How Angela Eagle got to be MP for Wallasey
Wallasey is now a solidly Labour-voting constituency, and Angela Eagle, who enjoyed a 16,348 majority in last year’s general election, has been its MP since 1992. Before that, by contrast, Wallasey had historically been a Conservative seat. It was represented by Tory MP Ernest Marples from 1945 to 1974, and then by his successor Lynda Chalker from 1974 to 1992. In 1987, though, Chalker only narrowly held on to the seat, with her majority reduced from 6,708 to 279, in the face of a vigorous campaign by the local Labour Party in support of its candidate Lol Duffy.
Duffy would very likely have won, had it not been for the intervention of Frank Field, Labour MP for the neighbouring Birkenhead constituency. Field circulated a letter attacking Duffy, who at the time was associated with the Socialist Organiser group. He declared that he would not be supporting Duffy’s candidacy and would refuse to appear on any platform with him. The letter was published on the front page of a local paper, during the election campaign, under the headline “Marxist Lol slammed by Frank Field”.
No action was taken by the party against Frank Field over this political scabbing that ensured a Tory victory in Wallasey. Instead, in response to his denunciations of the role of Socialist Organiser activists in Wirral Labour Party, the National Executive Committee launched an investigation into the group. A report by the party’s director of organisation, “witchfinder general” Joyce Gould, led to the proscription of Socialist Organiser in 1990.
Richard Heffernan and Mike Marqusee (Defeat from the Jaws of Victory, pp.280–82) take up the story:
One result of the move against Socialist Organiser was to delay the parliamentary selection in Wallasey. Lol Duffy, the local favourite, had publicly severed all his links with the banned group. The Wallasey Labour Party officers pressed for a prompt start to the selection procedure. After all, this was now a highly winnable seat and it made sense to have a candidate in place as early as possible. The national Labour Party and the regional office prevaricated; it seemed that the leadership was waiting for a general election to be called so that a candidate other than Duffy could be imposed.
In December 1991 the regional office was forced at last to agree a selection timetable with the constituency officers. Duffy received over 70 per cent of the nominations including the support of five of the six local party branches, the women’s section and numerous trade unions. His twenty-four nominations far exceeded the tally of five achieved by his nearest rival, Angela Eagle, a COHSE full-time official, former chair of the Oxford University Fabian Society and a supporter of the LCC [Labour Co-ordinating Committee].
In January 1992 the NEC decided that the imminence of a general election demanded the intervention of an emergency ‘by-election panel’ to interview potential candidates and shortlist contenders in those constituencies without a Labour candidate already in place. Quite why an NEC panel could operate any faster than local Party officers was not explained. During the panel’s interviewing of Wallasey candidates, Roy Hattersley asked Lol Duffy how he would reconcile his personal beliefs — notably his support for unilateralism and repeal of all anti-union laws — with the Party’s present policy. From a man who had regularly denounced Party policy in the past, this was pure cheek. Duffy made it clear that he would have no problem with this. Many other candidates found themselves in the same position, but to no great surprise, Hattersley’s NEC panel excluded Duffy from the Wallasey shortlist. John Evans explained to reporters the panel’s reasoning: “On almost every area Mr Duffy said that although he would campaign on agreed policies he didn’t personally agree with them.” In other words, Duffy was being punished not because he was personally unsuitable but because he did not share the politics of the Labour leadership.
Under the rules of the Labour Party, if more than 50 per cent of those who vote in a parliamentary selection return blank ballot papers the selection must start from scratch with new nominations. Contrary to Party rules, no independent scrutineer was allowed into the Wallasey count held at the regional office in Warrington. When pressed, Eileen Murfin [Labour Party regional organiser] admitted that the officials had not bothered to count the blank votes, again in contravention of the rules. But sources leaked the total to the media, which reported that 163 blank papers had been returned by local members in protest at the exclusion of Lol Duffy. Only fifty-seven votes had been cast for the “winning” candidate, Angela Eagle. Under the Party constitution the selection was null and void; but Party officials glossed over this detail. To add insult to injury, the NEC not only dismissed the complaints of Party members but threatened to mount yet another “investigation” of the constituency after the general election.
Lol Duffy worked diligently for Angela Eagle during the general election. “I’m not going to go off and sulk just because the NEC has broken every rule in the book to prevent me being a candidate,” he said. Thanks to the years of hard work put in by himself and others in the constituency the seat was taken from the Tories and Eagle became the first Labour MP for Wallasey.
Given this record, it is hardly surprising that Angela Eagle has shown such contempt for the democratic decision made by party members last September, when they elected Jeremy Corbyn as leader with 59.5% of first-preference votes, and has joined his enemies in the Parliamentary Labour Party in a disgraceful attempt to overturn that decision. She is firmly embedded in, and indeed owes her parliamentary career to, a political culture that accepts party democracy only when it produces the “right” results.
Postscript: For further background on Frank Field’s role in these events, see Nothing new in Frank Field’s disloyalty to Labour and contempt for party members.