Tribune, 3 August 1990
Labour’s National Executive Committee has decided to purge a second group of Trotskyists from the Labour Party – Socialist Organiser. Paul Anderson thinks it has taken a sledgehammer to crack some nuts
Last week’s decision by the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee to proscribe Socialist Organiser is one of the strangest it has made in years. Socialist Organiser is certainly, like Militant, a Leninist sect with its own rules and internal discipline. But, unlike Militant, it is extremely small and insignificant, with nothing to match Militant’s record of thuggery and corruption in Liverpool. The NEC seems to have taken a sledgehammer to crack some nuts.
Socialist Organiser has its origins in a small Trotskyist faction expelled from Tony Cliff’s International Socialists (now the Socialist Workers’ Party) in 1971. This group was led by John O’Mahony, now the editor of Socialist Organiser newspaper, who also used, and continues to use, the Gaelic form of his name, Sean Matgamna.
After several years outside the Labour Party under various names, mostly spent in failed attempts to secure unity with other small Trotskyist sects, the O’Mahony group, by now the International Communist League, decided to join Labour. In 1978, along with several other small Trotskyist groups inside the Labour Party, it formed the Socialist Campaign for Labour Victory. The Socialist Organisernewspaper was launched as the organ of the SCLV later the same year.
The SCLV (later the Socialist Organiser Alliance) acted as an effective hard-left front for a couple of years, playing a key role in the mobilising for reform of the Labour Party’s constitution in 1980 and 1981. But it was an unstable coalition, constantly plagued by sectarian feuding, particularly over Left tactics and strategy in local government. It was soon reduced to two major constituents – O’Mahony’s ICL and the Workers’ Socialist League, run by Alan Thornett.
After Thornett and O’Mahony fell out in 1983, O’Mahony (who kept the Socialist Organiser name) seemed to go out of his way to isolate his group from others. Always an iconoclast, he now abandoned many of the core orthodoxies of British Trotskyism. He dropped support for Irish Republicanism and Palestinian nationalism, criticised the bureaucratisation of the feminist movement, and, worst of all for the keepers of the Trotskyist flame, started to flirt with the ideas of Max Schactman, an American who broke with Trotskyism in the forties and became much more critical than orthodox Trotskyists of Soviet-style societies.
Meanwhile, Socialist Organiser lost its influence in local government and concentrated its efforts on the National Organisation of Labour Students, a handful of local Labour Parties and a few single-issue campaigns, the most successful of which has been the Campaign for Solidarity with Workers in the Eastern Bloc.
A Socialist Organiser front, Socialist Students in NOLS (SSiN), mounted a half-serious challenge for control of the National Union of Students in 1988 but proved incapable of maintaining its momentum; today, Socialist Organiser has some 350 supporters nationwide (it claims 500), around half of whom are students, and an effective presence in only two CLPs: Wallasey (which had a Socialist Organiser supporter, Lol Duffy, as a Parliamentary candidate in 1987 and submitted a Socialist Organiser model resolution to party conference in 1989) and Nottingham East.
Socialist Organiser, in other words, is one of the smallest Trotskyist groups in the Labour Party. It is also, by comparison with Militant, well-behaved (there are no allegations of intimidation of other party members, for example) and relatively open. So why has the NEC decided to proscribe it?
The answer is simple. Wallasey, where Socialist Organiser is strong, is next door to Birkenhead, where the CLP earlier this year chose a local trade union official, Paul Davies, as its Parliamentary candidate instead of the sitting MP, Frank Field.
Field, a darling of the media, refused to accept Davies’s victory, complained that Militant and Socialist Organiser had interfered in the selection process, and threatened to resign to force a by-election on the issue of far-left infiltration into the Labour Party.
Under such pressure – and spurred on by memories of how Labour’s poll ratings benefited from the attack on Militant in 1985 – the NEC decided to have a go at Socialist Organiser.
After a cursory investigation that seems to have produced as evidence only an anonymous two-page briefing prepared more than two years ago by NOLS activists in their battle against SSiN, Socialist Organiser appeared as an item on the agenda of the June NEC but was not discussed.
Subsequently, the NOLS briefing, which purported to document Socialist Organiser’s practice as a democratic centralist sect and to identify the key figures in its leadership, was leaked to O’Mahony. He said that it was riddled with inaccuracies, some libellous (including a claim that he was a childhood member of the IRA); the NEC was presented with a “cleaned-up” version for its July meeting last week when it issued its ban.
O’Mahony argues that Socialist Organiser is “a democratic collective, committed to rational democratic working-class politics, not a cult with gurus and disciples”. He complains, with reason, that the NEC gave Socialist Organiser no chance to put its case, and has announced that his group is “refusing to go quietly”. This week Socialist Organiser launched a campaign to defend its position in the Labour Party.
The irony of the NEC ban is that it has already had the effect of rallying many of Socialist Organiser’s sworn enemies on the left behind the sect. The Trotskyist groups that have spurned O’Mahony for most of the past decade are now lining up with Tony Benn and most of the rest of the hard left to support him. Look out for some strange platform line-ups at this year’s party conference.