The continuing rightward drift of New Labour is putting the Labour left under enormous pressure. The more overt and blatant Blair’s embrace of capitalism becomes, the more difficult it is to justify championing the Labour Party as any kind of vehicle for working class advance.
Small wonder then that even the most intransigently Labour-loyal leftists are beginning to have doubts and to discuss at least the possibility of some future break.
Labour Left Briefing has to its credit begun to take up these debates, and December’s issue carries a contribution from Nick Long of Lewisham Socialist Labour Party. He was replying to an article by Don Rocinante in the previous issue, which wrote off the SLP as a viable alternative and predicted imminent splits and collapse.
Comrade Long begins his response using the type of hyperbole Arthur Scargill himself would be proud of. He lists the 51,000 SLP votes in the general election (“the highest left vote since the Communist Party in 1966!”); four million election addresses distributed; six million viewers for the election broadcast – all of which, he says, led to “a doubling of our membership”. He claims that (unspecified) “trade union branches and regions have affiliated” to the SLP.
Talking up the extent of the dissatisfaction amongst the ranks of Labour MPs and MEPs, comrade Long even goes so far as to state that by the time of this weekend’s congress the SLP “could have its first parliamentary representatives!”
However, when it comes to the type of organisation he wants the SLP to be, he is very much at odds with comrade Scargill: “A debate is taking place within the party concerning its direction and organisation. That is a healthy sign. A majority recognise that a centrally controlled Stalinist party is not the way forward and are seeking to work in partnership with other socialists, community activists and environmentalists.”
He gives the example of his own party branch, where “Lewisham SLP comrades have worked closely with the Socialist Party … A Socialist Group has been formed on the council by the SLP and SP and both councillors are working together to support the town hall unions fighting proposals … which will lead to poorer services and reduced pay and conditions for workers …” All very laudable of course. And entirely consistent with comrade Scargill’s ‘constitution’, which lists as one of the SLP’s aims: “To cooperate with all socialist organisations with a view to promoting objects, aims and policies of the party and to take common action with international socialist organisations …” (Clause IV ).
Nevertheless, as we revealed earlier this year, this example of practical cooperation with another socialist organisation brought an immediate and hostile response from Scargill: “I am writing to ask you not to be involved in a so-called ‘Socialist Group’, bearing in mind it is a breach of the constitution” (letter to councillor Tony Link, February 11 1997).
Scargill went on to instruct comrade Link: “… you will not be part of any pact or agreement and certainly not be part of a ‘Socialist Group’ on Lewisham council with members of another political party” (see Weekly Worker March 20 for the full text of his letter).
It is therefore gratifying to learn that comrade Link, with the backing of his CSLP, has continued to put the interests of Lewisham workers before Scargill’s sectarian edicts.
Comrade Long has always been open about his belief in the need for cooperation across the left, and spoke (in a personal capacity) at last month’s meeting of the SP-led Socialist Alliances Network reiterating those views (see Weekly Worker December 4). He has also been involved in recent discussions with the SP split, the Socialist Democracy Group.
However, his attitude to internal party democracy has been far more ambivalent, swinging unpredictably between opposition to and outright support for Scargill’s witch hunt against communists and democrats. But now he clearly states his own view that “the SLP seeks to build a mass inclusive democratic party” (my emphasis Labour Left Briefing December). If this means that he has at last come down firmly on the side of membership rights, that can only be welcomed.
Comrade Long correctly writes that “a refoundation of British socialism is on the agenda”, and adds: “It is likely that the SLP will be important in shaping its direction.” But he is certainly optimistic when he says: “The prospects for … the emergence of a truly socialist party with roots in the working class and trade union movement have never been better.”
This is to see only one side of the political equation. Yes, the ongoing transformation of Labour – from an organisation which claimed to represent workers into an openly bourgeois party – creates a vacuum and gives us the possibility to fill it. On the other hand Blair has been able to get away with silencing opposition to that process inside his party precisely because of the current period of reaction. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the left has been thrown into crisis and socialist ideas discredited.
The best hope for building a mass political organisation of the working class lies in unity around the vital question of party democracy, allowing for the fullest debate and expression of every viewpoint. A genuine socialist party – one that can serve the revolutionary aspirations of the working class – can be built only in that way.