Can British socialists get together? Since breaking with the British Labour Party in 1992, Militant Labour has rapidly gained an independent profile and is perhaps the most influential socialist group in Britain today. This was reflected in its role in the fight against the poll tax; 34 members were jailed during the campaign, and one, Tommy Sheridan, won election to a council seat in Scotland while still imprisoned. In England, high profile members such as Dave Nellist received 40% of the vote in Coventry in May 1995. ANNE O'CALLAGHAN and ARUN PRADHAN talked to PETER TAAFFE, general secretary of Militant Labour, about the new Socialist Labour Party announced by miners' union leader Arthur Scargill. Question: What led to Arthur Scargill's call for a new Socialist Labour Party (SLP)?
The main reason is the big disappointment amongst the more politically aware workers and youth. There is an economic and social crisis, with official unemployment of 3 million, and one third of the population don't have a secure income. There is tremendous anger at conditions under the Tories, but at the same time the leadership of the Labour party has embraced the market and "the virtues of capitalism". Sadly, the Labour party has abolished Clause Four [advocating "common ownership of the means of production"] and weakened its links with the unions. From being traditionally working class, you now have middle class and even upper middle class people who have moved into the party. So a whole layer of workers in Britain feel disenfranchised. Question: What was the process of creating the SLP?
Scargill had been discussing the idea in a private, I'd even say in a secretive, way. Then he came to a meeting in November and just announced that he was in favour of it. Within one month, a constitution was produced. We were involved in some of the discussions; a few members such as Tommy Sheridan were invited, but myself and people like Dave Nellist were excluded. We disagree with this process. You don't formulate a constitution before a party is launched — you open it up for discussion. Workers and youth, who such a party would appeal to, would be alienated by anything that is top down, bureaucratic and that smacks of the old parties. So we're not very happy with this process. Question: What sort of constitution would you advocate for the SLP? If excluded, how will you approach this new formation?
To appeal to youth and workers, you must be open, democratic, have a pluralistic approach, be prepared to enter debate and dialogue, not to denounce those who disagree with you, but to discuss and try to arrive at an agreement. And even if you don't agree, you can still bloc in alliances and find some collaboration. We've done this in Scotland in the Defiance Alliance, fighting the Criminal Justice Act, or in the justice campaign against racism, or Youth Against Racism in Europe. We do not want to pursue what we've been accused of doing in the past, a kind of entryist position. We were always open about what we stood for in the Labour Party. The Labour leadership said you can say what you want as long as you don't organise; our crime was being too organised, too effective, so we were expelled. We will not go through that experience again. We openly proclaim what we are, what we intend to do. That is why we state that the SLP should have a federal character. It should have different groups involved. There's quite a big left in Britain, but it's fragmented and scattered. So why not have a party that appeals to that layer, to the anti-poll-tax activists, the road and environmental protesters, the animal rights protesters and so on? There are models for this, such as the United Left in Spain, which is half a party and half an electoral alliance. It's not an accident that these formations are developing, and sooner or later it will develop in Britain. We want the SLP to succeed even though to some extent they're competing for the same ground that we're on. Question: What would you say to some left groups which have criticised the SLP initiative as occurring at "the wrong time"?
I don't think there's any ideal time. People say, "Wait until after the election", then Labour will get in and there will be disillusionment so people will say, "Now is not the time", then near the next election it will be "Wait until after the election". When the Labour Party first stood, you had workers who said, "Now is not the time". Labour candidates were stoned by miners in Barnsley who said, "We should stick with the Liberal Party; it might not be perfect, but stick with it". Where would we be today if they had stuck with the Liberal Party? If you're a socialist with vision, you have to be a step ahead of the way that working people will move. Working people will fight, but they look for symbols of resistance. The SLP could receive the support of tens of thousands in the first period. It flies the banner of socialism, it puts it back on the agenda to a much wider audience than we could do by ourselves. Why not combine the weight of the left as a whole to reach a mass audience? Question: How has this process unfolded in Scotland?
In Scotland it's a bit ahead for a number of reasons. It's where the poll tax first came down, where we concentrated our fight and initially had the biggest effect. We created an open, independent organisation [Scottish Militant Labour] there first, then we discussed opening up towards other forces such as the Socialist Movement, the left of the Scottish Nationalist Party and so on. The SLP will probably be quite weak in Scotland. If Labour win, then there will be elections for a Scottish assembly. We will be involved in the Socialist Alliance, in which Scottish Militant Labour will field candidates alongside candidates from the Socialist Movement and so on. So we maximise the greatest possible left vote, and within the campaign, people can put forward their own ideas. Question: What hope do you see for building a broader movement for socialism in Britain, in the context of a global crisis of Stalinism and social democracy?
The collapse of Stalinism was used to discredit socialism, but in the long term it has cleared the decks for genuine socialism. It's the same with social democracy, but delayed; social democratic parties have borrowed the ideas of the market just at the time when the market is going to be more discredited than for decades. The idea that the market has triumphed with one third of the population underemployed or unemployed is ridiculous. [Labour leader Tony] Blair's model is Keating and Hawke and the Australian Labor Party. They've pioneered the way for the kind of things that Blair will do to welfare and unions. But the British Labour Party will be in a different situation to Hawke and Keating, where there was a little leeway with an economic boom. Blair will come to power in an economic crisis, and this sort of social democracy is or is in the process of being discredited. I believe that the new generation will show tremendous ability to struggle. This generation will be looking for a socialist alternative, and then through experience will look for a revolutionary alternative. The task at this period is to open up a dialogue with Marxists from a range of backgrounds. That is why we welcome fraternal links with the Democratic Socialist Party in Australia, why we've agreed to have a comrade on the editorial board of Links.
It is through exchanges like these that the left can begin to be rebuilt. I'm very optimistic for the future.