Arthur galvanises the workers to fall about laughing

Political Commentary
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WHATEVER you say about Arthur Scargill, he is still box office. His proposals for a new Socialist Labour Party to take over the vanguard from the "moribund" Labour Party have attracted wide media interest in the last few days, rivalling the defection of Emma Nicholson for the attention of those who write headlines.

They do not all make gratifying reading for the Commissar of Barnsley. "Is the Party over for Arthur Scargill?" asks the Daily Mail. "Pressure to expel Scargill" chides the Daily Telegraph. But at least he is back where he likes to be: in the limelight, peddling political nostrums and declaring himself the guardian of the socialist flame.

To his credit, he says some things that others only mumble in wine bars. In an article in this month's Red Pepper, an independent socialist magazine, he argues that Labour is now almost indistinguishable from the Democratic Party in the United States, Germany's Social Democratic Party, or nearer home, the Liberal Democrats. "It has changed its policies on all the fundamental issues which have been determined by the party conference over many years." He instances privatisation, the national minimum wage, full employment, health, education, Europe, nuclear disarmament, labour law and Clause IV. Quite so. It has changed, though he omits to point out that it is conference itself that has abandoned voter-friendless policies over the last decade.

"Do we, and others who feel as we do, stay in a party which has been and is being 'politically cleansed'? Or do we leave and start to build a Socialist Labour Party that represents the principles, values, hopes and dreams which gave birth nearly a century ago to what has, sadly, now become New Labour?" he asks. Of course, he has an answer to this rhetorical question: a new party born on the basis of "class understanding, class commitment and socialist policies". Presumably, it will be based on the philosophy of "democratic centralism" that he was advocating at a recent secret meeting of the trade union Broad Left organisation. What does the term mean? In the heady days of Communist Party influence, it could roughly be translated as "do as you are ----ing told".

All this must be music to Tony Blair's ears. Ordinarily, he would find it virtually impossible to rid himself of this turbulent liberation theologian. Scargill still has the power to tug the heartstrings of the Labour conference, even though he invariably loses the vote.

But by setting up a rival political party - "ideally" on May Day - he disqualifies himself for membership of the Labour Party. And quite deliberately so. Scargill insists that you cannot follow him and Tony Blair. You must choose between New Labour and the SLP, which will "galvanise mass opposition" to injustice and build the fight for a socialist Britain. This is fantasy politics,

In the last year, Labour has put on 100,000 members, and now musters more than 400,000. It must be true that many of these will vanish like conference resolutions when the election is over. Indeed, many do not take an active part in constituency work even now. They are more like members of a football supporters' club than the traditional stereotype of a party activist.

But at least they have signed up. How many members could Scargill entice into his ideologically-shriven set? On the evidence of other far-left groups such as the Socialist Workers' Party or Militant Labour (with whom he would be competing), a few thousand at most. Certainly not enough to fund the fantasy objective of fighting every parliamentary seat, at a cost of more than pounds 1m. It would not attract any serious national trade union affiliation. His own NUM claims to be so cash-strapped that it did not take part in the leadership election after John Smith's death, and is in trouble with its sponsored MPs for not paying their constituency grants. Nor would it, as he thinks, necessarily prove alluring to the anarchic protest groups fighting motorway construction and animal exports.

Scargill's imminent departure from the fold is a bonus number for Blair, siphoning off some of the awkward squad, further undermining claims that the party is in the grip of "extremists". It has thus been a double-bonus week for the Labour leader. Emma Nicholson's defection has refocused public attention on the internal divisions of the Tory party, allowing the Opposition to grind on about John Major's "disintegrating government".

However, Blair would be wise not to rejoice as publicly about Scargill's self-defenestration as the Tory high command did over the desertion of the member for Devon West and Torridge. John Major accused her of "cutting and running", though no one would cut and run as fast as him if only he could be sure of a home run to Downing Street. The party chairman, Brian Mawhinney, told her the "only honourable course" was to resign and fight a by-election. Michael Portillo ranted that Miss Nicholson was "right to leave" and issued an open invitation to other Euro-enthusiasts to get out as well. She was attacked as disloyal to the blessed Margaret, a traitor to John Major and (most heinous of all) a Euro-federalist. It was an extraordinary insight into the ungallant side of Conservative Man. But being beastly to Emma will not win very many votes, any more than jubilation over the loss of Scargill will endear Blair to his remaining traditionalists and those romantics among the electorate who see him as the last surviving icon of the labour movement.

There is an uncanny sense of deja vu about Portillo's "good riddance" to Miss Nicholson. Not the bile that was heaped on Alan Howarth, Tory MP for Stratford-upon-Avon, for his defection to Labour two months ago. No, go much further back, to 1981 when the Gang of Four quit Labour to found the SDP. Labour's hard-left - and none more so than Arthur Scargill - greeted their departure with loud hallelujahs. At last, the party had been purged of its moderate elements and was set on an ideologically pure course. Unfortunately, it led to the political wilderness.

The lesson of Labour's self-inflicted wounds has not been lost on some Tory backbenchers who want to fight the next election, unlike the Portillistas who are plainly gearing up for the one after. "The way the right is behaving," said one frustrated centre-left veteran, "ignores the fact that there is an electorate out there. They behave as if the voters and the need to stay in office didn't exist."

MPs return from their break in two days' time. I wondered aloud to a minister what the mood in Westminster would be. "Edgy, I should think," he replied. "More than it would have been if Emma hadn't done that." A pause, and then: "It will all depend on performance in the chamber; how he [Major] actually does ... We will have to get used to the occasional defeat. We may be able to live with it for a bit." He compared the Government's position with that of Sir Alec Douglas-Home's failing administration in 1964, "when we almost ran out of steam, got our breath back and didn't quite make it". Hmmm. Not quite Steady the Buffs, eh?

Alan Watkins is on holiday