Centralism or federalism

Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party and the Socialist Party in England and Wales have, from their opposite yet equally sectarian viewpoints, formed a peculiar, unofficial bloc in order to rubbish the Socialist Alliance. In an internal circular distributed to his stagnant and lethargic membership, the SLP general secretary has claimed that the SA has "imploded" ('The Socialist Alliance ends in tears', see below). To back this up he attached a four-page statement from the SP, which, in its rush to dismiss the SA as a Socialist Workers Party "front", no longer capable of attracting any significant working class support, attempted to show the alliance in a poor light in comparison with the SLP after its foundation: "In fact the forces initially attracted to the SLP in 1995-96, including the figure of Scargill himself, were of greater social weight than the SWP and their allies who have succeeded in changing the character of the Socialist Alliance. The early electoral successes of the SLP (Hemsworth, February 1996 - 1,193 votes, 5.4%; Barnsley East, December 1996 - 949 votes, 5.3%) compare favourably with the recent performances of the SA" (Socialist Party statement, December 5 2001). It is certainly true that the SLP initially attracted forces of a "greater social weight" than the SA has managed to date, but the election results of the two formations at a comparative stage have actually been pretty similar. The SP could equally have mentioned the "early electoral successes" of the London Socialist Alliance (eg, Tottenham, June 2000 - Weyman Bennett, 885, 5.4%: an identical percentage). But Scargill, in reproducing the SP statement, is not in the slightest concerned about accuracy, let alone the truth. He is willing to use any means he can to discredit the SA - this must be the first time ever that he has given another left group so much space, if only in an internal document with a minuscule circulation. It hardly needs stating that the SA has not 'ended' - in tears or otherwise. The SP walkout, while a serious setback, nevertheless left the alliance in reasonable shape. The 120 or so comrades who abandoned the December 1 conference represented less than 20% of those present - there were almost 700 in Logan Hall. And, of course, the SP had been a semi-detached force in any case. For instance, in the general election campaign, with very few exceptions, SP comrades worked only for their own candidates (12 out of 98) and in most places have never played a full part in the SA. When it comes to his 'discussion' of the relative membership figures of the SA and SLP, Scargill is at his most laughable. His "6,200 individual and affiliated membership" is a total fabrication. He admitted back in 1998 that he includes in the figure for individuals everyone who has ever applied to join (less those who bothered to officially resign). At the last SLP congress, in 1999, he put the total for "fully financial" members - ie, those who pay subscriptions - at just over 900 (itself a considerable exaggeration). There were in fact more than 2,000 genuinely paid up members in 1997, but this figure soon plummeted sharply, as comrades left in disgust at Scargill's authoritarian antics, and has remained static at around 400 for the past three years. As for the "affiliated membership", this consists largely of the 3,000 retired miners of the North West, Cheshire and Cumbria Miners Association (NWCCMA), signed up (without the knowledge of most of them) by a couple of Scargill loyalists in Lancashire NUM. The only other 'union affiliate' that has ever been disclosed to the SLP membership is Sheffield Ucatt (100 or so members). Information regarding the other union branches that have allegedly affiliated is considered top secret, presumably because the union leaderships (not to mention the branch members concerned) would no doubt see to it that the link was cut if it ever became public knowledge. By contrast, the figure for SA membership (hardly a "revelation", Arthur) is very much understated. Up to the conference there was no unified membership and the 1,690 quoted represents only those signed up to the national body. In addition at least as many again are not national members but are active in their local Socialist Alliance. Last year Dave Nellist, our national chair before his regrettable departure with his SP comrades, estimated that the true figure was around 3,000. With the new, more centralised constitution we shall soon know. The difference in real numbers was noticeable during the general election, when all but a handful of those who stood for the SLP were paper candidates, who did not mount any sort of campaign. But, no doubt because of Scargill's name, the SLP did almost as well as the SA - its 114 candidates polled within a couple of hundred votes of the 98 representing the alliance. But Scargill had banked on outvoting the SA. That is why he had to resort to blatant falsification in order to 'prove' that Socialist Labour won more votes than the Socialist Alliance, who, he said, "failed miserably". He 'awarded' his party a few hundred extra votes and deducted about the same from the SA's total. You might have thought this would cause a bit of a problem when it came to breaking down the SLP total into individual votes. Not at all: he 'upgraded' the results of a couple of candidates standing in out-of-the-way constituencies and hoped that nobody would notice. Jake Heriot in East Lothian was listed by Scargill as having gained 624 votes (his actual result was 376), while Robert Hawkins, standing in Plymouth Devonport, was said to have gained 364 - in fact he won 303 (Socialist News August-September). Not surprisingly, these fraudulent figures were removed from the SLP website within a few weeks of being posted - although to this day you can read all the candidates' biographies and details of where they stood, there is no longer any indication of how well they polled. We need to make clear that we are talking about tiny forces - and very low results - in relation to both organisations. But, for all Scargill's huffing and puffing, it is clear which of the two is more dynamic and has the most potential, despite the unfortunate departure of the SP. It is just possible that some comrades might take the membership figures quoted by Scargill at face value. But the man really shows his ignorance when he gives us a 'history lesson'. Apparently, "the Labour Party originally embraced in its 'federal structure' the Communist Party". I suspect that even one or two SLP members might know that the CPGB's repeated applications for affiliation were turned down. Scargill is intent on banging home the point that federalism will always turn out to be a disaster. He does not seem to realise the contradiction - the SLP itself has a "federal structure" - even his own grossly inflated figures show that 'affiliated members' easily outnumber the individuals. But, of course, it is not really federalism he opposes: rather it is anything that might diminish his own dictatorial central control. In his NWCCMA federal affiliate, he has a rather useful 3,000-block-vote sledgehammer to wield at the SLP's triennial congresses. Nevertheless it is ironic that his anti-SA ally of convenience, the Socialist Party, takes the diametrically opposite view. The federalism that Scargill claims to abhor is cherished by Peter Taaffe as the only form of organisation suitable for a mass formation. Indeed the SP general secretary seems to believe that democracy and federalism are inseparable, if not identical. Thus, in the SP's most authoritative statement on its departure from the SA we read: ""¦ in the post-Stalinist period there is extreme sensitivity on the question of democracy "¦ fresh layers moving into action [react] very strongly against the slightest whiff of bureaucracy "¦ This makes it doubly important that any new formation has an open, welcoming approach and allows organisations and individuals to join whilst maintaining their own identity. This federal approach does not hold true just for the small forces of the SA, but to future parties and alliances of more significance, numbering tens of thousands." And again: ""¦ we will take part in any future formations that represent a step towards a new party, be they alliances, electoral agreements or (providing they are organised on a democratic, federal basis) broad socialist parties" (statement, December 7, posted on the SP website). So why, in that case, does the SP not base its own organisation on federalism, allowing groups of members to maintain "their own identity"? How can it expect to recruit "new layers" on the basis of centralism? More importantly, how can a mass formation capable of taking on the capitalist state ever be built if "future parties "¦ numbering tens of thousands" will have to adopt an exclusively "federal approach"? After all, the SP still claims that the working class needs a revolutionary party based on democratic centralism ("democratic unity" in Taaffe-speak). The answer to these questions is, of course, that the SP is no more committed to the 'principle' of federalism than the SLP opposes it in practice. Both groupings are sectarian to the core, believing that only they can provide the leadership that the working class needs. Only the tactics are different: the SP tries to build its sect by operating in broader formations which it hopes to dominate and recruit from; the SLP tries to do the same by acting in isolation. In the case of the Socialist Party, the problem stems from a misapprehension it shares with much of the rest of the left. They hold that the revolutionary party, as opposed to 'broader' formations, must be based on agreement with (not acceptance of) its programme. And, since the SP believes that "we have the best available programme to arm the working class for future struggles" (ibid), it is not prepared to undertake disciplined, common actions, such as standing in elections, alongside others who do not share that programme. That is why in the general election it insisted that all organisations should have the right to "stand under the banner of the SA, whilst retaining control of their own campaign" - only the SP demanded this: the rest of us were more than willing to stand on the common SA manifesto, at the same time having the right to issue our own distinctive supplementary literature. In its December 7 statement the SP absurdly claims that it was "left with no choice but to leave" the SA: it was "forced out" as, apparently, it had been totally deprived of its independence within the alliance. Because of the adoption of the new constitution, ""¦ groups of workers will have two choices when faced with the SA: either they give up all rights to continue with their existing campaigns or organisations, or they stay outside of the SA" (my emphasis). All rights? What are they talking about? Which alliance participant has been or will be prevented from pursuing favoured campaigns or, even more absurdly, "maintaining their own identity"? Are we no longer able to declare our membership of the SWP, CPGB, Workers Power, etc? Are the Weekly Worker, Socialist Outlook, Workers' Liberty, etc being forced to close down by virtue of our common membership of the new "SWP front"? No, of course not. The only "right" that virtually nobody in the Socialist Alliance is prepared to tolerate any more is the ability of groups to (mis)use the SA as a convenient electoral name while running exclusivist campaigns. What "rights" did non-SP members have in the 12 constituencies where the Socialist Party stood under the SA banner during the general election? They could either act as foot-soldiers for SP candidates, who distributed only SP material and recruited only to the SP, or they could clear off. On reading the SP statement I could not help wondering how it is that the SP leadership feels able to allow its members to work in existing broad mass organisations, such as trade unions. What federal rights does the SP have in the TGWU or Unison? What of the claim that the new, more centralised SA constitution will repel those "new layers" who react against the "slightest whiff of bureaucracy"? This is rich indeed coming from an organisation that on December 1 backed reserved seats on the SA executive, 40% quotas, 'weighted votes' and minority vetoes. These proposals did not give off so much an unpleasant odour as a putrid stink. The SP supported not democracy, but anarcho-bureaucracy that would have hamstrung the Socialist Alliance, taken away our ability to act and removed our collective strength. Its federalism would have enshrined the right of the part to hold back the whole. No, thank you. But neither do we support the control-freakery of Scargill, which, unfortunately, the SWP has a tendency to ape in its own way. Yes, centralism is necessary, but so is democracy - of the deepest, most thorough-going kind. Alan Fox Scargill crows The Socialist Alliance ends in tears - a lesson for all socialists The Socialist Labour Party warned that the federal 'Socialist Alliance' was bound to end in tears and so it has, with the walkout of the Socialist Party on December 1 2001. Leading affiliates of the alliance have included the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Party (formerly Militant Tendency), some disaffected ex-Labour Party members and an assortment of 'left' political parties and organisations. The Socialist Party - unable to win an argument for a federal structure - walked out of the Socialist Alliance amid bitter recriminations. In a public statement, the Socialist Party has finally admitted that their refusal to join the Socialist Labour Party in 1996 was because the SLP would not accept a proposal from the SP (then Militant Labour) for a federal structure. The Socialist Alliance has 'imploded', in the same way as other well-intentioned federal structures. For example, the Labour Party originally embraced in its 'federal structure' the Communist Party, the Independent Labour Party and other socialist societies/organisations - but the federal structure not only weakened the fight for socialism but led to the expulsion of the Communist Party and, years later, Militant Tendency; meanwhile, under a regime of bans and proscriptions, other bodies such as the ILP departed in disgust. The most interesting revelation in the Socialist Party statement is that the Socialist Alliance, which has claimed to be the UK's largest, fastest growing left political organisation, has a membership of just 1,690, which is far below the SLP's 6,200 individual and affiliated membership. The Socialist Labour Party has always made clear that to win a mass membership and more important mass support amongst workers requires a political party with a clear-cut socialist constitution and manifesto - recent events have shown how right we were. We warned against having any involvement with an 'alliance'. Our members who have stood firm have seen our party's policy completely vindicated. Arthur Scargill general secretary December 13