Against Livingstone

Simon Harvey of the SLP

Arthur Scargill has indicated that the Socialist Labour Party will contest next year’s London mayoral elections, despite the probable fact that Ken Livingstone will be a candidate.

Speaking on radio’s Any questions? last weekend, the SLP general secretary declared that Livingstone would be standing on a capitalist programme, since the only major difference he admits to having with Tony Blair is over tube privatisation. Scargill stated that ‘Red Ken’s’ plans for a bond issue to finance the London underground was not in any way anti-capitalist.

This is of course correct: Livingstone himself says that his scheme, based on that of the New York transport authority, is “hardly revolutionary”. But to dismiss his candidacy on that basis misses the point entirely. Surely it is obvious to everyone that the intervention of the former leader of the Greater London Council is causing New Labour the greatest of difficulties, to put it mildly. Blair has said that he will allow a revival of Livingstoneism “over my dead body”, yet Ken is odds on to win the official Labour nomination. And if Blair steps in with some kind of last-minute fix, then it is more than likely that Livingstone will stand as an independent. Either way, a huge crisis for Blairism is looming, and a left split - one of much greater significance than the one led by Scargill himself - cannot be ruled out.

In these circumstances those claiming to be socialists should do all in their power to achieve such an outcome. At the very least the SLP ought to announce here and now that it will not oppose Livingstone. Yet Scargill even appears to be ruling this out as a possibility. What a contrast to his attitude in May 1997, when his unspoken policy was one of giving selected Labour lefts a clear run. When the Brent East Constituency SLP took the initiative to stand in the general election against Livingstone, Scargill was furious. He even went so far as to declare that his party’s candidate was “not a member of Socialist Labour” and tried to persuade the returning officer to declare his nomination invalid.

In fact there was no reason not to oppose the Labour lefts on May 1 1997. All of them, including Livingstone, not only stood on the official New Labour manifesto, but were tolerated by Blair. They were not part of any oppositional movement. There was nothing to be gained by unconditionally backing them, nor giving them tacit support. They had to be presented with a minimum platform - if they accepted it, they deserved support.; if not, then it was right for socialists and communists to stand candidates. Today’s situation is quite different.

However, for Scargill everything is determined by one thing and one thing only: advancing the narrow, sectarian interests of ‘his’ party. Thus in 1997 he still had misplaced hopes that the likes of Livingstone would come over to Socialist Labour. In 1999 even Arthur knows they will not. And, since in Scargill’s world the SLP alone is ‘the answer’, all those who are not for it (and in particular cannot stand his autocratic internal regime) must be against it.

This policy is not only divisive, but short-sighted in the extreme. Imagine how the potential for the left could have been transformed if, from the start, the SLP had encouraged every break from Labour, and every left decision to stand against Blair’s party, irrespective of whether the individuals involved were likely to join the SLP in the short term. An SLP formed on the basis of forging unity would undoubtedly have been well placed to gain hegemony over the whole left. A figure with Scargill’s militant, intransigent reputation would have been the natural leader of such a potentially powerful movement.

In 1996, when the SLP was founded, that reputation was largely unsullied. Today, thanks to his own actions, Socialist Labour is viewed as a sectarian irrelevance. There is next to no chance that a left break from Labour (such as any split that is triggered by the crisis around Livingstone) would eventually end up in Scargill’s camp. So he intends to oppose it, putting up a candidate for mayor himself and thus taking votes, however few they turn out to be, from Livingstone.

Whenever any voice in favour of left unity has been heard within our party, Scargill has sought to discredit it by linking the question of alliances to that evil of all evils - a “federal party”. This of course ignores the fact that the constitution makes clear - without actually using the words - that a federal party is what the SLP officially is. How else can you describe an organisation that allows for and encourages autonomous trade union affiliates? As Scargill has demonstrated so clearly, he is perfectly able to control the existing federated bodies. But the affiliation of left groups would be another thing altogether  - except for neo-Stalinite sects such as Harpal Brar’s Communist Workers’ Association and (until recently) Roy Bulls EPSR. If Scargill accuses you of advocating that sort of federalism, he is all but stating that you are member of another political organisation yourself - the equivalent in the SLP of being damned to eternal hellfire.

That is why those who propose unity have to tread carefully. At the last annual congress earlier this month Huddersfield CSLP put forward a motion in favour of reaching agreements “in local, assembly and general elections for socialists not to stand against each other”, and calling for a “comradely dialogue with others on the left”. Not surprisingly the comrade who proposed this prefaced his remarks by stating that he was “not a member of any faction”, and went so far as to condemn all those SLP members who had “attempted to seize control in the past”. He did point out, however, that the constitution lays down as one of its objects “to cooperate with all socialist organisations”.

In reply to the debate Scargill nevertheless denounced Huddersfield for moving “one of the most dangerous motions - arguing for a federal structure”. And, just in case anyone had any doubts, he repeated his well worn sectarian stance: “This party will have nothing whatsoever to do with alliances.” Needless to say, the motion was overwhelmingly defeated, as was a proposal from Colne Valley, which, among other things, called for the avoidance of “sectarian ideas and methods in our dealings with fellow socialists and democratic and progressive forces both inside and outside the party”.

This brings me to the article by Delphi in last week’s Weekly Worker.The comrade took issue with Dave Osler (Weekly Worker November 4) for his “attack on Scargill’s ‘ego’”, which Delphi described as a “red herring”. He went on to state: “Only a leader with immense determination, conviction and sense of purpose could have mentally survived the onslaught which Dave acknowledges has, and continues to be, mounted by the state and media. Scargill often uses Stalinist methods, but his ideology is basically utopian, even romantic” (November 18).

How can Scargill’s “ego” be so inconsequential, when it leads him not only to sabotage all moves towards the type of all-embracing, “emancipatory” party the working class so desperately needs, but also to effectively denounce those who advocate unity as agents of some outside force?

Delphi has written cogently on Stalin’s legacy, exposing the reign of terror that was his apology for ‘socialism’ in the Soviet Union. Can there be any doubt as to the nature of the regime Scargill himself would instigate, should the working class make the fatal mistake of handing him the power to install his own particular version of bureaucratic national socialism? What reason is there to believe that the regime he has imposed on the SLP in order to stifle every last trace of democracy and membership initiative is some sort of aberration?

What of Stalin’s own ideology? Surely it too was “basically utopian, even romantic”? That was why he persuaded himself that it was possible to introduce ‘socialism’, from above, in a single, backward, country. It was Stalinite bureaucratic socialism, not Bolshevism, which “suffered its historical failure” in the USSR. Bolshevism can only be said to have failed in that it allowed itself to be perverted and turned into its opposite from within. The Bolsheviks knew that without international revolution failure was inevitable. The fact that it did not happen - despite all the signs to the contrary and the valiant attempts in the first months following the October revolution - does not disprove the Bolshevik method.

Despite comrade Delphi’s throwing out the Bolshevik baby with the bathwater, and despite the distance he likes to put between himself and the likes of Harpal Brar, his faith in Scargill risks leading him, in practice, despite the best of intentions, down the same old well trodden path.