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
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
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
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
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
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