4. Time for a new party



While Blair had eliminated Clause iv, he had not fully succeeded in formally breaking the link with the trade unions. Any continued connection of the unions with the Labour Party was largely at the top and through the inertia of the bureaucracy, which was incapable of facing up to the new situation. They were neutered as a political force within the Labour Party. Over time the trade union block vote was watered down, reduced from more than 90% to 50% at conference, effectively destroying their collective voice within the party. Thousands of socialists abandoned any prospect of transforming Labour into a vehicle for socialist change. Red Pepper, the radical periodical, estimated at that stage that there were two million people to the left of Labour. Militant commented: “Many of these would support a call to build a mass socialist Labour Party.”1

Militant Labour, the name we adopted in the early 1990s, had been the first to raise clearly the need for a new party. Our previous perspective – even when we were forced to establish an independent banner – was that this was a temporary tactic. Once the internal balance of forces within the Labour Party changed – which we envisaged would happen under the hammer blows of a worsening economic situation – it would be reflected politically within Labour by strengthening the left. We would then retake our position within a growing left wing. However, this perspective was not borne out for the reasons we have explained and we called for a new party.

A new approach, a new orientation, was necessary if a genuine Marxist force was not to atrophy and disappear. The surprise election of Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership 20 years later has not up to now fundamentally altered this orientation. At the time of writing, Labour is in effect two parties in one, embroiled in a civil war to decide which will win: the left in a new party or the return of the Blairites. However, we never completely wrote off the possibility of the Labour Party changing its character once more. In 2002, we wrote: “Theoretically, Marxism has never discounted that, under the impact of great historic shocks – a serious economic crisis, mass social upheaval – the ex-social democratic parties could move dramatically towards the left. Indeed, when we were forced out of the Labour Party, we worked as an independent organisation but with the perspective that events could later lead to a further shift towards the left in the Labour Party and the beginning of its transformation. Subsequent events, however, falsified this perspective.”2 This is what has happened to Labour since the 2015 general election.

However, earlier debate and discussion within the ranks of Militant Labour convinced the leadership and the overwhelming majority of our members and supporters on the necessity of proclaiming that the Labour Party was now dead as a useful tool of the working class and that it was necessary to take a different road. Labour, we declared, had separated itself from its history and in so doing was not remotely similar to its past. At times the Labour Party was a very effective weapon for workers moving into struggle, particularly in periods of heightened class tension. In the early 1980s, for instance, the Labour Party organised mass demonstrations against unemployment of 150,000 in Liverpool, 100,000 in Glasgow and elsewhere. You could not imagine any New Labour leader sanctioning strikes against the government of the day.

Even the elimination of Clause iv and breaking the links with the trade unions would not be sufficient in itself to put a minus sign against the Labour Party as a workers’ party. More decisive was the consciousness and psychology of the working class, or significant sections of it, towards Labour. Then and in subsequent years, young people, many blacks, Asians, the unemployed, single-parent families, as well as conscious socialists, no longer considered the Blairite Labour Party as ‘theirs’. Even the Economist estimated that 35% of the electorate supported Clause iv. That was scope enough for a new ‘socialist party’. We pointed out that in France the vote for Lutte Ouvrière, a Trotskyist group, of 1.6 million in the first round of the 1995 presidential elections expressed the revulsion felt by many workers and youth at the betrayals of the French Socialist Party. We answered the argument that there was still space for the left within Labour: “The Blair leadership has either blown up, dynamited, or blocked these channels, even for the trade unions.”3 Our hope was that a significant split from the Labour Party would join up with a figure like Arthur Scargill to launch a new initiative, in which we would participate, but in a broader, federal form rather than the centralised bureaucratic structures in place under Blair and Brown.

Arthur Scargill, at the previous Labour conference, had floated the idea of building a new socialist Labour Party. Militant Labour, before the special conference which abandoned Clause iv, was the first “to call for the formation of a new mass socialist party”. We explained: “In the past, Militant worked successfully, together with others, in turning the Labour Party towards the working class, as shown in the mass struggles like Liverpool and the poll tax battle. Then, we held out the prospect of the trade unions moving into the Labour Party in the future and transforming it in a socialist direction.”4

Scargill seemed to agree with us when he declared: “I believe the case for a Socialist Labour Party is now overwhelming.” He went on: “The newly-formed Labour Party made clear its aim of abolishing capitalism and establishing a socialist society – an object which many trade unions incorporated into their own rule books.” He also berated those who naïvely still believed that Labour could be changed towards the left. Indicating the changes that were taking place over the selection of parliamentary Labour candidates, he said that, in dropping Clause iv, “New Non-Socialist Labour demonstrated its covenant with capitalism by its disgraceful refusal to endorse a first-class socialist, Liz Davies, as a parliamentary candidate. It had no difficulty, however, in embracing into party membership Tory defector Alan Howarth, an MP who voted for the policies and philosophy of Thatcher, including the butchery of health care, education, mining and other basic industries and services.”

He argued: “Labour’s new rules and constitution can only be described as an unmitigated disaster that make it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for people within the Labour Party to campaign for socialism – which is no longer constitutionally enshrined as a vision to fight for.” Correctly drawing organisational conclusions, Scargill posed the question: “Do we, and others who feel as we do, stay in a party which has been and is being ‘politically cleansed’?” He therefore called for the convening of a “special ‘Discussion Conference’ to which all those committed to founding such a party should be invited with the aim of formulating a constitution and structure for a Socialist Labour Party.”5 Militant enthusiastically endorsed this call: “Working class people need a party that can organise a fightback. The Labour Party cannot play that role. A new socialist party has to be formed. But why wait? Militant Labour will support steps to launch a new mass socialist party.”6

The idea of a new party found a receptive audience. In fact, this mood was already there amongst advanced workers and the trade unions. However, we warned in the pages of the Militant that, unless the initiative for a new party was carefully prepared, it could fail: “New parties can be compared to an aeroplane on a runway. Properly prepared and organised the ‘plane’ can take off. Yet history is littered with examples of ‘crash landings’, parties formed in high hopes which never actually get off the ground.”7

We particularly stressed that a new party must be broad-based, embracing all genuine forces fighting for a mass socialist alternative in Britain. Crucially, it should be inclusive. Unfortunately, these warnings were not heeded then or subsequently. Where successful initiatives were taken in Europe, such as in Italy with the Communist Refoundation (Partito della Rifondazione Comunista – PRC) and the United Left (Izquierda Unida – IU) in Spain, success was only possible through adopting open forms of organisation and avoiding the bureaucratic structures of the rigid social democratic and Stalinist parties. The development of the PRC bore this out. Coming in the main from the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and its Stalinist tradition, although not perfect it avoided the worst aspects of Stalinist forms of organisation. In the PRC’s initial period, when the idea of a new party was in the process of formation, Militant and the CWIrecognised that it represented a significant development and an opportunity for the genuine forces of Marxism to play a role.

The development of the PRC took place amidst our intense debate of the early 1990s, which subsequently led to Ted Grant and Alan Woods separating themselves from Militant – after a vote of 93% in favour of the position known as the ‘Scottish turn’. The minority argued ferociously in favour of maintaining an orientation towards the ‘traditional organisations’. They were so wedded to this idea they discounted even the possibility of developments of small left splits from a big party. This could take place even when a workers’ party retained a mass base but a left or revolutionary minority split away to form a small party which could then offer a united front to the larger party.

If such a development should take place in spite of their perspective, they invariably discounted that it could grow into a mass force. In relation to the PRC, they ruled out that it could develop because it represented a minority at the outset. Moreover, it was trade union leaders like Fausto Bertinotti, who had stood on the right in the past, who were identified with the foundation of the PRC. Woods and Grant’s perspective was that the mass of workers would still turn towards the pcI despite its continual move rightwards. This actually led to the PCI renaming itself the Democratic Party of the Left (Partito Democratico della Sinistra – PDS). It then subsumed itself into the current bourgeois Democratic Party of Matteo Renzi!8

Once they had seen that their fetish about the traditional organisations was falsified by the march of events – at least in Italy – they switched tack and, without any explanation to their members, entered the PRC. All the dictums of the past, that when mistakes are made – inevitable even in the best organisations – they should be corrected openly, were conveniently ignored by Grant and Woods. But it is not just a question of adopting the correct tactics – seeking to widen the influence of Marxism by joining with bigger organisations and forces in a principled manner – but how the tactic is carried out in practice, avoiding the pitfalls of sectarianism and opportunism. The organisation led by Grant and Woods adopted a ritualistic repetition of abstract propaganda without any real attempt to forge a broader alliance of the left on a principled basis.

The Mandelites of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI) within the PRC adapted opportunistically to the leadership of Bertinotti. Others such as Projetto Comunista initially listened to our advice, formed themselves around a newspaper and had a certain effect, even though they were ultra-left in their approach, including at the level of the national leadership of the PRC. The ex-minority of the CWI was reduced to a passive role and did not have a decisive influence. The forces around them during the dissolution of the PRC were no greater than they were when they first participated in its ranks. Compare this to the tremendous success of Militant, a small minority of no more than 40 members from the outset in 1964, which emerged from the experience of the Labour Party work with a huge reputation for mass struggle in Liverpool and the poll tax, three MPs and over 8,000 supporters.

In Britain we drew on the best experiences of new workers’ organisations like the PRC. This ran counter to the arguments that Arthur Scargill put forward in relation to the foundation of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP). It will be impossible to capture the imagination and support of the new layers of the working class without drawing on the best democratic features of workers’ organisations in Britain and internationally. It is true that there are differences historically in the way that parties have been constructed. Originally, the Labour Party was a federation of tendencies, including important Marxist forces. That federation tended to be undermined by the right through witch-hunts against left figures like Aneurin Bevan, Michael Foot and the Communist Party. But it had now been destroyed by the right-wing coup orchestrated by Blair and Brown. We issued the call for all those who accepted an explicitly socialist agenda to be invited to the discussions to set up a new party: “Appeals should be made to trade unionists to join the party.”

We were quite realistic about what could be expected in this field in the first instance: “This would not lead to big affiliations from the trade unions initially, but that would come” in the future. Important layers of trade unionists would join such a party very quickly if it was sufficiently open and democratic. This was the experience of other countries. It is true that many of the older layers disillusioned with the shift towards the right would drop out of activity. We energetically pursued the argument that a refusal to take an initiative quickly would mean that the left would leave the field free to Blair’s right-wing Labour Party.9

Very soon Scargill’s call “generated enthusiasm amongst activists and working-class people in general. This is even before there has been much publicity and debate on the issue,” reported Steve Score from the East Midlands. Alec Thraves, a long time stalwart of Militant, also reported that “at a stall in Swansea… two Labour councillors came up to us asking us how to join the new party”. Similarly, Tommy Sheridan was approached in Glasgow City Hall by councillors who asked him if he had details of how to join the SLP. After this, Tommy was invited to Barnsley to meet Scargill to discuss the idea of a new party. Dave Nellist stated: “Arthur Scargill could play an enormous role in reactivating thousands of ex-Labour Party members and drawing in new people. I hope a Socialist Labour Party gets formed and I, along with other Militant Labour members, will do all we can to assist.”10 Dave participated in discussions on our behalf with Scargill and his supporters, as I did, on proposals for a new party.

The obstacles to forming a new party were considerable. Many arguments were used against: ‘historical inertia’, ‘the time is not right’, ‘all attempts in the past failed’, ‘the Labour Party still has deep roots in the working class’. Scargill replied: “The significance of last month’s constitutional changes including the ditching of Clause iv has not been fully appreciated by many left comrades who should know better. They believe it is still possible to reverse the ‘setbacks’ suffered as a result of Blair’s destruction of Clause iv and abandonment of fundamental socialist policies.”11 Not just policy but organisation within the Labour Party was used to exclude the left, as the case of Liz Davies indicated. Scargill’s call for a special conference with the aim of formulating a constitution and structure for a Socialist Labour Party – and to which all those committed to founding such a party should be invited – was the answer to those on the left who intended to remain in the Labour Party. We declared: “There are many who are prepared to fight for socialism; millions according to Red Pepper. They were to the left of New Labour even before Blair’s counter-revolution.”12

Militant Labour’s creative independent work outside the Labour Party had contributed to this. The Political Studies Association in April 1995 referred to our work in Scotland. It said that our Pollock general election campaign “achieved the finest result of any independent candidate other than an independent MP since 1945”.13 And it was not just in Scotland. In Coventry in May 1995, Dave Nellist took 40% of the vote for Militant Labour and strong votes were also recorded in Liverpool and London. Nearly 60,000 votes for Roger Bannister, a Militant Labour member, in the 1995 Unison general secretary election was also a significant indication of support for us and the left.

However, Scargill’s intolerant and sectarian manner was manifested from the beginning. He stated that if an SLP was formed there would be a demand to end “internal wranglings and sectarian arguments”.14 We replied: “Destructive sectarianism has no part in the labour movement. But a new Socialist Labour Party, if it is to attract the new layer, will be one big argument and debate and this will be a good thing. Discussion is necessary if joint action – campaigns, elections, civil disobedience, etc. – against the capitalist enemy is seriously undertaken.”15

Arthur Scargill could not ignore, we argued, that Militant Labour had ploughed the ground for the launch of a new party. Even the Glasgow Herald stated: “The Scargill document… comes very close to being a blueprint for an existing model. Scottish Militant Labour already has made the struggles its chosen battleground… [and] has had some limited electoral success and has forged its own identity.”16 The same could increasingly be said of Militant Labour in the rest of Britain. This was based on an understanding of political conditions and also timing. For instance, Scottish Militant Labour was launched before the 1992 general election, which brought great advantages to the organisation afterwards. There was a lesson here. Big gains could not be expected in a general election. Workers would be eager to get rid of the Tories and the majority would vote Labour – holding their noses – to keep them out. But a socialist challenge would be an important marker for the future.

Unfortunately, Scargill and his allies did not possess the necessary imagination or openness to seize this moment to establish a relatively small but democratic socialist party. This was despite the fact that more and more sections of the movement were rallying to the call. Even a Labour MEP, Michael Hindley, wrote in the Morning Star, the daily newspaper of the Communist Party of Britain (CPB), which has consistently opposed the formation of a new party: “That door to democratising the Labour Party has been firmly shut and cannot be reopened. The party has been gutted of its democratic accountability.”17 In contrast, others like Dennis Skinner MP, at a meeting of Deptford Labour Party, used “half an hour of fiery rhetoric… [to rail] against Arthur Scargill’s proposal for a new Socialist Labour Party”. Militant correspondents at the meeting countered the arguments of Skinner, who revealed the poverty of ambition now felt by many considered to be leaders of the party’s shrivelled left wing. He said: “Even if we get six pits reopened, and they’ve closed 170, I’d call that a victory.”18

In December 1995 Scargill announced that there would be a meeting of specially invited people to consider the rulebook of the new party. This was preceded by an exclusive meeting on 4 November. Just 40 people were selected to discuss and take decisions about the party’s structures. Individuals representing important groups and trade unions were present, plus members of the Haldane Society, the Southall Monitoring Project and the Scottish Socialist Movement. Militant Labour was excluded as Scargill was not prepared to accept our affiliation. He said that he would consider alliances with organisations like Militant Labour on concrete issues and discuss arrangements with ‘individuals’ like Dave Nellist. But on affiliation, the SLP declared: “Why do we need them? There should be no need to belong to another organisation. If I can leave the party I’ve been a member of for 30 years [Labour] to join this one, why can’t everyone else do the same?”19

This was an argument that had been rehearsed in private discussions with Militant Labour’s leaders previously. For instance, Bob Crow – then the Deputy General Secretary of the Rail Maritime and Transport union (RMT) – met me, as General Secretary of Militant Labour, and Bill Mullins our trade union organiser in London to discuss Militant Labour’s approach. He said that Arthur had given up his party, Bob himself had left the CPB, so why couldn’t we give up Militant Labour? We gently pointed out that Scargill, like many others, was driven out of the Labour Party in effect. As for the CPB, it was small and ineffective.

These arguments were a sideshow. The real reason why Scargill wished to exclude Militant Labour from the new party was a fear that we would ‘take it over’ because of our size. This betrayed a singular lack of ambition that the forthcoming SLP would be so small it could be taken over by one organisation, in violation of the general principles of federation upon which we hoped the new party could be formed. At the same time, in the Scottish Socialist Alliance, we were prepared to agree that no single organisation could have representation on leading bodies of more than one third or 40% at most. This would ensure that there could be no ‘takeover’, either in terms of policy or organisation, by one group. Moreover, there would be the goodwill of all parties to ensure that the project succeeded. Alternatively, it would surely be shipwrecked almost before it began if an intolerant approach was adopted as, unfortunately, the subsequent actions of Scargill proved.

Nevertheless, Scargill pushed ahead with a twelve-page draft constitution and rulebook for the SLP. All three representatives of the Scottish Socialist Forum, including Tommy Sheridan of SML, indicated dissatisfaction with the constitution: “‘I’m very enthusiastic about the project but bitterly disappointed with the lack of autonomy for Scotland.’ They made clear the developments in Scotland, in advance of those England, had been based on flexible, inclusive structures consciously incorporating existing groups.”20 It was clear that there was no room for this in Scargill’s new party.

Proposed restrictions on membership flew in the face of the experiences of the formation of trade union broad lefts. In these bodies members of Militant Labour, the CPB and others worked openly and, most times, constructively together. We pointed out that the restrictions would jeopardise the very future of the SLP. It laid the basis potentially for some expulsions. Even the Labour Party in the 1980s established a register of groups organising within it (although Militant was excluded!). The SLP’s proposed rule book sent out disastrous signals of intolerance and top-down control which would be anathema to thousands of potential new members. Some of the best representatives of the broad lefts would not be invited, excluding people like John Macreadie, former left-wing General Secretary-elect of the CPSA civil service union and a member of the TUC General Council.

Scargill’s increasingly intolerant approach was at odds with the enthusiastic mood for a new party displayed at meetings throughout the country. In Liverpool 150 people turned up to the first meeting organised by Militant Labour to explore the possibility of setting up a socialist Labour Party. Representatives of the dockers, who were engaged in their own titanic struggle at the time, spoke at the meeting, as did ex-Labour MP Terry Fields. They all expressed great support for the idea. One docker, Terry Teague explained how their dispute had brought about the realisation that a party was  needed that represented workers in struggle and stood in opposition to the capitalist system, as typified by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company. This was especially the case after experiencing the national leadership of the TGWU refusing even to acknowledge their dispute by not sending a national speaker to their last demo. There was tremendous enthusiasm for a new socialist formation. Representatives came from all over Merseyside, particularly Knowsley, Bootle and the Wirral. Even Labour Party members in the pub afterwards said they would come to the next meeting.