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Why I Am Joining the Socialist Labour Party

Dave Spencer

From New Interventions, Vol.7 No.2, 1996

I AM joining the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) not for what it is but for what it might become. I am joining as an activist hoping to participate in building a mass radical socialist party in this country. I see the founding of the SLP as an historic opportunity not to be missed. There is a massive vacuum on the Left internationally and socialism is in crisis. This is because of the events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the implosion of Stalinism and the consequent and complementary rightwards move of Social Democracy. The existing Left sects seem transfixed by events, without the capability or the desire to respond to this crisis. To me it is obvious that what socialists need to do is to reorganise, reconstruct and rethink. The SLP provides this possibility.

What Arthur Scargill and others have caught is a mood within the Labour Movement and the working class, of anger at 17 years of unemployment, job insecurity and cuts in the Welfare State and now a growing realisation that "New Labour" promises more of the same. I really do think that there is a qualitative difference between the Blair leadership and that of any other Labour leadership within living memory. He is taking for granted the defeats and battering of the working class by the Tory government rather than being determined or even promising to roll back those defeats: he is proud to take the rule of the market as given. Most of the comrades joining the SLP are Labour Movement activists from the Trade Unions, Trades Councils. Labour Party, Communist Party and the Left Groups. There is a wealth of experience to build on.

Many comrades argue that now is not the time to leave the Labour Party or to stand against the Labour Party. Wait till after the General Election; get the Tories out first; then when Blair starts to attack the working class and the backlash starts   that is the time to make a move. Some comrades of course argue that it is never a good time to leave the Labour Party and they give historical precedents like the CP in the ’20s, the ILP in the ’30s and the Left Groups in the ’60s. Both arguments assume that any backlash will be felt first and foremost in the Labour Party and that it is from within the Labour Party that any organised opposition will come. This seems to me to be a piece of dogma or some sort of extrapolation from and justification for deep entry work. It also tends to assume that all political activity revolves around electoralism.

In the case of the Wilson government of 1964, after "13 years of Tory misrule", the backlash to Wilson did not lake place in the Labour Party. By 1967 the Labour government was universally despised and the Labour Party was empty; you could not get a quorum at any meeting. The Labour Party ceased to be a mass party of the working class with representatives in every street as it used to be. In the local elections of 1967 most of the large cities went over to the Tories. There was even a danger of fascism with the London dockers marching in support of Enoch Powell’s "rivers of blood" speech in 1968. There was no organised Left opposition in the Labour Party. Some commentators have blamed the IS/SWP and the IMG for leaving the Labour Party at that time. There was nothing there for them to leave! As far as I remember they just drifted out; it was not a principled decision.

The backlash came from the shop stewards’ movement against Barbara Castle’s "In Place of Strife" and against the employers’ attempts to change working practices. There were also a large number of militant students, organised particularly around the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and the anti-racist movement against Enoch Powell. The Labour Party did not feature at all in any of these struggles.

It is true that after the industrial militancy of the early 1970s and the near general strike against the Heath government the working class looked to a Labour government again. But they had no alternative; and the Labour Party did promise an irreversible shift in wealth and power to the working class. Today Blair promises nothing to the working class. At the same time in the ’70s many activists, including the SWP, thought that militancy was enough and the Labour Party could easily be pushed around. Even those who began to form the radical Left of the Labour Party did not really see the need for an organisation. Groups like Militant and Socialist Organiser were very much on the fringe and failed to capitalise on or develop ways of bringing together the Left forces within the Party.

It is now almost impossible for activists to work in the Labour Party at all. At one time we used to organise around resolutions for District Party/local Council or for the Annual Conference. There was plenty to do and plenty to influence. We could work within the Young Socialists or Women’s Sections or even workplace branches. Then we fought for democracy within the Party, de-selected MPs and Councillors and fought against the Tory cuts in local government. All those means of expression have now gone. In addition the Walworth Road bureaucracy have picked people off or pissed them off slowly but surely. The Party rules now mean nothing: they get changed and the goalposts moved. What can activists do in the Labour Party? There may be pockets of resistance – fine; but political activism, and the backlash to Blair will be outside the Labour Parly from now on. The Socialist Labour Party could be in a position to organise the fightback. The time to make a marker is now not after further demoralisation has set in.

In Scotland, some of the members of Arthur Scargill’s original steering committee have set up the Scottish Socialist Alliance, rather than the SLP. This is a hybrid organisation based on a federal structure of existing Left groups, but allowing individual membership as well. Clearly the impetus for this organisation is the same as that for the SLP, the desire for unity, reconstruction and so on. Their quarrel with the SLP is that the SLP constitution does not allow for the affiliation of existing organisations. The main problem would seem to be with Militant Labour who wanted to maintain their group within the SLP. The SLP would allow tendency and faction rights but not membership of two parties at the same time.

Since the formation of the Scottish Socialist Alliance, Militant Labour have tried to set up similar Alliances elsewhere. There is a basic contradiction in these Alliances, however, insofar as they call for open and democratic structures, an end to vanguardism and so on, yet they have as part of their federal partnerships "democratic centralist" organisations. How and when do these Leninist groups wither away? Or, as some people suspect, are these Alliances just another means of recruiting new members, yet another front organisation? When some Militant Labour members were asked if they would allow "Workers Power" or "Workers Press" into their group with the right to sell their own paper, they replied with scorn: "Of course not!" Well, by the same token – why should the SLP allow Militant Labour in?

In principle I am in favour of groups being admitted into membership. However, so chronic is the sectarianism in the established Left sects that I can see that it would cause problems during the initial growth of the organisation, with new members being "contacted" by the different groups. On the other hand, some groups will join anyway or send members in as sleepers. In that case, the SLP Constitution will either become a straitjacket or unworkable. If and when the SLP gets established, other groups will have to orientate towards it. At the moment the programme and character of the SLP is being formed from week to week – from the top down and from the bottom up, as local branches get organised.