I’ve never met Walter Wolfgang. But, after reading this fascinating booklet by Carol Turner, perhaps I don’t need to. He seems to become a kind of symbol through its pages. Not least pictorially, as in the iconic image of the moment he was evicted from the Labour party conference of 2005 which adorns the front cover. But the other photographs included are striking too – a series of images of Walter on the front line of demonstrations, speaking at events and often sporting a trademark camel-coloured coat against the cold.
Walter Wolfgang was born in Frankfurt am Main in Germany, and in 1937 was sent to boarding school in Britain, aged 13. His parents followed, but Walter had to leave school at 16 after his father was forced to liquidate his business because of Hitler’s compulsory acquisition of Jewish property and assets. He became a British citizen and joined the Labour Party in 1948.
Engagement with the Party brought the realisation that democratic reform of Labour’s structures was needed and when the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy was founded in 1973 he became and remains an active member. His involvement with pressure group politics began with Victory for Socialism (VFS), a group set up to pursue peace abroad and the extension of public ownership and worker participation at home.
In 1956 he became joint secretary of the VFS’s Suez Emergency committee, helping to organise a rally in Trafalgar Square opposing military action against Egypt. After Suez, Walter turned his attention to nuclear disarmament, forming a lifelong bond with CND. He became one of the organisers of the first Aldermaston march and stood for parliament on a platform of unilateral nuclear disarmament. In an act of control-freakery he was subsequently banned from standing again, despite coming second and increasing the Labour vote by more than average.
By the late seventies, with the deployment of cruise missiles in Britain, Walter, as an active member of Labour CND, seized the opportunity to push nuclear disarmament up the political agenda again.
Conference voted for unilateral disarmament in 1980, ‘81 and ‘82 and despite leadership shenanigans trying to prevent it, in ‘83 too. In the nineties, attention shifted to the demand that Trident be scrapped and several conferences voted to do so. But a watering down of party democracy begun under Kinnock and extended under Blair put a stop to that. As Walter says, “New Labour had no truck with internal democracy” – and the position on unilateralism was lost.
After the twin towers attacks, CND opposed the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and supported Stop the War. In Walter’s view, while New Labour’s neo-liberal policies ultimately cost Labour the 2010 election, Iraq was a big factor too. Blair, he believes, lied about weapons of mass destruction and was seen as Bush’s poodle.
In her preface the author Carol Turner says that she has never known Walter deviate from his principles or abandon his goals. Jeremy Corbyn, in his warm foreword, claims Walter Wolfgang is the scourge of opportun-ism. Indeed he comes across in this booklet as a person who by his commitment makes you stop and think, “what would Walter do?”, a signpost, not a weathercock as Tony Benn would say.
This short booklet brilliantly summarises a dynamic political life, which continues to this day. It demonstrates Walter’s commitment to peace and socialism, and shows that winning the argument inside the Labour Party is essential to the fight for these ideals. As Walter recalls when he joined the Party, “I had to engage in a process to get politics moving – and Labour was the agency.”