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The Socialist Labour Party and the Crisis of Social Democracy

Patrick Benton

BOB PITT’S thought-provoking article in the first issue of What Next? ("The Socialist Labour Party: Why Arthur Scargill is Wrong") is a welcome opening contribution to the debate on the Socialist Labour Party (SLP). However, there is a need to shift the discussion onto different ground. The starting point must be an analysis of the current situation of the Labour and trade union movement, and from this the development of the tactics and strategy necessary to move the working class forward. Social Democracy is in crisis. It is this crisis which led to the creation of the SLP, and it is this crisis, not Arthur Scargill, which is the real issue.

Social Democratic parties are undergoing a parallel degeneration throughout the world and the Labour Party in Britain must be examined in this political context. Social Democracy, by its very nature – because it at all times seeks to accommodate to and economically strengthen capitalism, not abolish it – finds itself increasingly powerless in the face of the "globalisation" of the world economy, i.e. the increasing power of the multinational corporations and the central banks. Social Democratic governments in Spain, France, Australia and New Zealand, taking office after long periods of moderate Tory rule, found themselves compelled to obey the orders of the multinationals and impose savage Thatcherite policies, even if in some cases reluctantly. The Swedish Social Democrats are being forced along this path, while the German SPD will follow it gladly. These parties have learned that under modern "globalised" capitalism the financial interests of the Rupert Murdochs of this world take priority over everything else. No government accepting and operating within the existing parameters of capitalism can put the interests of the people it governs before the profits of the Murdochs. Social Democracy has become little more than their tool.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Social Democracy could deliver many of the necessary reforms. Even in the 1960s it could still meet some of the needs of the working class. Not any more. By the beginning of the next century the world will be run, almost in its entirety, by the multinationals and the central banks, run solely for their profit. They will ransack whole continents and plunder the entire planet in their insatiable greed for profits. They have no concern for anything except the dividends of their shareholders, and care nothing for the misery and suffering, the worldwide poverty, deprivation and destitution they cause, nor the ecological disasters they create. They stand for ruthless exploitation and limitless greed as they play off one government against another. In the Third World, in the name of democracy, they install brutal dictatorships, and in North America, Europe and Australasia they cause mass unemployment and ever-lowering hopes and prospects. Social Democracy by its very nature cannot even begin to deal with such a powerful and ruthless enemy and inevitably surrenders. The difference between Blair and some other Social Democratic leaders is that while they privately bemoan their helplessness in the face of international capital Blair welcomes it.

The solution to the power of the multinationals is socialist internationalism and international trade unionism. In 1971 Dunlop Pirelli was paralysed by the world’s most famous international strike. This example must be followed today. While Social Democracy may be impotent in the face of the multinationals, the international working class is not.1 This is why Blair, who is so keen to support Maastricht, deleted from Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution all commitment by the party to building international links with sister organisations overseas. Blair and his supporters are opposed to any form of international working-class solidarity. The reason why extreme right wing Labour MP Frank Field hates the Liverpool dockers, to the point where he allegedly said that he would personally like to hang every single one of them, is precisely because they have taken that crucial first step and are building widespread international solidarity for their strike.

The Labour Party must also be placed in its historical context. Labour has never been socialist – it has always been a coalition, usually an uneasy one, between parliamentary socialists, Social Democrats, humanitarian reformists and Marxists. The Social Democrats have always been in control. But the party’s principles and strategy have been based on a trade-unionist bureaucratic reformism. This has now changed. While Blair will use the trade union leaders for his own ends – and many of them, as "new realists", will be willing to be used by him – he rejects trade unionism. Blair wants both to render the unions increasingly powerless and also to sever their link with the Labour Party. As two of his acolytes have said, "trade unions are irrelevant".2

Previous Labour governments rejected socialism and were satisfied with reformism. Blair rejects both. He has renounced not only a formal commitment to socialism but reformism and traditional Social Democracy as well. He and Peter Mandelson are determined not just that the Labour Party will fully embrace capitalism but that it will be capitalism of the Thatcher model. Blair spelt this out during his pilgrimage to Rupert Murdoch in Australia, when he stated that "only a Labour government could complete the social and economic revolution begun by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s".3

This process did not start with Blair. A precedent for Blair’s economic philosophy was established by Harold Wilson in the 1960s, when the then Labour government abandoned its programme of reforms in order to make British capitalism more competitive and trampled on the interests of its working-class supporters in order to pursue the contradictory aims of reducing the balance of payments deficit and joining the Common Market.

Seventeen years in opposition has accelerated the degeneration of the Labour Party. It really took off under Kinnock, who instituted a Stalin-like regime in which all power was controlled from the centre. The membership, Parliamentary Labour Party, National Executive Committee and Annual Conference were all downgraded, and smear campaigns against critics were launched from Kinnock’s private office. The leadership eagerly adopted the right-wing agenda set by the Tory media and used its control of the party to oppose any practical resistance to Thatcherism. During the miners’ strike of 1984-5 Kinnock did everything he could to obstruct Labour support for the NUM. In one of the most crucial episodes in the class struggle in Britain this century, in which the most advanced and powerful section of the working class confronted the most vicious, reactionary Tory government in living memory, Kinnock effectively threw his weight behind the Tories. Similarly during the mass campaign against the poll tax, Kinnock made sure that the official Labour Party line was to oppose that struggle.

Kinnock knew that if he became prime minister he would come under great pressure to attack the working class and continue the Thatcherite programme. Had the miners won they would have immensely strengthened the working class, raising its confidence and combativity, and a Kinnock government would have been under equal pressure from the other direction to introduce policies in the interests of the working class. To ensure all the pressure would come from one direction only, from the ruling class and international big business, Kinnock was keen to assist the Tories so that at a later stage he could continue along the same path. Under Kinnock, Labour became little more than an appendage to the Conservative Party, and in this he was aided by the union bureaucrats’ adoption of the debilitating philosophy of "new realism".

While Blairism has its roots in Labour’s past, there are certainly qualitative differences between Blair and his predecessors. For one thing, Blair is openly Thatcherite. All previous leaders have at least maintained the pretence of being for reforms, and many, like Clement Attlee and Michael Foot, were genuine reformists. Secondly, all previous leaders have come from a Labour Party background and worked their way up through the party over a period of decades. Blair, who comes from a wealthy Tory family, has no history or background in the party. Thirdly, large sums from party funds are being syphoned off to finance a private office for the leader, an office whose primary function is not to strengthen the Labour Party but to strengthen the hold of the leader over the party. Blair intends that it is to be this office, rather than the democratic institutions of the Labour party itself, which is to be the real power within the party. Fourthly, Blair succeeded where Gaitskell failed in pushing through a new constitution, using the most undemocratic means to do so.

This new constitution not only abandons all commitment to socialism, common ownership and distribution of wealth, but commits Labour to an economic system based on "the enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition". In other words, the Labour Party now has a constitution which commits it to the Thatcherite market economy. The new Clause IV in no way challenges or even questions the unbridled power of big business and the City of London, and by its support for "the rigour of competition" implicitly accepts that all measures taken by private enterprise to become more competitive – cutting wages, reducing safety standards and throwing workers onto the dole – are justified in the "national interest". As the New Statesman pointed out, "for the first time Labour has hitched itself, philosophically and in principle, rather than simply in practice, to private enterprise and the market".4 Dr. Madsen Pirie of the hardline Thatcherite Adam Smith Institute welcomed the new constitution, stating "there is nothing in the new document that a Tory would not have signed five years ago".5

For Blair and Mandelson the "profit maximising" practices of big business are conducive to economic well being; the vested interests of the major monopolies and the City are synonymous with the public good. The role of the state as they see it is not to curb the ‘excesses’ of big business in the interests of society as a whole but, to quote Gordon Brown, "to make markets work more dynamically for success". In Blair’s own words, New Labour will be firmly on the side of "the wealth creators and entrepreneurs". (For Blair it is big business which creates wealth, not the labour of the workers.) He has stated that he intends to set income and corporation tax at a sufficiently low level to stimulate the flow of foreign investment and he intends to make Britain "safe for foreign investors".6

This means, first of all, that multinational corporations investing in Britain will pay such low rates of tax that they will not provide the exchequer with any substantial revenue to finance crucially-needed social welfare or government-sponsored industrial development. (When Blair talks of duty, making statements like "without duty freedom turns into ashes",7 it is significant that this duty goes upwards but not downwards – it is the duty of workers to serve their bosses, but the rich and the multinationals don’t have a duty to pay their taxes.) Secondly, Blair intends to maintain the existing Tory anti-union laws in order to keep wages down so the multinationals can maximise their profits by paying poverty wages and generally increasing exploitation. Thirdly, it means that the powers of the regulatory bodies to curb these excesses of the multinationals and even uphold basic safety standards will be reduced to virtually nil.

The agenda of Blair and Mandelson is to serve big business and maximise its profits, to cut the taxes of the rich and the living standards of the working class, and to dismantle the welfare state. The old Butskellite consensus has been replaced by the new Blair-Portillo consensus, and even some old-fashioned Labour right-wingers are appalled by this "Blairtilloism". This doesn’t mean that any reliance can be placed on MPs, especially the "soft left", who on the issue of Clause IV showed as much backbone as a chocolate blancmange. The fightback will come from party members and from their interaction with campaigns outside the Labour Party on issues such as the defence of the welfare state. It is socialists who will lead this fightback and who will play a decisive role in defeating Blair.

Anything that weakens this fightback against Blair helps the Thatcherites in the Labour Party, and therein is the crucial argument in the SLP debate. Every person the SLP takes out of the Labour Party means one less person to fight back against Blair. Every success of the SLP reduces the strength of socialists inside the Labour Party.

Arthur Scargill wants a political party that stands outside the Blair-Portillo consensus, but the overwhelming majority of rank-and-file members of the Labour Party stand outside that consensus. The danger is that the SLP will wall off a section of socialists and trade union activists from the Labour Party and undermine the forces ranged against Blair within the party. This is why Scargill’s resignation and the setting up of the SLP was greeted with wild delight by the Blairites. It means that not only has a leading opponent of Blair gone but a whole pole of opposition has been removed. This may or not prove a disaster for Arthur Scargill but it is certainly a setback for the rest of us.

Scargill’s action is an act of misguided foolishness born of an understandable and fully justified disgust and repugnance at the domination of the Labour Party by the Thatcherites, probably exacerbated by sheer physical nausea at the reptilian presence of Peter Mandelson. In no way can it be considered an act of political cowardice. Scargill’s record testifies to the fact that the last thing he can be described as is a coward. But even the most courageous can be extremely foolish. And Scargill has played right into the hands of Tony Blair.

Many on the left, both good socialists and lunatic sectarians, have prematurely written off the Labour Party. It may in the end prove impossible for the ordinary decent members to win control of the party from the Blair’s Thatcherite tendency, but that will only be known after the coming battles have been fought. To split left members away at this stage makes no sense. Nor are the Blairites all-powerful. The recent defeat of Stephen Twigg for the position of leader of Islington Council was a small but significant setback for Blair. The earlier defeat of Jack Dromey in the TGWU leadership election was a much more serious blow. Dromey was defeated not just because he is loathed and detested throughout the union (although he is), nor because the members see him as a cross between Benito Mussolini and Shirley Temple (although they do), but because the membership chose to vote against the man clearly seen as the Blair candidate.

The real fight is still to come. The Blairites will use every dirty trick going, not to mention the whole of the Labour Party machine and finances, but they are bereft of principles, politically bankrupt, and have nothing to offer but the infliction of misery and suffering, poverty and unemployment, on the working class. The key weapons of ideas, ideals, argument and truth in the Labour Party are with the socialists. We must stay and fight. Those who leave only aid Blair.


1. This is an issue which should be dealt with more fully in subsequent issues of this journal, and in publications such as Workers’ Liberty, Socialist Outlook and Briefing.

2. The view of the right-wing pressure group Labour 2000, as summarised in the Hampstead and Highgate Express, 16 June 1995.

3. Times, 17 July 1995.

4. New Statesman, 17 March 1995.

5. Tribune, 17 March 1995.

6. New Statesman, 26 April 1996.

7. Guardian, 18 July 1995.