In 2006 myself, my wife Dawn and my two stepsons moved into a privately rented home in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire. A Labour Party member, I had been away from the area for 28 years and was horrified to see how the town I loved had changed.
A Tory stronghold
It was governed by a corrupt Tory-led council that was so bad it had been placed in ‘special measures’ as the worst performing local authority in England.
In 2007 as local elections approached our two sons were looking forward to their first opportunity to exercise their right to vote. Reading the local paper I discovered that in our district council ward that there were only two candidates, one the official Conservative nomination, the other an independent Tory.
Our family had been effectively disenfranchised by the inability of Bromsgrove Constituency Labour Party (CLP) to field a candidate.
After years of political inactivity, instead focusing on family and domestic concerns, I decided to rejoin the Labour Party. I also contacted a prominent local Labour councillor and offered to help out in a neighbouring ward in the elections.
Around the same time I was in touch with a friend who had a son about to go on his third tour of duty in Afghanistan. She was against the war and understandably concerned about her son. I got in touch with “Military Families Against War” (MFAW) and spoke with Rose Gentle, who had lost her son Gordon in Iraq in 2004.
Afghanistan and Labour
We decided that Bromsgrove would be a good place to test public support for a MFAW petition, calling for the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown to bring British troops home from Afghanistan. We thought this as there were many working class families who were worried about the consequence of the wars in Iraq & Afghanistan.
April was a busy month for my family. After work, myself and Dawn spent time canvassing and leafleting for the Labour Party in nearby Sidemoor, a solidly working class ward which Labour was hoping to regain from an Independent.
We also had contacted the council to gain permission to hold a Saturday street stall to run a petition campaign for MFAW. At the start of May Bromsgrove District Council refused permission for us to run the street stall.
I was also invited by the Chair of the local CLP to attend the election count in recognition of the work done in Sidemoor. At the count I met local Labour councillors and a CLP officer; all were pleased when Labour won back Sidemoor ward. They invited me to attend the next Labour group meeting, and I said I was willing to stand in future elections in my ward to ensure that people had the chance to vote Labour.
The Labour group meeting was small, and not even all the Labour councillors attended. So it was chaired by the newly elected Councillor Murray. At the start of the meeting the proposed agenda was read out. I indicated I that I had an item for the ‘Any Other Business’ section.
The meeting was unbelievably turgid, boring and uninspiring at the age of 44, I was one of the youngest people in the room. It felt like I had just joined an organisation literally dying on its knees.
When ‘Any Other Business’ came up I said “Bromsgrove District Council Officers have acted undemocratically denying permission for local Military Families Against War to hold a…” I was immediately interrupted by the Chair who was shouting “Out Of Order!” The meeting erupted into chaos. A white haired elderly lady sitting next to me started to speak “Let Mark finish what he has to say…” She was interrupted by the Chair and another councillor started shouting. The meeting fell into utter disorder.
It was already 9.15pm and I had promised my wife I’d be back home by 9.30pm. So I simply got up and said “maybe we can discuss this another time. I’ll get my coat, I have to get home”. I left the meeting.
The following day Dawn, myself and two other friends went ahead with the MFAW petition stall. We were overwhelmed by the support from ordinary people on Bromsgrove High Street. Brown had just become Prime Minister and alongside our MFAW banner, we had a sign saying “GORDON – Bring the Troops Home”. People came up to the stall to talk about their children serving in the military and their fears about the continuing wars; they enthusiastically signed our petition.
Brown became Labour leader without any contest. John McDonnell MP had attempted to stand to represent the Left Alternative but was prevented at the last minute. There was a contest for deputy leader with a hustings at Warwick University. This would also be a major media event representing Brown’s ‘Coronation’. I applied online for tickets to attend the hustings. Turning up with a folder containing the 500-plus signatures on the petition, I found a seat in the hall. I explained to the members sitting next to me, that if I got the chance I was going to speak and present the petition to Brown.
Making our voices heard
Polly Toynbee was chairing the question and answer session with Brown. It was all tightly controlled and stage managed but at one point Toynbee asked “Any more questions?” Someone must have forgotten their cue, so I put up my hand and said “Polly, POLLY! I have a question!” She looked at me and said “Yes?” I responded:
“Out there, and everybody knows this, the elephant in the room is that this war has gone on too long. Everybody has had enough of the war. We have to take decisive action.
When are you going to bring those troops back home? I have over 500 signatures here to present to Gordon from the people of Bromsgrove. Many of whom have sons serving in Iraq and Afghanistan…”
Already security were moving in, but they couldn’t get close enough without trampling over more ‘loyal’ party members. I sat down and Brown stood up. His reply to me made the evening TV bulletins but my question to him remained unreported. Strangely, the only media outlet to report my comments was The Hindu, an Indian newspaper.
An earlier protest by a young woman who was dragged out by security was briefly shown on TV. But it was typically framed to present Stop the War Coalition supporters as ‘anarchist thugs’.
I left the hustings and returned to Bromsgrove. Within a week a letter arrived saying I had be expelled from the Labour Party. It didn’t say what for but it did say I had a right to appeal. So I appealed, but I had to wait five months for the appeal hearing. It was eventually chaired by Ann Black from the National Executive Committee (NEC). There were two other officials whose names escaped me.
By the time of the hearing life had taken a turn for the worse. Myself and Dawn had a Northern Rock mortgage on a two bed ex-council house in Sidemoor, Bromsgrove. I was in the middle of renovation work on the semi-derelict property.
Also, I had just lost my job as a parking attendant. This was after I challenged my manager over their abuse of a disabled customer, and their workplace bullying. But my appeal hearing against my sacking was lost. Little wonder, when my Union ‘rep’, a member of Bromsgrove CLP, supported me like a rope supports a hanged man.
I was broke. Northern Rock bank had just collapsed, our home was barely habitable and we didn’t know if we could afford the mortgage. Or even if we still had a mortgage, given the state of Northern Rock.
A ragged trousered philanthropist
I went to the Labour appeal hearing on an overcast November afternoon in West Bromwich. I was wearing paint splattered overalls after decorating our new, unaffordable home. There was no evidence presented against me by the chair of Bromsgrove CLP. I had never met them until the hearing. Just a vague allegation that Labour group leader Peter McDonald would ‘be unable to work with Mr France’.
I presented a statement detailing the history of my involvement in the Labour movement and my desire to make a difference in my local community. I genuinely expected to be reinstated after the appeal hearing. But instead they simply rubber stamped the expulsion.
100 years earlier Robert Tressell wrote The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, about the trials, tribulations & oppression faced by Edwardian painters and decorators. I walked out of Terry Duffy House, West Bromwich into the drizzle falling from grey skies. It dampened my paint splattered overalls. And I felt I was carrying the weight of a century of injustice on my shoulders.
Down, but not out
Despite being treated as a pariah by my CLP, I returned to Bromsgrove to continue community campaign work.
With others, I campaigned successfully to prevent the demolition by Bromsgrove District Council of two outstanding ex-school buildings. In 2009 I led the successful campaign that forced the resignation of Bromsgrove MP Julie Kirkbride, for her role in the MP’s expenses scandal.
Two years after I questioned Brown at Warwick University, a well-loved and respected 18-year-old lad from Bromsgrove, Robbie Laws, was killed in Afghanistan. It brought home the futility of the unjust war to many people in Bromsgrove. But as Labour was still perceived as the ‘war party’ many local folk blamed it for the grief they suffered.
After my expulsion from the Labour Party in 2007 I never found a political home that I was comfortable in. I joined Respect in 2008 but resigned after a year; I joined the Green Party in 2010 and got involved in Left Unity in 2013, but left in November 2014 when it became clear this project was not going anywhere.
Then in June 2015 Jeremy Corbyn managed to get on the ballot for the Labour leadership contest. I was immediately enthused and spent much of the summer online, campaigning in support of Corbyn.
On 12 September 2015, within seconds of the TV announcement of his election, I applied to join the party. When my membership card came I actually felt proud to place it in my wallet with my Unite one.
I was filled with hope that with a straightforward, honest Labour leader that even in Tory-held Bromsgrove we could make a big stride forward and maybe even get rid of Sajid Javid as MP in 2020.
I had heard through the grapevine that 300 new members had joined Bromsgrove CLP and I was excited at the prospect of attending the next meeting to meet up with new comrades.
Instead, I got a bizarre letter in the post. It announced my exclusion from the Labour Party, again. And this time there wasn’t even any right to appeal.
I cannot explain my sense of frustration.
Now I hear that thousands of members of the Labour Party are being ‘suspended’ or ‘excluded’. My heart goes out to comrades who instead of receiving ballot papers so they can participate in a democratic process they receive letters that turn them into victims of a ‘purge’. I understand exactly how you feel.
Reverse the ‘purge’
If Labour is ever to be in government then in communities like mine in the middle of ‘Middle England’ we need vibrant, actively campaigning local CLPs. Every person excluded, suspended and expelled from the Labour Party has family, workmates and connections within their local community.
When the apparatus of the Labour Party exclude a member they not only take away the voice of a local champion but foster resentment, create confusion and spread demoralisation. The only people to benefit from these ridiculous witch hunts are Labour’s political opponents. The Tory Party and UKIP are probably laughing their heads off.
The incoming NEC of the Labour Party needs to instigate an amnesty for ALL people excluded over the past year.
I look forward to having my membership reinstated. I look forward to attending the AGM of Bromsgrove CLP in 2017. And electing new officers that represent the hopes and aspirations of local members. I look forward to defeating the Tories as soon as possible. But first we need to reverse the ‘purge’ and continue the Corbyn ‘surge’.
Let us build a Labour Party with one million members in England. Let us unite to take the fight to the Tories. If we do, I am convinced Bromsgrove can return a Labour MP for the first time since 1971. And that the party can return a Labour Prime Minister in 2020.