SARAH STEPHEN, who was recently in Scotland, spoke to TOMMY SHERIDAN, Scottish Militant Labour councillor, about Militant Labour and the progressive movement in Scotland.
Could you give our readers a bit of background on your organisation and yourself?
Scottish Militant Labour was formed as a political party in February 1992. Up until that time, Militant had been an organisation within the British Labour Party, trying to influence the party and change its policy from within.
We were formed as a consequence of the massive shift to the right within Labour, which we think is quite fundamental; it's not just a temporary move. We also made the decision to form an independent party because nationalism at the time was being promoted with a left-wing tinge. We think nationalism is a threat to the unity of working-class people, not just in Scotland, England and Wales, but throughout the world.
So we formed Scottish Militant Labour as a radical socialist alternative to a right-wing Labour Party and a nationalist SNP [Scottish Nationalist Party].
I was elected to council from a prison cell in Edinburgh. I was sentenced in January 1992 to a six-month imprisonment for attending a warrant sale — which is a sale of a person's goods for a debt they don't pay. It was an unemployed woman who couldn't pay her poll tax.
We were banned by a court order from attending the sale and trying to prevent it. We ignored that, and 350 of us attended and prevented the sale. There were too many of us. We surrounded the van where the goods were; they couldn't open the doors. There were scuffles and battles with police, but at the end of the day they had to call the auction off and we won. The woman got her goods back, there was no warrant sale and there hasn't been since, which we were very proud of. But as a consequence of that, I was taken to court in January and sentenced to six months.
While I was inside, we stood in the April general elections of 1992. I stood as a candidate for Glasgow Pollok. It was a difficult campaign as you can imagine, from behind bars. But we managed to use the system to the full. We demanded the right to hold press conferences, so we became the first party to hold press conferences from inside a jail. In the last week of the campaign we got the use of a mobile phone in prison. This gave a whole new meaning to the word cellular phone.
We fought the campaign on a very radical socialist program, talking about the need for fundamental change, revolution in Britain. We secured 20% of the vote — 6200 votes. We came second; it was half of Labour's majority.
In the following month there were council elections, and we decided to field several candidates. I was one of them again, from inside the prison. Remarkably enough for a party only a few month old, we won four of seven seats, and we were second in the other three. We are the only party in Scottish history to have a councillor elected from a prison cell.
Since then we have embarked on a lot of electoral campaigns. We have always beaten the nationalists, which I think is good. We won two other by-elections at the end of 1993, but lost the seats in 1994. However, in 1994 we actually had more votes cast for us than when we won the seats initially. We lost because the Labour vote had recovered, as the Tories were in a disastrous position.
We use elections as part of the class struggle and not as a substitute for it. We use it to try to promote our program, to try to raise the big idea of socialism yet again because it has been battered and bruised over the years with the ideological onslaught of Bush, Reagan and Thatcher, obviously the problems of Stalinism, which have given socialists such a bad name.
Our other work has been in campaigns in the streets, defending people from sheriff officers, campaigning against water privatisations, Criminal Justice Act, local campaigns against VAT, facilities for youth etc.
As a revolutionary, what do you see as your role in a council position?
The role of revolutionary socialists in bourgeois democracy generally is that of shop stewards in a workplace — to defend the people they represent and to try to promote their interests.
Therefore we have to represent those people and always promote the idea of fundamental change. But you can still win reforms of a temporary nature. So when someone comes to me and complains about the ceiling in the house that's leaking or the dampness in the toilet and how there's fungus on their wall, or how they are living in a three bedroom apartment but they've got five adults, I've got to try to deal with those problems as best I can.
Housing tends to be the biggest concern of the people I represent. In my area of Glasgow, council housing makes up about 85% of all people's accommodation. It's crumbling, falling apart, they're not investing in it. The Tories are cutting back the money they make available for investment. Labour aren't doing anything about it; they're implementing cuts rather than fighting the Tories.
Could you describe some of the other campaigns Militant has been involved in?
By far the biggest was the anti-poll tax campaign, which at its start took a huge amount of work to build. The big demos had to be built, and we had to build a federation which involved a lot of other left-wing groups, but also a lot of other people who had not been in politics before.
We did that successfully from 1988 right through until now, because we are still defending people, even though most other activists have left the scene of battle. The campaign showed in action that a radical socialist force could lead something.
You have to show that you can deliver the goods — unlike the SWP [Socialist Workers Party] who are good at phraseology and radical slogans, but when it came to defending people on the ground and developing a strategy, fell apart because they don't have the ability to work with others.
Our main objective is to try to defeat the Tories. We want to build Militant, but you can t rate the interests of your party above the interests of the working class.
Water privatisation has also been very important for us in Scotland. Water has been privatised in England and Wales since 1989, and there's been a massive increase in the price for ordinary families, thousands of water supplies disconnected, a return of diseases like dysentery, cholera. There's been a ten-fold increase in reported cases of dysentery because people have had water cut off because they couldn't afford to pay their bills.
We organised a campaign, promised mass non-payment of private water bills. We occupied the stock exchange and brought them to a standstill. We occupied the house of the Scottish office minister and cut off his water to show him what we weren't going to let happen to us. We occupied the merchant bankers who were the main advisers to the government's privatisation plans.
We have pressured local Labour authorities to push for a referendum on water. We won that last April and it was an incredible turnout. Over one million people voted in Strathclyde, and 96% were opposed to the changes.
The government has now ignored that and is going ahead with the water changes. So we are certainly calling for non-cooperation.
We are involved in the opposition to VAT on fuel. We defended families who couldn't pay it. We stopped people from being disconnected.
We have been more recently involved in the criminal justice campaign. We were instrumental in forming the Scottish Alliance against the Bill, which is a broad front which includes environmentalists, anarchists, other socialist groups, nationalists and other people generally on the left.
We have had several demos, all of them illegal. We've refused to apply for permission, on the basis that what this act is about is banning opposition. So if we can show right from the outset that we are not going to accept being banned, then we can take the fight to them.
In June in the European elections we stood a candidate for the first time. It gave us an opportunity to be even more clear about our position on the big issues of the day because it was not fought on local issues but national and international issues. We took 8% of the vote. We were beaten by the nationalists, but we expected that because of the size of their organisation. Remarkably enough, we beat the Tories.
Could you say a bit more about Militant the organisation?
In the west of Scotland is where our biggest membership is; we are weak in the east, not so weak in the north. In the west our membership is about 430 and in the rest of Scotland around 100. There are about 200-250 members who are active out of that, involved in local communities, selling papers, holding meetings, in campaigns.
Could you elaborate a bit more on your attitude to independence and the SNP?
Militant believes in a strong Scottish parliament. We believe we should have more say over the affairs in Scotland, but we don t want a Scottish parliament that becomes a talk shop. We want a socialist Scottish parliament. We want not only fiscal power to raise taxes but more importantly economic power to take companies under public ownership.
Without that type of power what you are going to have is nothing more than a talk shop, which won't in any way meet the aspirations of working-class people.
We don t support complete independence because we think independence by its very nature will promote division and undermine the unity of the working class throughout England, Wales and Scotland. We believe there is room for a much more federal approach to the question of self-determination — the idea of a socialist federation in Britain where Wales, England and Scotland would have fundamental powers over their respective economies.