5. New party, new forms of organisation



This mood was soon deflated by the signals that came from the small exclusive meeting Arthur Scargill had convened. We warned: “Unless there is a broadening and opening up of this preparatory phase, there is the serious danger of a crash landing halfway along the runway.”1 Most of those present, however, simply endorsed the proposals put before them. This was entirely premature because no real debate had taken place amongst a wider layer who had supported the formation of the SLP. In fact, Scargill’s constitution was even more undemocratic than that which prevailed in the Labour Party in the period between the abolition of the bans and proscriptions against the CPB and other left organisations, and the witchhunt against Militant. It banned any member from supporting other ‘political organisations’ other than the SLP. This meant a far less democratic structure than the PRC in Italy, the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores – PT) in Brazil or the United Left (IU) in Spain. Ironically, one of those present who reportedly supported the constitution was John Hendy QC, who represented several Militant supporters during the witch-hunt.

Scargill took refuge in constitutional measures while ignoring the fact that caucuses, trends and organisations are the reality of political life within the labour movement. He himself was undoubtedly involved in such caucuses, both in the NUM and the Labour Party. Indeed, he had met and caucused on resolutions with Militant supporters, including myself, at Labour Party conferences. Leaks confirmed that Arthur Scargill told Tony Benn about his fears of a takeover by organisations such as Militant. It was an unspoken assumption of many of those who were present that the constitution was precisely designed to keep out one larger organisation: Militant Labour. Some of the speakers supporting Scargill’s constitution lavished praise on the campaigns of Tommy Sheridan and Dave Nellist and they were no doubt keen for them to be included on any SLP platform.

At the same time they wanted to ignore Militant Labour’s political successes – achieved in many cases through broad campaigns in which we and the SMP had worked harmoniously with other organisations and trends. Examples of this included the Campaign Against the Criminal Justice Act, the Campaign Against Domestic Violence, and the Campaign for a Fighting Democratic Unison. We predicted that there would be enormous disappointment at Scargill’s approach from the wider layer of activists who were eager to support the formation of the SLP but were implacably opposed to repeating the experiences of the right-wing dominated Labour Party, and felt the need to debate all the issues which were then facing the workers’ movement.

Militant Labour and others did not want to repeat the experiences of the Labour Party in a bureaucratic ‘Labour Party Mark 2’, even if it had the socialist aims of Clause iv. This did not meet the needs of the new situation. The collapse of Stalinism and the ideological crisis of the left that followed called for a far-reaching reappraisal of socialist strategy and forms of organisation. Both in organisation and ideas Scargill proved to be extremely rigid. Thus a golden opportunity to form a small but politically substantial party was lost. This was not immediately obvious, but Scargill’s erratic and intolerant behaviour both at the time of the SLP’s launch and subsequently alienated many of those who joined the party at its outset and those who were put off from the beginning.

Some of those did not give up on the attempt to regroup the left. Some participated in the ill-fated Socialist Alliance, which we will deal with a little later, and some in the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). It is notable that TUSC has been organised on a federal principle, a coalition of left parties and trade unions, the very principle that was rejected by Scargill. Nonetheless, we did not abandon immediately our hope that the SLP – particularly its rank and file – could be persuaded to abandon this narrow approach. With others we made a joint attempt to establish a powerful left point of reference for the millions who were disenfranchised by Labour’s move towards the right. We took a positive attitude to the SLP in elections. For instance, in the Hemsworth by-election of early 1996, the SLP received a creditable 1,193 votes, 5.4%. We said at the time that this “vindicated the decision to break with Labour and make a stand for socialism”.2

We pointed to the fact that in 1991 Lesley Mahmood, standing as the Real Labour candidate in the Walton by-election following the death of Eric Heffer, faced the vilest abuse from our opponents, but won 2,613 votes (6%) coming third and beating the Tories. Moreover, in the 1992 general election Terry Fields, as a Socialist Labour candidate, won 5,952 votes (14.2%), while Dave Nellist, for Independent Labour, got 10,551 (28.9%), and only narrowly missed winning. In addition, Tommy Sheridan, standing in the Pollok constituency under the banner of SMP, won 6,287 votes (19.3%) from his prison cell – he had been jailed for leading the anti-poll tax campaign – coming second to Labour. This success was repeated in the European elections when Tommy polled 12,113 votes (7.6%). In the previous May’s local elections, SMP polled an average of 22.5% in the 19 Glasgow Council seats it contested.

This showed that, despite the intense hatred of the Tory government and the need to get rid of it – which for most of the mass of voters reflected itself in voting for Labour – there was an important constituency for a fighting left-wing party. This was at the time when MPs, including Labour MPs, were pleading poverty and were ready to raid the public purse for a wage increase. Dave Nellist, who had taken the average wage of a worker when he was an MP, along with Terry Fields and Pat Wall, commented: “I think that MPs need a halving of their wages not a doubling, to bring them into the real world of what the majority of ordinary working class families have to live on.”3

Meanwhile, a number of conferences were organised by Scargill to confirm the SLP. At these meetings Scargill consistently ruled out any concessions to the arguments of those like Militant Labour who, although excluded from the SLP by fiat, fought for the maximisation of the socialist challenge at the general election through left unity. At the SLP’s founding conference on 4 May 1996, Scargill claimed that the party already had 1,252 members with another 3,121 wanting to affiliate through trade union branches and regions. This was considerably smaller than the membership of Militant Labour at the time. Nevertheless, Scargill claimed that the SLP stood for “‘revolutionary change’ and put forward ‘revolutionary arguments’ against the capitalist system”.

The policies put forward by the SLP do not bear out this description. Speakers addressed the conference from the Cuban CP, the PRC and the IU. The political attacks on the Cuban exiles received rapturous applause. However, during a debate somebody criticised the “lack of democracy in Russia, China and Cuba”, only to be denounced by an older delegate, to voluminous cheering: “How dare you criticise Cuba.” Scargill was to criticise Cuba later after a none too satisfactory holiday on the island! Militant pointed out that the international delegates at the conference had a different form of organisation in their own countries to the bureaucratic structures proposed by Scargill. For instance, the IU described itself as a ‘coalition of forces’. Not aware of the details of the SLP party structure, the PRC speaker stated: “Like you, the PRC brings together different groups and individuals.” The constitution could not be amended at this meeting – resolutions could be suggested for the following year’s conference. However, to change the constitution would require a two thirds majority! Scargill’s bureaucratic behaviour was already alienating many. At the SLP launch press conference the political commentator, the late Vincent Hanna pointed out that some Labour MPs were already saying that they would not join Scargill’s party.

During the debate on Northern Ireland Pat Sikorski – previously a member of the Trotskyist United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI) – said that they could not comment on or criticise the strategy and tactics of those “fighting the liberation struggle”. This implied tacit support for the methods of the IRA. Terry Burns from Cardiff countered that the SLP was a workers’ party and correctly argued that its job was to advance the interests of the working class, both Catholic and Protestant.4

Militant Labour still adopted a friendly approach. Our Executive Committee wrote once more to the SLP to ask for a discussion around the general election, proposing a joint campaign if possible, or at least an agreement not to stand against one another. This followed reports that the SLP had decided not to have any electoral agreements, especially with Militant Labour! We pointed out that we had had discussions and worked with many groups in the recent past, in many parts of the country, through socialist alliances and forums aiming at unity, and that we should have a united approach in the general election too. Moreover, prominent SLP members told Militant supporters that they were prepared to work with us but only unofficially at this stage because their NEC’s attitude (read Arthur Scargill) said they couldn’t.

The SLP’s sectarian approach was taken to absurd lengths. At a meeting of around 120 people on 19 April 1996 in Swansea the SLP outlined their vision of socialism. Alec Thraves, long-standing fulltime worker for Militant in Wales, reported that the SLP “displayed such a vehement opposition to alliances and electoral pacts with other socialist organisations that it took many in the audience aback”. Bob Crow, an early adherent to the SLP, and Arthur Scargill, who were the main speakers, insisted that they would contest every seat in the general election if finances permitted. Alec reported: “When asked whether they would stand if it meant splitting the socialist vote, for example in Wales where Wales Militant Labour has received over 20% of the vote in local elections, Scargill’s reply was categorical. The SLP would not participate in any socialist forums or alliances, he said, and would not enter into any electoral pacts.”5

Scargill’s stance was not reflected amongst all his members. In a Wales Socialist Forum meeting in Cardiff the following day the SLP were on the platform alongside other socialist organisations stressing a common strategy that could confront New Labour in Wales. Scargill repeated his position when he addressed 200 people at the Nottingham SLP launch saying, even more bluntly, that he opposed any alliances or electoral pacts with other organisations. Tactical voting in elections for other parties was out of the question as well. The analogy he used to justify his opposition to joint work was that you could not play for both Manchester and Newcastle United on the same pitch. Our riposte was: “What Militant Labour proposes is the expansion of the team – ‘Socialist United’ – for the polling day match!”6

This did not, however, stop us from consistently approaching the SLP for common work. For instance, we wrote to the SLP after the Braunstone by-election for Leicester Council, pointing out what good support existed for both Militant Labour and the SLP. Militant Labour got 150 votes (12.5%). Despite numerous attempts to get agreement with the SLP prior to the election, they stood against us but fell well short of our vote. Nevertheless, the two parties notched up nearly 21%. We pointed out: “Jointly, we will boost the results for socialist ideas and policies. We have the opportunity – are you bold enough to take it? We appeal to the [SLP] NEC to agree to meet with us to discuss a joint approach.”7 Thirteen people applied to join our party in the campaign.

The same pattern was demonstrated in the December 1996 parliamentary by-election in Arthur Scargill’s own backyard of Barnsley East. On this occasion he was not able to prevent a certain amount of joint work. We did not put up a candidate but supported Ken Capstick former nUM Vice-President. This time the SLP campaign was better organised than before, with four public meetings over three weeks attracting audiences of up to 100. The biggest problem the SLP faced was getting across that they were standing and convincing people supporting them that it would not be a wasted vote, given the close proximity of the general election. On the doorstep many people said they wanted the Tories out and they did not dare do anything else but vote Labour. A lot said they would like a socialist alternative to ‘Phoney’ Blair. Militant Labour campaigned in one ward, taking responsibility for leafleting in full agreement with the local SLP. We campaigned as Militant Labour with stalls and petition, and were publicly thanked for our efforts. But for the old party political reasons Ken Capstick preferred to suggest we had agreed not to distribute material. This merely satisfied the SLP leadership’s preference not to be seen to enter into alliances, although we cooperated very well with its rank and file.

The episode of the SLP and its failure to take off was an important negative political experience for the labour movement, particularly for the left. Although we had been amongst the first organisations internationally – and the first in Britain – to raise the need to form a new mass party, that idea is yet to be realised in Britain, while the working class in other countries have taken this step. In no small measure this is due to the sectarian intransigence of Scargill and his close supporters. By failing to reach out to a broad layer of leftward moving workers, a very favourable opportunity to establish a platform for a new small left party was squandered. Undoubtedly, this acted as a barrier to subsequent efforts to regroup the left on an independent basis. Scargill himself had a huge reputation arising from his leadership of the NUM.

In other countries – for instance, in Germany with the development of Die Linke (The Left party) – a similarly radical figure in Oskar Lafontaine provided the impetus for the formation of the party. Unfortunately, it has not yet developed as a mass alternative to the right-wing Social Democrats. This is due to serious political mistakes by the leadership, including support for the idea of unprincipled coalitions with bourgeois parties. Furthermore, the absence of Lafontaine from Die Linke – due to illness and some political differences with the leadership – also played a role in stalling the party. Nevertheless, it remains an important vehicle for workers who will be compelled to move into action in the future because of the worsening economic situation in Germany. Many could fill out the ranks of Die Linke from below. It is still possible it could move to the left.

A similar development could have taken place in Britain, given a different, more open approach by Arthur Scargill and those who supported him. Instead, it inevitably led to stagnation and disaffection with his intolerant approach and the internal regime he presided over. What could have become a serious left challenge to the right-wing trade union bureaucracy and to a Blairised Labour Party failed. It helped to reinforce all those faint-hearts and sceptics who saw no alternative but to passively sit in an increasingly moribund ‘Labour’ Party, reduced to merely waiting for it to be transformed in a left direction. Twenty years later they still live in expectation.

The election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party – against all expectations, including his own – has not contradicted this prognosis. It was a spectacular manifestation of the law of unintended consequences. A right-wing Blairite amendment to the party constitution allowing anyone to vote for £3 – less than a pint of beer – facilitated that, primarily from the outside. As we write, the issue of Corbyn’s leadership remains unresolved with two parties existing within Labour but the conditions which led us to pose the need for a new party persist. In fact, they became much more urgent following the devastating economic crisis of 2007/08. Ed Miliband’s disastrous leadership of the Labour Party and his catastrophic general election defeat of 2015, if anything, led to a further shift to the right in the Parliamentary Labour Party. We were still firmly committed to encourage and take the initiative to regroup the left, as a necessary precondition for laying the foundations for a new mass left party.