Red Flag Over St Pancras
This is the second part of a serialised article, begun in the last issue of What Next?, which examines the activities of the political tendency led by John Lawrence. The article concentrates on their work in St Pancras Labour Party in the late 1950s, centring on the controversial decision to fly the Red Flag over St Pancras Town Hall on May Day 1958.
George Wagner, one of Lawrence’s fiercest critics at that time, later recalled that the proposal was one "which by and large the party voted for. I voted for it too". Indeed, though John Lawrence was to gain notoriety in the capitalist press as "the man who flew the Red Flag", it seems that the original proposal came from 70-year-old Tom Barker, a socialist who had no Trotskyist background (although in his youth he had been an organiser for the Industrial Workers of the World). In any case, in the normal run of things it would scarcely have been a major issue that a Labour council should propose to fly the Red Flag, the emblem of the labour movement, over the Town Hall on May Day.
However, as a symbol of a Labour council pursuing a strategy of open confrontation with the Tory government, under the leadership of men and women some of whom had evident ideological sympathies with the Communist Party, the decision to raise the Red Flag provoked outrage in the press.
The issue of the St Pancras Chronicle which reported the council debate on the May Day proposals featured boxed statements on its front page condemning the decision. Tory leader Timothy Donovan was reported as predicting disorder if the flying of the Red Flag went ahead. The Reverend Hector Morgan, vicar of St Luke’s and St Paul’s Church in Kentish Town, and chaplain to the British Legion, was also quoted. "To some of us who have seen men die for the Union Jack and all that it stands for", he pontificated, "this is a sacrilegious insult. We in the Church have a sense of loyalty to the Crown and nation and so, in the strongest possible terms, we dissociate ourselves from this latest attempt to bulldoze the neo-Communists into public life. It may be a good thing if every loyal subject of the British Crown in St Pancras district puts out the Union Jack on May Day just to show what a minority follows the blood-soaked banner of the neo-Communists."
A third featured statement was from the St Pancras branch of the Union Movement. "Some left wing councillors", the Mosleyites declared, "have yet to learn that St Pancras is not a suburb of Moscow. The British people will make that clear before long." How the fascists themselves intended to make it clear was revealed in a letter sent to John Lawrence shortly afterwards. "You are a traitor to your country", it read, "and we shall get rid of you and your bloody pals very quickly. There is nothing more certain than that. We just give you warning. It will be done very quickly and very suddenly, so watch your step."
The North London Press, for its part, pompously editorialised against the decision to fly the Red Flag. "The proposal was, from the start, provocative and designed to engender heated controversy", it opined. "In this it succeeded and Councillor John Lawrence, leader of the council and arch-publicist for the loudly-left, can paste another bunch of newspaper cuttings in his scrap-book." The paper was particularly indignant that all this had taken place "in the very week of the climax of the borough’s arts festival, an event which has slowly and painstakingly tried to build up prestige of a worthwhile kind locally". Ominously, the same issue of the North London Press reported that the Labour Party NEC was going ahead with its plans for an inquiry into the local party: "Some of the recent escapades of Councillor John Lawrence, leader of the left wing faction, have alarmed the party chiefs. They blame Councillor Lawrence’s followers for the recent fracas at Holborn Hall when Mr Henry Brooke, Housing Minister, was forced to abandon his meeting." The NEC was supposedly concerned that "the extreme left wing antics and policies of the controlling faction on St Pancras Borough Council may result in the loss of the narrowly-held Holborn and St Pancras South seat at the general election". At the 1955 election, Lena Jeger had held the seat by only 931 votes.
During the London County Council elections of April 1958 the Tories made the Red Flag issue the centre of their campaign in Holborn and St Pancras South. In an attempt to play the patriotic card, they produced a glossy leaflet headed "St George for England! St Pancras for Russia?" and printed in three colours – red, white and blue. "St Pancras Borough Council are flying the Red Flag over the Town Hall on May 1st", the leaflet announced. "The Socialist Leader of the Council wants to see it flying over Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament. Would you like to have it flying over your block of flats? The Union Jack was torn from the platform and trodden underfoot by these same St Pancras Socialists when they led a riot at a recent Public Meeting in Holborn addressed by the Minister of Housing. By disbanding Civil Defence in the Borough these Socialists have involved the ratepayers in unnecessary expenditure to the tune of £6,000. How long are you prepared to allow this to go on? The St Pancras Socialists are doing the Russians’ work for them. Their candidates would do the same at County Hall if elected to the LCC. Is that what you want from a local authority?" The leaflet concluded with an appeal to the electors to "register your protest against these unBritish activities" by voting for the three Tory candidates.
The outcome of the election should have scotched the idea that a militant stance by a Labour council would lose the party electoral support. Despite the Tories’ efforts to whip up anti-communist feeling among the voters, Labour succeeded – for the first time ever – in winning all three seats in Holborn and St Pancras South from the Conservatives. At the count when the results were announced, it was reported, "exultant cheers from a predominantly Labour public gallery heralded the Conservative eclipse. Triumphant socialist supporters broke into singing the Red Flag".
By this time the national press was showing a keen interest in the scandalous state of affairs in St Pancras. The Sunday Times published an article on the Red Flag affair, detailing the crimes (denying the Tories their aldermanic seats, reducing rents, cutting the mayor’s allowance and opposing Civil Defence) that the St Pancras Labour Group had committed since the left had taken control. "Before 1956, there were some very able councillors", Tory leader Donovan was quoted as saying. "You couldn’t tell the difference between Socialists and Conservatives." "Well you can tell the difference now", was Lawrence’s retort. "We were elected to do Socialist things. We intend to use the council to inspire in ordinary people the hatred and contempt for capitalist society we feel ourselves. I think, with Marx, that you need a revolution to get rid of the privileged classes and the muck of ages in men’s minds." It was because it had carried out such a revolution, Lawrence added, that Russia was "the number one country today". The question was put to him: why then didn’t he join the Communist Party? Lawrence answered that if he lived in France or Italy he would indeed join the Communists, but he didn’t intend to do so in Britain. "Why should I leave a big party to join a small party?" he asked. "I want to get things done."
At the monthly council meeting on April 30, the Tories made a final, vain attempt to stop the May Day celebration, presenting a petition with 1,510 signatures protesting at the decision to fly the Red Flag. "We know this is not promoted by the Labour Group in the borough but by a Communist faction within it", stated Tory leader Donovan, to protests from the Labour Group. It was common knowledge, the Tory chief whip Paul Prior chimed in, that Lawrence was "an avowed and committed Communist", and Prior challenged the council leader to resign and stand for re-election "as an out-and-out Communist and see what happens".
Speaking for the Labour majority, Alderman Charles Taylor condemned the disgraceful coverage of the issue by the St Pancras Chronicle. In particular he attacked the decision to feature on the paper’s front page a statement by the Union Movement, without any indication of the political character of that organisation. "Here we have a paper which claims to be non-party and impartial", Taylor angrily declared, "and yet it can devote a box to a statement from such an organisation as the Unionists. Is this not the fascist movement of Sir Oswald Mosley?" he demanded, amid loud commotion from the public galleries. "As a result of all this whipping up of public hatred", Taylor continued, "the leader of this council has been threatened with personal violence." To this a Tory councillor, one Mrs Arabin, responded: "It would do him good." When the resulting uproar had subsided, the mayor insisted that Mrs Arabin should withdraw the remark. This she did, explaining that she had been "carried away by the atmosphere of the debate".
In his own contribution, answering Tory charges that he was a Communist, John Lawrence readily conceded the accuracy of the statement attributed to him in the Sunday Times. "I would join the Communist Party if I lived in France or Italy", he explained, "because in those countries it is the party of the workers. But in England, it is the Socialist Party and so long as the Labour Party permits me to express my views and lets me do the things I want to do, I have no intention of leaving it." He added that for him Russia had always been and would always be "the number one country". Lawrence dismissed the idea that the flying of the Red Flag was opposed by the people of St Pancras. Producing the Conservative leaflet issued during the LCC elections, he pointed out that the Tories had fought the seats in Holborn and St Pancras South on the issue of the Red Flag. "See what it says", he declared, brandishing the leaflet, "St George for England and St Pancras for Russia, and it shows a Red Flag and a Union Jack. What was the result? The electors threw you out of office, all three of you." There was a lot of nonsense talked about the Red Flag, Lawrence added – it simply stood for socialism. "Concluding the debate", the St Pancras Chronicle reported, "Councillor Donovan said that if Councillor Lawrence felt that Russia was such a great and glorious power, he hoped he would not hesitate to go there."
In the guise of local businessmen and clergymen, the Tories appealed to the Commissioner of Police to intervene and prevent the Red Flag being flown. Not, you understand, as an exercise in political suppression, but because "grave breaches of the peace might arise" through street conflicts between communists and fascists. The capitalist press for its part stepped up the witch-hunt against St Pancras Council in cooperation with the local Tories. John Lawrence was identified as the chief villain. Not only did he want the Red Flag to fly over Buckingham Palace, the Evening Standard revealed, "he is also of the opinion that the Queen could live ’somewhere quietly in the country’ so that some of the rooms at Buckingham Palace could be used to house ’people who are overcrowded’."
"Communists in the council?" replied Councillor Donovan in response to a question from a Standard reporter. "Of course there are Communists in the council. Naturally they will not wave a party membership card in front of you, but there are Communists there, even if they won’t admit it. The discipline imposed by the Communist leaders here is so strict that the non-Communist Socialist council member has to toe the party line whether he likes it or not." Donovan continued: "Look at the support I am getting from the people of the borough. Every day letters and telephone calls reach me at my office or at the Town Hall, protesting about the red influence of that stupid flag. Many of the protests come from people living in council flats. But one 17-year-old youth has given me a petition with 3000 names on it. The signatories want me to pull down the Red Flag and put back the Union Jack. I wish I could. But, ironically, the law is on the side of Lawrence and his party. They have had a police superintendent patrolling the Town Hall checking up on possible entries to the roof where the flagpole is. It seems", Donovan concluded regretfully, "that it is against the law for anyone to tear down the Red Flag and replace it with the Union Jack."
More extreme right-wingers did not hesitate to take direct action, however. Late on the evening of April 29, a car-load of men arrived outside St Pancras Town Hall and daubed some twenty red hammer-and-sickles on the white stonework. John Lawrence told the Communist Party paper the Daily Worker that the graffiti was the work of fascists. "But, despite this, we shall fly the Red Flag", he said. "It is the flag of Labour which has flown over Labour demonstrations for 100 years." Inside the Town Hall phones were ringing as the newspapers followed up the story. Had any of the staff refused to take the day off, journalists wanted to know. This produced much amusement among the staff themselves. "Refuse a day off?" one replied. "We’re not daft."
On May Day itself the media was out in force. "Events began to take shape at 6.30am in the almost deserted Euston Road", according to the St Pancras Chronicle report, "when more than 50 newsreel, television and national newspaper cameramen took up strategic positions on the roadway at the top of the steps leading down from St Pancras Station. From this vantage point they and some 30 reporters obtained a first-class view of the roof top events that made St Pancras front page news throughout the country. At 7.20am Councillor John Lawrence, leader of the council, stepped on to the small roof beside the flagpole at the eastern end of the Town Hall, together with several of his supporters. At 7.24am Councillor Lawrence hauled the flag to the top of the mast. He looked over the balustrade and waved cheerily to the massed batteries of whirring cameras on the station terrace below, and then left the roof. Railwaymen and taxicab drivers cheered as the flag reached the top of the mast, fluttered slightly in the light morning breeze, and then hung limply beside the flag pole."
"After the Red Flag had been hoisted", the Evening News reported, "white-bearded Albert Roche, 62, of Clerkenwell, walked slowly round St Pancras Town Hall carrying a wooden cross and a rosary. At the main entrance he stopped and sprinkled the steps with holy water ‘to sanctify them’." Meanwhile, just down the Euston Road in Ossulston Street, where St Pancras Trades Council was due to hold a meeting at lunchtime in solidarity with the council’s action, the Union Movement was busy setting up its own platform flanked by two Union Jacks, and with a placard denouncing the flying of the Red Flag.
"As the lunch hour approached", the Chronicle report continued, "lorry-loads of police were unobtrusively unloaded in the St Pancras goods yard, and mounted police patrolled in Euston Road in readiness for any disorder. In Ossulston Street, NW1, the May Day rally organised by the Holborn and St Pancras Trades Council opened in strength. Barely three yards away was another platform from which Unionist members were speaking. With a large lunchtime audience the atmosphere became electric as the rival speakers declaimed each other. Hecklers were busy, and quietly the police moved up." Superintendent Paul Beresford, who was in charge of the operation, asked both organisations to close their meetings, and the fascists, satisfied with having achieved their objective of disrupting the trades council’s meeting, were happy to agree. But the trades council and their supporters, understandably, were not to be swayed. "We’ve police permission to be here, and we shall hold this meeting", Lawrence told Beresford, "and we shall not be deterred by a bunch of fascists." Mounting the trades council platform to begin his speech, his trademark red tie flapping in the breeze, Lawrence smilingly asked his audience for their verdict. Should they cancel the meeting or carry on? "Carry on!" was the overwhelming response.
In the middle of his speech Lawrence was suddenly seized from behind by the police and pulled to the ground. The trades council secretary, Councillor Stewart Phelan, then tried to mount the platform and he was immediately seized as well. "The police arrested everybody who stood on the platform and started speaking", David Goldhill recalls. "The rest of us just filled in. As soon as one person was arrested and was pulled off the platform, somebody else stood up and started speaking. We just kept the meeting going and were pulled off one at a time." According to the North London Press account: "It took six policemen to hold Councillor Lawrence, who struggled the whole of the 150 yards to the waiting Black Maria in the nearby yard of the potato market. It took many more police to drag struggling Councillor David Goldhill, Bernie Holland and other speakers to the Black Maria as well. During the struggle Lawrence, Goldhill and Holland fell on the roadway. I saw one policeman drag Bernie Holland to his feet by his hair. Mounted police, who had remained hidden in the yard at the potato market, rode out into Ossulston Square and lined the pavements in readiness for any further trouble."
The police action was received with shouts of "thugs", "fascists" and "Gestapo men" from the crowd. Some of them began to sing the Red Flag in protest. They too were arrested and hauled off to the waiting police vans. Only Lena Jeger was allowed to make a brief speech from the trades council platform; presumably the police felt that it would be going too far to arrest a Member of Parliament. The fascists tried to drown her out with chants of "The reds, the reds, we’re going to get rid of the reds" – unhindered, needless to say, by the police.
By the evening those arrested had been released on bail and the meeting was resumed with a much larger crowd. At 8.15 the Red Flag was lowered to loud cheers, while one dissenting right-winger shook her fist at the disappearing flag, to the amusement of those nearby. "May Day, 1958", the St Pancras Chronicle commented, "will long be remembered by the 140,000 residents of St Pancras as one of the most exciting days in the borough’s history. For the Leftists, the raising of the Red Flag over the Town Hall in Euston Road, NW1, was a proud achievement. Right wing sympathisers saw the day as one of grim significance. As the police superintendent told this journal, as the flag was being hauled down in the evening, ’There’s not been a dull moment’."
Of the arrested socialists, John Lawrence and Stewart Phelan were charged with assault, Bernie Holland with threatening behaviour and the others with obstruction, even though in some instances there was enough evidence for more serious charges. Holland relates that he was arrested after punching one of the policemen who had seized John Lawrence, but the sergeant at Caledonian Road police station told the arresting officer: "We can’t charge a little bloke like that with assault on the police. We’d look stupid"! According to David Goldhill, the police "found they’d grabbed a brace of councillors, the deputy mayor of St Pancras and the secretary of the trades council, and they were a bit worried about the whole thing, and they played it down. They could have done me with assault on the police, because I remember somebody grabbed Bernie and they dragged him off and I grabbed the constable who was dragging him, so they could easily have made a more serious thing of it".
The socialists arrested at Ossulston Street were brought to court the following day, but despite their protests and insistence on being tried then and there they were remanded on bail. Two fascists who had been involved in a scuffle with a left-winger on Euston Road were bound over to keep the peace. But the magistrate took a dimmer view of four other men whose cases were dealt with that day. They had been arrested outside the Town Hall itself, where some 20 right-wing students waving Union Jacks had been staging their own protest against St Pancras Borough Council. A Police Constable Bashforth told the court that a discussion between the defendants about the Red Flag had provoked the students, who "began advancing menacingly" towards them. The police had immediately arrested, not the menacingly-advancing students, but the four men being threatened, who were then charged with "using insulting words whereby a breach of the peace might have been occasioned".
PC Bashforth recounted how one of the defendants, railway worker George Courthold, had stated in a loud voice: "Why can’t you do something to stop these chaps waving that Union Jack about. I am surprised you stand for it, but I am glad to see the Red Flag’s flying. Doesn’t it look good." In evidence, Mr Courthold explained that he had been returning to work after buying some cakes for his lunch when "I heard this coloured chap say something about the Red Flag and I said "What’s good about it? They ought to put the Union Jack up". Communism stinks as far as I am concerned. When you are having a friendly argument and you suddenly find yourself in the back of a Black Maria you start thinking". The magistrate acquitted Courthold, but he found against the other three defendants on the grounds that their outspoken support for the Red Flag would have offended "anybody who is loyal and patriotic".
The case against Lawrence, Goldhill, Bernie Holland and Stewart Phelan came to court on 9 May. John Lawrence told the court that the police "were all fluttering about like a lot of angry hens. I didn’t take them seriously". He had been grabbed from behind as he was speaking from the rostrum, swung in the air "and landed crash on my backside". There had been no disorder before the police intervened and he had seen "much rowdier meetings than that". In cross-examination the police solicitor suggested that Lawrence had been annoyed by the Union Movement setting up their platform. "Fascists always annoy me", Lawrence retorted. Stephen Preston, a journalist who appeared as a witness for the defence, said he had seen Councillor Phelan seized "in the most brutal and unpleasant manner and I was horrified at the violence used. I saw a police officer strike him a most vicious blow in the mouth". He described how Phelan was tossed into the police van "like a sack of potatoes". Another defence witness, Painters’ Union official Pat Dowling, when asked if Councillor Phelan had assaulted the police, replied: "If you have got four or five policemen jumping on you, you don’t have much of an opportunity of assaulting the police."
Stanley Moore, defending, said that it had been well known throughout London, and even nationally, that the trades council meeting was to take place. What was more, the police had been notified and a letter received from the commissioner confirming this. The fascists had never held a meeting in Ossulston Street before and had only gone there in order to cause a provocation. But the defendants had stated that they had no intention of being provoked, and Bernie Holland had actually told the crowd to take no notice of the fascist speaker and to turn their backs on him. Moore produced press photographs showing that this was, in fact, what the crowd had done.
Those in charge of the police had no intention of allowing the trades council meeting to take place, Moore suggested. He submitted that nothing had occurred likely to cause a breach of the peace before the police intervened. The defendants admitted that they did not comply with the request by the police to stop the meeting because they considered it an unreasonable one. The police had laid "violent hands" on these people, Moore stated. It was quite ridiculous, as the police alleged, that Mr Holland had run towards the Union Movement meeting shouting: "Kill the fascists." Actually he was going away from the fascists and running towards Councillor Lawrence and the police. Moore submitted that the police officers had given "completely dishonest evidence" against Councillor Phelan, and he emphasised that no breach of the peace had occurred. In the outcome, assault charges against Lawrence and Phelan were dismissed, but they were fined £5 each with three guineas costs for obstruction. David Goldhill was fined £3 for the same offence, while Bernie Holland was fined £2 for threatening behaviour.
Five further cases of obstructing the police were heard on 23 May. One of these was Hilda Lane, who told the court that she had made an announcement about the evening meeting, with the agreement of a police officer, and was then arrested. Others were arrested for the crime of singing the Red Flag. Ray Bernard, one of the accused, told the court: "The police told us to move on and to get the rostrum out of the way. We moved it into the forecourt of a block of flats. Several groups of people were standing about and somebody started to sing the Red Flag. We all joined in and before we knew where we were, we were in the police van." A police witness, one Sergeant Henderson, justified the arrests on the grounds that the Red Flag was sung "more or less in defiance of the police". All five were found guilty of obstruction. As they left the dock, one of the defendants, Catherine Duffy, shouted at the police: "This is the last time I will help you coppers. You have had it now, you lot."
Although Lawrence had a comfortable majority in the Labour Group, his position was less secure in Holborn and St Pancras South CLP, where there was in fact considerable opposition to what was seen as a Trotskyist takeover of the party. George Wagner later described the attitude of the anti-Lawrence faction: "Suddenly we had these groups of Trotskyites popping up all over the place, and we got suddenly a lot of affiliations of trade union branches. I think we had something like 45 affiliations to the constituency party, which changed the voting pattern at the management committee considerably. And quite a number of the wards had acquired members who were either slowly moving in here or who had been converted by the local Trotskyite talent." Wagner charged the Lawrence group with "playing at a revolutionary situation that wasn’t there" and committing the Labour Group and the CLP to actions which took them outside the law. He also held Lawrence and his supporters responsible for embittering the atmosphere in the party with their attacks on political opponents: "One of the things which was from the word go a potential deadly poison in the whole period of Trotskyite leadership was the absolutely abominable personal relations."
The problem for Lawrence’s opponents was that they had never managed to get a clear majority on the GMC. After the disqualification in February of 21 trade union delegates, however, the position of the anti-Lawrence faction was considerably strengthened, and at the next month’s AGM George Wagner had succeeded in displacing Hilda Lane as constituency secretary. The time seemed ripe for a challenge to Lawrence. At the monthly meeting of the GMC on 15 May, therefore, one of the wards proposed the following motion: "In view of the activities of John Lawrence which continue to discredit the Labour Party, this General Management Committee of the Holborn and St Pancras South Labour Party resolves to expel him from membership." Not surprisingly, this resulted in a fierce debate. But Lawrence’s opponents still couldn’t get a majority for his expulsion. After two and a half hours of angry argument, the motion was defeated by 35 votes to 33.
On 17 May, twenty seven prominent members of the Holborn and St Pancras South Labour Party, headed by George Wagner and the constituency vice-chairman Tom McKitterick, sent a letter to the NEC inviting it to step in and overturn the GMC’s decision. The letter stated:
"For some years there has been active inside the Party an organised group of which the leading members are Councillors John Lawrence, Hilda Lane and David Goldhill. This group has consistently obstructed the proper conduct of Party business, has forced the Party into actions and decisions of which a large part of the membership disapproves, and has by many of its public activities brought discredit on the Party locally and nationally. This group is part of a network of similar groups in other parties (e.g. in Norwood) [in fact, the left in Norwood CLP was dominated by adherents of Lawrence’s bitter enemy, Gerry Healy!], and is strongly believed to have links with organisations outside the Labour Party. Because of its activities and behaviour, many members and supporters are discouraged from playing their full part in the work of the Party. Membership is considerably smaller than it should be, and the Party is prevented from functioning as an effective political and electoral organisation. Unless this state of affairs can be improved, our small parliamentary majority may be endangered.
"The main heads of our complaint against the group are as follows; we are prepared to support these charges with detailed statements:
"1. Their policy follows at all times that of the Communist Party. They have made it clear by word and action that they do not believe in democratic methods, but are prepared to resort to any means to achieve their ends.
"2. They have forced this Party into support of dissident groups, in Norwood, Peckham, Hammersmith and elsewhere; they have forced it to contribute to doubtful causes and persons even at times when essential Party work was curtailed from lack of funds.
"3. They have established a rigid control of Wards 6 and 7 of St Pancras and of the Holborn Co-operative Party, and have used these organisations and a number of trade union affiliations to pack the General Management Committee with their supporters.
"4. In 1956 they used their voting strength to prevent the selection as municipal candidates of a number of sitting members of the St Pancras Borough Council, in order to make way for their own nominees. They subsequently forced the resignation of the leader and chief whip of the Labour Group, and have since exploited the Group for their own propaganda purposes.
"5. In the General Management Committee, they resort to noisy interruptions and intimidation of delegates.
"6. They sponsored the formation of the Holborn and St Pancras Workers’ and Tenants’ Defence Committee as a means of associating the Communist Party with the Labour Party’s opposition to the Rent Acts. On a recent occasion Councillor Lawrence, as chairman of the Committee, appeared on a platform arranged by this Committee with a man named Nicholson, even though the said Nicholson was known to be standing as Communist candidate for the London County Council in North St Pancras.
"7. They organised the breaking up of a meeting on 24th February in the Holborn Hall addressed by Mr Henry Brooke, and members of the group have been involved in other acts of public violence.
"8. On 15th May the General Management Committee discussed a resolution from a ward demanding the expulsion of Councillor Lawrence. Throughout the meeting they behaved as a closely disciplined group and at first attempted to prevent discussion; they later tried to prevent a ballot vote from being taken, admitting that their aim was to intimidate delegates. In spite of this, and in spite of the unrepresentative composition of the General Management Committee, the resolution was lost by the narrow margin of 35 to 33.
"These are only instances of the behaviour to which we object. For several years the rest of the Party (which has, after all, a long radical tradition) has accepted many things unwillingly in order to achieve unity; discussion of issues on their merits has become almost impossible. We hoped that a change might be brought about by normal means. We have now regretfully decided that this is unlikely, and that the present state of affairs can be tolerated no longer. We can assure you that there will be a substantial body of opinion inside the Party ready to support any action the National Executive Committee may decide to take to improve matters.
"All the signatories of this letter are prepared to allow their names to be used openly."
On 21 May, the NEC announced that John Lawrence had been suspended from membership of the Labour Party. At a press conference the party secretary Morgan Phillips stated that he had been asked some time ago to conduct an inquiry into the affairs of the Labour Group on St Pancras Council, and had delayed taking action only because of the imminence of the LCC elections. Phillips justified Lawrence’s suspension on the grounds that there had been complaints from members of the South Party ("presumably", Tribune commented, "from people who had just seen the democratic decision go the other way"). A letter from Morgan Phillips to Lawrence explained that he had been suspended because his "general activities and views" were "inimical to the best interests of the Labour Party and indistinguishable from those of known Communists".
Commenting to the press on Phillips’ letter, Lawrence replied: "We have flown the Red Flag. Does that make me a Communist? We have done away with Civil Defence. Does that make me a Communist? We have not put up our rents. Does that make me a Communist?" Lawrence added that for the time being he supposed he would have to sit on the borough council as an Independent Labour representative, and would consider standing as such in the next borough council elections, if his appeal against the decision of the National Executive was rejected.
The NEC’s action against Lawrence was accompanied by the announcement that the whole of the South Party had been suspended and was to be reorganised. "I suspect that means it will be reorganised without me", Lawrence observed. "I consider I have been treated very shabbily and I suppose it is mainly because I flew the Red Flag on May Day. If it is because of that then it is a grave reflection on the present executive of the Labour Party." An NEC spokesman commented smugly: "I think this sets a precedent. We have certainly suspended members before, but I don’t think we have suspended a whole constituency before." As David Goldhill recounts: "They simply dissolved the whole party, including the MP, for about a week. Even Lena Jeger wasn’t a member of the Labour Party! They struck the entire party out. It disappeared."
At meeting on the evening of 21 May, immediately following the NEC’s announcement of Lawrence’s suspension, the Labour Group had retained him as leader. They also sent a letter to Morgan Phillips complaining of the lack of "specific charges" against Lawrence and asking for a meeting with the NEC. This request was turned down. In the face of the NEC’s intransigence, and fearing that defiance would lead to disciplinary action against themselves, many of the councillors began to waver. At a special meeting of the Group on 28 May, the Labour whip, Jock Stallard, put up a motion that the Group should "reaffirm John Lawrence as the leader of a united Labour Group until such time as the NEC can convince us that his views and activities – which the majority of us have supported – are incompatible with membership of the Labour party". This was voted down by 23 votes to 15, and Lawrence was then removed as leader and Charles Ratchford elected in his place.
Fourteen councillors refused to accept this decision, condemning it as a betrayal of a comrade who was being victimised for pursuing policies which the entire Group had supported, and they walked out of the meeting in protest. They later issued a statement signed by Jock Stallard and the Labour Group secretary David Goldhill which asserted that they were "not an independent group. We are a Labour Group fighting for socialist policies and fighting against dictatorial interference by the NEC". In practice, however, the minority did constitute itself as a separate group on the council, with John Lawrence as leader. This new formation became known as the Independent Socialist Group.
To be continued.