As I took my seat alongside the other observers in the Mechanics’ Institute last Saturday, I wondered how the split on the leadership would first show itself.
Party democracy had been flagrantly flouted with the cancellation of the full, two-day 3rd Congress and its replacement with a rally-cum-talking shop with no decision-making power. How long would it be before one of the Fiscites or Socialist Democrats rose to challenge the trampling of membership rights?
The congress began with comrade Scargill himself giving the conference arrangements report. This, he said, was because the committee had not been able to meet until the previous evening. Laying down the law, he explained that congress’s first duty was to amend the constitution so as to allow members who had joined the party up to 13 weeks before (as opposed to December 31 of the previous year, the present rule) to be included in voting entitlements. Reasonable enough, you would think, but essential from the general secretary’s point of view: over recent months a batch of new Indian Workers Association comrades had suddenly joined in order to boost the chances of comrade Harpal Brar and other Scargill sycophants in the NEC elections.
Scargill then asked for doorkeepers to be elected - to ensure that no one “from the Conservative Party enters without due consideration from the delegates”. Nothing to do with the Weekly Worker supporters outside of course - although they had been refused entry without any “consideration” by delegates.
Frank Cave, giving his presidential address, stated that congress must decide whether to back the NEC’s “unanimous” recommendation to proceed to a special congress or attempt to hold a full congress, which, he assured the delegates, could be done, although it would cause problems. He stated blandly: “It does not require me to explain” why a special congress was necessary, as Arthur had already given the reasons in a branch circular.
Surely this would be the moment for the ‘opposition’ to strike? Not a bit of it. Comrade Cave immediately put the question to a card vote without any intervention from the floor. The NEC recommendation was carried with a 98% vote, as were the constitutional amendments.
No doubt boosted by the incredible ease of his victory, comrade Scargill pushed on with his secretarial report - gushingly optimistic in its wishful fabrication even by his standards. Paid up membership, he said, had increased by 79% since 1996. Where does he pluck his figures from? Turning to next year’s elections, he announced that the (30-strong) Welsh SLP would contest “at least” two out of the five constituencies for the Welsh assembly. Scotland was “talking about contesting in six regions” for the parliament - although this appeared to be the first the Scottish delegates had heard of it. The SLP would stand in four regions in the European elections: London, the North West, West Midlands, and Yorkshire and Humberside.
Comrade Scargill held up the possibility of 100,000 marchers for the May 1 1999 Reclaim Our Rights demonstration. He told us of the prominent new recruits still flocking into the party, but the only examples given were an (unnamed) full-time Ucatt organiser and councillor Jimmy Routledge from Liverpool.
Praising the breadth of the internal SLP regime, he mocked the Weekly Worker comrades - sellers of “so-called newspapers” outside the hall - who, according to Arthur, had told him: ‘What we need is revolutionary politics.’ But, he said, “We are in favour of extra-parliamentary action.” The SLP was “Marxist”, he added, but, what is more, “we are transparent”. The amazing thing is, of course, most of the delegates believed him. According to comrade Scargill, the only members to complain were “those who have since left, only to reappear writing in other papers”.
The first speaker from the floor was Roy Bull, who praised the SLP as “the historic break from the Labour Party at a time of capitalist crisis”. He was absolutely behind every detail of Arthur’s perspectives. He was followed by Chris Herriot, an NEC candidate whose name was not on the ‘support Scargill’ slate. He told us that before he joined the SLP, he was a pessimist; now he was an optimist.
Next came the showpiece defector from New Labour. But Councillor Jimmy Routledge rather spoiled our general secretary’s claims of a “Marxist” party: “We are not a fringe group,” he said, “but what the Labour Party should be.”
At last a leading ‘oppositionist’ came to the microphone - none other than comrade Brian Heron, principal author of the ‘appeal for a special conference’ in defence of members’ rights. But Brian did not want to be the one to spoil the party. He too saw a rosy future - although, I must say, he has an unusual strategy for building up working class political support among the electorate: “If you’re with them on a wet and windy evening, discussing how to get water in their house, they’ll be with you next May.”
Comrade Harpal Brar described himself as “not merely a member of an ethnic minority, but a proud member of the British proletariat” - an impressive start to his speech. ‘Harpal’, he said, would be viewed as just another ‘British’ name in 100 years’ time. But, smoothly slipping into sycophantic mode, he described how comrade Scargill had been ridiculed for predicting that the miners’ Great Strike would last a year. “If those who lead the working class have such vision…”
After comrade Brar’s “complete agreement” with Arthur’s plans, it was the turn of two more signatories of the ‘rebel’ Heron document. Comrade Alec McFaddon seemed poised just for a moment to offer some criticism, but contented himself with the vaguest of hints about “problems of organisation”. Carolyn Sikorski stuck firmly to safe ‘women’s questions’, disclosing the latest plans for Fisc’s Women’s Tribunal.
After the lunch break when balloting for the NEC and vice-presidency had closed, Fisc ally Imran Khan earned an enthusiastic ovation for his speech describing his role in the Stephen Lawrence enquiry. He is clearly highly respected throughout the party - widely viewed as one of Socialist Labour’s assets. But if you speak against Arthur, such respect is no guarantee of electoral success. Comrade Khan was just 20 votes short in the NEC elections. Surely, had he spoken earlier, he would have won the extra votes needed from just a handful of delegates.
Another NEC candidate was also called too late - not that he had any chance, given the delegates’ mood. Nathan Parkin, standing on a Socialist Democracy slate, gave a low-key speech: “Some of us don’t like the situation where initiative is crushed by people high up in the party - whether deliberately or not.” He thought that cancelling the 3rd Congress was “a mistake”, and added vaguely: “Party democracy is about finding the way forward so we can win.” No problem for Scargill there.
Fisc and their allies may have been keeping their heads down, but that only served to increase the confidence of the loyalists. The EPSR’s Adrian Greenman ended his usual speech on capitalism’s crisis with the solution - “politics, politics, politics”, adding: “We’re not getting too much of that in London [controlled by Fisc] - there haven’t been any meetings.”
As the afternoon wore on, real “politics” started to make a tentative appearance. John Milligan - another ‘appeal’ signatory - wondered whether it was always “appropriate” to stand against other left groups in elections. Surely, he said, the sight of rival left candidates on the ballot paper would “confuse the electorate”. The next speaker, Peter Pierce, pressed this point in a more forthright manner: “We need to contest as widely as possible everywhere,” he said, and certainly not even consider stepping down in favour of Labour ‘lefts’ such as Livingstone, who stood in the general election on a Blairite programme. But, he went on, what about those, such as the Independent Labour Network of Ken Coates and Hugh Kerr, who have already broken with New Labour? “Shouldn’t we be encouraging this break?” he asked.
To jeers from the Bullites and a disbelieving shake of the head from comrade Scargill, comrade Pierce went on to ask the Coventry comrades: “Do you want to stand against Dave Nellist?” “Yes,” roared the Bullites. Comrade Pierce also pointed out that the SWP ought to be helped along its path away from voting Labour. He called for the SLP to cooperate with the Socialist Alliances and actively work for joint lists in the European elections. “We need the widest possible unity of the left,” he concluded. Not a popular contribution.
This speech brought an immediate response from the EPSR’s Dave Roberts. “Ken Coates,” he said, “has class collaborationist, reactionary politics”. The ex-Labour MEP did not mention ‘socialism’ once in a recent speech in Coventry. They had experienced “a similar problem with the Reclaim Our Rights comrades”, who had wanted to make the campaign “too broad”. Rather than cooperate with any left group, the revolutionary communist SLP that exists in comrade Roberts’ head should “sort out the best forces and deal with the enemy within”. He ended by stating how necessary it was “to expose the class treachery of people asking us into bed with all sorts of dubious alliances”.
The next speaker, Ranjeet Brar, Stalinite NEC youth section representative, followed in similar vein: “The key enemies are people like the SWP,” he explained. “They are not communists. They are social democrats.” There are apparently no social democrats whatsoever in the SLP.
Comrade Pat Sikorski thought that the debate had at last become interesting. In response to Dave Roberts’ remarks about Ken Coates, he believed that the main thing to consider when entering into alliances was not what you say at meetings, but “what you do in action against the class enemy”. He thought it was “perfectly reasonable” to discuss electoral alliances while the SLP was still small.
After the speeches the election results were announced. The news that Royston Bull had ousted Sikorski was received in total silence. I could not work out whether delegates simply did not believe it, or whether they thought it was a mistake. But after a few moments, just as Scargill was getting to his feet to make his closing speech, the silence was broken by the rasping tones of Tony Goss: “Electing a homophobe to the vice-presidency - that’s what this party’s about. Scumbag!”
Our general secretary made an oblique reference to this in his speech: “We oppose the homophobic comments that have appeared in some journals,” he said to a roar of approval. Did this reaction mean that the same delegates that had just voted for the EPSR gang were aware of their homophobic views? It remains to be seen whether comrade Bull will submit to self-censorship - just look at his November 3 issue on Ron Davies.
Dealing with the question of left cooperation, comrade Scargill stated: “I do not want to be part of alliances.” That seemed to settle the matter. As to the left, “We offered them an alliance as part of this party, but they turned away. They wanted a special place rather than putting the working class first.” Sometimes you can only marvel at Arthur’s effrontery. His sectarian hypocrisy is almost artistic.
But this was his congress. Fisc was routed. The majority of delegates gave the Great Leader a standing ovation, as he ended his speech with a rousing “For socialism! For Marxism! For internationalism!” His former allies remained in their seats, clapping half-heartedly. For them it was the end of a dream
Simon Harvey of the SLP
Socialist Labour Officers, 1998
Frank Cave – unopposed
Arthur scargil – unopposed
Royston Bull (EPSR) - elected – 541
Pat Slkorski (Fisc) - 348
NEC – constituency section
Bridget Bell (loyalist) - elected – 277
Harpal Brar (Satalin Society) - elected – 272
Darran Hickerey (loyalist) - elected – 270
Jim McDaid (loyalist) - elected – 238
Dave Roberts (EPSR) - elected – 230
Sohan Singh (EPSR) - elected – 224
Brian Gibson (loyalist) - elected – 202
Imran Khan (Fisc ally) - 183
Terry Dunn (Fisc ally) - 143
Brian Heron (Fisc) - 111
Rachel Newton (Fisc) - 95
Trevor Wongsam (Fisc) - 78
Geoff Southern (Fisc ally) - 74
Nusret Sen (Soc Dem) - 64
Nathan Parkin (Soc Dem) - 47
Giles Barralet-Shorter (EPSR) - 46
Royston Bull (EPSR) - 46
Peter Morton (Soc Dem) - 42
Jim Hackett (ind) - 33
Chris Herriot (ind) - 17
Adrian Greenman (EPSR) - 13
NEC - trade union section
Bob Crow (ind), Paul Hardman (loyalist), John Hendy (ind), Paul Liversuch (loyalist), Joe Marino (ind), Linda Muir (loyalist), Nell Myers (loyalist) - all unopposed
NEC - women’s section
Liz Screen (ind), Carolyn Sikorski (Fisc) - both unopposed
NEC - youth
Ranjeet Brar (Stalin Society) – unopposed