Where now for SLP democrats?

Simon Harvey of the SLP

With new year festivities over, the reality of political life now returns centre-stage for the left of the Socialist Labour Party. Licking our wounds after the bureaucratically enforced drubbing we received at the December 13-14 congress, most are reassessing their orientation to the SLP.

Despite, or rather because of, the extent of the stitch-up, the political situation in the SLP is marked by a certain fluidity which has been absent for some time. The Fisc-NUM alliance is fragile, not least due to Scargill’s sponsorship of Stalin Society member Harpal Brar onto the executive and his victory in abolishing black sections.

Yet, rather than taking advantage of this fluidity, the SLP left is in danger of disintegrating. The spontaneous unity of the democratic forces forced on us at congress looks unlikely to be sustained. Nevertheless we must fight to maintain it. The alternative is the sectarian wilderness.

The coming together of the Democratic Platform, the Marxist Bulletin, the Campaign for a Democratic SLP and the SLP Republicans was a victory for SLP democracy. Unity of such forces around a common platform for democracy is a necessity. Ironically, it is Scargill who has the ability to keep these forces together. Outside the SLP, unless there is regroupment in the Socialist Alliances project, we will see the break-up of this fragile unity.

Petty sectarianism and egoism are raising their heads. Rather than attempting to cement and build on the unity of democrats reached in the ‘statement of 57 congress delegates and observers’, many comrades have wheeled out their own barrows and seem intent on pushing them right out of the SLP.

For many, leaving the SLP may seem a reasonable perspective. All things considered, the SLP can no longer be transformed into a vibrant, democratic vehicle for working class advance. But this is not to say it is completely dead as a project in itself. The SLP remains the only all-Britain party project with any social weight outside the Labour Party. There are hardly any green pastures of working class realignment at the present time. As distasteful as it may be, there ain’t much else except the SLP. It is this political reality on which we must base our decisions, not some imagined perfect road to socialism.

Despite the monstrous internal regime, the SLP can still grow. Though unattractive to the Labour left at present, the SLP still has Arthur Scargill. In the minds of millions of workers, Scargill is not the anti-democratic creature the left of the SLP know him to be, but a militant fighter for the workers, who stood up to Thatcher right down to the wire. It is ludicrous to suggest, as some comrades on the left do, that workers do not join bureaucratic organisations. The reality of the workers’ movement, not least that of the 20th century, stands in complete contradiction to such an idle wish - one which amounts to nothing more than moralistic self-projection.

Those of us who want to build a democratic, militant, class struggle party of socialism cannot treat organisational affiliation on a personal whim. You cannot build a coherent, authoritative and trusted revolutionary leadership around people who flip-flop between groups, treating organisations as this year’s latest finery. This is not the morality of serious working class politicians. The current behaviour of the ‘Strasbourg Two’ is exemplary by comparison, in that it stands in stark contrast to the morality of many on or around the SLP left.

The Socialist Democracy Group is a good example of an organisation with no grasp of working class morality. It is composed of a bunch of ‘I Ran Aways’. The group was formed by people who simply walked out of the Socialist Party, despite having ample opportunity to put forward and argue their positions on the national committee, at conference and in the SP’s internal bulletin. Phil Hearse previously left Socialist Outlook to join the SP (then Militant Labour). Next he abandoned the SP in favour of the of the SDG. Now he is about to leave the organisation he has just set up to live in another country. Nowhere did these individuals stay and fight, whether in the Socialist Party, the SLP or Socialist Outlook.

In contrast, MEPs Ken Coates and Hugh Kerr are not meekly relinquishing their Labour Party membership. They are trying to win as many of their comrades to their position. In this way, they take the high moral ground. They shift the debate onto the morality of the Labour Party leadership - not just in terms of party democracy, but also its viciously anti-working class programme. At the same time, they are not remaining idle in terms of preparing a political sea for themselves after the inevitable occurs.

It seems likely that these comrades will become involved in the Socialist Alliances, in Scotland almost certainly, and perhaps in England and Wales as well. Such an initiative could provide the spark to create a truly all-Britain Socialist Alliance.

Pro-party revolutionaries, the sterile and dogmatic process of Trotskyite regroupment notwithstanding, have three strings to their bow: the SLP, the Socialist Alliances and the ongoing process of revolutionary rapprochement initiated by the CPGB. Obviously, these processes are not mutually exclusive.

The meeting of SLP democrats this Saturday provides an opportunity to discuss these issues. Naturally, the main debate will be over whether to stay in the SLP or not. Those wanting to leave are either irredeemably sectarian or full of moralistic self-importance. Some comrades are seriously proposing to leave the SLP to join groups which favour exclusive orientation to the Labour Party! Some are trying to create new organisations out of thin air - and not around programme or perspective, but themselves as political egos. Others want to constitute themselves as the left wing of non-existent social democratic formations where the right wing will let them be. Still others seem to be slipping into the swamp of localism. It is all pie in the sky, comrades.

Unity is what we need - not unprincipled unity and not unity around pipe dreams. The fight for democracy in the SLP is the only basis on which we can unite at present. We can have no illusions about achieving this. Nothing short of a political revolution in the SLP can turn it into a positive process for working class self-liberation. And for this to happen, society will have changed to such an extent that militant workers will most likely have grabbed hold of and forged some other weapon to achieve their victory.

Yet socialists must have an orientation to the mass as understood in a political way. ‘Mass’ in this context does not mean millions of atomised workers, but those workers beginning to constitute themselves as a class for themselves. The SLP, as putrid as it may seem to our delicate r-r-revolutionary sensibilities, is one of the few arenas which have brought such a mass together, and, not unimportantly, brought together revolutionaries from across a wide spectrum of the left. We still have Arthur Scargill to thank for that. Such an opportunity is too precious and rare to just abandon.

Block vote phantom

I have been doing some investigation into the mysterious North West, Cheshire and Cumbria Miners’ Association. Though I am yet to pin it down, it seems that this is not a trade union after all, but a retired miners’ association. It was mentioned as a positive thing that the NUM is one of the few unions which allows sacked or retired members to retain union membership. I agree. However, the SLP affiliate which delivered Scargill his 75% majority on anything he wanted is not of the NUM.

Clause II, section (3) of the SLP constitution states:

“Affiliated membership shall consist of:

a) trade unions recognised by the party’s executive committee as bona fide trade unions;

b) Constituency Socialist Labour Parties.”

So it seems that for its own purposes, the NEC has ludicrously declared the North West, Cheshire and Cumbria Miners’ Association to be a “bona fide trade union”. The amendments to the constitution which were recommended by the Campaign for a Democratic Socialist Labour Party to allow for the affiliation of “working class, socialist or progressive organisations” at the discretion of congress would have allowed for the miners’ association to affiliate quite nicely without Arthur having to flout his own constitution.

I would welcome working class organisations affiliating to a federal party. But they must be real, based on an active membership democratically mandating their delegates. Otherwise, as Scargill demonstrated with the NWCCMA, they become the tool of bureaucratic labour dictators.