THE SOCIALIST was launched ten years ago, in February 1997. Like its predecessor, Militant, launched in 1964, the socialist entered the scene just as a long period of Tory government was about to end with the election of a Labour government.
And, as Ken Smith, the first editor of the socialist explains, like its predecessor, the paper had to cover and respond to massive world-changing events in the immediate years after its launch.
NO-ONE involved at the start of the socialist’s life in February 1997 could have anticipated the exact nature of the huge events that the paper would have to comment on, analyse and give political guidance on over the following ten years. The summary below of the paper’s first ten years is only a limited outline of the issues covered.
Readers can use the online references (see right) to investigate further its rich coverage and campaigning. The socialist has been online since 1999.
Militant was launched in October 1964, just before the election of the first Labour government for 13 years. At that time Militant supporters were deeply involved in the Labour Party and argued for Labour to carry out socialist policies. In 1970 they won a majority in Labour’s youth wing, the Labour Party Young Socialists.
Also showing a parallel with today, a US government was at that time involved in occupying Vietnam and fighting an intense war there. However, the opposition within the Labour Party and labour movement made it impossible for the then Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson to directly support or become involved in the US regime’s actions.
A Labour government’s return after years out of power, a global movement of young people and another war and occupation also dominated the socialist’s first decade. But, inevitably – as history never repeats itself exactly – in a markedly different way to how issues unfolded during the time of Militant.
Blair’s Tory agenda
THE FIRST issue of the socialist in February 1997 covered themes that had dominated the last dying days of John Major’s Tory government – corruption and sleaze and crisis in the NHS. These issues were highlighted in the lead item on the first front page.
The crisis in the NHS – stemming from inadequate funding and the attempts to run a public service as a private company – has like the crisis in other public services such as education, intensified in severity whilst Labour has been in power.
For many workers the election of the Blair government on 1 May 1997 – like the day itself – was seen as the start of a potentially bright new sunny period where the damage of 18 years of Tory government would begin to be reversed.
The socialist cautioned that any such hopes would be illusory; a Blair government would not be – even superficially – anything like previous Labour governments. It would be a government of the rich, for the rich.
The editorial of issue 14 commented: “With the dust still settling there may be a feeling that Labour can bring change [but] Labour will continue the Tory agenda of privatisation… The remnants of the welfare state will continue to be eroded under Labour.”
Events over the last ten years fully bear out this analysis of the Labour Party. New Labour, moreover, has proved every bit as sleazy as its Tory predecessor. In fact, it could turn out to be seen as even sleazier if any of Tony Blair and his cronies are eventually charged over the ‘cash for honours’ scandal.
Linked to its characterisation of New Labour as having become a party of big business, a major theme throughout ten years of the socialist has been the campaigning call for the setting up of a new mass workers’ party as an alternative.
Labour’s corruption is not just about the honours system. It is also about cash for contracts. A recurrent theme in the socialist has been to highlight the wholesale assault Labour has conducted against public services through privatisation.
The paper was also one of the first to break (in issue 54) the ‘Dustbingate’ story about the irregular dealings of John Prescott’s family in the purchase and sale of properties in Hull.
From its inception the socialist set itself the aim of continuing the best traditions of Militant whilst facing up to the new challenges facing the socialist movement. In 1997, the capitalist classes internationally were confident and triumphalist, predicting a secure, unchallenged future for capitalism. “The end of history” was how historian Francis Fukuyama described it in the early 1990s.
However, the socialist confidently outlined that, far from humanity’s history being finished, questioning of the capitalist system would continue and a search for a socialist alternative would develop amongst a new generation. The growing anti-capitalist movement at the end of the 1990s was the earliest confirmation of that analysis. And international developments and struggles, as well as the Blair government’s domestic crises were major themes in the paper’s pages over the next ten years.
ANGER AGAINST the capitalist system and ruling elites world-wide dominated the pages of the socialist from the early stages of the anti-capitalist movement in 1998-99 to the growing revolt against neo-liberalism which has led to the recent election of a number of radical governments in Latin America.
Activists and reporters for the socialist reported from the frontline of the anti-capitalist protests from Seattle to Genoa as they grew in size and intensity with socialists, young people, trade unionists and others turning up to make their voices heard:
“Chris was on the [Genoa] demonstration… ‘It was very lively with plenty of chanting and local people supported us. Every time a police helicopter hovered overhead protesters stuck one finger in the air and shouted ‘asassino’ after the police murder the previous day of a 23-year-old protester.’
“Manny, another protester commented: ‘It was a magnificent show of strength. It showed the potential power of the working class and the overwhelming hatred of the effects of capitalist policies on economic, social and environmental issues’…
“Mass demonstrations are only the beginning. What we need now is real organisation – mass action of the working class worldwide to bring an end to this hated capitalist system.”
Whilst the consciousness of this new movement was mixed, a significant section of those involved were clearly moving from solely being anti-capitalist to moving towards socialist ideas.
THE CAPITALIST class may have felt that the lasting effects of September 11 2001 would cut across such a growing global protest movement against the world’s ruling elites. Indeed, even the socialist cautioned immediately after 9/11: “The killing of thousands of innocent civilians in New York, Washington and elsewhere in the US has caused horror and revulsion among ordinary working people worldwide.
“The suicide tactics of the attackers are condemned and opposed by socialists. Such tactics can never advance the struggles of oppressed nationalities or working-class people anywhere across the globe. In fact the immediate results of such action could be to weaken working-class solidarity as governments in the west whip up the mood for revenge on those who are blamed for carrying out the attacks…
“Capitalism, at its most naked is a system of conflict, civil wars, wars, poverty, starvation and insecurity for the mass of people on this planet… It is the oppressed people of the world who can provide a solution to this era of global crisis by uniting to end the rule of the capitalist system and establish a socialist world where the horrors and insecurity of imperialism’s so-called New World Order are abolished once and for all.”
The global insecurity brought about by US imperialism’s response to 9/11 provoked probably the biggest mass movement ever seen on the planet. The demonstrations on 15 February 2003 against an invasion of Iraq – less than two years after 9/11 – were breathtaking in their size and in the wider support they reflected.
The pages of the socialist, whilst drawing out all the positives of this movement, also explained that the demonstrations needed to be supplemented by other forms of workers’ action if the impending invasion of Iraq was to be definitely stopped.
The paper’s editorial for issue 288 (21 February 2003) – the issue after the mass worldwide demonstrations – made the following points: “Within the next few weeks the decision to start a war will be implemented by Bush and the US regime at least, with Blair very likely risking everything to tag along behind. For the anti-war movement, the demo on Saturday has to be the launch pad for very concrete, definite action that can halt Britain’s involvement in a war.
“Leaders of the Stop The War Coalition have raised the idea of mass civil disobedience on Day X, the day a war starts. Socialist Party members would welcome widespread, organised mass civil disobedience and will be organising school student walkouts and strikes, along with workplace protests, as part of that movement.”
It continued: “But, for this to be effective, it has to be built and sustained at local level … The forerunners of the Socialist Party, Militant, led (along with others) the anti-poll tax movement that defeated the hated tax and brought down Thatcher. That movement too held a defining, momentous demo. But the key to defeating the tax was the building of a movement of 18 million non-payers which made the poll tax unworkable.
“The anti-war coalition now has to take a similar path… But stopping a war will be an even tougher task than ending the poll tax… The Left trade union leaders are in a position now to use their authority and build on Saturday’s demo to call for organising a general strike against Blair’s war plans on Day X.
“General strike action could potentially mobilise millions of workers, bringing together opposition to war with the accumulated grievances against the Blair government, which were much in evidence on Saturday’s demo.”
Another article in the same issue commented: “Blair is banking on a ‘Kosovo’ – a short, easy war that will win over public opinion. Instead he could face a ‘Suez’, where mass opposition forces him out of office.”
Disaffection with Blair
COMMENTARY ARTICLES in the socialist have recognised however that disaffection with Blair has not solely been due to his role as Bush’s poodle, but also to the domestic crisis that his government’s subservience to the capitalist system has deepened.
Blair has not just been content to follow Bush’s ‘slash and burn’ foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere. His government’s blind conviction in the supposed virtues of free-market capitalism and its neo-liberal agenda has seen a similar ‘slash-and-burn’ approach to the destruction of public services and working people’s wages and conditions in Britain.
However, the strategy of most of the national trade union leaders – despite the election of the ‘awkward squad’ union leaders reflecting a growing anger amongst workers against the bosses – still was to hold back a united struggle of workers against the bosses and the Blair government.
From its first issue the socialist has always strived to carry the voice of the shopfloor worker – showing their anger at conditions on the job but also entering into their discussions on how to take any struggle forward.
This dual role of the socialist came into its own in the struggle to defend pension conditions for public-sector workers. This was greatly facilitated by the leading role Socialist Party members play at all levels in the civil service union, the PCS, and the prominent role played by other Socialist Party members with leading positions in other public-sector unions.
The socialist saw – in contrast to other left-wing journals – that the united struggle of the public-sector unions had forced the Blair government into its first major U-turn (issues 385 and 413). And in other areas of the public sector, the socialist has not just commented on the government’s attacks, but has pointed out and encouraged a way forward.
The NHS has been one area where the paper has consistently campaigned and been clear in its prescription for saving it. A google search of the socialist website shows that in the last 330 issues there have been nearly 1,300 articles on the health service – a sign of the importance that the socialist and the Socialist Party attaches to defending it.
However, rather than carrying out the hand-wringing of some other papers on the NHS, we put forward a concrete programme for its democratic control and accountability by and to working people, using our paper to campaign on this programme.
One culmination of all this effort was the successful election of Dr Jackie Grunsell, a Socialist Party member and regular contributor to the socialist, as a councillor for the Save our NHS campaign in Huddersfield in 2006. (issue 439).
A socialist world
MANY OTHER issues have been covered in ten years of the socialist. Anti-racism and the fight against the BNP have featured prominently. One issue that stands out is the coverage of the Bradford riots (issue 214). Under the headline: Police tactics spark Bradford riots the paper carried exclusive eye-witness reports and called upon the trade unions to name the day for a national demonstration against racism.
It commented: “There has been a series of explosions revealing the simmering anger against Blair’s Britain. The press portrayed the recent events in Bradford as race riots – the reality is that these uprisings have primarily been against the racist far-right Nazi menace and racist policing. They have also been an outbreak of frustrated anger against the reality of life for whole sections of society in Britain today – both black and white.”
The socialist has been to the fore on the Left in covering issues affecting women, people from a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender background and has especially concentrated on the struggles amongst young people to defeat university fees and end the low pay misery affecting millions of young people.
The paper has also carried theoretical and historical articles to ensure that the socialist movement’s history is not lost and that the appropriate lessons for today from those events are drawn out. There has been a cultural and lighter side to the paper too, with regular reviews and (at one time) a TV column and humorous columns.
Underpinning all this, however, has been the conscious understanding of Socialist Party members at all levels and the editorial team, who together shape the coverage and look of the paper, that no matter how difficult life is under capitalism, there is a way out through a socialist alternative.
The socialist reflects the lives of working people but it also shows that through struggle, a better world can be built. A socialist world will liberate people from the present poverty and insecurity by ensuring an equal distribution of society’s wealth and a planning of society’s resources which will finally remove disease and suffering and raise the living standards of the overwhelming majority of humankind many times over.