Scargill's New Old Labour Party: Another State Capitalist Diversion

Despite Arthur Scargill’s exaggerated comparison with Keir Hardie’s first attempt to win a seat in Parliament, the few hundred votes cast for Brenda Nixon in the Hemsworth by-election hardly provide a great for Scargill’s breakaway “Socialist Labour Party”. In truth the creation of this new organisation is of little consequence for the working class and has nothing whatsoever to do with the fight for socialism. It has everything to do with manoeuvres and manipulations of the left wing of capitalism.

As New Labour prepares to manage today’s restructured capitalism Arthur Scargill wants to turn the clock back to the “good old days” of a Party manipulated by the trade union bosses and an economy dominated by nationalised industries. It’s not hard to see why. With the rapid decline of the coal industry following on the defeat of the 1984-5 miners’ strike and the last ditch campaign to “Save Our Pits” in 1992 Scargill’s own power base has been eroded. When Labour finally ditched Clause 4 (i.e. any pretence that a Labour government would renationalise) and undermined the union bloc voting system, with one member one vote, the writing was on the wall for old trade union wheeler dealers like Scargill. Scargill is an archetypal Stalinist (CP)/Labourite whose favourite method of operating is through the unions and whose vision of socialism is confined to a lot of nationalisation plus a good deal of welfarism. Not surprisingly the new party’s most fruitful ground for recruitment has been amongst the upper echelons of other industrial unions under threat from capital’s continuing process of denationalisation and restructuring. The Guardian of February 17th reported that 7 out of 12 of the RMT (Rail Maritime and Transport Union) Executive have affiliated to the SLP. Behind this, of course, is the assumption that they could bring with them the bloc vote of the union membership.

The stale old CP tactic is the only thing Scargill really knows. Above all else he is a corporatist. His whole thinking revolves around defending the interests of ‘his’ industry within the framework of British capitalism and for workers to equate their interests with the interests of the industry they happen to work in. The whole thing seems a lot more plausible if you work in a state-owned industry and you think that state ownership is a step towards socialism. This was the con-trick performed by British capitalism in its spate of nationalisations after the 2nd World War. It was part of the basis for the so-called post-war settlement which in reality meant that in return for keeping wage demands within ‘realistic boundaries’ and co-operating over the implementation of redundancies, the unions would have a say in how their industry and the economy as a whole was run. Throughout the Sixties, therefore, the NUM co-operated with the government to close down pits in the North East of England and South Wales, devastating whole communities and officially leaving those villages classed as ‘Category D’ to go to complete rack and ruin. In the Seventies Scargill himself was part of the NUM Executive that helped Labour draw up its Plan for Coal. (More job cuts, of course, without a single ‘ordinary’ miner having a say.) When it came to the 1984 miners’ strike this was a completely different ball game, not just because there was now a rampant Tory government but because the capitalist crisis was becoming so severe that the old state subsidies had to go: a radical solution was demanded by capital. The Thatcher government was ready to find one and after defeating the steel workers in 1979/80 and backing down against the miners in 1981 it prepared to break the back of the whole of the British working class by engaging in a definitive battle with the miners. It was a battle whose outcome they knew was crucial for the future confidence and capacity to fight off the whole working class; it would determine how easily they could implement plans to radically “weed out dead ducks” and restructure the economy as a whole (1). Whilst the working class throughout Europe and beyond waited to see the outcome of this protracted contest in the class war the NUM leader confined the issue to “Coal not Dole”. There were no calls for support from the rest of the working class. There was no acknowledgement that there was a wider issue at stake, the issue of how the working class as a whole could resist capitalism’s attacks. Instead, the future founder of the “really socialist” Labour Party produced figures to support his case about the profitability of British deep-mined coal and showed his internationalism by railing against “cheap foreign imports”.

In 1984-5 the possibility of a political programme for the working class to overthrow capitalism could not and did not enter Scargill’s head. Neither has it a decade later. Like the proverbial dinosaur he is looking for the status quo ante. He doesn’t realise that the unions are of more limited use to capitalism a stage further on into the capitalist crisis. Now their only function is to oversee job cuts and wage cuts and where necessary contain workers’ militancy. With the declining ‘sovereignty’ of national states in a dramatically extended globalised economy there is no place for beer and sandwiches at no. 10. Scargill’s political initiative is certainly a minor side-show but this is not - as media commentators cheerfully claim - because the very idea of socialism or communism is out the window. What is out the window is the notion that socialism = nationalisation and that it can be built by gradually extending the power of the capitalist state.

The Response from Labour’s Left hangers-on

In this context it is worth noting the response from the far Left of capitalism’s political spectrum (The reconstructed and unreconstructed Stalinists, Trotskyists and semi-Trotskyists from Militant to the SWP). By and large these are the organisations who were most vociferous about defending Clause 4. However, now that a party is coming into being based on a return to Clause 4 they have responded pretty coolly. This is partly Scargill’s own doing. Whilst Militant and other more hard-line Trotskyists like Workers Power were interested initially they were not impressed with the proposed draft constitution of the SLP admitting affiliation only by trade union bodies and banning members of other political organisations. Others, such as the recently-formed (1992) Socialist Appeal, which professes to be the “Marxist voice of the labour movement” are plainly embarrassed. On the one hand pompously proclaiming that Arthur Scargill has “certainly posed things sharply”, on the other concluding that “the task for socialists… means fighting for socialist policies in the unions”. (From the SA Dec/January Editorial). The most acrobatic position of all, however, must surely come from Socialist Workers’ Party. In general this party, which avows “there is no parliamentary road” to socialism, is a staunch supporter of Labour during elections. So, we are assured, it will be in the next election… at least in most places:

And Socialist Worker will still be urging a Labour vote in most areas at the next election.

What about the other places? Ah, well, as it happens SWP members around Barnsley and Hemsworth are intimately bound up in Arthur’s new venture, (“When SWP members in the Hemsworth constituency in West Yorkshire were approached to nominate the SLP candidate, Women Against Pit Closure activist Brenda Nixon, they were happy to do so. “ Socialist Review February, 1996 p.14) The upshot? Well,

Socialist Worker will support an SLP candidate in Hemsworth, and would do so in similar solidly Labour voting constituencies in future elections.

Both separate quotes are from the same article in Socialist Worker 20.1.96

Despite the SWP’s reservations about Scargill not having broken with Labourism and relying too much on parliament, the non-parliamentary supporter of Labour “in most areas” is happy to back the SLP wherever they are in danger of losing members to Scargill’s outfit.

Leaving aside all the manoeuvring going on, let’s be clear. What all these Leftist organisations have in common is the belief that Labour (old, new or still-born) and the trade unions have something to do with the working class because they are all part of the ephemeral ‘labour movement’ (A ‘movement’ which has never managed to move the working class away from capitalist ground). Most of them are capable of revolutionary phrase-mongering when it suits them but when it comes down to political activity, working inside the trade union bureaucracies and fishing about in the Labour Party are stand and practice (The only debate amongst them is how far there are other arenas of political activity). They have no idea about how revolutionary change can come about because they are so busy finding a niche in the supposedly “labour” organisations whose very existence is bound up with the preservation of capitalism (e.g. defence of the economy) and the prevention of any independent political movement of the working class. For anybody wanting to be part of a genuinely revolutionary alternative a first step is to recognise that Labour, old-style or new, stands for the continuation of capitalism against the working class. (2) The second is to realise that capitalism’s continuing crisis means the need to overthrow the whole rotting system is more pressing than ever. To genuine revolutionaries, a world away from Labourism and its hangers-on on the Left, Scargill’s attempt to launch a damp squib on May 1st is just another reminder of this.



(1) For a deeper analysis of the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike see “Lessons of the Miners Strike” in Revolutionary Perspectives 22 (Second Series)

(2) For readers who are not already convinced of this, or who think there is something socialist about Clause 4, we recommend some of the recent back issues of Workers Voice. For example, “Labour v. The Workers’ in WV75, ‘Clause 4 Debate - Defend Socialism! Scrap Labour!’ in WV76; Labour and the Workers’ in WV 77; ‘New Labour - Capitalism’s Old Reserve Party’ in WV79. All available from the group address at 50 p. Per copy plus postage.

Friday, March 1, 1996

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