Ronnie McDonald was general secretary of offshore union Oilc from 1992 until his retirement from the post in January. Peter Manson asked him about his decision to join the SLP earlier this year
Why did you join Socialist Labour?
I think it was a natural outcome of my experience of the last eight years in Oilc, and previously, when I was active campaigning for the engineering union from the mid-seventies, mainly in the oil industry.
It is evident that New Labour is no longer the vehicle for providing a parliamentary route for the changes in society and the changes in trade union legislation that we desperately need. And if there is to be a parliamentary option open to the working class, an alternative has to be established.
So from the experiences of the last 10 years in the labour movement and at the sharp end of actual combat it appears to us in Oilc that the vision offered by the SLP seems to be the only sensible option for trade unions who want to see the rights of workers unfettered in the workplace.
Who do you mean by “us” in the context of Oilc?
I mean those of us in Oilc who have joined the SLP.
Has there been a move within the union to affiliate to the SLP?
Not as yet. We had Arthur Scargill up speaking at our conference. The process of discussion and debate is underway at the moment. Hopefully at our next conference in May 1998 there will be a motion to affiliate to the SLP. But I don’t want to second-guess that. One thing about Oilc: it’s a small union, but it is intensely democratic. It is run by the rank and file. Any bureaucrat wanting to manipulate or take any initiative over the heads of the members would do so at their peril.
Did you belong to any other political organisation before you joined Socialist Labour?
No. There are two reasons why I never joined the Labour Party. First, going back to when I was at school in 1962, I was arrested twice as an activist for the Committee of 100. I was coming back round to the idea of the Labour Party in the mid-60s, but my involvement in the big seamen’s strike of 1966 cured me of any inclination to join Labour.
Harold Wilson made a speech alleging the seamen were being manipulated by sinister forces – his ‘reds under the beds’ speech. This was when I was involved in the dispute.
Do you think that socialism can be achieved through legislation in parliament rather than through workers’ action such as that initiated by Oilc?
There are those who say there is only one route and that’s the revolutionary route. That involves insurrection and violence: so be it; that’s the only possible way. They may be right, they may be wrong: I’ll let history judge. In the meantime, I prefer to be realistic. I happen to believe that if the working class are unfettered and unburdened by oppressive law, then that is a necessary first step that can be achieved within a democracy. The situation we have in this country at the moment is that the UK is in breach of international conventions. The whole point is that if domestic legislation leaves us in breach of these conventions, these have to be dismantled, allowing trade unions protection from assault by the employers, supported by unjust law.
You seem to be saying that the SLP should restrict its aims to implementing reforms through parliament to improve the workers’ lot under capitalism.
No, what I’m saying is simply this. My principal purpose is to ensure that working people, in whatever their activity, must be able to operate unfettered by unjust laws. We must be able to effect, through industrial conflict or whatever, the necessary changes. They’re unable to do that at the moment because of the oppressive framework.
Now, changing that means changing the law. The only way to change the law is through parliament. If there’s a quicker route, then I’ll advocate the quicker route. In the meantime while we’re waiting on the great revolution, working people have to be unshackled from unjust law.
Are you active in the SLP yourself?
Yes, our branch in Aberdeen is small, but involved in local issues, especially on the trades council. The area in which I wish to become active is in the trade unions: not just the rank and file, but those of a socialist inclination who exist in the union bureaucracy. The dockers’ dispute is bringing that into focus. More and more the feeling exists that New Labour has hung them out to dry. When that realisation comes home to them, they will have to look for an alternative and the only feasible alternative has to be the SLP.