Eight months after losing power to the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher, Britain's Labour Party is about to conduct a searching self-examination. But one issue, much discussed in the country at large, may well be carefully ignored.
Former Prime Minister Harold Wilson calls it an "infestation." Lord Underhill , after 46 years as the Labour Party's national agent, says it could be a "tragedy for our party."
But Eric Heffer, left-wing member of the party's ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) and a member of its commission of inquiry, dismissed their worries as a "deflection."
The issue: "entryism" -- or the subtle penetration of subversive elements into party structure, with a view to eventual control. The term is borrowed from Marxist theoretician Leon Trotsky, and those who thump his tub here are called "Trotskyites" or simply "Trots."
Is the party being infiltrated?
The question, like a conjurer's devil, is more often raised than faced. Most recent of the inquiring wizards is Lord Underhill, who gathered some suspicious documents and reported them to the NEC in 1977. A subcommittee peered into the matter; the party conference solemnly went on record opposing "witch hunts"; and the documents themselves, never released, have since moldered in a safe at party headquarters.
Last December Lord Underhill called on the NEC to re- open his investigation and to publish their report. But the NEC ruled that the documents should remain entombed. "There are lots of groups within the party," left-wing NEC member Tony Benn told the Monitor. "I think everybody should publish whatever they wish." But he doesn't think the NEC should carry on an "inquisition." When I was first elected 30 years ago," he recalls, "we spent all our time throwing people out of the party."
But Lord Underhill, whose own collection of documents steadily expands as disaffected Trots trickle them his way, disagreed. Shortly after the decision, the documents began appearing in the press.
The outcry, overshadowed by Afghanistan, the Olympics, and the steel strike, was muted. But with Western opinion entering a cold front of anticommunism, the documents raised some chilling speculation. Leon Trotsky's doctrine of permanent worldwide communist revolution -- brought about by finding or creating revolutionary situations in various countries and exploiting them through detailed plans of organized insurrection -- may be harmless.
Or it may be an animus behind some of Britain's strikes and behind the leftward shift within some local constituency parties. No one is quite sure.
Two things are sure. First, the party constitution forbids affiliate organizations from "having their own programme, principles, and policy for distinctive and separate propaganda."
Second, the documents emanate from an avowedly Trotskyist movement known as the "militant tendency." Heaquartered in a factory in London's East End, the movement publishes a newspaper, "Militant," which editors Peter Taaffe and Ted Grant say sells 20,000 copies a week.
Last year the "tendency" raised 80,000 pounds -- none of which, say the editors, came from abroad. Much of it probably came through the Labour youth movement, Young Socialists, where the tendency reportedly has strong support.
How strong is the militant tendency? The New Statesman says it influenced 36 percent of the delegates to the 1978 Labour Party conference, although "new society" puts the figure nearer 12 percent. Some observers peg membership at 2, 000 and the number of constituency parties controlled at 60 (out of 623). Lord Underhill says 60 is too high. Militant editors say it is far too low, adding that "one or two" Labour members of Parliament are in their camp.
The current turmoil leaves many dismayed at the lack of an effective parliamentary opposition. They see the Conservative government consolidating its position and the two-party system threatened by a "radical center" resurgence, while Labour remains under the hex of its own self-analysis.