The Labour Party was forced to make a humiliating apology to an 82-year-old
party member last night after he was thrown out of the conference for heckling
Walter Wolfgang, a party member for 57 years, was bundled out of the
conference hall by stewards after shouting "nonsense" as Mr Straw,
the Foreign Secretary, defended Britain's role in Iraq. He was later stopped
under anti-terrorist powers as he tried to re-enter the hall.
The heavy-handed treatment of Mr Wolfgang revived criticism of the " control
freakery" associated with New Labour and even drew comparisons with the
way the Communist leaders in Russia and China stifled dissent.
Mr Wolfgang fled Nazi Germany as a teenager for the freedom of Britain. He
said: "I shouted out 'nonsense'. That's all I said. Then these two toughies
came round and wanted to manhandle me out. 'I said: 'Do you want me to leave?
I will leave, you don't need to manhandle me.'
"Physically, I am not too well, so I said I would follow them."
In what Tony Blair's anti-war critics have called the "don't mention the
war" conference, the party avoided a separate debate and vote on Iraq and
the Prime Minister made only a short reference to the issue in his keynote speech.
Mr Blair also blocked a motion for the conference to pay tribute to Robin Cook,
the cabinet minister who resigned over the war and died in August. Yesterday's
protest was muted by Labour's standards, but the over-reaction by conference
stewards backfired and turned into a public relations disaster for the party.
Steve Forrest, the chairman of the Erith and Thamesmead Labour Party, was also
ejected for protesting at Mr Wolfgang's treatment. Angry delegates demonstrated
at the removal of the two men as Mr Straw made an unapologetic defence of British
policy in Iraq.
Mr Wolfgang, a prominent member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, said:
"Most of the Labour Party stewards are very nice people. One or two people
lend themselves to this nonsense. It makes me feel that the people who resort
to these tactics are very unsure of themselves and they are on the losing side."
Mr Forrest said: "I literally said 'hear, hear' twice. Later, this gentleman
shouted 'nonsense'. It was just the voicing of an opinion and they grabbed hold
of him. 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 they won't let me back
into the conference centre."
Delegates forced an investigation by the party's conference arrangements committee
into the incident. A Mole Valley delegate, Carol Hayton, said: " We are
very concerned about the way in which a gentleman of more than 80 was manhandled
from the balcony. Perhaps more appropriate action could have been taken but
this was an 80-year-old gentleman and I am sure that Jack Straw, a politician
of great experience, is able to deal with events of this kind without that kind
of response from our stewards."
Linda Riordan, the MP for Halifax, added: "You can't stop ordinary members
of the Labour Party having a debate about Iraq. It's not taking place in the
conference hall, but it is going on in the bars and the corridors."
After initially defending its actions, Labour admitted Mr Wolfgang had been
wrongly treated. Ian McCartney, the party chairman, said: "We apologise
for the inappropriate way he was removed." A Labour spokesman said: "
The Labour Party reserves its rights to remove from the conference site people
who cause a persistent disturbance. However, it is clear from TV footage that
the way in which Mr Wolfgang was removed was inappropriate."
When the Prime Minister was asked by a journalist whether he would apologise
to Mr Wolfgang, he did not comment.
Mr Wolfgang was later greeted as a hero when he appeared at a rally of left-wingers
in Brighton. His security pass has been taken away, but he intends to attend
the conference's final day today.
Earlier Barry Camfield, the assistant general secretary of the Transport and
General Workers' Union, accused the Government of allowing itself to act as
a "crutch" for President George Bush over Iraq. He won loud applause
as he declared: "Our troops should be pulled out now and quickly."
He received more applause when he said: "I ask you in all conscience: are
100,000 civilian dead a price worth paying? Are the scores of British soldiers
dead a price worth paying?''
How other delegates reacted
* "It was a dreadful overreaction by the stewards, who were understandably
concerned about security" Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt
* "The stewards behaved completely inappropriately" Liam Byrne, Parliamentary
Under Secretary of State for Care Services
* "The treatment was ... tactless and unnecessary." Linda Riordan,
MP for Halifax
* "The Labour Party reserves the right to remove people who cause a persistent
disturbance" Labour party spokesperson
* "It's heavy handed for people to be ejected" John Austin, MP
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