A Party of Our Own (Part IV): A Socialist Alternative

February 4, 2013 12:00 pm

After forty years of work within Labour, by 1991 the Marxists of the Militant Tendency were virtually emptied out of the party for fighting Thatcher’s unpopular poll tax.

socialismThe Labour leadership had opposed the mass campaign of civil disobedience and told people to obey the law, pay the Tory poll tax, sit tight and wait for a Labour government. The Militant socialists, however, provided the organisational background to the movement that defeated the tax and finally led to the unseating of the most unpopular prime minister in modern times.

But Militant members were to become victims of their own success. By fighting back, political and media opprobrium rained down on their heads and – as with the time of the Liverpool City Council – the Labour leadership were urged to expel socialists if Kinnock was to prove his party had turned from leftwing policies to make his party ‘electable’.

It was for this that the witch hunt, instigated back in the mid-1980s, now went into full gear to offer ‘final proof’ that they were no longer ‘old’ Labour, the party would be in ‘safe hands’ and present no threat to capitalism. By being at the forefront of the anti-poll tax campaign, hundreds of Militant members exposed themselves to expulsion from Labour. They were identified (actually photographed in a lot of cases) selling the ‘Militant’ paper, calling for non-payment and for socialist policies.

Open, grassroots campaign

Unable to combat Militant members with reasoned, open political debate, Labour’s officialdom used bureaucratic methods to boot out socialists, many of whom held party membership for twenty or more years.

In Liverpool, one sitting councillor, Lesley Mahmood, was blocked from standing as prospective parliamentary candidate in favour of witch hunter Peter Kilfoyle. She and her supporters then campaigned in the Walton by-election in 1991 when leftwinger MP Eric Heffer died.

Mahmood led an open, grassroots campaign, holding several public meetings. It was a by-election that attracted an unusual level of media attention, most of it anti-Militant. She eventually polled only 2,608 votes compared to the 20,000-plus for Kilfoyle. Most voters still had faith in Labour as the only viable alternative to the Tories and supported the official candidate. That faith was to hold fast into the next Labour government before it was to be squandered.

‘Workers’ MPs on Workers’ Wages’

Then there were two Labour MPs who were also socialists – ‘Workers’ MPs on Workers’ Wages’ – Dave Nellist and Terry Fields (a third, Pat Wall, had died in 1987). Both fought against the poll tax. Terry Fields went to prison for 60 days in solidarity with the people who had voted for him. Both were expelled in time for the 1992 general election. It was Kinnock’s latest bid for power and another opportunity to demonstrate Labour was a ‘Militant-free zone’.

labour roseBoth Nellist and Fields ran as ‘Real Labour’ candidates and won credible votes, but the local electorate felt they had to vote for Labour to defeat the Tories – as they so often told canvassers on the doorstep.

It was not to be. Kinnock, despite his re-labelling of the Labour Party – the prettified red rose emblem, the ‘New Realism’ manifesto that jettisoned principles for the sake of a media-friendly manifesto – lost a second election and resigned as Labour leader.

The after-effects of such a tumultuous period did not leave Militant unaffected. By now, most of its members expelled from Labour, any socialists remaining in the party had to choose whether they remained politically active or keep their heads down to avoid being expelled. Could they work effectively anymore within Labour?

Furthermore, respectable votes attained by Nellist and Fields, and the successes of Militant members in Glasgow City Council elections (Tommy Sheridan among them) presented the Tendency a new direction for more ‘open work’ as an independent political formation. Militant was now a household name and were known for their campaigning and their socialism. Following a conference in Bridlington in 1993, it was decided to form a new party – the Militant Labour Party. This was later changed to the Socialist Party in 1995. At the top of their agenda was to help build a new, mass workers’ party from the bottom up.

New Labour, a fully-fledged capitalist party

They entered the arena at the most difficult of times. Fresh in everybody’s memory was the recent fall of Stalinism (1989-1991) and the break up of the USSR due to decades of brutal bureaucratic strangulation. The demise of Stalinism provided the international capitalist class a huge propaganda prize – ‘capitalism has won!’ came the cry, amid wall-to-wall documentaries and books to help spell out that ‘capitalism is good, socialism is bad’. It was, allegedly, the ‘end of history’ according to one capitalist triumphalist.

After eighteen years of Thatcherism, which extended beyond her time in office in the (incapable) hands of John Major’s government, more people were prepared to vote for Labour’s new leadership under Tony Blair. This they did to landslide proportions and, to many people, this really did seem the ‘dawning of a new day’. However, as those former Militant members now in the Socialist Party, predicted: ‘New Labour has moved decisively to the right and has become a fully-fledged capitalist party.’tony blair

The Militant Labour Party (soon to become the Socialist Party) didn’t waste much time in re-grouping. By 1993, after a series of discussions and conferences with other groups and trade union members the ‘Socialist Alliance’ (SA) was formed as a loose federation of those on the left who would campaign together and stand candidates in forthcoming elections. The SA was strong in the North-West, the Midlands, London and particularly in Scotland.

Despite the unfavourable conditions due to the massive initial popularity of Blair’s ‘New Labour’, by the end of the 1990s, they achieved minor gains, upto eleven council seats around the country. But by 1999, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) began to dominate the SA and the Socialist Party could no longer take part as democracy was being closed down when SWP dictatorial methods began to tear the Alliance apart.

‘Committee for a Workers’ International’

In Scotland, it was a different story. For long, Labour had been Scotland’s ‘establishment party’ and so it was easier to form a stronger oppositional party of the left to counterpose the nationalism of the SNP. The Scottish Socialist Party grew out of the Scottish Socialist Alliance and gained six Members of the Scottish Parliament following the election of 2003. But, by this time, those around Tommy Sheridan had split away from the ‘Committee for a Workers’ International’ (CWI) to which the Socialist Party was affiliated, and consequently, its socialist outlook diluted and took on a kind of  ‘left reformist’ outlook.

Since then, the media trials and tribulations of Tommy Sheridan have resulted in a downturn of support in the Scottish Socialist Party following his imprisonment for perjury.  Party members testified against their former comrade in his fight against the Murdoch press and the alleged ‘smear campaign’ against him that still rumbles on to this day. Subsequently, Sheridan parted from the SSP and is now a member of a new formation – ‘Solidarity’.

Following the exit from the Socialist Alliance, by 2007, the Socialist Party launched the ‘Campaign for a New Workers’ Party’ (CNWP), highlighting the need for a political voice for ordinary working class people. It was not only the record of the Blair’s government since 1997 that had (i) stuck rigidly to Tory spending restrictions (ii) attacked workers on strike (such as the firefighters’ union and the petrol blockades) and (iii), most notoriously, the launching of the war in Iraq.

Each provided more proof (and further disgust) that Labour no longer listened to working class people and, in particular, the organised working class in the trade union movement that helped to fund the party.

Political consciousness

These disparities made it clear – certainly by the advent of Blair’s replacement, Gordon Brown – that access to Labour as a vehicle for social change in favour of working people was no longer available. The Labour Party’s continued adherence to the capitalist system’s demands meant banking crisisthe working class were without a relevant voice.

But, as Marx said, ‘economic conditions dictate political consciousness’.

How those ‘economic conditions’ have changed the ballgame! Within a year of the Socialist Party launching the CNWP, the worst international economic disaster since 1929 swept around the globe.

The late historian Eric Hobsbawm commented that 2008’s banking crisis was capitalism’s ‘Berlin Wall’. But, unlike the Berlin Wall, capitalism will always recover to a certain extent, if it is allowed to, and keep its grip on the world economy if no alternative is put forward to counteract it.

Witness the movements of people that have sprung up in opposition to the capitalist orthodoxy in the last period – the ‘Occupy’ movement; the ‘Arab Spring’; the European workers’ strike waves, particularly in Greece and Spain; the magnificent fighting campaigns of the South African miners; and the growing anti-cuts fight here in Britain’s communities, spearheaded by a number of trade unions.

Socialist Party members have been at the forefront of these battles here and have helped to build the increasingly influential National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) that has acted as a lever to national demonstrations and strikes last year and 2011. On the election front, they have also helped to build the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (2010) to offer a socialist alternative. Granted, their received votes have been small, but in local elections their total percentage in votes has inched forward.

The diametrically opposed rightwing UKIP has taken twenty years to reach the point where it stands now, serving mainly as a receptacle for disgruntled, rightwing, Eurosceptic Tories. In two years, the Socialist Party has gained fertile ground for the future to offer a real alternative to the ‘three wings of the same capitalist party’ – which is what, in effect, the main political parties are.

What is needed is for our trade unions to stop funding Labour, disaffiliate, and form our own working class, socialist party. A party that will then implement socialist policies that will benefit the millions, not the millionaires – truly, a party of our own.

  • Brian

    The Socialist Party does a lot of things, just not putting forward a clear revolutionary alternative. Whereas its smaller splinter, the IMT still wants to restablish old Labour by turning the clock of new Labour back the SP is trying to found a new old Labour Party, Labour part 2 so to say. In the Unions the SP is critical of all union bureaucrats apart from the one supporting the NSSN. Instead of combating the bureaucracy and its stiffeling influence they declare a partial peace. The sister group of the French Lutte Ouvriere has criticized these things quite well already 17 years ago: http://www.union-communiste.org/index.php?EN-archp-show-1996-6-442-2276-x.html

    I agree we need a party of our own, but a revolutionary communist one and not Labour Mark 2.

    • ChrisRobinson

      Brian, thanks for your comments. ‘A clear revolutionary alternative’? Take a look at the back page of the Socialist newspaper and see our ‘transitional programme’. I think you’ll find it is quite revolutionary and certainly light years ahead of any ‘Old Labour Mark 2 formation. Why would we want to turn the clock back to ‘old Labourism’, a mere halfway house between capitalism and socialism. Since its early history, the Labour Party was, at base, working class but with a leadership steeped in a bourgeois capitalist outlook, on that I think we are agreed. The leadership was pushed reluctantly (or should I say dragged kicking and screaming?) towards Labour’s ‘leftwing reformist’ programme of 1945, reforms underwritten by the US Marshall Plan to revive much of western Europe as a buffer state against encroaching Stalinism from the east. The post-war period saw a relative upswing in the living standards of working class people, but, in the end, once capitalism grew more confident such concessions, certainly since 1973, have been largely attacked and/or clawed back. A process which socialists within Labour (Militant – Socialist Party’s forerunner) and without after our expulsion.
      We are trying to build a mass socialist party of the working class and also remain flexible in tactics yet unmovable in overall strategy. Sometimes being flexible to achieve our aims means working with others who might not fully share some of our opinions but we also believe those on the left and revolutionary left can – at certain periods – benefit from marching separately under our own banners yet striking together, as the saying goes. We orientate ourselves to those who are in struggle whether that is a leftwing reformist such as the two expelled Labour councillors in Southampton recently expelled for standing against the cuts, or with those left-leaning trade union leaders such as Bob Crow or Len McCluskey who DO have some bureaucratic tendencies and, in the latter case, hopes about ‘re-claiming’ Labour. But, in doing so, in working with such forces in the labour movement does not mean we compromise our programme or our aim. We may, however, be flexible with our tactics as with our fight in the Liverpool City Council struggle when, for the sake of solidarity with other councils in the rate battle, we agreed to set no rate though we disagreed at the time because a ‘no rate’ policy would mean we would run out of money and people would suffer. However, when most of those councils backed down, with the exception of Lambeth, we no longer felt bound to such a policy and returned to our nine per cent rate, still refusing to raise it to 15% as the Tories (and Labour by the way) demanded. So, to reiterate, flexible in tactics, firm in overall strategy. To obstinately stick to a tactic no matter what objective conditions develop would be silly and counter-productive. As now, I note, the article you recommended, is way out of date as, indeed, workers are increasingly looking for a new political alternative, some may have found it in (help us) UKIP or the (help us even more) BNP, that is why it is all the more urgent to promote such movements as NSSN and TUSC, which are, in fact, making slow but, yes, some progress. Things being as they are in these uncertain, tumultuous days, those objective conditions, odf course, can changed very rapidly…remember the east European revolutions or, more recently, the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions. The only thing lacking in these revolutions, I think you’ll agree, ere the presence of a revolutionary working class socialist party.

  • sylvia

    I was about in the militants 1980s. We where the true socialists. Kinnock was a bully.
    Who stands by the workers for a fair wage.
    I remember Lesley Mahmood she was and is a true socialist.

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