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The Socialist Labour Party: Why Arthur Scargill is Wrong

Bob Pitt

This article was written before the foundation of the SLP at its conference on 4 May. But the arguments presented here have not lost their relevance. As Arthur Scargill has made clear in statements to the press and television, and in a lengthy article published in the Morning Star on the day of the conference, his justifications for the launch of a new party are no different from those he put forward last year when he first proposed the formation of the SLP.

The questions raised by Scargill’s breakaway have a more general significance. How should Marxists fight the bourgeois politics of reformist leaders? How is a mass socialist party to be built? Has the character of the Labour Party changed fundamentally? It is to be hoped that this article will provoke discussion of these points in future issues of What Next?

THE WAY in which Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party has been created must be without precedent in the history of the workers’ movement. The launch of the SLP was announced by Scargill in January, despite the fact that the party’s founding conference wasn’t due until May and its only meetings up till then had been secretive, invitation-only affairs attended by a few dozen carefully selected activists. A Stalinist-style constitution was adopted barring from membership "individuals and organisations" who engage in "the promotion of policies in opposition to those of the Party",1 even though the SLP had not yet formulated a political programme, so nobody could know what the party’s policies actually were. Furthermore, in February this still-to-be-founded, programmeless party contested a by-election, in the Yorkshire constituency of Hemsworth. The situation verges on the farcical.

After all these months, the most detailed presentation of the case for the formation of the SLP still remains the discussion document Future Strategy for the Left, written by Scargill last November and circulated by the Unshackle the Unions campaign. This claims that the Labour Party has undergone a definite qualitative transformation and "is now almost indistinguishable from the Democratic Party in the United States, Germany’s Social Democrat Party or, nearer home, the Liberal Democrats". (Scargill is apparently incapable of spotting the difference between a social democratic party like the German SPD, which arose from the workers’ movement, and straightforward parties of the bourgeoisie like the Lib Dems or the US Democrats.)

In his document Scargill outlines the shift to the right in official Labour policies on a number of crucial issues, and he points to the National Executive’s refusal to endorse Liz Davies as prospective parliamentary candidate for Leeds North East. But the central plank in his thesis that a fundamental change has taken place in the character of the Labour Party is the decision, at the special conference in April 1995, to junk the commitment to common ownership embodied in the old Clause IV of the party constitution. Whereas the Labour Party was founded to fight for socialism, according to Scargill, it "now embraces capitalism". In Scargill’s view there can be no place for socialists inside such a party. Hence the need for the SLP. "Do we, and others who feel as we do, stay in a Party which has been and is being ’politically cleansed’?" he asks rhetorically. "Or: do we leave and start to build a Socialist Labour Party that represents the principles, values, hopes and dreams which gave birth nearly a century ago to what has, sadly, now become New Labour?"

While it is necessary to take a comradely attitude to many of those who have been attracted by Scargill’s initiative, a diplomatic approach to Arthur Scargill himself would be entirely inappropriate. This is a self-proclaimed Marxist who since the 1972 miners’ strike has been a figure of national importance in the organised working class, a leading proponent of class struggle policies within the movement and a man whose views consequently carry considerable weight among a wide layer of activists. It is nothing short of a disgrace for a workers’ leader of Scargill’s experience and influence to produce a document of such a low political level, combining a quite staggering ignorance of working class history with a total inability to evaluate the present political conjuncture and outline a realistic strategy. In this article I intend to take issue with what I believe to be a lot of pernicious political nonsense that can only set back the struggle for socialism.

Scargill’s travesty of labour history
In Future Strategy for the Left, Arthur Scargill claims that the Labour Party was created "to give expression to a Socialist political agenda in the House of Commons. At the time of its foundation, the Labour Party had both a Constitution and policies which projected a Socialist philosophy and programme". It would be difficult to come up with a statement more at odds with historical fact. When the Labour Party was founded in 1900, by a "labour alliance" of trade unions and socialist groups, it adopted the title of the Labour Representation Committee and, as the name implied, it had the very limited objective of getting "working class opinion represented in the House of Commons" through the formation of "a distinct Labour Group in Parliament".2 An avowedly Marxist organisation, the Social Democratic Federation, which was affiliated to the LRC,3 moved at the founding conference that the new party should be one "based upon a recognition of the class war, and having for its ultimate object the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange". But this was voted down by a large majority. One delegate argued that a commitment to socialism "would place the Labour movement in the position of the boy who cried for the moon", adding that "nothing could be more unfortunate for the Conference than to label across its front the words ‘class war’."4 Clearly a Blairite before Blair.

Incidentally, after the defeat of a similar resolution at the 1901 conference the SDF’s reaction was to disaffiliate from the LRC. Scargillites before Scargill, these "Marxists" concluded that there was no place for them in a party which repudiated socialism and the class struggle. Their walk out was followed by a surge of trade union support for the LRC in response to the notorious Taff Vale judgement, in which a railway company was awarded damages against the railworkers’ union, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, for losses sustained during a strike. The principle of independent political organisation finally began to make headway among the British working class. The SDF’s sectarian action meant that during this crucial formative period there was no organised tendency inside the Labour Party to fight for a Marxist political perspective.

It wasn’t until 1918 that the Labour Party finally accepted a formal constitutional commitment to socialism as its ultimate objective with the adoption of the famous passage, to become Clause IV Part 4, which called for "the common ownership of the means of production" ("distribution and exchange" were added later). Even then, this did not mean that the party adopted a socialist programme. In that respect the Labour Party remained, as Lenin described it at the Second Congress of the Communist International, two years after the adoption of Clause IV, "a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act in the spirit of the bourgeoisie". Lenin went so far as to describe Labour as "an organisation of the bourgeoisie, which exists to systematically dupe the workers".5 This did not prevent him from firmly advocating that the Communist Party of Great Britain should affiliate to the Labour Party and fight inside it for its own programme.

Arthur Scargill should be reminded that, at the time, some of the most militant elements in the workers’ movement rejected Lenin’s advice and denounced the Labour Party in terms that are repeated almost word for word today by supporters of the SLP. At the CPGB’s founding conference in 1920, a representative of the South Wales miners’ rank-and-file movement claimed that the Labour Party in the Rhondda was "discrediting itself every day" through its control of the local council. "Every section of the working class at Rhondda", he declared, "after working for the municipality, had been on strike against it during the last twelve months.... Even people who were not Communists were saying there was nothing in the Labour control of municipalities ... and he and other delegates from that district dare not go back and tell the people there to go into the Labour Party."6 The leaders of the Scottish shop stewards’ movement took an equally anti-Labour line. "If the Communist Party gets affiliated with the Labour Party", an editorial in their paper The Worker argued, "it does not establish contact with the working class. It establishes contact with the jaded delegates in the local Labour Parties who are certainly not the working class. Nationally, it would establish contact with the Trade Union bureaucrats."7

Largely due to Lenin’s intervention, the CPGB’s founding conference voted narrowly, by 100 to 85, to apply for affiliation to the Labour Party. Unfortunately, the majority of the leadership shared Scargill’s view that there was no point conducting a struggle for socialism inside such a party. Like him, they had deluded themselves that the British working class was ready to break from Labour and rally to a rival, genuinely socialist party. They therefore presented the CPGB’s application for Labour affiliation in such provocative terms as to guarantee that it would be turned down. In reality, the working class was in the process not of breaking from Labour and rallying to Communism but of breaking from Liberalism and rallying to Labour. Like its predecessor, the SDF, the Communist Party had excluded itself from the Labour Party during a decisive phase in the latter’s development.

No doubt Scargill would condemn such anti-Labour attitudes as ultra-left. After all, according to him, in 1920 the Labour Party was a mass workers’ party with a socialist philosophy and programme. It would be interesting to hear what examples Scargill could provide of the Labour Party’s socialist philosophy in action. The Labour government of 1924 was not exactly noted for its assaults on the citadels of capitalism and, with the exception of Wheatley’s Housing Bill, even reforms were thin on the ground. The 1929-31 Labour government pursued a consistently right wing course and came to an ignominious end after a majority of the cabinet had responded to the economic crisis not by implementing the principle of common ownership but by agreeing to cut unemployment benefit. But perhaps Scargill would point to the record of the Labour governments of 1945-51 as evidence of a commitment to common ownership being given practical application.

It is true that during this period Attlee’s administration did substantially extend the public sector, by taking the coal industry, the railways, gas and electricity, road haulage, the iron and steel industry and the Bank of England into the hands of the state. But these, it should go without saying, were forms of capitalist nationalisation and represented only limited gains for the working class. The former owners received generous compensation, and workers’ control was rejected in favour of the "public corporations" pioneered by Herbert Morrison. (Would Scargill regard the National Coal Board as a socialist institution?) State capitalist measures of this sort in fact found support among the bourgeoisie itself. An efficient coal industry and railway system, for example, were essential to British capitalism as a whole, but neither generated sufficient profits under private ownership to provide the necessary investment for modernisation. The one nationalisation that proved contentious was iron and steel, the only industry to be taken into public ownership that was still profitable under private ownership, and this was carried out reluctantly by the Labour government as a result of pressure from the rank and file.

Although Labour’s 1945 election manifesto Let Us Face the Future had defined the party’s aim as the establishment of a "socialist commonwealth", at no stage did the Labour leadership see the expansion of the public sector as part of an overall strategy to expropriate the capitalists as a class and effect the "common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange". When Labour left office in 1951, one historian has pointed out, it "had not created a socialist commonwealth, nor even taken a step in that direction. It had simply created a mixed economy in which the bulk of industry still lay in private hands, and the six years of its rule had only marginally altered the distribution of social power, privilege, wealth, income, opportunity and security".8

Since then the Labour leadership, when in office, has invariably accepted that the major part of the means of production, distribution and exchange should remain under private ownership. The extension of public ownership has been argued for, if at all, on a purely pragmatic basis. Blair’s new Clause IV thus brings the constitution of the Labour Party into line with the actual practice of Labour governments, or at least a lot closer to it than the old Clause IV was. This scarcely amounts to the fundamental change in the party’s character which Arthur Scargill claims has taken place. He may have convinced himself that the abolition of the commitment to common ownership has destroyed Labour’s "socialist soul". The truth is that it never had any such soul in the first place.

The Labour Party now
The result of the Clause IV ballot, to which Scargill mistakenly attaches such decisive significance, is however important as an indicator of the level of political consciousness within the Labour Party. Account has to be taken of its plebiscitary form, embodied in the thoroughly biased OMOV ballot paper from Walworth Road which most CLPs used, and of the fact that the membership was blackmailed with the threat that defeat for Blair would have reduced the chances of a Labour victory at next general election. Nevertheless, the small vote in favour of retaining the commitment to common ownership demonstrated that socialist consciousness in the ranks of the party has been seriously eroded. The demoralisation produced by a series of defeats inflicted on the workers’ movement during the past seventeen years of Tory rule has been compounded by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the other "socialist" states in Eastern Europe, which for many in the labour movement has discredited the whole idea of nationalised property and economic planning. The Clause IV result indicated that for most Labour Party members the replacement of capitalism with socialism has ceased to be a consideration of immediate relevance and their political horizons extend no further then the removal of the Tories and the election of a Labour government. If accepting Blair’s rewrite of the party constitution was the price of electoral victory, they were prepared to go along with this.

This situation has undoubtedly provided favourable ground for the "modernisers" to launch their neo-Thatcherite assault on traditional Labourism. In Future Strategy for the Left Scargill outlines accurately enough the Labour leadership’s right wing policies over privatisation, a minimum wage, unemployment, pensions, the NHS, education, Europe, nuclear disarmament and the anti-union laws. There is, moreover, no question but that Blair, Mandelson and company represent a qualitative change from the traditional Labour right, even from the "revisionists" of the late 1950s like Anthony Crosland. An organisation named Labour 2000, which was formed last year to press for an acceleration of the party’s modernisation, is a case in point. Its proposals for the next Labour government, as summarised by one newspaper, are to "end universal benefits, use market forces to support the NHS and accept that traditional trade unions are irrelevant".9

Of course, many long-time Labour members are bitterly opposed to such politics, and some of them are leaving the party in disgust. The sight of arrogant sharp-suited young modernisers sneering at "Old Labour" – the party these comrades devoted their lives to building – has often proved the final straw. A member of my own party branch, who is now in his seventies and has been in the Labour Party for decades, recently resigned in protest at the party’s current political course. When I asked if I could visit him to discuss the matter he replied angrily that there was no dissuading him, "I refuse to remain in the same party as that dreadful man". (I took this to be a reference to our beloved leader.) Unfortunately such ex-members will for the most part lapse into political inactivity, and no more than a small fraction of them will be recruited to the SLP. The majority of those opposed to the politics of the modernising hard right will in any case remain in the party. The likelihood of large-scale defections by Labour Party members to the SLP would seem to be remote.

Does this mean that the situation in the Labour Party is lost and the Blairites triumphant? This is what Arthur Scargill and his supporters claim. They are fond of quoting Blair’s boast that New Labour is "not some public relations exercise but a new and different party".10 Certainly this is what Blair wants the Labour Party to be, but in the interests of reassuring the capitalist class that they have nothing to fear from a Labour government he confuses the wish for the deed. With the abolition of the old Clause IV Blair may have achieved his Bad Godesberg, but there remain some serious obstacles to the transformation of Labour into a continental-style social democratic party, never mind into an equivalent to the US Democrats.

The role of the trade unions in the party, though weakened, remains important. They retain 50 per cent of the vote at annual conference, elect 12 of the 29 NEC members and have the major say in determining the 5 seats reserved for women. As for the ranks of the party, it would be wrong to dismiss them as natural supporters of Labour’s hard right. Even the influx of new members, which some on the left have portrayed as a Blairite version of the "Lenin levy", does not seem to have fundamentally changed the situation at rank-and-file level. In last year’s elections to the constituency section of the NEC, half of those who voted did so for that personification of "Old Labour", Dennis Skinner, while candidates on the Campaign Group slate polled a third of the votes overall and won two of the NEC’s seven constituency seats. Even the results of the Clause IV ballot, examined closely, did little to justify the triumphalist rhetoric of the Blairites. Not surprisingly, Walworth Road was reluctant to issue precise figures, but it is clear that there was a very poor response. The proportion of the membership that participated in the OMOV ballot was probably less than 30 per cent, which is astonishingly low when you consider that the issue was presented as a vote of confidence in the leadership. All this leads to the conclusion that the modernising hard right is far from having established its ideological hegemony over the party.

As for the argument that the Labour Party is being "politically cleansed", this summons up the image of wholesale political repression inside the party. Blair is without doubt intent on overturning the party’s existing democratic structures in favour of his own version of the führerprinzip. But so far there has been nothing like the crackdown on the left that took place in the party in the late 1920s, when 27 local Labour Parties were simply disaffiliated by the NEC because of their links with the Communist-sponsored National Left Wing Movement. All in all, the Labour Party still has a distinctly more liberal internal regime than that provided for in the SLP’s constitution. In the Labour Party, unlike the SLP, registered bodies such as the Socialist Campaign Group can organise within the party in opposition to the politics of the leadership. The opportunities and structures for an ideological struggle against the advocates of New Labour still exist.

A Labour victory at the next general election (which seems probable, if by no means assured) would soon produce a political crisis within the movement. Despite every effort by Blair and his acolytes to dampen down expectations, party members will inevitably expect fundamental changes from a Labour government. Some, indeed, have convinced themselves that Blair is merely playing a clever game with the bourgeois media and that once in office he will unveil a new radical programme! What they will get is an administration whose policies are minimally different from the Tory government it has replaced, and disappointment and resentment within the ranks of the party will become general. With the removal of the Tories a revival of industrial militancy can also be predicted, and the trade unions will undoubtedly become a centre of opposition to Blair within the party. No longer able to secure compliance by the threat that dissent will damage Labour’s election prospects, the party leadership will be in a much weaker position.

Their response can be anticipated, having been outlined by Mandelson in his recent book The Blair Revolution, jointly written with former SDP renegade Roger Liddle.11 One of Mandelson’s proposals is the adoption of state funding for political parties to remove Labour’s dependence on "trade union largesse", which would enable the leadership at some future point to sever the union link. Another is the reform of the present first-past-the-post electoral system in order to open channels to the Liberal Democrats, laying the basis for a fully fledged Lib-Lab alliance in the event of a parliamentary revolt by the Campaign Group. The formation of the SLP doesn’t simply cut across the struggle against such proposals – in practice, Scargill finds himself in a bloc with the Blairite right. He too believes that the link between the trade unions and "New Labour" should be broken, and he has insisted on the SLP constitution containing a commitment to Proportional Representation, which would effectively destroy the possibility of Labour gaining office again other than as part of a bourgeois coalition government.

But what is to be done in the here and now? In the run-up to a general election which offers a good chance of at last getting rid of the hated Major government, the "don’t rock the boat" philosophy is general throughout the party, and self-indulgent denunciations of "Tory Blair" will find little resonance. Centrally, therefore, it is necessary to focus the minds of party members on what a Labour government will do. It must be patiently, persistently and systematically explained that a government committed to defending the interests of the City of London and implementing the Maastricht convergence criteria can only do so by mounting massive attacks on the working class and on the welfare state in particular. While Marxists should not renounce propaganda for their own programme, agitation must concentrate on issues around which broad support can be built against the modernisers. Full employment, a minimum wage, the defence of universal benefits, increased taxation of the rich, the extension of trade union rights, renationalisation of privatised industries – these are issues on which the Blairites are open to attack.

Another important battle to be fought is over inner-party democracy, which the Labour hard right, anticipating an upsurge of rank-and-file discontent towards a Blair administration, are already attempting to undermine. As Blair’s plan to secure endorsement of the party manifesto indicates, he obviously intends to step up the use of plebiscites along the lines of the Clause IV ballot as a means of by-passing the unions, party activists and annual conference. The party’s ruling body, the NEC, which Blair has identified as a potential source of opposition to a "New Labour" government, is clearly under threat, with leaks to the press that the leadership regards it as "a troublesome anachronism".12 General Committees, the decision-making bodies of Constituency Labour Parties, which with their delegates from trade unions and other affiliated organisations embody the federal character of the Labour Party at local level, will also come under concerted attack from the modernisers. Attempts will be made to hand over the existing powers of GCs to CLP officers, to reduce the regularity of their meetings, etc. Resistance to these plans will not necessarily emerge spontaneously; it has to be organised. To someone like Scargill who has led historic industrial battles, or to those of his supporters inspired by heroic visions of the British equivalent of the storming of the Winter Palace, such mundane struggles may appear to be a boring irrelevance. But for anyone with pretensions to being a Marxist, active involvement in such conflicts is obligatory.

What about the workers?
There remains the question of the attitude of working people as a whole to the Labour Party, as distinct from the response within the party itself, for the launch of the SLP is necessarily based on the assumption that a significant section of the working class is in the process of losing its allegiance to Labour. Yet Scargill presents no serious argument in support of this view. Indeed, one of the most glaring features of Future Strategy for the Left is the complete absence of any attempt to evaluate the attitude of the British working class itself towards the Labour Party.

Arguing against the ultra-lefts in his pamphlet "Left-Wing" Communism – An Infantile Disorder, Lenin emphasised that in order to develop the appropriate political tactics Marxists "must soberly follow the actual state of the class-consciousness and preparedness of the entire class (not only of its communist vanguard), and of all the working people (not only of their advanced elements)".13 When you think about it, this is fairly ABC stuff. Anyone who was trying to organise industrial action even in the smallest workplace would come seriously unstuck if they failed to take the actual level of consciousness of the workforce into account.

Yet Scargill is proposing to break working people from the political organisation to which, despite all the treachery of the Labour leaders, they have given their loyalty for decades and all without showing the slightest interest in what the working class itself actually thinks about the matter. If he took the trouble to listen to the working people in whose name he claims to speak, he would find that any doubts about Blair’s politics usually take second place to a desperate desire to get rid of the Tories and elect a Labour government.

Back in 1929, when the Communist Party was developing a similarly ultra-left sectarian line towards the Labour Party, T.A. Jackson warned his comrades against the stupidity of mistaking their own subjective emotions for the consciousness of the masses. This is precisely the stupidity that Scargill and his supporters have committed. Because they have been convinced that the Blairite leadership has betrayed and broken from the working class, they evidently conclude that the working class must feel the same way too. An article by SLP supporter Dave Douglass of Hatfield Main NUM illustrates this confusion. Scornfully rejecting the argument that an incoming Labour government must have time to expose its right wing character, he demands: "What, again? Do we seriously need any further warning of the bare-faced austerity and anti-working class nature of Blair’s programme?"14 This line of reasoning was demolished by Trotsky sixty years ago. Answering the argument that "the Labour Party already stands exposed by its past deeds in power and its present reactionary platform", he wrote: "For us – yes! But not for the masses, the eight millions who vote Labour."15

It is this aspect of the question – the fact that the overwhelming majority of class conscious workers give their political allegiance to Labour – which determines the attitude of Marxists to the party. Although the Blairite right with its adaptation to Thatcherism unquestionably represents a new and particularly vicious strand of bourgeois ideology in the party, it is necessary to keep a sense of proportion. Ideological differences between the Labour right and the Tories have always been narrow, but this has never been an excuse for Marxists to turn their backs on the Labour Party and the working people who support it. In the 1930s, comparing leading Labour right-winger J.R. Clynes with Tory prime minister Stanley Baldwin, Trotsky observed that "the mental content of Clynes and Baldwin is much the same except, perhaps, that Baldwin is a little more ’progressive’ and more courageous. But the class content of the support for Clynes is very different".16 The same goes for the class content of support for Blair as against that for Major or Ashdown.

Of course, there are many people who are thoroughly hostile to the "New Labour" project. Among radicalised youth a Labour Party under Blair has little or no appeal. But will they join the SLP? Scargill identifies "the anti-motorway and animal rights bodies, Greenpeace and other anti-nuclear campaigners" as a natural base of support for his party. But the young people who participate in these movements seem to be alienated from politics and political parties generally, and lack any conception of socialism as a solution to the iniquities of capitalism. A resurgent labour movement which shows itself capable of challenging the established order will be able to attract many of those involved in the protest campaigns. However, recruits from this source to a small and uninfluential party like the SLP will be few.

Among many activists in the trade unions, too, there exists a genuine hatred of Blair and everything he stands for. These comrades are often resistant to the idea that anything can be accomplished inside the Labour Party and some thousands of them could possibly be won to the SLP. But there has always been a layer of trade union militants whose contempt for Labour’s right wing leadership extends to a dismissal of the party itself. This outlook often takes the form of syndicalism – a belief that the class struggle is to be fought at the point of production and that politics, particularly of the parliamentary variety, is useless. But industrial militants who reject Labourism can also be attracted to a political organisation standing to the left of the Labour Party. Traditionally the Communist Party won such people to its ranks, and it is worth remembering that the CP once had tens of thousands of members, a substantial industrial base, a number of local councillors (as many as 200 in 1945) and even a couple of MPs. This didn’t alter the fact that the Labour Party maintained its grip on the political consciousness of the vast majority of the class, while electoral support for the CP nationally remained negligible.

Although the CP never managed to establish itself as a viable alternative to Labour, it did succeed in walling off a section of trade unionists from intervention in the party that the mass of the working class still followed, thus assisting the Labour right wing to maintain their hold on the leadership. This was explained quite succinctly back in 1960 by none other than Gerry Healy, who was capable of making at least some correct political points. The CPGB, he argued, was "not merely a purveyor of Stalinist ideology in the labour movement. Its actions actively prevent the development of a real revolutionary party in Britain. Whilst masquerading as a Communist Party it isolates those workers who join it from the real political struggle against reformism. The main arena for this struggle can only be in the mass organisation of the working class, the Labour Party. It is this isolation of militant industrial workers from the Labour Party that strengthens the reformists inside the Labour Party".17 All the indications are that the SLP will succeed in doing just what the CP did – only on a much, much smaller scale.

The Hemsworth by-election
The SLP intervention in the Hemsworth by-election in February provided a test of the party’s appeal. Its candidate Brenda Nixon received 1,193 votes (5.4 per cent of the poll), which was almost twice as many as the Monster Raving Loony Party. The SLP thus succeeded in inflicting a humiliating defeat on Screaming Lord Sutch. However, as an attempt to win over at least a significant part of the Labour Party’s electoral base, the campaign was a flop. The 15,817 votes (71.9 per cent) cast for the successful Labour candidate showed what limited inroads the SLP had made into Labour support. Scargill predictably greeted the result as a success for the SLP, emphasising that although his party was still not officially launched it had managed (just) to save its deposit. The implication was that in future elections the SLP could be expected to do even better.

This was a thoroughly light-minded response, to say the least. By any realistic evaluation it was clear that conditions in Hemsworth were overwhelmingly to the advantage of the SLP. By-elections generally are favourable to small political parties. Compared with general elections, where parties necessarily contest many constituencies simultaneously (and in Future Strategy for the Left Scargill talks about the SLP standing in every constituency in the next general election), a by-election allows a small organisation to concentrate its limited resources on a single seat. Furthermore, in a general election voters’ attention is directed towards the question of which party will form the government, and small parties with no governmental prospects have difficulty in getting a hearing. There were, in addition, specific features of the Hemsworth contest which made it ideal for the SLP. This was a traditional mining area, devastated by the Tories’ destruction of the coal industry, where Scargill himself and Brenda Nixon, a prominent member of Women Against Pit Closures, were both well known and respected. The Labour Party NEC had blocked the candidacy of a local NUM member and imposed their own right wing candidate. The scandal over Harriet Harman’s decision to send her son to an opted-out grammar school broke during the campaign, providing a glaring example of the ideology of New Labour. And in a safe Labour seat it was possible to register a protest vote against the Blair-led Labour Party without risking a Tory or Liberal Democrat victory. In the circumstances, just over 5 per cent of the vote was a pathetic result, and gave an indication of the derisory level of support the SLP can expect in other less favourable conditions.

One notable feature of the Hemsworth by-election was the extremely poor turnout – 39.5 per cent, well below that in other recent by-elections. It is impossible to quantify the contribution that the SLP’s campaign made to what were clearly large-scale abstentions, but Scargill’s call to vote SLP because there was no real difference between the Labour Party and the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats must surely have had some impact. However, most working class voters influenced by this argument would conclude that while there was no point voting for a Labour Party that was indistinguishable from the Tories, there was even less point voting for an SLP which didn’t have the remotest chance of winning, so really there was no point voting at all. The effect of a sectarian electoral challenge to Labour is not to be measured solely by the votes won but by the demoralisation and political passivity it causes among potential Labour supporters.18 If the SLP stands in marginal constituencies in the next general election, as Scargill intends it to, this could well have the effect of handing a decisive number of seats to the Tories. As one Labour MP demanded of Scargill: "Do you want your epitaph to read ’This was the man who ensured the 5th Tory victory’?"19

Scargill was ready with a typically confused foray into the history of the labour movement in order to justify the Hemsworth intervention. "A century ago", he stated after the result was announced, "Keir Hardie lost his deposit and went on to form a mass party and the rest is history."20 Scargill has such a cavalier attitude towards historical evidence that it isn’t easy to identify this allusion. He could have been referring to the first parliamentary seat Hardie contested, at Mid-Lanark in 1888, or possibly to the Barnsley by-election of 1897 (Hemsworth was at that time part of the Barnsley constituency), an important episode in the pre-history of the Labour Party which he also cites in Future Strategy for the Left. Either way, the comparison tells against the SLP’s intervention at Hemsworth.

In the Mid-Lanark by-election Hardie received 617 votes as against 3,847 for the victorious Liberal candidate, out of a total poll of 7,381 – not only a higher proportion of the vote than that achieved by Brenda Nixon but also a much better performance in relation to the Liberal Party than the SLP managed in relation to Labour, and this at a time when many working men who could have been expected to support independent labour politics were still disenfranchised. At Barnsley the ILP candidate was in fact Pete Curran of the gasworkers’ union, and from a total vote of 11,289 he got 1,091 compared with 6,744 for the Liberal – again, a far better result than the SLP’s at Hemsworth. Hardie himself wrote that "Barnsley, altogether, is the worst thing we have yet done", and the conclusion drawn by the ILP leadership was that "only by working with, rather than against the trade unions could real progress be made".21 It was this which led directly to the formation of the "labour alliance" and the foundation of the Labour Party in the form of the LRC.

The question of union support is particularly important, because it makes nonsense of the parallel Scargill draws between the emergence of the Labour Party and the launch of the SLP. The obstacle the ILP faced in Yorkshire in 1897 was the close relationship that existed between the Liberal Party and the Yorkshire Miners Association, whose president Ben Pickard was himself a Liberal MP. But there was no organic, institutional link between the YMA and the Liberal Party of the type that exists now between the trade unions and the Labour Party. The central lesson the ILP drew from the Barnsley experience, that a new party was a realistic prospect only if it could win the backing of the trade unions, applies even more strongly today. Yet Scargill completely ignores this lesson. And for one very good reason – there isn’t the slightest possibility of the SLP winning a single national trade union, including the NUM itself, as an affiliate. What a shame that Arthur Scargill doesn’t share the capacity for objective political analysis possessed by an ILP leadership commonly dismissed as hopeless muddleheaded sentimentalists.

The issue raised by the launch of the SLP is the familiar one of the relationship of the vanguard to the class – of the more advanced, class-conscious militants to the broad mass of working people both inside and outside the labour movement. There has always been a tendency for the former to become impatient with the ideological conservatism of the working class as a whole, to give up on the struggle to win majority support within the actual organisations the class has built and to seek political short-cuts to the establishment of a mass socialist movement. Whatever the intentions, the practical result is always to undermine the struggle for socialism and strengthen its enemies.

The idea that the betrayals of social democracy can be effectively answered by setting up a small, pure socialist organisation in competition with a mass reformist party is fundamentally mistaken. The "strategy" of denouncing Labour’s leaders and calling on the working class to desert these traitors and rally to the socialist alternative has never worked and it is difficult to foresee circumstances in which it ever will. For, if working people have acquired the level of political organisation and consciousness necessary to build a new party, then they will obviously have acquired the level of organisation and consciousness necessary to remove the rotten leadership of their existing party. The very fact that this rotten leadership remains in control is proof of the fact that such a level of organisation and consciousness has not yet been reached.

Scargill’s chosen method of challenging right wing reformism ignores all the historical experience of the workers’ movement internationally, which is that a left alternative arises through differentiation within the ranks of the reformist party. The French Communist Party established itself as a mass organisation through a split in the SFIO, the French Socialist Party, a majority of whose members were won to the Third International. The CPGB, by contrast, sought to build itself as an organisational rival to the Labour Party and consequently remained marginalised. The same is true of centrist or left reformist challenges to mainstream social democracy (the SLP itself comes into this category). When the German USPD, the Independent Social Democratic Party, broke from the SPD in 1917 it was able to act as a rival pole of political attraction because it took with it hundreds of thousands of members and an important section of the leadership. When the ILP in Britain declared its independence from the Labour Party in 1932 it produced not a split as such but a minor breakaway involving a handful of MPs and some thousands of members. The ILP’s challenge to Labour petered out and it quickly disintegrated and collapsed.

Communists, I seem to recall reading somewhere, do not set up separate parties opposed to those of the working class. They fight within the existing movement, however adverse the circumstances and however difficult the tasks. Reversals and defeats are of course sometimes unavoidable, but Marxists are or should be the last to desert the field of battle. If the left as a whole were to follow Arthur Scargill’s example and abandon the Labour Party the result would be to hand over the party lock stock and barrel to the Blairites. How on earth can Marxists support such a course of action? The truth is that Scargill has buckled under the strain of the Labour right wing’s attacks and has given up the fight. The decision to form the Socialist Labour Party is not merely an act of political irresponsibility; beneath Scargill’s leftist rhetoric and notwithstanding his subjective militancy, it is an act of political cowardice.


1. The SLP constitution has been published in full in the Weekly Worker, 14 December 1995.

2. Labour Party Foundation Conference and Annual Conference Reports 1900-5, 1967, p.14.

3. Perhaps Scargill is thinking of the SDF when he writes in Future Strategy for the Left that the Labour Party’s affiliates at the time of its formation "included the Communist Party". The CPGB was not in fact founded until twenty years after the Labour Party and was never an affiliate.

4. Labour Party Foundation Conference and Annual Conference Reports, pp.17-18.

5. The Second Congress of the Communist International, 1977, Vol.2, pp.183-4

6. Communist Unity Convention Official Report, 1920, p.40. The speaker was Charlie Gibbons, a co-author of the celebrated syndicalist manifesto The Miners’ Next Step.

7. The Worker, 14 August 1920.

8. David Coates, The Labour Party and the Struggle for Socialism, 1975, p.47.

9. Hampstead and Highgate Express, 16 June 1995.

10. See for example the letter from RMT Assistant General Secretary and former CPB executive member Bob Crow in the Morning Star, 20 March 1996.

11. Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle, The Blair Revolution: Can New Labour Deliver?, 1996, pp.203, 207-8.

12. Financial Times, 28 March 1996.

13. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.31, p.58.

14. Weekly Worker, 18 January 1996.

15. Writings of Leon Trotsky 1935-36, 1977, p.199.

16. Ibid.

17. Socialist Labour League internal bulletin.

18. I detail this phenomenon in connection with the Scottish Workers Republican Party’s challenge to Labour in early 1920s Glasgow in my pamphlet John Maclean and the CPGB, 1995, pp.23, 31.

19. John Austin-Walker in Campaign Group News, December 1995.

20. Guardian, 2 February 1996.

21. David Rubinstein, "The Independent Labour Party and the Yorkshire Miners: The Barnsley By-Election of 1897", International Review of Social History, Vol.23, 1978, pp.130, 131-2.



Postscript: Where Now for the SLP?

THE SLP’s founding conference on 4 May gave an indication of the modest forces it can presently command. The national membership was given as 1152, of whom rather less than 400 seem to have turned up at the conference (the total of voting members in the elections to the National Executive Committee was 370). But it would be a mistake to dismiss the SLP as an irrelevance to the labour movement. A small but important layer of activists has been attracted to the party, and more of them can be expected to join in the future. These are comrades who have responded to a succession of defeats for the unions and the apparently inexorable rightward shift of the Labour Party, not by lapsing into demoralisation and passivity as many former union militants and Labour leftists have done, but by actively seeking an alternative political vehicle through which to conduct the class struggle. This requires a serious response from Marxists, however mistaken they believe these comrades’ political tactics to be.

The basic political obstacle the SLP faces remains the Labour Party. With a little over a thousand members and facing an imminent general election, the SLP has little chance of fulfilling Arthur Scargill’s threat to stand a candidate in every constituency. While the leadership would presumably like to stand the 60 candidates required to qualify for a party political broadcast, the finance for such a stunt (for that is what it would be) is unlikely to be forthcoming. From what SLP members say, it seems probable that the party will contest a dozen or so symbolic seats – against the former Tory Alan Howarth, for example, or Harriet Harman – and perhaps a few other seats where local SLP branches can raise their own election expenses.

But what will the SLP say to working class voters in constituencies where the party is not standing? To call for abstention would wall the party off from the mass of Labour-voting workers and reduce the SLP to a truly irrelevant sect. To keep silent on the question would simply make the party appear absurd. Realistically, the only answer is to advocate a vote for Labour in order to keep out the Tories.

But there are obvious problems to this. First of all, judging by the results of the elections to the SLP executive, the main opposition to the Scargill-Sikorski leadership comes from various ex-SWP tendencies, one of whose distinguishing features is blind sectarianism towards the Labour Party. Any call by the SLP for a Labour vote will be bitterly opposed by such elements. More fundamentally, to call for the Labour vote would undermine the whole raison d’ętre of the SLP, which has been launched on the basis of Scargill’s claim that the "New Labour Party" is just another bourgeois party, indistinguishable in class terms from the Tories or the Liberal Democrats. How, then, can the SLP advocate electoral support for such a party? To do so obviously requires a reassessment of the organisation’s analysis of Labour.

The expected election of a Labour government will pose further problems for the SLP. How will it respond if, as can be predicted, the betrayals of a Blair administration produce a reaction in the ranks of the Labour Party and the trade unions? And what will the SLP say if Blair attempts to bring in state funding for political parties in order to cut the Labour Party’s link with the unions? Any socialist organisation worthy of the name, even one which exists independently of the Labour Party, would have to intervene actively in such a situation. For the SLP to call on Labour Party members and trade unionists to abandon the struggle against Blair inside the party, to argue that the unions should assist Blair by voluntarily disaffiliating from Labour – this would be the height of political idiocy.

In short there is an obvious need for a principled Marxist tendency inside the SLP to fight against sectarianism and for a serious orientation to the broad labour movement. In the present circumstances this necessarily involves an orientation not only to the trade unions, in which many SLP comrades are firmly based, but also to the Labour Party. Unless there is a political development along these lines, the SLP looks set to follow its predecessor the ILP into political oblivion.