Putting socialist vision back on the agenda

Militant Labour and Scottish Militant Labour, like ourselves, have thrown themselves into discussion around a Socialist Labour Party. Nick Clarke spoke to Tommy Sheridan of SML about the possibilities of such an organisation

What is your organisation’s position over the Scargill proposal for a Socialist Labour Party?

We have a very positive attitude to Arthur Scargill’s discussion paper. We believe there is a huge vacuum to the left of the Labour Party in British politics for a radical, alternative, socialist vision.

We have certainly been trying in Scotland to pioneer the building of a new socialist party. But we are responsible and mature enough to realise that, left on our own, it will take a hell of a lot longer to build the type of political force that is going to be necessary to lead to any radical change in the lives of ordinary working class people.

A new socialist party could bring on all of the talents of the existing left - organised and unorganised. As long as we can have an open socialist constitution which does not predetermine the loss of existing identities but which develops the talents that exist - while obviously having the discipline of an agreed programme - then we think it can be a tremendously positive step forward in the building of socialism in Britain.

You are looking to a party based on affiliation?

Absolutely. What we have discussed in our own party and with others on the left through the Scottish Socialist Forum is a structure which would be of a federal nature, which would encourage affiliation, not just from existing parties and campaigns but also obviously from trade unions.

It would allow the maximum of debate, which is sadly lacking on the left, and at the same time, mature discipline from all those affiliated parties once policy is agreed.

Does Militant Labour in England have the same position as SML?

Absolutely the same. We have had national meetings to discuss all the various factors.

After many years of entryism and then breaking from the Labour Party, you say that there is no room for another reformist party. Will the SLP not be a Labour Party mark two?

If the new Socialist Labour Party was in policy, constitution or outlook to become a Labour Party mark two, then I’m afraid it would be buried at birth - stillborn. Quite clearly what is required in Britain today is a party that stands for the socialist transformation of society.

Now we can argue our various routes to revolution, we can argue what a revolution actually consists of. As far as we are concerned it has to be a revolutionary party in that it is anti-capitalist to the core.

Scargill in his document uses the language of anti-capitalism, but it seems ambiguous as to whether he sees the SLP as revolutionary or reformist. Where do you think he’s coming from?

What we have got so far is a discussion document. All the Ts have not been crossed or the Is dotted. There’s a lot of debate necessary.

I would make the point that without a twin track approach such a party wouldn’t be possible in Britain. In other words, yes - we have to have an eye to elections; yes - an eye to taking part in the democratic field; but we also have to have a very strong position on extra-parliamentary activities.

The welcome comments in the Scargill document are a recognition of the anti-poll tax campaign, the anti-road protesters and essentially the need to defy the anti-trade union laws. That is an absolute prerequisite of any radical socialist party. What will develop in terms of policy and a programme of such a party will determine whether, in actual fact, it is an anti-capitalist party or not.

If you have embellished within your programme the eradication of unemployment, the type of minimum wage we are looking for and the type of shorter working week we are looking for, then quite frankly it isn’t possible under capitalism.

How would you see an SLP differing from SML?

I think it would differ from SML first and foremost because hopefully it will be much bigger. SML is still a party of under 1,000 in Scotland. We have had tremendous success from our electoral forays. We have got really significant members in terms of trade union positions and we have got bases in a lot of communities in Scotland.

We are not looking for an increased influence for our own party, we are looking to change the world. To change the world you have to bring on board as many other like-minded individuals as possible.

I hope that the intervention and involvement of Scargill will encourage a greater trade union involvement, because on the left I would argue the weakness is the loyalty of the trade union movement to the Labour Party. The loyalty that is abused by the Labour Party and leaves a lot of trade unionists without an effective voice.

What is your attitude to those on the left who say it is a non-starter?

The attitude of the Socialist Workers Party today is indicative of their attitude to politics in general: ie, it is very narrow and it is very sectarian. If they cannot control something then they are not interested in getting involved. That attitude, to be honest, has been the attitude of the left in Britain for many a year.

People like the SWP who continue that type of attitude will quite simply be frozen out, because the new layer of young radical fighters are not interested in worshipping the single god that the SWP appear to be presenting themselves as. But they are interested in progressing on a wide range of policies and getting involved in as many activities and campaigns as possible.

We in the CPGB will be fighting for the SLP to take up revolutionary demands. Do you see Militant taking a similar position?

I suppose we’ll have to sit down and discuss what we mean by revolutionary demands.

The eradication of unemployment in this country is a revolutionary demand to me. What I mean by that is that to eradicate unemployment you have to eradicate capitalism.

I think what we have to do on the left is to make sure that we recognise the magnitude of the scheme that we are involved in here, the potential in terms of the future of a massive left movement for socialism. Let’s not strangle it before it’s even crawling.

We see the affiliation question as very important. We need to bring workers together from different traditions into one mass party to fight for what the working class needs.

I’m not arguing for unity on the lowest common denominator. I’m arguing for unity of purpose, for unity of action. I think we have undermined the potential strength of the left in continuing to be separate entities.

What do you see as the role of socialist forums in the development of the SLP?

 The Scottish Socialist Movement, to date, has managed to be a fulcrum for the discussion in Scotland. In many ways we have been ahead of the discussions in England and Wales. Many of the ideas raised in Arthur Scargill’s paper have already been widely discussed in a Scottish context. Perhaps the onset of a Scottish parliament and PR and other factors have meant that was inevitable.

What I really believe is that if we could get a Scottish Socialist Party formed then in many respects the role of the forums might be undermined in that a Scottish Socialist Party, meetings and branches and things of that character will in effect be forums, will bring together different socialists in different groups. As long as we can have a democratic socialist constitution then we can have a situation where policies are arrived at that everybody agrees with.

Do you think the launch date of May 1 1996 is premature?

I think it is vital in relation to this whole exercise that by the time of the next general election in Britain that there is a different strand of opinion on offer for the British electorate. If we take a position that we wait until after the next election before launching a Socialist Party then my worry and concern is that the disillusionment that we already have in British politics will grow. Forty-four percent of 18-25 year olds refuse to vote and that’s not counting those that aren’t registered.

I don’t agree we should stand in over 600 seats: it would be too ambitious. In selected areas, in significant areas we should present a radical socialist alternative to the capitalism that has been peddled by the Tories, by Labour, by the Liberals, and in many other areas of Scotland by the SNP.

If the SLP does not launch before the next election, we, and presumably SML, will stand candidates in the election ...

Ourselves, yourselves and probably some other left groups will take the opportunity of the general election, heightened political awareness and involvement to stand, but wouldn’t it be better if we had a bigger bloc of candidates that was part of a bigger organisation? One of the obvious arguments we get from working class people is that it is a wasted vote, you’re a small party, etc, etc. If you’re part of a bigger exercise then that argument can be undermined.

The desire of the majority to get the Tories out will, in all likelihood, lead to a Blair landslide. Because Scargill’s document emphasises parliamentary work, the failure of an SLP to make an electoral breakthrough could be perceived as a serious setback.

I understand the point you’re making but I would disagree with the root of it. I do not think Scargill’s document does emphasise the parliamentary part of the party.

Out of nine pages there’s less than one page devoted to what to do next and only a couple of sentences refer to the idea of standing in the next election. I think the value of the paper is that it emphasises much more the need for extra-parliamentary action.

We, in terms of this party, couldn’t judge success or failure on the basis of whether we get beaten at these elections. The success or failure of any new party has to be on the basis of whether it has introduced to British politics the ideas of radical socialism again.

Frankly I expect that our challenge will be undermined by the desire for a Blair government or - I should rephrase that - the desire to get rid of the Tories. That’s not going to stop me standing.

It is important to lay the marker rather than just simply to have waited until after the election, two years into Blair, for disillusion to set in. Why not go for it at the time of heightened political awareness and involvement?