Britain - Scargill's proposed Socialist Labour Party - A Labour Party Mark II?

Jan/Feb 1996

If the plans announced last November by the miners' leader Arthur Scargill come to fruition, a new "Socialist Labour Party", as he intends to call it, should be launched on May Day this year.

If this attempt proved successful and a sizeable working class party was formed on the left of the Labour Party, for the first time since the disintegration of the Communist Party, this would be unquestionably a significant development for the working class, and therefore for the revolutionary left. It would be even more significant if this party was really able, as Scargill puts it, "to galvanise mass opposition to injustice, inequality and environmental destruction" on the basis of the idea that "only through direct - including industrial - action and defiance of unjust laws can we achieve real advance", an idea which even the Communist Party no longer really embodied by the time it collapsed.

Of course, it is impossible for us to gauge whether Scargill's initiative will be successful, nor even whether the current of sympathy that he seems to have met among certain layers of the union and Labour Party milieus has the potential to generate the militant will and produce the minimum number of activists without which such a party cannot exist, let alone develop. Only the future will tell.

But in the meantime, since Scargill's announcement has opened a debate on the need for a party representing the interests of the working class, and what this party should be, what is the answer proposed by Scargill? How does his answer fit with the requirements of the present situation and how does it relate to the revolutionaries' task to build a revolutionary workers' party capable of leading the working class in the fight for a communist world?

Has the Labour Party's nature changed?

In a discussion paper published in November 1995, "Future strategy for the Left", Scargill explains that his initiative for a new Socialist Labour Party is based on what he sees as a fundamental change in the Labour Party:

"Is the Labour Party socialist? In addressing this question it is essential to examine the Party's policies together with the constitutional changes which have been systematically introduced over the past four years, including one-member-one-vote, reduction of the trade union bloc vote, and now the abandonment of Clause IV and introduction of new rules and a constitution which embrace capitalism and adopt the "market philosophy".
"Labour is now almost indistiguishable from the Democratic Party in the United States, Germany's Social Democrat Party or, nearer home, the Liberal Democrats."

On the basis of this assessment, Scargill then asks:

"Do we, and others who feel like we do, stay in a Party which has been and is being "politically cleansed"?
"Or: do we leave and start to build a Socialist Labour Party that represents the principles, values, hopes and dreams which have given birth nearly a century ago to what has, sadly, now become New Labour?"

There is therefore no ambiguity in Scargill's approach. It is firmly and entirely based on the Labour Party's tradition. If he proposes to break away from the Labour Party, it is not on the basis of a critical reappraisal of its past record as a political current, but solely on the basis of the assessment that Blair's New Labour has broken with the party's own tradition to the point of changing its very nature.

But, if so, how did this process come about? Scargill only mentions the changes which have taken place "over the past four years". Does this mean that in the 80s, for instance, Labour's unsupportiveness for, if not hostility to the miners' strike or their back stabbing of the "rebel" local councils fighting against government-imposed cuts, were not part of the same process and the expression of the same policy which is represented by Blair today? Scargill argues, rightly, that "today, radical opposition in Britain is symbolised not by the Labour and trade union movement but by the groupings such as those which defeated the poll tax". But then, why not add that these "groupings" are only outside the Labour Party because many of their activists were expelled by Kinnock for fighting against the poll tax, as part of a policy which was indeed indistinguishable from Blair's today.

As a member of the Labour Party for over thirty years, Scargill has probably even more examples in mind than we do, of instances in which the Labour leadership sided with the attacks of the bourgeoisie against the aspirations of many, if not most Labour rank-and-filers. Scargill himself dates back some of Labour's renouncements of its own tradition to "Ramsay MacDonald and other Party leaders who not only supported the first-past-the-post system but capitalism itself". But then, this was in the 20s, a long time before "the past four years"! So why did these renouncements - which were pretty significant if, as Scargill argues, MacDonald was among the first Labour leaders to support capitalism - change the nature of the Labour Party, in Scargill's view, any less than the changes introduced "over the past four years"?

The point is, obviously, not to argue that the Labour Party has not changed over the past four years. But is it the nature of the Labour Party that has changed, as Scargill argues? Or is it, on the contrary, that the recent changes express the efforts of the same old Labour Party to adapt to new conditions in society on the basis of the same fundamental orientation?

Scargill mentions "the aim of creating a Parliamentary Party to give expression to a Socialist agenda in the House of Commons" as the basis on which the Labour Party was originally founded. This, like many assertions in his document, is playing on the ambiguity of the phrase "socialist agenda" in Labour Party language - referring either, and interchangeably to the long- term aim of a society rid of capitalism or to the short-term aim of obtaining improvements within the capitalist system. In any case, the founders of the Labour Party certainly never used such a language. Rather they spoke about "representing the interests of labour" , which is not exactly the same thing, and actually resulted in Labour MPs acting as the left flank of the Liberal majority for a number of years!

But from the aim formulated by Labour's founders - however limited it was - to the primary objective of their followers after the Liberals' disintegration in the aftermath of World War I - that of winning from the bourgeoisie and its institutions the privilege of forming a government whose task would be to manage the affairs of the capitalist class - there was an abyss compared to which the differences between Blair and his predecessors seem mere nuances. If one were to look for a change in the Labour Party's nature over its long existence, it would certainly have to be located at that juncture, in the years following World War I, rather than at any point since.

Indeed, it was from this bid to govern society within the framework of the state institutions of the bourgeoisie that has flowed, ever since, Labour's permanent concern to be "acceptable" to the capitalist class. There were circumstances in the past when this concern went much further than Blair's present modernising sermons. During World War II, it meant that the Labour and trade union machineries played openly the role of personnel manager and chief policeman of the bourgeoisie against the working class. If there was a time when Labour's policies were indistinguishable from those of the Liberals, and indeed the Tories, this was such a time! In less dramatic circumstances, it was reflected by less dramatic, but often no less significant moves such as Labour's anti-communist drive during the Cold War, the attempt to ditch Clause IV by Gaitskell, or the anti-union blueprint contained in the white paper "In place of Strife" issued by Wilson's government in 1969, not to mention the Labour-driven austerity policies of the 70s.

The big difference today, compared to these previous periods, is not in the nature of the Labour Party but in the weakness of the working class. After nearly two decades of being at the receiving end of the capitalists' attacks without having the confidence to return any blows, the working class is no longer seen as an immediate threat by the capitalists. And the ability of the Labour Party to control working class reactions by sowing illusions among workers, particularly among union activists, is no longer a good "selling point" for the Labour leadership to convince the bourgeoisie that they should opt for a Labour government. Hence the changes of the past four years, which had been prepared, in fact, by a whole process initiated by Kinnock almost a decade earlier.

What about the record of the Labour Left?...

While basing his break from Labour on the fact that "Labour is now almost indistinguishable from (..) the Liberal Democrats", Scargill takes the standpoint of the Labour left, to whom his document is really addressed:

"For years, the Left inside the Labour Party has generally accepted that whilst the Party might from time to time adopt right-wing policies, it has always been possible to fight to reverse these policies - because the Party's constitution has been committed to the eradication of capitalism, the establishment of socialism and common ownership".

To say that the Labour Party "might from time to time adopt right-wing policies" is certainly the understatement of the year. By a sleight of hand, Scargill obliterates the many years of Labour government in which the Labour leadership acted as loyal trustees of the capitalists' interests, very often against the policies adopted by its annual conferences. And what was the Labour Left doing then? According to Scargill, it was "possible to fight to reverse these policies", but he stops short of saying what was achieved by the Labour Left by using this "possibility" - that is, nothing to speak of. Nor does he mention the long periods in which the Labour Left gave up on that "fight" to avoid undermining the Labour government, or the many politicians who were wooed by the Labour Left and used it as a springboard for their subsequent careers.

Besides, of course, contrary to Scargill's assertion, the Labour Party's constitution, whether "Old" or "New", never mentioned any commitment to "the eradication of capitalism" or "the establishment of socialism". It used vague formulations which were designed to be open to all kinds of interpretations - like Scargill's own "socialist" interpretation of them. His entire document is likewise cluttered with many of the good old myths perpetuated over the years by the Labour Left - including by himself - to justify their continuing membership of the party despite the repeated humiliations inflicted on them and their total failure to influence what the Labour leadership actually did - in the name of the Party, including of its Left. Not only has the Labour Party, even in its early days, always failed to declare itself socialist, let alone to act as a socialist party, but to put the historical truth on its feet, it would be more accurate to recognise, at last, that there have always been socialist activists who were prepared to allow themselves to be trapped in the web of the Labour Party apparatus and to be used for the convenience of the Party leadership as a left cover for its policies.

Undoubtedly, the simple fact that the changes listed by Scargill have occurred, particularly the various restrictions put by Blair on internal democracy and the clampdown on Labour Left activists, spells the defeat of the Labour Left and the failure of a very old political current. Otherwise, why would Scargill himself see these changes as being so decisive that they require setting up a breakaway party? But in that case, why not recognise and analyse the causes of this failure, so that, if nothing else, this past experience can benefit the membership of Scargill's future party?

Far from admitting to the failure of the Labour Left's past policy, and drawing the lessons of this failure, Scargill is content to serve the reader with yet another "bad guys theory" - in fact the one that the Labour Left has always served to its supporters. According to this theory, the responsibility for all the ills of the Labour Party, yesterday's as well as today's, lies with the "right-wing", a species also referred to by Scargill as the "modernisers". But then, if it is the case, why is it that after decades of internal fight with the "right- wing", the Labour Left is now defeated and forced to give up? Has the Labour Left missed decisive opportunities? And, in that case, what was wrong with the policies of the Labour Left that should be taken stock of for the future? Or, on the contrary, was it the whole strategy of the Labour Left that was fundamentally flawed and doomed to failure, due precisely to the nature of the Labour Party? Scargill does not say.

...And the record of the union bureaucracy?

Predictably, one of Scargill's main reproaches to New Labour, is over the weakening of the "trade union link" - i.e. the introduction of "one member-one vote" (OMOV) and the curtailing of the unions' bloc vote. This is also the only area where he expresses any substantial criticism of the Labour Left in the document mentioned:

"The Party's right-wing has always sought to destroy the trade union bloc vote, and, tragically, we have seen many members on the Left enthusiastically supporting this aim in the mistaken belief that Constituency Labour Parties would be able to control the Party conference and ensure that Labour became a vehicle for Socialist change."

The implication of this is that the union bloc vote was in itself a better instrument to turn the Labour Party into "a vehicle for Socialist change". Why is it then that after so many decades in which the union bloc vote dominated the Labour Party's conferences, Scargill reaches today the conclusion that Labour can no longer be such a vehicle? Why is it that the union bloc vote went the modernisers' way in every single of the decisive votes over the various changes in the Party constitution which Scargill denounces? Why is it that the union machineries have given their backing, even though with an ostentatious reluctance, to what is supposed to be a reduction of their own influence over Party conferences and over the selection of prospective Labour candidates in elections? Could it be that, after all, the union bureaucracy has other, less visible and "democratic" but no less efficient means of influencing Labour Party policies?

These questions cannot fail to spring to mind. Yet, instead of trying to address them, which after all would only be logical in a document designed to discuss a "future strategy for the Left", Scargill brushes them aside in one sentence by restating his faith in the union bloc vote in principle, and blaming the erstwhile "bad guys" - i.e. Labour's right-wing.

On this latter point, there is not a hint in the whole document at the prominent role played by the union bureaucracy in Labour's right- wing and more generally in Labour's shift to the right. As if Scargill had nothing to say about it himself, after having bitterly blamed so many times the defeat of the miners' strike in the 80s on the "lack of support from the TUC leadership and its right-wing"!

Nor is a balance-sheet drawn of the unions' involvement in the Labour Party at local level. Why do so many branches of affiliated unions not even bother to send delegates to Labour Party structures? And, where delegates are actually sent, why is it that they hardly ever express decisions which have been actually discussed and made by the membership? Of course, this is part of a more general problem faced by the unions - the lack of actual involvement of the membership in the day-to-day running of the branches. But, if that is the case, why perpetuate the fiction of a massive Labour membership in the affiliated unions which would be disenfranchised by the modernisers in the Labour Party? Why not state clearly that, at local level, the unions' input in the Labour Party has long ceased to express the conscious will of their members and only involves and at best, represents a small core of union activists? At least this would have the advantage of getting rid of another long-standing myth which can only confuse the issues.

Likewise on a national level. How has the union bloc been used so far in the Labour Party? Again, why not state clearly that the union bloc vote does not represent the aspirations of the union membership at large? That the bureaucratic operation of the union machineries excludes the membership from having a real say in the use of the bloc vote - assuming, which is certainly not the case overall, that the membership sees any point in trying to have a say? That, in fact, with time, as the union bureaucracies have freed themselves increasingly from the control of the membership, this bloc vote has become their own exclusive instrument anyway?

Scargill pretends to discuss a future strategy for the Left. He proposes to set up a new party in which the influence of and control by affiliated unions will be fully restored and guaranteed. But on what basis? And whose influence and control? That of the bureaucracy, as in the Labour Party, or that of the rank-and-file? Again Scargill does not say. And if he does have any criticisms to make of the role of the union bureaucracy in the Labour Party, he is certainly careful not to formulate them.

Scargill's proposed SLP

Of course, Arthur Scargill is himself also a long-standing figure of the union bureaucracy. He may have stood out at times by using a more radical language than most union leaders and by participating in many Left-inspired campaigns which put him at odds with the Labour and union leaders. He may still have in the eyes of a layer of workers and activists, a radical image due to the militancy of the miners' strike of the 80s. But apart from this image and fiery speeches, the only perspective he has offered to the working class over the past decade has been that of a Labour government, just like the rest of the union bureaucracy, even if his language sounded a bit different.

During the miners' strike of the 80s the militancy of the miners, and Scargill's own radicalism, were constrained by the strictly sectional perspective which he imposed on the strike all along. This perspective was rooted in Scargill's respect for the institutions and hierarchies of the union and Labour bureaucracies. Without this respect, he could have probably taken the strike a lot further, by building on the militancy and social weight of the tens of thousands of strikers to by-pass the unions' leaders and start generalising the miners' strike into a fightback against the attacks of the state. Whether this would have resulted in a victory is another question. But, at least, this would have made Thatcher, and the bosses in general, a lot more cautious over their next moves while, at the same time, avoiding the sense of defeat that was felt after the strike, right across the working class and contributed to spread demoralisation as material conditions went on deteriorating.

Since the strike, apart from a few theatrical outbursts at TUC and Labour conferences, Scargill has shown no sign of losing his respect for the bureaucratic hierarchy. Yet, this past decade has seen constant attacks from the bosses and the state against the working class. This situation would have required a warning to the working class against the illusion that a change of government would improve in any way the balance of forces in its favour, to declare the need for a general fightback, and to undertake the task of preparing the ground for it. In this respect, Scargill's statements and acts have not been much different from that of the rest of the union bureaucracy.

As far as we can see, Scargill's decision to break away from the Labour Party does not signal a change of attitude. Of course, one cannot base a definite assessment on a single document. The acts of the new party, if it comes to existence, will be more decisive than the words of a discussion paper. But in so far as this document is the basis on which Scargill intends to attract members to his new party, it must be at least significant of his intentions, if not of what he will effectively achieve in the end.

There is certainly a tactical dimension in this document and Scargill may not have spelt out his ideas fully in order to be able to draw into the discussion activists who might have been otherwise repelled by a more extensive or more specific reappraisal of the past. And in actual fact, despite its title, this document often gives the impression of having been more designed to attract all those, within the Labour Party milieu, who feel frustrated by one aspect or another of Blair's shift to the right, than to outline clearly a "future strategy".

But there are areas in which even these tactical choices can only reflect actual political choices. As was discussed earlier, Scargill's starting point is based on the ambiguities and deliberately misleading myths used for decades by the Labour Left, and therefore dodges the issue of the real nature of the Labour Party, past and present, and the role played in it by the union machineries. Likewise, he says nothing of the role played by the union bureaucracy in disarming the working class in front of the attacks against workers' rights and conditions over the past two decades, not even by simply reiterating the mild criticisms he himself levelled at the TUC leadership over their attitude during the miners' strike.

But certainly the most glaring gap in Scargill's document, a gap which encompasses in a sense all the others, is the fact that it says nothing about the policy that the planned party should have towards a future Labour government. As if one of the main issues for the working class today was not the illusions created by the perspective of a Labour government - and not just the nature of New Labour, in other words the clothes put on by Labour to appeal to the bourgeoisie and get into office. Has the working class anything to gain from electing a Labour government or not? Scargill, again, does not say.

Tactical or not, these are political choices in that they amount to blurring issues on which it is essential for activists to draw clear lessons from the past if they are to avoid falling in the same traps again. And this can only mean that Scargill does not particularly need such clear lessons to be drawn on these issues.

The references made by Scargill to Labour's break from the Liberals at the beginning of the century and the assessment that Labour is no longer different from the Liberal Democrats, would indicate that his aim could be to set up a sort of holding body, with elements from the Left of the Labour and trade union milieu for the time being, in the hope that at some later point more middle-of-the road Labour supporters, in particular entire sections of the union bureaucracy, could be eventually attracted to his party once Labour's drift to the right becomes more glaring. The SLP would be, in that case, just a step on the way to a Labour Party Mark II.

But if this did not work out, if the union bureaucracy stuck to New Labour through a more "business-like" partnership, then Scargill's SLP could still seek to occupy the entire and possibly growing political space created by the Labour Party's drift on its left - which would be more or less what the Communist Party sought to do in the postwar period.

In either case, indeed, Scargill has every reason to leave the past covered with an artistic blur, and to cultivate the respect of its new supporters for the unions' institutions - i.e. for the union bureaucracy - by presenting them as standing well above the political arena.

Revolutionaries and the SLP

Scargill's announcement has resulted in a series of responses from revolutionary groups, ranging from total hostility to enthusiastic support.

Some groups have condemned Scargill for "splitting Labour" (!), which is a bit rich coming from revolutionary groups who are, in theory in any case, based on a political programme fundamentally opposed to that of the Labour Party which should lead them to have a separate existence - even if, temporarily, they are operating inside the Labour Party. Other groups have immediately declared their intention to join the SLP as soon as it is launched, either by affiliating or on an individual basis.

Since then, the publication, in December, of a draft constitution for the future party, spelt out Scargill's intentions more clearly by considering affiliation only for trade-union bodies and banning members of other political organisations from membership - which, in passing, is rather ironical in view of Scargill's criticisms towards the Labour Party's right-wing in the past, for preventing the Communist Party from affiliating and banning its members from joining Labour individually!

We will not go here into the detail of the arguments presented by the various groups, if only because the fact that the SLP does not yet exist and that no-one knows what kind of membership and profile it will have, makes most of these arguments largely speculative.

There is one aspect, however, of what is known of Scargill's plans which is worth looking into more closely. As mentioned earlier, Scargill has been keen to present his future party as a militant party which, unlike the Labour Party, will "fight our class enemies", "galvanise mass opposition", in short intervene in, and take the initiative of all kinds of struggles affecting the working class (and some not affecting it, like the "animal rights bodies" curiously mentioned in Scargill's document as examples of radicalism...). Moreover, Scargill goes one step further to say that the party he proposes to set up should be based on "class understanding, class commitment and Socialist policies" and that it should be "capable of not only resisting Capitalism's attacks but of fondamentally changing society".

Such statements, coming from Scargill, can only be considered as empty formulas, which he has used time and again in the past with no consequences in actual deeds. And it is worth noting in this respect, that his draft constitution for the SLP does not mention even once such words as "class", "working class", "socialism", "capitalism", nor the idea of changing society, etc... It is no more than a bland remake of the old Labour Party constitution, adapted to Scargill's needs as far as the planned structures are concerned, but using the same vague and ambiguous political language. It is very far from the constitution of a fighting organisation, neither in terms of the intentions stated nor in terms of the structures chosen. For instance, local branches are expected to meet monthly, which is all right for a cosy bureaucratic routine based on motions and resolutions with no practical activity, but totally inadequate to intervene in the day-to-day struggles of the working class.

That being said, the constitution is one thing, the organisation is another. And Scargill may have no other way, if his new party is to attract activists and members, than to reinforce the militant language of his first document - if only because there is nothing else that can differentiate in a tangible way the future party from the Labour Party. Whether this will attract workers who are willing to fight the capitalist system, let alone generate a new radical and militant current in the working class, remains to be seen.

But if it does, this will confront revolutionaries with a new responsibility. They will have to convince these activists, new or old, without making any concession to Scargill's pseudo-radicalism, that there can be no effective reformist radicalism in a society in crisis. They will have to convince SLP activists that there is only one way forward against the attacks of the bourgeoisie and the servility of their auxiliaries in the union and Labour bureaucracies; that this way cannot be to hark back to some sort of romantic distant past, but to build a genuine working class party, one that will represent and fight for the class interests of the working class by showing the way of the social revolution.

In order to have any chance of success in this task, revolutionaries will have to get out of the campaigning ghetto of the Left and to be present on the ground, in the workplaces and working class estates, fighting side by side with these activists, day in and day out, in the struggles of the working class that count. Any attempt to win over these activists to a revolutionary perspective from the high ground of splendid political isolation would be doomed to failure. But any attempt at wooing them without spelling out this revolutionary perspective would only prepare the ground for more defeats and demoralisation.