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Where the old faithful are unwelcome

DISSENT STIFLED: Walter Wolfgang was ejected from the Labour party's annual conference after shouting

DISSENT STIFLED: Walter Wolfgang was ejected from the Labour party's annual conference after shouting "nonsense" as Foreign Secretary Jack Straw defended the Blair Government's Iraq policy.  

The eviction of an 82-year-old Labour veteran for heckling Foreign Secretary Jack Straw cast a shadow over the party's annual conference.

Hasan Suroor

REMEMBER THE character in Fawlty Towers who goes about whispering to his hotel staff "not to mention the war" in the presence of his German guests?

Something similar is happening in Britain's ruling Labour Party where any mention of the war, it seems, has become a risky business as an 82-year-old party veteran discovered on Wednesday. He was unceremoniously thrown out of the party's annual conference and briefly detained under the anti-terror law for simply shouting "nonsense" and "lie" during Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's speech in support of the Iraq invasion.

Walter Wolfgang, a Labour activist for 57 years and brought up on the party's anti-war ethos and its traditions of free speech, looked shocked as he was grabbed by burly security guards and dragged out of the conference hall even as he pleaded that he was not well and was willing to leave on his own. His delegate pass was confiscated and he was not allowed to return.

"I shouted `nonsense' — that's all I said. Then these two toughies came round and wanted to manhandle me. I said: do you want me to leave? I'll leave, you don't need to manhandle me," a frail and ailing Mr. Wolfgang said, not quite able to believe that a party that once took pride in its culture of open debate and dissent had come to this.

Was he imagining it? How could a party whose leaders were prepared to wage wars around the world in the name of promoting free speech and democracy do this to one of its own members?

Mr. Wolfgang had heard about the new culture in the party where everyone was supposed to be "on-message" and to admire the Emperor's clothes even when he was wearing none, and now he had experienced it first hand.

"A few years ago nobody would have objected to anyone heckling like that ... We have reached a situation where freedom of expression has been threatened," Mr. Wolfgang said.

A vice-chairman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament — a body to which a number of Prime Minister Tony Blair's Cabinet Ministers including Mr. Straw belonged in their idealistic days — Mr. Wolfgang has been used to the cut-and-thrust of political debate which, he recalled, was once the stuff of Labour Party conferences.

It was in the spirit of openness that once characterised the Labour Party meetings that Mr. Wolfgang disputed Mr. Straw's claims over the Iraq war.

"It was just the voicing of an opinion and they grabbed hold of him," said one delegate who was also forcibly evicted when he protested that this was not the way to treat an old man.

"I said: you leave him alone, he is an old man. And five stewards pulled me out of the centre ... they've taken my pass away and won't let me back into the conference centre," said Steve Forrest, chairman of a local Labour party unit.

Initially, the leadership tried to play down the incident but as "live" pictures of Mr. Wolfgang and Mr. Forrest being manhandled started popping up on television screens embarrassed party leaders rushed to limit the damage with the party chairman Ian McCartney saying that he apologised for the "inappropriate" in which Mr. Wolfgang was treated. Mr. Blair's initial reaction was to "smile" away the incident, but with passions continuing to run high he was forced to acknowledge that it "shouldn't have happened."

"I'm really sorry about it, it shouldn't have happened," he told the BBC.

Asked why Mr. Wolfgang had been briefly detained under the Terrorism Act, Mr. Blair said: "My understanding is that his delegate's credentials showed he had been ejected before and he had to wait while that was checked out."

The incident overshadowed the conference as delegates joined to condemn what one delegate described as the "control freakery" of New Labour.

Delegates accused the leadership of trying to stifle debate on Iraq.

"You can't stop ordinary members of the Labour Party having a debate about Iraq. It is not taking place in the conference hall, but it is going on in the bars and corridors," said Linda Riordan, MP, as members waited with bated breath for the Basil Fawltys of the Labour Party to descend on the "bars and corridors" too. War, anyone?

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