Failure of the left: Workers Power quits SLP

John Stone of the Liaison Committee of Militants for a Revolutionary Communist International looks back at the activities of a group of SLP entryists

Supporters of Socialist Labour Action have left the SLP to rejoin Workers Power.

Their rupture happened unnoticed by the rest of the membership. During the December congress of the Socialist Labour Party they did not organise any fringe meetings, while WP itself had no paper-sellers, let alone a stall. SLA did however produce the largest bulletin of all the oppositionist groups for the congress. Yet, in around 30 pages the comrades put forward not a single new suggestion - just a collection of old reprints. WP and their supporters in the SLP had nothing to propose.

During the congress there was a meeting of around 70 people attended by all the opposition groups. SLA only intervened in order to put forward one idea: that everybody should immediately leave the party. Nobody took them seriously.

The January issue of Workers Power advises the left that “the time has come for a sharp reassessment of what they have achieved”. We could make the same point to WP. Its intervention in the SLP was for it a major entryist adventure. Yet it resulted in fiasco. Those who joined Socialist Labour are leaving it without winning a single recruit to WP. These comrades have wasted at least a year and a good deal of energy for just about nothing. Even worse, half of the WP entyrists have now decided to leave WP too. The organisation stands discredited amongst the SLP left.

In December 1995 WP argued that “thousands of trade unionists ... need a strong, well organised socialist voice and an organisation to organise and lead their resistance. That is why WP welcome Arthur Scargill’s call for discussions on the left to consider the establishment of an SLP.” WP committed itself to the building of a “revolutionary SLP”. It would have been consistent with that position to advocate an offensive tactic, pushing for an active intervention in the process of the new party’s creation.

When the SLP was launched some left organisations (like Fisc, the CPGB, RDG, IBT, ILWP, etc) decided to make just such an intervention. However, WP was larger than any of them. In addition it had a much stronger national structure. During the 1980s it was the most theoretically productive and programmatically consistent left group. A decisive intervention in the SLP from its inception could have made WP the dominant left force in the organisation - one capable of leading the opposition, which counted around one third of the party’s membership.

For the hundreds of activists who had joined the SLP to build a combative alternative to Labour, WP could have become a pole of attraction - a defiant force against the leadership’s bureaucratic passivity. It could have provided the leadership for SLP actions and been at the forefront of many branches. It could have created a bloc of candidates around its own programmatic ideas.

WP should have developed a similar line to the one formulated by Trotsky towards the ILP in the 1930s: intervening in the SLP to pose a revolutionary transitional programme in opposition to Scargill’s little-England reformist nationalism, while demanding that the SLP adopt a united front policy towards Labour.

Actively intervening inside the SLP does not mean dissolving your own organisation or ceasing publication of your own papers and journals. A group of comrades could had remained officially outside the SLP in charge of all the external tasks, while a disciplined contingent carried out internal entryist work. The CPGB, a group smaller than WP, participated in the SLP, but continued producing its weekly paper.

WP did not follow that course. A few weeks after its commitment to help build a “revolutionary SLP” it made its first U-turn. In the March 1996 edition of its paper it characterised the SLP as “Britain’s newest reformist sect” and ruled out any intervention in it.

However, after the SLP’s 1st Congress (May 1996), WP was most impressed and decided to make a second U-turn. Its June paper declared that the SLP was not completely a reformist party, that it was in the process of definition and that revolutionaries could win that battle: “The founding conference indicated that the SLP is a party that remains in the process of formation with a small but significant minority clearly seeking revolutionary policies and answers. One thing is certain: the struggle for the political soul of the SLP has only just begun.”

The logical conclusion should have been to make a very serious and active intervention. Some weeks later WP’s youth organisation, Revolution, applied to join the SLP. During mid-1996 many long-standing WP cadres suddenly turned up in SLP branches claiming to have left their previous organisation. They promised to be the best activists in building the party. The quantity and quality of WP’s SLP entryists was not insignificant.

Now that WP has called home all their members, there is no longer any reason why we should continue trying to protect these comrades against the witch hunters. By mid-1996 at least a dozen cadres with several years experience in WP were inside the SLP. They retained their WP membership, including in positions of leadership in some cases. Some of them had differences with the WP leadership, but most of them were loyal to it. One of these new SLPers was a founder WP member and another three were or are members of the LRCI’s national or international executive committees.

If these experienced comrades had worked together consistently, they could have built a bigger bloc nationwide than any other current with the potential of attracting SLP members. A tendency based around concrete issues could also have promoted a broader pro-democracy coalition. Yet WP adopted a very sectarian and confused position. It instructed its supporters inside the SLP not to associate with any other comrade - not even former WP members - who were not under the guidance of its central committee.

WP created a very exclusionist faction: Socialist Labour Action. It was open only to comrades who were politically loyal to WP’s leadership. It was closed to the rank and file SLP membership and even to other SLPers who were former WP members.

SLA was so sectarian that it even refused to take any responsibility in building a broader opposition. Inside the SLP there existed at various times four oppositionist broad fronts: the Revolutionary Platform, the Left Network, the Campaign for a Democratic SLP and the Democratic Platform. WP instructed its supporters to boycott some of their initiatives and to refuse to take on any leadership commitments in these fronts.

In mid-1996 the Revolutionary Platform had its first conference with around 25 to 30 delegates. At that meeting comrades who had split from WP because of political differences managed to influence the RP’s programme and to replace the aim of a federal republic by the strategy for a socialist workers’ republic. Nevertheless, WP instructed their supporters not to attend that meeting, not even to put forward their own positions.

WP’s supporters attended the meetings of the Left Network and the CDSLP, but they would not take up any leadership responsibility. In the LN one of WP’s supporters was commissioned to produced a united front bulletin, but he showed up at the next meeting with a bulletin produced by WP sympathisers around WP policies. That was how Socialist Labour Action was launched.

The last joint national aggregate of the LN and the CDSLP almost unanimously condemned the SLA for publishing leaflets in which they fingered SLP oppositionists as members of other organisations. According to Scargill’s constitution any person labelled a supporter of another group could automatically be expelled from the party.

SLA did not participate in the Democratic Platform. They did not even come to the meeting of the entire SLP opposition on January 10.

WP’s sectarian approach is very much linked to its own confusion and lack of self-confidence. WP had no constant, consistent and clear position on the SLP. It shifted radically from one line to another. At one point the group was selling a monthly paper (Workers Power) which characterised the SLP as an immutable counterrevolutionary Stalinist sect, while its theoretical journal (Trotskyist International) was simultaneously writing that the SLP was a progressive phenomenon and that revolutionaries should try to influence.

The confusion grew even more when WP supporters inside and outside the SLP had entirely contradictory lines. Outside Socialist Labour WP was calling for a vote for the Blairites against SLP candidates, while inside the party WP supporters were backing SLP candidates against New Labour.

WP could have had a point with the argument that as long than Labour is the mass party of the working class (albeit with an imperialist programme) it might be possible to push it into power in order to expose its nature and intervene within it. However, they did not seem able to see that New Labour’s extreme right turn had the potential to drive thousands of activists outside that party and in opposition to it. It could be important to relate to the militants who are trying to create a class alternative against Blair’s neo-conservatism. WP could do that through intervening in the SLP (and also in the SP and the SWP).

For that reason, as well as calling for a Labour vote, a revolutionary organisation ought to have advocated a critical vote for representative socialist candidates and for socialist electoral alliances. This does not mean a propaganda bloc, but a left united front around specific demands - against cuts and privatisations and for the defence of the proletariat’s living conditions and historical gains.

However, WP’s tactic towards the SLP was not at all related to working class interests, but to satisfying the appetite of its small-sect mentality. Richard Brenner, a WP leader, wrote in the Weekly Worker: “A revolutionary party would therefore call for a vote for Labour in all constituencies where it is unable to stand.” (May 16 1996). WP could vote for the SLP only “if we find it possible to join [the SLP] as a revolutionary organisation with full rights”.

That meant that WP, which never stood a single candidate in more than two decades of its own existence, would always vote Labour, even if a significant left force emerged. Voting for the SLP did not depend on its ideas, its weight in the class or among working class activists. WP’s tactic towards the SLP was summarised in the following ultimatum: ‘As long as you don’t allow us to join you as an independent party, we will support the Blairites against you and we will sabotage your organisation.’

WP’s contradictions are devastating. On the one hand it advocates a vote only for Labour, while in its ‘Where we stand’ column it carries the message that “we are for the building of a revolutionary tendency in the Labour Party”. Nevertheless, WP does no work at all inside it. On the other hand it sent more than 10% of its cadres into a party to which it refused to give any kind of electoral support.

In the three places where SLA had a some influence (Leicester, Cardiff and Vauxhall) WP’s policies destroyed all the work that their SLA supporters had been doing. In Leicester SLA was firmly opposed to making any electoral arrangement with Militant Labour for a council by-election in late 1996. Revolutionaries inside the SLP should have argued that the best way for the SLP to stand candidates was in coalition with the rest of the left and the combative trade unionists.

It was the SLP’s right wing which opposed any bloc with ML and the left, because it did not want to appear too ‘radical’ in the eyes of the union bureaucrats it was trying to recruit. In the Leicester election the SLP achieved 8% while ML obtained 12%. The two forces combined could had gained more than 20% and could have pushed New Labour into a close finish.

Such a result would have been very positive for the left inside the SLP, helping to move the party towards a greater openness as a broader party of the left. In its sectarianism against ML SLA campaigned for a ‘pure’ Socialist Labour ticket with a member of the Stalinist and homophobic Economic and Philosophic Science Review as its candidate.

In the May general election the SLP nominated the same EPSR candidate for a Leicester constituency. This time the SLA editor decided to make a U-turn, breaking any sense of party discipline in calling for a vote for New Labour against his local SLP candidate.

In Vauxhall despite being voided the branch courageously threw its own resources into the general election campaign behind the SLP candidate. In no other constituency did WP have so many activists. However, WP decided to campaign for a Blairite against that rebel branch. Nobody backed the branch secretary - an SLA supporter - when she was censored by the branch for openly supporting an organisation (WP) which called for the defeat of its candidate. She became very isolated in her branch and the party.

In Cardiff WP “wholeheartedly” supported the SLP candidate Terry Burns during the general election, while in the rest of the country they voted for Labour. It was the first time in the 22 years of its existence that WP advocated a non-critical vote.

There were also other twists in WP’s policies. Traditionally WP had called for a critical vote for Labour non-bourgeois candidates, but also for left candidates (like Sheridan or Nellist) who have some social basis.

In May 1997 WP rejected its previous position of voting for any socially-rooted left candidates. It even campaigned for a bourgeois ex-Tory minister who was running on a Blairite ticket against Scargill. They claimed that Burns stood on their programme. However, Burns said that his party and his programme was the Scargill one and he openly advocated an entirely opposite line to that of WP: voting ‘yes’ in the Welsh referendum, but advocating no vote for Labour.

Later in the year Burns stood for the same Cardiff branch in a council election. This time, inexplicably, WP called for a vote for Labour against Burns.

These disastrous zigzags discredited SLA. It was unable to influence anybody. Its demoralised supporters became reluctant to attend meetings of the SLP opposition movements. Desperately WP instructed them to provoke their expulsion. SLA comrades called on SLP members to campaign for the expulsion of their ‘Stalinist counterrevolutionary leadership’ and publicly attacked Scargill. Despite all its bureaucratism, the SLP leadership took no disciplinary action against SLA.

Today, former SLA supporters say that they are returning to a democratic revolutionary group. However, WP is no longer a healthy organisation. The incredible zigzags that we saw over the SLP also characterise its lines on Scotland and Wales, on the former Yugoslavia, on the state question, on the character of the period, on Eastern Europe, and on every important question.

Its internal regime is no better than Scargill’s. When a left opposition inside the group tried to build a faction, its organisers were suspended and later expelled without being given the opportunity to defend themselves or the right of appeal. Workers Power is becoming an intolerant sect, whose members are required to unquestioningly follow their leadership’s U-turns.