the Labour Party, and I’m as much a Labour supporter today as I was yesterday," he said.

“I still have hope. We have got three days to go before close of nominations, and it is still not too late for the Labour Party to come to a deal for South West Surrey, and to come to an agreement not to stand on the Isle of Wight, and enable the Green Party to launch a strong opposition against the Tory candidate there.

“I think there is so much groundswell for the kind of alliances that have begun to develop across the country. The right is united, with Ukip supporting Tory candidates up and down the country, so why do we not do the same on the left?

“Otherwise, we will be defeated. And we will have another Tory government that is elected by a minority of the electorate.”

Responding to Mr Williams’ expulsion, Neal Lawson, chair of Compass, said: “Steve Williams put his faith in Labour for 46 years, but they showed none back when he and the rest of his local party decided to back a local doctor to fight Jeremy Hunt for the soul of the NHS. This in a seat Labour can never, ever win.”

When the Labour Party was contacted for comment, a spokesperson simply said: "Kate Townsend, Steve Williams and Robert Park are no longer a member of the Labour Party", before repeating the party rules stated in the expulsion letter.

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