SLP abolishes annual congress

CPB in merger talks

Socialist Labour last weekend took another step towards the complete obliteration of any trace of independence or initiative. Members voted to voluntarily relinquish their theoretical right to exercise sovereignty over the party through annual congress, and agreed to Arthur Scargill’s demand to replace the annual gathering with three-yearly congresses. So the SLP’s third annual congress, held on Saturday November 6 and Sunday November 7 in London’s Conway Hall, was also its last.

At first it seemed that Scargill would have a fight on his hands. A section of the membership - concentrated in particular in the North East - was vehemently opposed to the move. These comrades put up posters around the venue, including in the congress hall itself, demanding, “No three-yearly congresses”. This led to some bitter scenes, as, on Scargill’s instructions, they were removed, only to be put back in position by a North East member, loudly proclaiming that the SLP was not “fascist” yet.

These oppositionists made their first move on the Saturday morning, when they challenged the fact that Scargill intended to force through these changes late on Sunday afternoon in a special congress held immediately after the annual event. Why was it that the NEC “chose not to put a constitutional amendment to this congress?” demanded Ken Hall from Redcar. The last-minute call for a special congress had not allowed branches the time to discuss the implications of the change, and the North East comrades stated they had already arranged to return home early Sunday afternoon. This meant they would have no say in the removal of their rights.

However, comrade Hall’s challenge to the chair was made on technical, not political, grounds. He claimed, wrongly, that only annual congress, not a special congress, could change the constitution. Only 20 delegates or so out of around 140 backed this move. The opposition petered out almost before it began, since many delegates did not bother to return the next day, when attendance was reduced to about 90.

Scargill had justified the change by falsely counterposing the need to get involved in “campaigning work” to “day-to-day administrative work” (circular, October 25). Speaking in Sunday’s debate, he complained of all the wasted “time, effort and energy” needed to organise congress - “a nine-month bureaucratic nightmare”. However, he said, “this is not being done to stifle democracy.” Of course not. It was perfectly normal for workers’ organisations and communist parties to hold their congresses only once every four years - he cited the Communist Party of Cuba, whose representative, Teresita Trujillo Hernandez, had been given a rousing ovation the previous day.

The SLP general secretary went on to mount a philistine attack on internal discussion, which he condemned as “navel-gazing”. Only around half the motions congress had discussed over the weekend concerned SLP policy, he said, as opposed to party organisation: “If we’re going to have this debate all the time one against the other, we’re not going to build this party. Let’s stop the internecine warfare in here.” And why complain, Scargill went on, when the constitution already prohibits the same motion being proposed in two consecutive years in any case?

In parallel with the proposal to abolish annual congress, the membership was asked to vote in another change - giving the NEC the power to coopt replacements, as well as allowing it to “invite representatives in an observer capacity from regions as necessary”. In a breathtaking display of effrontery the whole package was described by Scargill as “an extension of democracy”. You see, he intended to expand the executive in this way immediately, rectifying under-representation in certain regions by asking four additional comrades to attend NEC meetings. Delegates reacted to these outrageous insults to their intelligence with either stoic resignation or positive appreciation.

Some spoke against the changes. Mark Holt from Liverpool said he had always had reservations about whether the SLP was truly democratic. “It’s going to look bad, Arthur. Don’t do it,” he implored. “You’re going to wreck the party - people will leave.”

In reply Scargill pointed to the lack of democracy elsewhere: “Other left groups either don’t have congresses or have secret meetings and hand down tablets of stone.” Besides, if people left, where would they go? This rhetorical question from the labour dictator just about sums up the present state of our movement. Scargill knows only too well that, with workers’ combativity and belief in their own power of self-liberation at an all-time low, there is indeed for the moment no genuinely emancipatory anti-capitalist alternative. He was backed by ultra-Stalinite NEC youth section representative Ranjeet Brar, who blithely remarked that “you can’t measure the democracy of an organisation by the frequency of its congresses”.

Scargill declared that the impotent regional conferences would still be held annually - where, clearly, members can argue the toss until they are blue in the face, as far as Arthur is concerned. What is more, the change does not prevent the NEC from calling a special congress whenever necessary - and he went on to give an example of an occasion when the executive might have used this power. He revealed that the SLP had been approached last year by the Communist Party of Britain, who proposed that the two organisations should enter into negotiations with a view to joining forces, and that the Morning Star and Socialist News should also “merge”. However, Scargill reported, “after fruitful discussion” the CPB withdrew its proposals.

This disclosure too was greeted with an apparently apathetic indifference. But such a reaction is par for the course in today’s SLP - where changes of potentially fundamental significance are casually let slip as an aside long after the time for debating them has come and gone.

The change to three-yearly congresses was endorsed by 3,531 votes to 90. But this apparently overwhelming card vote was deceptive. Among the votes in favour were not only the phantom North West, Cheshire and Cumbria Miners Association, accounting for 3,000, but the block votes of at least one of the other trade union affiliates (there are four altogether, with a total membership of 3,750 - down by 25 from last year), plus the youth and women’s section. Discounting all these, it must have been touch and go whether the necessary two-thirds majority would have been obtained from delegates representing individual members alone.

Since only two of these union affiliates have ever been named (the NWCCMA and Sheffield Ucatt), and since Scargill considers the size of the block votes to be confidential information, of no concern to the membership, delegates can only guess at the various totals. The number of votes cast by Constituency SLPs is also forbidden territory, for such information would enable us to gain a more realistic picture of the size of the individual membership, exposing Scargill’s grossly inflated figures. That is why, in the NEC elections for the constituency section, only the votes received by the seven successful candidates were announced. Unsuccessful candidates were told they were not entitled to know their own support!

The results we were allowed to hear were: Liz Screen - 227; Bridget Bell - 207; Brian Gibson - 190; Harpal Brar - 184; Dave Roberts - 180; Jim McDaid - 152; Sohan Singh - 105. All were current NEC members who had placed themselves on their own recommended list, announced by Scargill on Saturday morning.

There was no official recommendation in the election for vice-president. But Scargillite branches were informed via the loyalist grapevine that the candidate to plump for was Linda Muir. She received 478 votes to Harpal Brar’s 131, the NWCCMA declining to cast its 3,000 votes, as it did last year. In an unexpected turn of events Scargill read out correspondence concerning the third vice-presidential candidate, Imran Khan. Comrade Khan had been proposed by Lewes CSLP, but he informed Scargill that he had “never allowed my name to go forward”. Indeed, although his dues were paid until the end of the year, he had “resigned from the party” because of “your unconstitutional and undemocratic control”.

Scargill read out the whole of his own reply. This willingness to reveal every last detail of the exchange was most uncharacteristic. There have been many such resignations from disenchanted members, but the general secretary has usually done his best to keep them under wraps. In this case, however, it seems that Scargill had hoped to keep such a prominent figure on board. It is said that he was delighted when he saw comrade Khan’s nomination papers and was backing him for the vice-presidency.

Scargill himself was opposed by a token candidate from the Economic and Philosophic Science Review, Jim Dooher, who picked up nine votes. Our general secretary scraped home with 3,605. Frank Cave was unopposed as president.

Despite Scargill’s best efforts at concealing the actual membership figure, it was pretty clear that numbers have further declined by about a third, as compared to last year. At the November 1998 special congress each Constituency SLP was entitled to just one delegate, and about 100 turned up in Manchester. Last weekend each CSLP could send three representatives, but only 140 came to Conway Hall. Last year the complete figures for the NEC elections were announced (much to Scargill’s regret) and so it was possible to estimate that the CSLP delegates cast votes representing around 450 members.

The total vote for the seven successful candidates in 1998 was 1,713. In 1999 it was 1,245. Furthermore, the unsuccessful candidates last year gained an additional 992 votes. But this year there was no serious challenge, as there was from the Fourth International Supporters Caucus and its allies as at Manchester. (Fisc has, by the way, resurfaced in the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation, and there is talk of the CATP standing a slate of candidates in the London assembly elections.) The 10 losers this time could hardly have won more than 200 votes between them. If my estimates are correct, then only about 1,450 constituency votes were cast this year, while there were 2,705 in 1998. All but a handful of CSLPs must have voted for comrade Screen, who gained 227, and the total number of individual members represented must have been less than 300.

This contrasts somewhat with the membership figures given in the NEC report. For Scargill there is only one way they can go, and that is up - irrespective of the truth of course. In his introduction to the NEC document he goes into more detail than ever before, finally admitting, if only implicitly, that his previous figures had been falsified. So, as well as the figure for 1999 of 2,514, in which he includes every comrade who has ever applied to join (less those who have bothered to resign formally), we now have a rather smaller figure for “fully financial” members, which he puts at 921.

These figures add up mathematically, but not logically. If, for example, there was, as he claims, a net membership gain over the last 12 months of 249, how come the “fully financial” figure has only gone up by 14? And how come less than a third of even the paid-up membership were represented at congress?

It is no coincidence that these figures are contained in a section of the NEC report dealing with the “evil” of entryism, which takes up more than a page. No wonder Scargill is furious with comrades like myself, a founder-member of the SLP, for forcing him, bit by bit, to come clean, and with the Weekly Worker for giving me the space to do so.

Simon Harvey