Tribune leader, 14 June 1991
The Militant tendency had few friends even on the far-left of the Labour Party before the Liverpool Broad Left, which it dominates, decided to field its own candidate, Lesley Mahmood, in the by-election for the Walton seat left vacant by the death of Eric Heffer. Now it has quite simply put itself beyond the pale.
Peter Kilfoyle was chosen 16 months ago as Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Walton according to the party’s agreed selection procedure. It is wholly irrelevant that many people believe that the selection procedure needs to be reformed: it is the one the party has lumbered itself with. It is equally irrelevant that Mr Heffer did not approve of Mr Kilfoyle: Labour MPs do not appoint their successors as prospective parliamentary candidates, nor should they.
Like him or loathe him, Mr Kilfoyle is the official Labour candidate, and publicly to support rivals to official Labour election candidates is rightly considered by the party constitution as one of the most serious disciplinary offences a party member can commit. Party members who campaign against Mr Kilfoyle will deserve no sympathy from anyone, left or right, when they are expelled.
Nevertheless, the most important thing about the Broad Left’s decision to run a rival candidate is not what it means for Labour Party members who back that candidate but its impact on Labour’s chances in the general election.
If Mr Kilfoyle is beaten as a result of the Broad Left intervention, either directly by Ms Mahmood or because she takes enough votes from Labour to allow a Liberal Democrat victory, Labour’s standing nationally will be severely damaged, just as it was by its by-election defeats in Bermondsey in 1983 and Greenwich in 1987. The damage might be reparable, but it will be far better for Labour if the Broad Left challenge in Walton is crushed.
Whether it will be depends on how far the Broad Left is able to turn the substantial support it has had in local politics into by-election votes, and there are good reasons for believing that it will not. Militant and its dupes and cronies inspire no great loyalty or idealism among the people of Liverpool: it is just that many people in a city where the council is the predominant employer and provider of housing are prepared to vote for promises of no cuts in council jobs and no increases in council rents. That the gang making the promises is corrupt and dishonest is well known – Alan Bleasdale’s portrayal of brutish boss politics in his GBH will strike a chord throughout Merseyside – but short-term self-interest easily trumps such considerations for many voters at local election time.
In the by-election, on the other hand, self-interest on the part of the voters could well work against the Broad Left. Although the Militant central committee might consider it worth taking the risk of sabotaging Labour’s chances in the general election on the grounds that a Labour government led by Neil Kinnock would be worse than a Tory government, it is unlikely that the voters of Walton agree. If Labour can convince them that voting for the Broad Left is the most effective way of helping the Tories to retain office, Mr Kilfoyle will be returned with a thumping majority.