It is now over a year since the first membership meeting of the Socialist Labour Party was held in Conway Hall to discuss policy documents. The election has been set for May Day, a year to the day after our party was formally launched, and our first General Election campaign is in full swing.
Meanwhile, the Labour Party is becoming ever more New Labour, competing (very successfully) with the Tories and Lib Dems on the same territory how best to manage capitalism. Many of the best members of New Labour have already left; a number have joined our party. And still more are growing increasingly dissatisfied. The once super-loyal Labour Left Briefing magazine is holding unprecedented discussions about whether they should call for a vote to all Labour candidates or only the left of the party. There is clear potential for realignment in the ranks of Labour after the election. Many left groups, however, are still wretchedly supporting New Labour.
We in Socialist Labour are well placed to take advantage of this situation. Arthur Scargills courageous call for the formation of a new socialist party means that we are now in a position to present a real alternative to Labours capitalist programme in the General Election campaign, and by doing so, to attract more socialists into our ranks.
This raises some absolutely fundamental political issues, to do with our relationship to the Labour Party. Should we stand candidates against the left of the Labour Party? Should we call for a vote for the Labour left, or even any Labour candidate, if we are not standing ourselves? These questions are being hotly debated throughout the party, and policies have been variously hinted at, but the NEC has unfortunately not expressed a clear view on this to the membership, only coming up with the vague, to say the least, line of vote SLP or vote socialist.
Calling on the entire working class to refuse any vote to the New Labour traitors is a crucial stance for Socialist Labour to take. We need to establish ourselves as a real alternative to the Labour Party. We must do so by drawing the fundamental political lines. A vote that is not for the working class is a vote against the working class.
Some comrades argue that in order to attract the left-wing of the Labour Party to our party after the election, we need to support them before the election. Not so. All we would achieve by this is contradicting the point that socialists should be with us and not with New Labour.
Many of our future members are still inside the Labour Party. But when they do see the futility of staying with Blair, they will have more respect for an independent party than for those fawning around the edges of New Labour. These comrades have illusions in Campaign Group MPs. We want to intersect this by putting these so-called socialists on the spot, and highlighting the contradictions between the party manifesto they stand on and their professed beliefs. An example of this is a proposal by comrade Geoff Palmer to his constituency party in Hackney North and Stoke Newington, a letter (reprinted over page) calling on Diane Abbott to put her money where her mouth is.
A Socialist Labour Party
If we set up as a vibrant and political alternative to Tony Blairs so-called New Labour Party, then we have the potential to attract socialists from the Labour Party, trade unionists as individuals and through union affiliations, and many members of the working class and other oppressed groups. Creating this viable alternative is an essential task, and the current election campaign is a crucial test of our ability to do so.
This is a crucial period for the party. We have achieved much, but we also have to look honestly at the problems we face. The leaderships failure to take a firm line against voting for the Labour Party has the potential to damage our changes of forming this real alternative to Labour. Other actions and attitudes of the leadership also show worrying signs of damage to the party and its reputation in particular a fear of internal debate and discussion, which leads to depriving the membership of democratic rights.
An argument is circulating within the party that we should not be holding discussions during the General Election campaign. There are three reasons why this is wrong. First, the issue of whether to vote Labour is part of our election campaign; it is not a question that can be put aside to a time when we can discuss it at our leisure. Second, it is only through debate, discussion and education that members will increase our ability to put forward party policies to the voters we talk to in canvassing and street stalls. Third, the process of trying to prevent political discussion during the campaign has had lead to the leadership avoiding, and sometimes creating, issues that damage the campaign itself.
Discussing Electoral Strategy
The Labour party issue came to a head when the Morning Star newspaper printed a press release announcing that a group of SLP comrades in the Brent East constituency had decided to stand a candidate against the so-called Labour leftwinger, Ken Livingstone, and Arthur Scargill immediately denied this in a statement to the Morning Star.
At a London members election rally on 25 February, party member Barbara Duke circulated a letter to Arthur Scargill objecting to his implied suggestion in the Morning Star that we should not, in principle, stand against Livingstone (see opposite).
This, and the question of whether to vote Labour at all, became one of the main topics of discussion at the rally. Intended as a meet the candidates evening, with a pep talk to encourage party activists working in their campaigns, it actually went further than this to touch the edges of some important political discussion.
But only the edges. Although the majority of the meeting seemed in favour of opposition to a Labour vote, the leadership did not further clarify our position on standing against Livingstone or other Labour lefts, despite a direct question. And when comrades raised the question of the European union and whether party policy was correct on this question, Arthur Scargill quite explicitly said that policy was fixed, and we should not even be discussing it during the election campaign.
An Unfortunate Incident
This rare London-wide gathering was seriously marred by an incident which occurred outside just before the meeting started. Sharp words were exchanged between a paper seller from another organisation and Peckham SLP member, Tony Goss, which lead to threats and attempted violence from Goss towards, not only the paper seller, but to the president of the Vauxhall CSLP Alan Gibson and to Vauxhall member Barry Biddolph. A more serious incident was only prevented by the intervention of other comrades present in the foyer at the time.
Alan Gibsons letter to the NEC describing this incident and asking for action from the NEC is reprinted opposite. At the time of printing, it remains unanswered.
Also reprinted is a resolution moved by comrades in the Hampstead & Highgate CSLP, together with the General Secretarys reply. This reply is notable for not saying what position the NEC actually took, but appears to blame the Hampstead & Highgate comrades for internal warfare rather than the instigator of the incident, Tony Goss.
It is indeed unfortunate that such an incident occurred in the middle of an election campaign this does not mean we cannot or should not respond to it. In fact, if we do not respond this could do serious harm to the image of the party and consequently the election campaign itself.
The party leadership seems to rely heavily on Goss knowledge of electoral campaigning. But they cannot ignore the accusations against him. Goss already has a history of threatening violence within the party, primarily around the breaking up of the South London wide branch last year. Most Socialist Labour members in South London will no longer work with him because of his extreme reaction to having a decision he made as chair overturned by the branch.
Violence is no solution to debates between members of the workers movement. If we are seen to condone this in any way, or even ignore it, we will never be taken seriously as a party that can achieve anything for the working class.
This incident highlights the need for the party to urgently develop a set of disciplinary procedures though which complaints by one party member against another can be judged through democratic party channels. Tony Goss should answer for his actions to his fellow party members.
Null and Void
This kind of procedure is also necessary in the case of Stan Keable, the prospective candidate in Brent East, and other SLP comrades who have had their membership voided by the leadership, usually accompanied by accusations of being in another organisation and thereby in defiance of the constitution. These voidings have often taken place against the wishes of the comrades own branch.
Whether the individuals are in fact acting contrary to the constitution has never properly been determined because there is rarely any evidence provided and it has certainly not been examined by a party appeals or disciplinary procedure because such a thing does not exist. Instead the whole process is carried out by leadership dictat, conjuring up memories of Labour Party witch hunts.
Brent East was, until recently, part of a larger party collective covering most of West London. The West London branch had discussed electoral tactics over many months, selecting seats to prioritise, and eventually deciding that Brent East was not one of their targeted seats. This sensible region-wide approach, however, was completely disregarded by the small group of comrades who formed the Brent East CSLP and selected a candidate. Ironically enough, this is the approach suggested by the NEC, though how a tiny group of comrades in Brent East, or anywhere else, expect to run a campaign that will be to the credit of the SLP without the active support of comrades in neighbouring constituencies is anyones guess.
On a more fundamental level, this was an undemocratic act, going against the decision of a wider collective which Stan Keable and other Brent East comrades had been involved in. Despite this, all party members should defend Keable against the outrageous voiding of his membership in a rival publication with no recourse to appeal.
The clause in the constitution forbidding membership of other organisations is justified by the leadership as being designed to avoid being swamped by other, larger, organisations in the early days of the party. In practice, it has turned out to represent a fear of articulate members with clear political ideas who want to win the party to those ideas. Political ideas cannot be dismissed with rules and regulations they must be tested in real life, in real politics. We should have no fear of them. This clause in the constitution needs to be removed so the SLP can become a forum for open debate on how to achieve socialism and liberate the working class from the destructive hold of capitalism.
The Disbanding of Vauxhall
Nowhere has this fear of political debate been more apparent than in the recent disbanding of the Vauxhall CSLP and the suspension of its entire membership. Members of the Vauxhall branch and their election candidate, Ian Driver, have sent out an appeal to party members (see page 7), which gives the background to this bureaucratic act. The level of support that the comrades receive in this appeal will be a crucial test of the health of the party.
On pages 8 and 9 of this bulletin is a document entitled A Marxist Programme for the SLP put forward by the president of the Vauxhall CSLP Alan Gibson as part of discussions within the branch. It is a clear summary of major points in the Socialist Labour policy documents and where changes are most urgently needed. This document is a valuable contribution to much needed ongoing discussions on policy. Such discussions can only help our party.
A Need for Discussion
The fear of discussion and dissent, combined with Arthur Scargills comments that we should have no debate on policy during the election campaign, represent a serious flaw in the development of the party. We are a new party, and while we have provisionally determined a set of policy statements, there is still a long way to go. We cannot let the election hold up this process or we will not be a party worth voting for.
An unfortunate precedent is being set in the North London branch, where branch discussions have been completely subsumed into the election campaign of Pat Sikorski in Hornsey & Wood Green. Attendance has fallen dramatically. All discussion is now over election tactics. Suggestions of discussions on policy have been rejected by leading members. Although Hornsey & Wood Green, and other CSLPs, are gradually building groups in their areas, other comrades left in tiny units are feeling even more isolated.
We need to urgently reforge the larger party units that used to hold dynamic discussions around party policy. There need to be more London-wide discussions such as the election rally. The authors of this article must apologise for its London-based focus, but we believe that this process of fragmentation is also harming the building of the party throughout the country.
The question of the Labour Party, being so immediately relevant, has managed to raise its head, despite these restrictions. A group of comrades in the South West of the country are circulating a statement calling for a vote to all Labour candidates where the SLP is not standing. A South London political forum held a debate between comrades Ian Dudley and Jose Villa on the question of whether to vote Labour, in which the meeting overwhelming voted to endorse Dudleys position of no vote to any Labour candidate. Clearly there are differences within the party and there is therefore still much to discuss on this question.
And on many others. Ian Dudley has expanded his views on the Labour Party and others important issues in a paper entitled Where Are We Going?, co-written with two other London comrades. This points to a lot of the important weaknesses of the current policy, and to questions which are being discussed in one way or another throughout the party.
An underlying theme is the nature of the state. Would the capitalist state sit by and let an SLP government institute socialism? Are we right to say that Britain is better off without Europe, even under capitalism? Are we right to demand that Ireland be united, even under capitalism? Or is the task of British socialists to demand that the troops of our own state be withdrawn, and then to struggle for a working class solution in joint struggle with the Irish working class? How do we make the link between minimum demands and the necessity of getting rid of the capitalist state?
It seems obvious to most party members that we are not all in agreement on these questions. A new party would hardly expect to be. However, comrade Scargill responded to being sent a copy of Where Are We Going? with a letter saying that he wasnt aware there was a debate going on!
Towards the Congress
It is very unfortunate that the party congress has to be put back to October. But this does give us the advantage of time. We need to open a wide-ranging period of internal party discussion, beginning now and taking off in earnest immediately after the election. Such discussion could be carried out in party bulletins and in larger groupings of comrades in the regions, wherever it is possible to get comrades together. As we learn from our first General Election campaign and our first 18 months of existence we will be able to significantly improve on our current policies and practices and thereby attract many new members to the party.
However, this can only be realised if the membership is able to participate in an organised and centralised discussion around all the above issues, not limited to half a dozen comrades in a CSLP discussing a conference motion.
It will only be possible if the attacks on independent minded individuals and branches cease now; if branches such as Vauxhall are given the freedom to run an active and viable election campaign; if the leadership unequivocally condemns violence in the workers movement; and if Socialist Labour has, and is seen to have, a fair and democratic internal life, with an appeals and disciplinary procedure when necessary.
And we need to break politically as well as organisationally with Stalinism and Labourism two ideologies that have clearly failed to serve the interests of the working class.