Dr Robert Dunstan (1878-1961)
Dunstan was a Communist who enjoyed wide support among Labour Party members in Birmingham in the 1920s, so strong that he gained national credibility. Even Poplar’s George Lansbury, who would later become the leader of the Labour Party stated: “I would be glad to support Dr Dunstan’s candidature at any time. The Communists are not our enemies but of friends.” Dunstan’s memorable phrase, “this rotten and benighted city” annoyed landlords and delighted supporters equally, yet it was nothing but an accurate description of the atrocious slums and back street factories of early 20th century Birmingham.
Having joined the Communist Party on its foundation, Dunstan steadfastly remained an active member of Labour, there being no ban on such a position for most of the first decade of the Communist Party’s existence. In such a capacity, he stood against Neville Chamberlain as the Labour – Communist candidate for the Birmingham West parliamentary in 1922 and 1923. He was about 2,500 behind in his first attempt, closing the gap to only 1,500 in the second.
Dunstan played a significant national role as a much in demand speaker in the General Strike, publishing “The soldier’s conscience” in 1926 for the Communist Party.
He was expelled from the Labour Party in 1928 after the Liverpool Labour Party decision, but only after Edgbaston Constituency Labour Party, the dominant area constituting Birmingham West, refused to expel him on a 50-19 vote. This merely resulted in the local Labour Party being disaffiliated from the national Labour Party by edict from London. The resultant creation of a local Labour Party in West Birmingham by Labour’s head office was a right-wing creature that never ever quite faded over the next decades. Indeed, in the developing wave of unionisation of large factories and the organisation of tenants’ associations, spheres that Labour’s administration had no control over, left unity mushroomed.
For the General Election of 1929, the Party asked Dunstan to stand as a Communist against an official Labour candidate (the Liberal won) in Bethnal Green South West, receiving just short of 8% of the total vote but well over a fifth of Labour’s vote. Dunstan also had the satisfaction of not coming last, being a few votes above the Conservative! This had been a seat contested by Joe Vaughan, a former Communist mayor, who would return as a Communist candidate in 1931 to almost win the seat.
Dunstan had been born in 1878, the only son of a wealthy Birmingham doctor but, due to his strong socialist convictions his father cut him off from all family financial support. He and his second wife, Margaret, a Scotswoman who was also a doctor, both spent much of the 1930s beavering away, earning their living from medicine and he also from the law, which he was also qualified in.
They relocated towards the south-west after his retirement in the 1940s. In the meantime, West Midlands Labour Party became especially scrutinised and controlled by administrative means as the Cold War developed. Left unity grew stronger in the 60s and 70s but once the big factories closed it was harder to maintain.
Robert was a frequent visitor to King Street, the Party’s headquarters during the 1950s, catching up with old comrades. Maintaining their convictions to the end, the couple finally retired to Torquay where Robert died in 1961 from complications following a hernia operation.