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Arthur Scargill and the end of a fantasy

Five years ago the SWP backed away from fighting the European elections because of the Socialist Labour Party. Now the SLP has all but vanished. Simon Harvey recounts the sorry tale of how Arthur Scargill ran, dominated and unintentionally killed his own creation

Super Thursday' on June 10 represented the biggest and most generalised left of Labour electoral challenge that has ever occurred in Britain. Together, Respect and the Scottish Socialist Party nominated a full slate of candidates for every European Union region, while Respect also contested every Greater London Authority constituency, the all-London list and the mayoralty.

The main component of Respect is, of course the Socialist Workers Party, whose members provided many of the unity coalition's candidates and also constitute a not unimportant factional platform in the SSP. Yet exactly five years earlier, on June 10 1999, the SWP stood nowhere. Having taken its first steps towards the Socialist Alliance and a united left challenge, it dithered and dithered as the nomination deadline approached, before finally performing a cowardly U-turn. "The SA should stand no-one," declared the SWP's Rob Hoveman.

The reason? Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party. The SLP announced in March 1999 that it would contest every EU region and in London, where the main SA challenge was to be launched, Scargill himself would head the list. According to the SWP, the alliance was just not "viable" in comparison.
This was an ill-judged and foolhardy retreat, as subsequent events have more than demonstrated. The Weekly Worker had been showing, issue after issue, that Scargill's SLP was already a spent force - a force that needed exposing as a block on the development of the workers' movement, not something that ought to provoke paralysis. Despite standing everywhere, the SLP picked up less than one percent of the poll overall (1.72% in London, its best result).

The SWP's reluctance was understandable, however. In the mid-1970s it had briefly flirted with standing candidates. However, it was, in its own terms, thoroughly humiliated. It was even bested by the International Marxist Group's candidates such as Tariq Ali and Brian Heron. So there was always a danger of the SWP returning to type. Eg, on the one hand automatically voting Labour and on the other warning against standing candidates - because that would supposedly lead inexorably to corruption and engender rightism. Hence during the 1997 general election campaign, true to form, the SWP loudly employed 'revolutionary' rhetoric to condemn the SLP as "electoralist", while itself meekly following the 'lesser of two evils' approach in voting for Tony Blair's New Labour.

Thankfully, though, the SWP learnt from the 1999 fiasco and in the following year agreed that the Socialist Alliance should go ahead with a London-wide challenge in the GLA elections. Scargill, as he always has, refused to even discuss an electoral agreement with the London Socialist Alliance, let alone the standing of joint candidates. The LSA pulled in twice as many votes as the SLP in the 2000 GLA poll (although the LSA's 1.63% for the all-London list was nothing to shout about).

The fact that the SWP, Britain's largest left group, now takes elections seriously - ie, it is willing to test its level of support in the population - is a step forward. However, given the fact that the SWP and all the SA's principal supporting groups bar the CPGB insisted upon priority pledges which were economistic, unambitious and little more than warmed over left reformism, this was a case of 'one step forward, one step back'. And now with Respect - where the SWP stands on a pinched, left populist manifesto which gallantly steers clear of providing the political answers to Britain's "crisis of representation" and "democratic deficit" (eg, demands such as a federal republic, self-determination for Ireland, Scotland and Wales, providing a positive, democratic, alternative to the European Union's proposed constitution) - perhaps it is even a case of 'one step forward, two steps back'.

For some left sages - in particular those committed body and soul to 'reclaiming' the Labour Party - all of this brings a certain grim satisfaction. Trying to build an alternative to the Labour Party is doomed to disappointment - although one could, of course, reverse the argument and make the observation that socialists in the Labour Party are doomed to disappointment too. After all they have been trying to 'reclaim' it ever since its foundation in 1900 - and without much notable success.
Communists, however, do not counterpose work within the Labour Party to work outside it, or backing certain Labour candidates to supporting our own revolutionary candidates. For us the key historic question facing Britain is the necessity of organising the advanced part of the working class in a revolutionary party - its scientific name being a Communist Party.

That explains why at various times some of our people work in the Labour Party and others work in projects such as Respect - and before that the SA, and before that the SLP. And the fact of the matter is that there was something remarkably healthy about the groundswell of support in the early days of the SLP. Scargill's personality and reputation, then largely untarnished among a large swathe of the left and working class militants, was enough to generate real enthusiasm. Along with Militant Labour - precursor of the Socialist Party in England and Wales - we in the CPGB organised a series of successful public meetings in early 1996 putting the case for a Socialist Labour Party. Certainly, once Scargill himself went public, he regularly attracted audiences of 400 to 500 up and down the country.

Scargill, however, operated in a thoroughly bureaucratic fashion and would brook no opposition. In short he wanted to be a labour dictator. The president of the National Union of Mineworkers might have won wide admiration among class-conscious workers for his unbending determination to lead the miners to victory in the Great Strike of 1984-85, but as a man he is deeply flawed.

Raised in the school of 'official' communism, he opposes the demand for a workers' representative on a skilled worker's wage and the free movement of people, crudely equates socialism with nationalisation and has a barely concealed fondness for the certainties of the Stalinist empire. He is one of the deniers of Stalin's holocaust. Unwilling to undertake the serious study necessary to master theory, he resorts to cheap mockery of the real historic movement of the world's working class - "What does it matter what Trotsky said to Lenin on a wet Wednesday in 1917?" Wedded to the NUM and a Talmudic expert on interpreting its rule book, he used this knowledge to concoct a bureaucratic straitjacket of a constitution for the SLP, while feeling completely free to ignore its clauses and sub-clauses when it suits his purposes. And, having been spied upon and plotted against by the secret state, the media and a whole series of embittered enemies in the labour movement, he turns this real experience into a paranoia of all-consuming proportions. Anyone who opposes Scargill is an enemy of the working class and socialism.

Scargill had been a loyal Labour Party member. After leaving the Young Communist League in the mid-1950s - having served on the national executive - he combined Labourism with NUMism. That seemed both more practical and more likely to take him up the bureaucratic ladder. He successfully became president of Yorkshire NUM and in 1972 was the leading figure in the miners' national strike which shook the British establishment to its foundations. Scargill's name is indelibly linked to the massed picket which closed Saltley Gates in Birmingham and won the strike. In that heady atmosphere revolution suddenly appeared within reach. Significantly in the mid-1970s New Left Review carried a revealing interview with Scargill. He pictured himself as a kind of industrial version of Fidel Castro: he would bring socialism to the cities of Britain from the coalfields with flying pickets and solidarity strikes.

It was only in October 1995, when Tony Blair effortlessly saw off attempts to reinstate the party's 'socialist' clause four, that Scargill finally gave up on Labour. The following month, he quietly issued his Future strategy for the left, a scrappily produced document, in which he called for a new party. A series of secret meetings were held in the winter of 1995-96, involving specially invited individuals. Apart from Scargill himself, the main role in these exchanges was played by the Fourth International Supporters Caucus (Fisc), led by Patrick Sikorski, Carolyn Sikorski and Brian Heron. This shadowy grouping originated as a faction of the IMG in the early 1970s. Their big idea was to serve - and hopefully lead by the nose - reformist class struggle leaders. The only fundamental difference between Fisc and its Socialist Action doppelganger was a division of labour: while the former devoted itself to Scargill, the latter followed Ken Livingstone (Redmond O'Neill and John Ross have, of course, just been rewarded for their years of toadying with £111,000 salaries).

One of the participants at the early meetings was Tommy Sheridan of Scottish Militant Labour - Scargill made it clear to him that existing left groups were not wanted. In this he was aided and abetted by his unpaid Fisc courtiers, who regarded Scargill, the militant leader, as someone who would appeal to the mass of workers over the heads of the revolutionary left to join his "party of recomposition". The left groups would act as a barrier to this necessary process, according to the Fiscites. So no Militant Labour, no SWP and no CPGB.

That was how that monstrosity of an SLP constitution - shamefully drawn up by leftwing barrister Mike Mansfield - came into being. Members and "supporters" of other political organisations were barred. The response from Peter Taaffe and Militant Labour was to set up first 'socialist forums' and then their own local Socialist Alliances alongside those that had already been established.
If the left groups wanted to be part of Scargill's new organisation, they would have to disband, close down their publications and apply for membership as individuals. Not that Scargill would have permitted the likes of Militant Labour (which any in case preferred to revamp itself as the Socialist Party in England and Wales) to have done this anyway. He was to be king and everyone else mere serfs.

On January 13 1996 the formation of the Socialist Labour Party, to be officially launched on May 4, was announced - together with its fait accompli, exclusivist constitution. It was necessary to declare the party in existence before its launch in order to contest the by-election in Hemsworth, Yorkshire on February 1 (the SLP candidate, Brenda Nixon, polled 5.4%, saving her deposit).

Apart from the way in which the SLP was formed, the timing was also problematic. In a sense it was both too late and too early. Too late, because the miners' strike of 1984-85 and the miners' mass protests of 1992 had thrown up the raw material in the shape of thousands of workers - and not only miners - radicalised by the clash of NUM and Tory government. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Michael Heseltine's final decimation of the pits, the global period of reaction saw working class combativity plummet. Too early, because, overwhelmingly, workers were looking to Blair's New Labour to rid them of the hated and discredited Tories. There simply was no space in 1996 for the mass working class party that might have been possible earlier.

Nevertheless, we positively engaged with the SLP. Here was a small, but significant section of working class militants that was actively breaking with, or looking for an alternative to, Labour. We argued that it was the duty of communists to intervene, and publicised our own active intervention in our press. It was necessary to "seize the moment the NUM leader has opened up to forge the party the working class needs - with or without Scargill" (Weekly Worker January 18 1996).

Scargill held a series of well attended nationwide rallies, culminating in the launch itself, which saw around 400 members gathered in Camden town hall, London. Amongst those who had signed up were Bob Crow, Bobby Law, Mick Rix, Joe Marino, Frank Cave, John Hendy and Victoria Brittain. However, from the very beginning, exclusions were the order of the day. Comrades suspected of being CPGB members or supporters (however this was defined) were barred or hunted down.
Subsequently anyone deemed to fall into the 'member or supporter' category had their SLP membership declared null and void. There was no right of appeal against this expulsion, since the comrades concerned were declared never to have been a member in the first place. At first Scargill would insist on returning all subscriptions paid, but, as time went on and this became rather more costly, he contented himself with repaying just the previous month's sub - all previous payments made by the 'voided' member were 'sequestered'.

The effect of this anti-communist witch-hunt was to exclude the very force capable of influencing the SLP in the direction of a genuine, open and democratic party of the working class. In these early days, when most members actually believed (or wanted to believe) that Scargill might actually lead them somewhere worthwhile, opposition to the witch-hunt was grudging, meagre or, more often, non-existent.

Indeed many who should have known better either turned a blind eye to what was going on or in a few cases actively participated in fingering suspected communists. Those who came together to form the SLP Democratic Platform, were widely regarded as nothing but troublemakers who deserved everything they got.

In the general election of 1997 the SLP stood 64 candidates (including one that Scargill declared 'voided' in the middle of the campaign!). Despite the witch-hunt, there was by and large considerable enthusiasm, including from the internal opposition, for this electoral intervention, at a time when most of the non-SLP left were working for a Tony Blair victory - the SWP, Alliance for Workers' Liberty, Workers Power, International Socialist Group, etc all thought a win for New Labour would foresee a "crisis of expectations" or a "fructification of hope". Instead there was further demoralisation.

However, a good proportion of the 2,000-plus SLP membership had been active in the campaign and the results (just under two percent where the SLP stood) were generally held to be reasonable in view of the anti-Tory Labour landslide. 1997 was the only election campaign the SLP contested that resulted in a net increase in membership. Branches were still relatively lively and autonomous - often beyond the reach of the deadening bureaucratic hand of Scargill and his Fisc minions.

The real sea change came at the SLP's second congress in December 1997. That was the occasion when the notorious block vote of the so-called 'affiliated trade union', the North West, Cheshire and Cumbria Miners Association, was inadvertently revealed. This phantom organisation of retired miners, run by Scargill acolyte Billy Kelly, was able to cast no fewer than 3,000 votes on behalf of its 'members', swamping those of the SLP's individual members.

The existence of this block vote only came to light during voting on a particularly contentious motion calling for the abolition of the party's black section - favoured by Fisc and a section of the politically correct and liberal membership. Scargill was, it seems, increasingly unhappy with the Fiscites. They had grown too big for their boots. They were to be taught a lesson.

The motion to abolish their precious black section was moved by Harpal Brar. He could not have been better chosen - as an instrument to torture and humble Fisc. Though on a personal level Brar is a charming man, he leads an ultra-Stalinite grouplet - variously calling itself the Communist Workers Association or Association of Communist Workers. He is also prominent in the Stalin Society (yes, it really does exist) and devotes most of his talents to writing and publishing Lalkar, an obscure journal which lavishly sings the praises of Joseph Stalin, Kim Il Sung and (at that time) a certain Arthur Scargill. The Brarites detested the Fiscites and vice versa.

Scargill had instructed Kelly to support Brar's motion, which, of course guaranteed its victory. Nevertheless he did not reckon on the actions of a couple of tellers, who were shocked and dismayed to discover that a single individual was wielding 3,000 votes. These comrades 'mislaid' the NWCCMA's voting slip, and the motion was duly declared defeated. Comrade Kelly rose to his feet, demanding to know why all those votes he had cast had not been counted.

Pandemonium broke loose when people realised what was going on. But the upshot was the vote was retaken and a clear defeat was suddenly transformed into an overwhelming victory. Many walked out and resigned on the spot and, as for Fisc, it was thrown into total crisis. They had been betrayed by their chosen god whom they had doggedly served for year after year.

In hindsight this congress - held just 19 months after the SLP's foundation - marked the beginning of end for the SLP project. Clearly a party which relied on vote-rigging to ensure the leader's control could not be a vehicle for working class emancipation … or for that matter anything serious. Membership haemorrhaged and relations between Scargill and Fisc went from bad to worse.

Owing to a monumental cock-up the 1998 annual congress was not held. The officers simply forgot to send out the relevant notices in time and so a special congress was convened for the purpose of electing a new leadership. From Scargill's point of view this was essential, since he had now decided to oust the Fiscites, who up to then had still been acting as his chief lieutenants. Sikorski and co had put forward proposals aimed at clipping Scargill's wings and, what is more, as the annual congress had been cancelled, they had been circulating a document demanding the convening of a 'special conference' to determine the party's future direction.

Scargill was furious. He saw to it that virtually all the Fiscites were voted out at the November 1998 special congress. The only problem was, in removing Sikorski as vice-president, it was necessary to elect his only opponent, a certain Royston Bull, who edited, and presumably still does, the wondrously misnamed Economic and Philosophic Science Review. The EPSR is a ranting, homophobic (yes, homophobic) typewritten and photocopied cut-and-paste rag, run by perhaps the most politically deranged remnant of the unlamented Workers Revolutionary Party. Anyway Sikorski had to go and therefore Roy Bull became vice-president.

No problem. Scargill simply told Bull to close down his journal (up to then it had been tolerated, since the EPSR gang at that time were full-blown Scargill sycophants, hoping to replace Fisc as the Great Leader's favoured courtiers). But Bull refused to comply. He was really sincere about his ravings and fully committed to them. Soon a two-pronged disciplinary assault was underway - against both of Scargill's former loyal yes-men, Fisc and the EPSR.

Bull was suspended within months of being elected and by the early 1999 was no longer a member. His followers had all resigned or were driven out by the end of the year. As for Fisc, Brian Heron and three close supporters were accused of circulating an unauthorised document (the appeal for a special conference) within the party. According to Scargill, "No-one is allowed to circulate any appeal, document or letter" within the SLP without authorisation.

The Fiscites complained bitterly at this gross infringement of elementary democracy, but Scargill was able to show that they had previously endorsed exactly the same phrase when it was used against supporters of the Democracy Platform! Hoist by their own petard.

By now membership had dropped to a few hundred dispirited individuals. The only half-active members were the ultra-Stalinites and Harpal Brar. With the departure of both Fisc and the EPSR, the Brarites controlled London and Yorkshire, as well as the tiny women's and youth sections.
However, apart from a few pockets, there was no real branch or regional structure. In this context the standing of no less than 114 candidates in the 2001 general election represented a mammoth organisational task. Scargill was determined to poll more votes than the Socialist Alliance, which contested 98 seats.

He made an all-out effort to persuade isolated individuals all over the country to allow their names to go forward as paper candidates. Almost everything - nominations, election addresses, Royal Mail delivery - was organised centrally. Where he got the money from was a mystery.

Unfortunately for Scargill, however, although the SLP had 16 more candidates than the SA, it picked up a few hundred votes less. Incredibly, Scargill simply falsified Socialist Labour's results to 'prove' that the reverse was the case. Even though the correct figures were set out for him - not least by myself in the pages of the Weekly Worker - he continued to turn reality on its head. He had been reduced to a sad, fantasising individual.

For a while, it seemed that the Scargill-Brar alliance would prove more durable than the arrangements with Fisc and the EPSR, but sharp divisions came to the fore in the aftermath of September 11 2001. Scargill condemned the al Qa'eda attack on the twin towers and Pentagon (he actually believed the US administration had organised the suicide bombings itself, so as to be able to justify its 'war on terror'). But Brar and co (whose lunacy is of a different variety) welcomed the attack as a great blow against imperialism by the world's oppressed.

At the 2002 congress, the ultra-Stalinites had a slender majority among the 100 or so members present, but the NWCCMA block vote ensured that Scargill retained his majority on the NEC. However, a state of affairs where whole areas of the SLP were not under Scargill's direct control was not something he would tolerate indefinitely. He adopted bureaucratic measures to take back the women's and youth sections and, when the Brarites resisted, the Great Leader finally acted. Brar and co were expelled on May 8 2004.

On June 10 the SLP failed to contest a single constituency in either the EU or GLA elections. Only a handful of local branches stood autonomously in council elections. The SLP website has not been updated since early May. The bimonthly Socialist News is now several weeks overdue.
It may be that the SLP will limp on for as long as Scargill is alive. But one thing is certain: the serious political force that so many hoped would come into existence when the NUM leader announced the birth of his Socialist Labour Party in 1996 is no longer even a fantasy.