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Why We Have Left the Socialist Labour Party:
The Dead Hand of Stalinism Without the Lure of Moscow Gold

Dave Spencer and Hanna Khamis

From New Interventions, Vol.8 No.3, 1998

THE principle on which we have resigned from the Socialist Labour Party is that of its undemocratic running. It came to light at the beginning of the party conference in December 1997 that one delegate held a card with 3000 votes, that is twice as many votes as the rest of the voting delegates added together. Voting delegates from constituencies had between 10 and 20 votes each. This delegate represented the North-West, Cheshire and Cumbria Miners Association (NWCCMA) which has affiliated to the SLP.

Now there are three points of view on this. Our view and that of a large number of delegates at the conference is that these votes were deliberately used by Arthur Scargill to rig the conference in his favour, that is to ensure that he got a two-thirds majority for his constitution, and that his appointees for the national executive committee all got elected. These are the actions of a bureaucrat, not a democrat.

Another view is that the 3000 members of the NWCCMA were democratically canvassed about their views, and their votes were cast independently of Arthur Scargill. We would point out that there are no mines left in the North-West, and that the 3000 members of the NWCCMA would be either retired or unemployed, and therefore very difficult to canvass. We are in favour of trade unions and workers’ organisations being affiliated to the party. The question is how democratically their votes should be cast.

The third view is that democracy does not matter. If you believe, as certainly sections of the SLP have indicated, that China and North Korea are socialist states, that Saddam Hussein should be supported, and that the students shot in Tiananmen Square were "counter-revolutionaries", then you do not believe in democracy. At the first Midlands area meeting, some of Royston Bull’s supporters from Leicester SLP declared: "We are interested in power, not democracy. Democracy is a middle-class fetish." This is a classic Stalinist point of view, and it is at least honest. We do not agree with it.

The Stalinism and the cynicism of the SLP leadership was shown when Bob Crow got up to give the Industrial Report, and said: "The only reason these people are whining is because they haven’t got 3000 votes in their back pocket." On the contrary, our view is that it is not acceptable for anybody to have 3000 votes in his back pocket, or to rig conferences – no matter who he may be. That is the principle on which we left.

Another bureaucratic aspect of the conference was that it was very badly organised. According to the constitution, it is supposed to be held in May each year. It was put off until October because of the general election, then put off again until December. In spite of the extension of time, there was still no proper democratic preparation for the conference, with discussion of policy documents, NEC perspectives, etc, in the branches. Printed conference agendas were only handed out inside the conference, one between three of us. A lengthy disciplinary procedure passed by the NEC in September was handed out during the conference, and voted on – nobody could possibly have read it, let alone discussed it in branches. Worst of all, most amendments to the constitution were declared out of order – on some technicality or other – with no appeal and no alternative way found to discuss the points of view expressed.

The concern of the leadership throughout the process was to control and silence the membership, rather than give political direction and listen to the views and experiences of the members. Branches and individuals were sounded out and targeted as loyal or disloyal before the conference. Individuals were expelled or, in the peculiar SLP jargon, "voided". The Coventry branch received no notification of the conference, or of the deadlines for resolutions and for NEC nominations. Dave Spencer received a letter and a follow-up phone call from Arthur Scargill telling him to cease his activities in the Coventry Socialist Alliance, or else!

The resolution from Coventry South to the conference called for open factions and tendencies to be allowed in the party. This resolution was ruled out of order on the basis that it contradicted the rule that everybody has to accept the party constitution and programme before becoming a member! On that basis, any proposed change in the constitution or programme can be ruled out of order. We wrote to the conference arrangements committee appealing against this ruling, but also asking for advice on how we might amend the constitution in order to put our point of view to the conference. We received no reply. When we appealed to the conference, Arthur Scargill’s reply was: "It was made clear right from the start that factions would not be tolerated in this party. Anybody disagreeing with that should look elsewhere." In other words: "If you don’t agree with me, get out of the SLP."

The hypocrisy of Arthur’s position is that there are secret factions in the SLP, and Arthur knows who they are; he does deals with them. He himself said there are comrades who have joined the SLP from different traditions and different struggles – mainly ex-members of the Communist Party, of the Labour Party, of various Trotskyist groups and from campaigns like the road protesters. The NEC is made up of two main groups, one around Arthur Scargill from the NUM and from the old Communist Party, and another from the Trotskyist FISC group around Brian Heron and Patrick Sikorski. The 3000 votes were used to re-elect these comrades. A new NEC member backed by the 3000 votes is Harpal Brar, who some claim to be the central leader of the Indian Workers Association of Great Britain. He is also a leading member of the Stalin Society and the Friends of North Korea, and edits a newspaper Lalkar that is virulently anti-Trotskyist. This is clearly factional and contrary to the constitution, but Arthur has decided to have Harpal Brar on his side, so that’s OK then.

The 3000 votes came to light in voting over the amendment to delete black sections from the constitution. The vote was declared as 311 for Harpal Brar, 648 against! In other words, he lost the vote in the conference as a whole by over two to one. It was at this point that the delegate from NWCCMA revealed himself as having 3000 votes that somehow had been lost in the counting. Pandemonium broke out as some comrades wanted to know why they had come all the way from Scotland and Cornwall when all that was needed to decide on policy was the man with the 3000 votes. Some delegates left, tearing up their party cards. When the re-vote was taken, the NWCCMA delegate, despite knowing that over two-thirds of the voting delegates in the hall were opposed to Harpal Brar’s resolution, voted for Harpal Brar. The voting was 3297 for and 506 against, giving the two-thirds majority necessary for a change in the constitution: 146 votes, that is over one-seventh of the total (not counting the 3000), had already left the conference.

Later in the afternoon, a meeting was held of delegates still there who were concerned at the fixing of the conference, and all were genuinely shocked and angry. We counted between 80 and 100 comrades at various times in this meeting, at the end of which 57 signed a message of protest, which was given out the next day. Many of these delegates were voting delegates, that is from constituency parties with between 10 and 20 votes each. If only between a third and a half of the 57 were voting delegates and you add the ones who had already walked out, you have between a third and a half of the conference. The key point is that the opposition delegates were frorn the tradition of the Labour left and Trotskyist groups. Those who were happy with the conference were from the Communist Party tradition. Arthur Scargill has made a calculated and deliberate decision as to where future recruitment is to come from: who he wants in and who he wants out of the SLP. As one delegate put it: "Great, we’ve got rid of the Trotskyist scum!"

Talk in the SLP now is about a "unitary" constitution. That means no factions, no tendencies, no opposition – it is a bureaucratic formation. It means party worship and leadership worship with hacks, fanatics and clones as members. This was not actually the way of Lenin and the Bolshevik party whom they hero-worship. There were lively factional disputes even throughout the 1917 Revolutions. Lenin was in a minority faction in April 1917. Zinoviev and Kamenev were in a minority faction in October 1917; Bukharin’s Left faction produced a daily oppositionist paper throughout the Revolution and the Civil War. The Bolsheviks maintained loyalty to each other and to the party, in spite of political differences and being in different factions. Factions were banned in 1921 only under the severest of economic and military circumstances. Many people think even that decision was probably a mistake. It was Stalin who would not allow dissent and eliminated all opposition, who believed in a "unitary" constitution. It is completely out of place in Britain in 1998 where the Labour Party, the Communist Party and the left groups are all over the place politically, and there are new campaigns on Green, environmental and other issues. The need is for open discussion of different experiences and political traditions and ideas; and united fronts of solidarity on campaigns; not insisting on the SLP "right or wrong" when nobody has properly discussed party policy, and when the line is rammed through anyway by the leadership with 3000 votes!

It is amazing hypocrisy to talk about a "unitary", anti-faction constitution, when there are known factions operating. These factions have to be loyal stooges since if they criticise they will be thrown out as factions! The most arcane and headbanging of the leadership-worshipping factions is Royston Bull’s ultra-Stalinist faction which produces the Economic and Philosophic Science Review. The most bizarre behaviour was from the FISC faction, who fervently believe in black sections and women’s sections; indeed they get a number of their NEC members through those sections. When Harpal Brar’s amendment against black sections was carried, they came to the microphone one after the other to resign their nominations for the NEC. This neatly told everybody who they were and how grossly inflated the number of their NEC places is compared to their membership. Also the NEC elections had already taken place, so it was an empty gesture. The key point is that they complained about the vote against black sections, not about the undemocratic use of the 3000 votes, which anyway had just been used to ensure their places on the NEC. In our opinion, these people have a right to argue their point of view and to have a faction; but they believe in a "unitary" constitution without factions. They vote against factions, although they are members of factions – work that one out if you can.

Undoubtedly, the SLP conference was yet another defeat for the left. Comrades joined in good faith because they saw that a mass workers’ party needs to be built as an alternative to New Labour. This enthusiasm was used by Arthur Scargill during the general election campaign to launch the new party, to create a wider periphery. Between the general election campaign and the December conference, he set about deciding who was "one of us" and who wasn’t; in fact he set about splitting the SLP. Instead, he should have consolidated his base, built on existing campaigns and strengths in the areas, and started new campaigns against New Labour. For some reason, he opted not even for old Labour, but for old pre-1956 Stalinism. One can only speculate on his possible strategies and state of mind. We think Arthur Scargill was correct to call for a new party, given the clear capitalist nature of New Labour. He was wrong to try to build it using the old bureaucratic methods.

The main lesson to be learnt from the SLP experience is that any future party must be built on democratic principles. This is no easy matter since in a way it is uncharted waters. Arthur Scargill’s methods are not only those of Stalinism or trade union bureaucrats – they are endemic in the traditions of Trotskyist groups. They are also typical of the normal power-crazy manager in capitalist and state-run institutions. Some thought needs to be given once again to questions relating to the party, the working class, and the development of class consciousness. What was encouraging at the SLP conference was the spontaneous way in which so many of the delegates reacted angrily to what they saw as Scargill’s misuse of power. It was not a farce or a joke, but a scandalously wasted opportunity to develop an opposition to Blairism. Once again, the working class has been badly served by those claiming to lead it, and the left has suffered yet another defeat.

This article is adapted from a resignation letter by Dave Spencer and Hanna Khamis. Both were SLP candidates in the General Election. Hanna was Secretary of Coventry District SLP, and Dave was Chairman.