Wolfgang at a Stop the War demonstration in 2007
Walter Jakob Wolfgang
|Known for||Anti-war activist|
Walter Jakob Wolfgang (born June 1923) is a German-born British socialist and peace activist. He is Vice-President and Vice Chair of Labour of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and a supporter of the Stop the War Coalition. He became known to the general public after cameras recorded him being forcibly ejected from the annual Labour Party Conference in Brighton on 28 September 2005 for shouting "nonsense" during Jack Straw's speech on the Iraq War, in an incident that provoked much media comment and embarrassed the Labour leadership.
In August 2006 Wolfgang succeeded in his bid to become a member of Labour's National Executive Committee.
Wolfgang was born in Germany. As Jews, his family suffered persecution under the Nazis, and in 1937 his parents arranged for the teenaged Walter to move from Frankfurt to Britain (this was before the start of the Kindertransport programme). Wolfgang attended Ottershaw College, Chertsey, while his parents followed him to Britain two years later and settled in Richmond. During World War II, Wolfgang volunteered to serve in the Royal Air Force but was rejected due to a physical condition. After the war, Wolfgang qualified as an accountant; he joined the Labour Party in 1948. He allied with the left and was Secretary of the Bevanite pressure group 'Victory for Socialism' from 1955 to 1958. He co-authored several of Victory for Socialism's pamphlets, including In Pursuit of Peace (1954) and The Red Sixties (1959); Wolfgang also assisted Hugh Jenkins in writing Summit Talks and on an unpublished work on Socialism in general in the late 1950s.
In 1956, Wolfgang co-wrote a pamphlet Tho' Cowards Flinch calling for all meetings of the Parliamentary Labour Party to be made open meetings for the press to report, and for the abolition of the standing orders of the PLP to allow Labour MPs freedom to defy the Labour whip. In the 1959 general election, Wolfgang was Labour candidate for Croydon North East, polling 15,440 votes, losing to sitting Conservative Member of Parliament, John Hughes-Hallett.
Wolfgang was a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in 1958, participating in the group's first march to Aldermaston. After Hugh Gaitskell vowed to overturn the 1960 conference's decision to support unilateral nuclear disarmament and won sufficient support to make it likely that he would do so in 1961, Wolfgang wrote a pamphlet called Let Labour Lead which asserted that those who supported unilateralism would adopt Gaitskell's slogan and "fight, and fight, and fight again" to save the Labour Party. Leading a revival of the Aldermaston March in 1972, Wolfgang asserted that there was a 50–50 chance that nuclear weapons would be scrapped before the world was destroyed by them.
Before CND, Wolfgang had been a member of the Direct Action Committee and in 1961 he joined the more radical section of CND in seceding to the Committee of 100 where he became Chairman of the London Executive. He organised a protest on 1 November 1961 in which he delivered a milk bottle labelled "Danger – Radioactive" to the Soviet Union embassy in London in protest at the detonation of Tsar Bomba, at 50 megatons the largest nuclear explosive to ever be tested.
As the delegate of Richmond-upon-Thames Constituency Labour Party at the 1972 Labour Party conference, Wolfgang made two speeches, one calling for nationalisation of land and the other moving an amendment to withdraw Britain from NATO and abandon nuclear weapons. In the late 1970s Wolfgang was a leading member of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, which campaigned for reforms to the Labour Party structure to give constituency parties more power.
2005 Labour conference incident
Wolfgang attended the 2005 Labour Party conference as a visitor and sat in the part of the hall reserved for visitors, which is at the back. During a speech by then Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, in response to Straw's "We are in Iraq for one reason only: to help the elected Iraqi government build a secure, democratic and stable nation", Wolfgang shouted "Nonsense!". Some witnesses claimed he then may have added "That's a lie and you know it!" and/or "Pack of lies!".
In full view of the television cameras, several conference stewards, who were on alert for any attempts to disrupt the speech, then picked up and removed Wolfgang and confiscated his security pass. Erith and Thamesmead Constituency Labour Party chairman Steve Forrest, who was sitting nearby, was also removed for voicing his objections to Wolfgang's treatment.
The Labour Party leadership quickly apologised for the 'heavy-handedness' of the incident, but Party chairman Ian McCartney said on the BBC's Newsnight that evening that the conference had the right to expel repeated hecklers. The following day McCartney appeared before the media with Wolfgang and personally apologised to him. Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, apologised to Wolfgang on the following day's Today programme on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Breakfast, stating that he should not have been removed.
Wolfgang justified his actions by saying "when you have an international debate that does not deal adequately with the international issues of the day, the least you can do, if someone is talking nonsense, is say so". He was quickly hailed as a hero by sections of the Labour Party and sections of the media. His expulsion, and the use of anti-terrorism legislation, was condemned by both the political left and right as symptomatic of an increasingly authoritarian tendency in the Labour Government and the gradual erosion of civil liberties.
Wolfgang's pass to the Labour party conference was at first withdrawn following the incident, but this decision was later reversed and he returned to the conference the following day to a "hero's welcome". In his closing speech at the conference, John Reid said "I'm sorry about yesterday. … We didn't want it, it shouldn't have happened, it's not the way we do things. Everybody is really sorry and we apologise for that."
Wolfgang has been a member of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, a group which campaigns to increase the level of democracy within the Labour Party. In 2006 he was chosen and elected as one of the Grassroots Alliance slate of candidates standing for election to the Labour Party's National Executive Committee, stating that he would be campaigning on a platform of opposition to the war on Iraq, rejecting the Royal Navy's Trident missile program, and making the Party more democratic.
On 3 August 2006 it was announced that he has been elected to the NEC, coming fourth in the election (the top six get seats).
- Sparrow, Andrew (29 September 2005). "Heckler, 82, who dared called Straw a liar is held under terrorist law". telegraph.co.uk. Retrieved 22 September 2013.
- Palmer, Elizabeth (11 February 2009). "Heckler Has Blair in Hot Water". cbsnews.com. Retrieved 24 September 2013.
- "Labour at Brighton: Walter Wolfgang – Verdict". mirror.co.uk. 30 September 2005. Retrieved 22 September 2013.
- Jones, George (26 September 2006). "Heroes and villains". telegraph.co.uk. Retrieved 24 September 2013.
- Tempest, Matthew; Sturcke, James (29 September 2005). "Heckler returns to hero's welcome". theguardian.com. Retrieved 24 September 2013.
- "Hero's return for Labour heckler". BBC News. 29 September 2005. Retrieved 17 July 2006.
- BBC News article
- Follow-up BBC News Article
- Heckler voted on to Labour's NEC – BBC News
- Guardian article
- Times article
- Daily Telegraph: Heckler – a Jewish refugee who joined Labour in 1948
- A letter from Walter Wolfgang to The Independent newspaper, 23 January 2005
- Labour CND homepage