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16 January 1996

Is Socialist Labour an Alternative?

Miners' leader Arthur Scargill has launched a Socialist Labour Party to challenge Tony Blair's 'New Labour' party, but is it the alternative we need, asks James Heartfield

News of the formation of a Socialist Labour Party was floated last year with the circulation of a discussion paper called 'Future strategy for the left' by Arthur Scargill. In January a small group of trade unionists and members of the Labour Party met to discuss founding the party which, it was announced will be launched on May Day. It seems likely that the new party will challenge Labour at the forthcoming by election in the old mining town of Hemsworth.

The spur to the formation of the new party is the constitutional and policy changes made in the Labour Party under Tony Blair's leadership. Blair weakened the link between Labour and the trade unions by elevating the role of the party members. Blair shifted the party to the right by getting rid of Clause IV of Labour's constitution, which committed the party to public ownership. Blair coined the name 'New Labour' to indicate the changes. Now Scargill wants to lead the left in a breakaway Socialist Labour Party to defend the 'socialist' policies that have been junked by Blair's 'New Labour'.

'Future strategy for the left' outlines Blair's changes:

'one member-one vote, reduction of the trade union bloc vote, and now the abandonment of Clause IV and introduction of new Rules and a constitution which embraces capitalism and adopts the "market philosophy"'.

Scargill's decision to leave the party is significant. It shows just how far Blair has moved new Labour in a reactionary direction. The left of the old Labour Party were the most slavishly loyal section of the party. Despite bans and expulsions throughout the history of the Labour Party the left stayed with Labour throughout its seventy year history. Despite the Labour leadership's betrayal of the miners in the year long strike of 1984-5, Scargill retained his loyalty to Labour - until now. Today Labour leader Tony Blair has made the party into a hostile environment for left wing activists like Scargill.

Clearly the changes have been a shock to Scargill's long held support for the Labour Party. In an article he outlines why he now accepts the charge that Labour cannot be a vehicle for progressive change:

'Many on the left argue that it [the Labour Party] was never socialist, that it was at best social-democratic and that people like me were deluding ourselves in thinking we could campaign for socialism effectively within it. I now accept that argument and believe that New Labour can no longer be a "home" to socialists.' Guardian, 15 January 1996

Of course, if Labour never was socialist, and never was somewhere you could campaign effectively for socialism, then it never was a home for socialists.

The main problem with Arthur Scargill is that he has recognised the problems with the Labour party, but he does not understand the problems of the moment. Today's conditions do not demand a socialist version of the Labour Party but a completely new kind of movement. The barriers to radical change today are new and different from the past. Unfortunately Arthur Scargill has spent too long in Labour Party circles to understand the way that the crime panic or green politics, to give just two examples, undermine a decisive political response to capitalism. Instead of responding to the new problems, the Socialist Labour Party just deals out the old answers - but there is no call for the old answers.

The main drawback in Scargill's strategy is this: The conditions for building a Socialist Labour Party do not exist. Scargill's new party is not a split in the Labour Movement, but a one-man band. The truth is that there is no Labour Movement left to split. The Labour Party has demoralised and demobilised working class people so much that there is no such movement left. You cannot just turn around, say you got it wrong, start again where you left off and expect a mass membership to be waiting in the wings to join you.

In fact official politics has not been about mass movements for some time. The main parties have largely lost their popular bases. Instead political intrigues revolve around individuals who are rarely distinguished by any principled beliefs. In the last few months Members of Parliament like Alan Howarth and Emma Nicholson happily leave one party and join another without any noticeable change in their views.

Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party has more in common with this kinds of personal bickering than his claimed inspiration - the foundation of the Independent Labour Party a hundred years ago. Scargill's split is not representative of any real movement in society. There is no groundswell of opinion demanding the SLP. Rather, Scargill and Blair have started bickering precisely because there is no real demands on Labour. In the past Labour's links with wider society - its connection to the trade union offices on the one hand and to the establishment on the other -would have held the different wings of the party together.

Today Tony Blair does not need Scargill in his party because he does not want trade union support. And Scargill does not need Blair in number ten because New Labour has nothing to offer the rump of the National Union of Miners anyway. Without a movement of popular support for Labour to organise, these two men have discovered that they never had anything in common after all.

But if Arthur Scargill has learnt the lesson that Labour is not interested in helping working people, he still has not understood that Labour's policies never were any good. The programme of policies outlined in 'future strategy for the left' are all drawn from Labour's past: nationalisation, an incomes policy, public spending to create jobs, nuclear disarmament and so on. The overall strategy of trying to change society by calling on the state to reform society is one that has been tried and that failed the test. The sorry history of a welfare state that turned out to be a poverty trap, of nationalised industries that exploited their workers and then threw them on the scrap heap, and of 'socialist' warmongering was a savage disappointment to working class people. They lost interest in Labour because the policy of building socialism through the state offered them nothing.

Scargill is right when he says that we need a real alternative to Blair's New Labour. He is right when he denounces people who continue to support Labour in the hope that they can move it in a progressive direction as dreamers. But his own Socialist Labour Party is no alternative. Its programme shows that, if it were given a chance, it would do all the despicable things that Labour did.

We need a real alternative to New Labour. That alternative will only be built by starting from the beginning. Anyone who wants progressive change needs to get involved in the project of creating a real answer to capitalism that is designed for the twenty-first century, not the nineteenth. The work of building an alternative means more than taking an old programme from Keir Hardie's Independent Labour Party, and hoping the masses will come flocking back. It demands that we set to the pressing task of working out arguments and ideas for today's struggles. That project is the project of Living Marxism.
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