Party names and games
Last year Parliament passed an Act to allow political parties to register, both to protect their name and to present lists in elections where an element of proportional representation has been introduced—as in the elections to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly this May, but also in those to the European Parliament in June and to the Greater London Authority in May next year.
The parliamentary parties brought in this Act mainly to protect their own position by stopping candidates calling themselves, notoriously, Literal Democrats but also Conversative Party and Independent Labour. However it has also settled our dispute with Militant over their attempted usurpation of one of our names (see Socialist Standard, February 1997).
While we have been registered under our full name of “The Socialist Party of Great Britain”, Militant were refused registration as “Socialist Party”. They are now going to Court to seek a judicial review. We don’t know officially on what grounds Militant were refused recognition but this can be gathered from a letter from their Executive Committee to the Registrar of Political Parties published in their paper The Socialist on 12 March. Part of this reads:
The reasons you give are that the similarity of our name to other parties will cause confusion to voters, and that we have adopted our name relatively recently compared to others.
Militant’s letter also includes a passage from the Registrar’s letter to them:
“other and possibly lesser parties in terms of their organisation and membership have used the name ‘Socialist Party’ over a substantially greater number of years and therefore have a prior claim”.
Reading between the lines it is clear that the Registrar came to the conclusion that, on the evidence, there was another party—us—who had a prior claim on this name because we had used it for longer (95 years compared with 2).
Militant themselves certainly assume this as, in their letter to the Registrar, they try to demolish us in his eyes:
Over the past two years, we have built up recognition of our name in many areas of the country. There is much greater recognition of our name due to the work we have done, than there is of the SPGB.
In a footnote reference after SPGB they write:
The Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB) is a small party founded over a century ago who are about one-tenth of the size of the Socialist Party (ourselves). They very rarely contest elections and are mainly a propaganda and discussion group.
This is wrong in nearly every respect. We were not founded over a century ago. We have many times more than a hundred members. And it is not true that we “very rarely” contest elections.
Although numbers can’t settle the issue, for the record, we have contested 12 of the 15 general elections that have taken place since 1945 as well as a number of by-elections and the 1989 and 1994 (and now the 1999) European elections. Geographically we have contested elections in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Salford, Oldham, Newcastle, Jarrow, Easington, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Livingston, Swansea and Belfast. In fact, in the 1994 Euro-elections alone, when we stood 4 candidates (including one against Militant who then called themselves “Militant Labour”), more electors—2 million or so—were faced with “Socialist Party” on the ballot papers representing us than the electorate of all the local wards and Westminister seats Militant has ever contested under the same usurped name added together.
Dramatics in Scotland
In Scotland we found ourselves headline news for a week or so as the Registrar announced his intention not to register the latest name for Militant’s front organisation there of “Scottish Socialist Party”. His reason for this preliminary ruling was, apparently, that the name “Scottish Socialist Party” could be confused with ours, especially as we had contested two seats in Scotland at the 1997 General Election. SSP leader and Glasgow councillor Tommy Sheridan, who already sees himself as an MSP (Member of the Scottish Parliament), wasn’t at all happy.
First he said he was going to go to the Commission for Racial Equality because it was “racial discrimination” to refuse to allow a Scottish party to call itself Scottish because an English party had a similar name (Herald, 3 March). Then he claimed it was a breach of “two sections of the European Convention on Human Rights” (Herald, 4 March). Then he threatened “a campaign of mass civil disobedience to disrupt the Scottish General Election in May” (Herald, 8 March). Less amusingly, a section of the press began a smear campaign against us. Matthew Norman, for instance, wrote a piece in the Guardian (5 March) suggesting that while the SSP was a serious party with three councillors we were “a minute, slightly weird group which runs in very few seats, proposes the abolition of money and runs on a programme unchanged since 1910”.
Sheridan needn’t have bothered. First, although of course we don’t like people calling themselves “socialist” when in our opinion they’re not, that’s something to be settled by political debate not law. Our dispute was with Militant in England and their use of the same name as us even on the ballot papers (which Militant in Scotland never did, standing in the last election as the “Scottish Socialist Alliance”). Second, in the end the Registrar adopted a relatively liberal approach, allowing as many parties as possible to register including the SSP, only ruling out blatant cases of parties trying to usurp a name to which they had no historical right.
It is true that there would have been no possible confusion had Scottish Militant stuck to their name till last October of “Scottish Socialist Alliance”. But since we, being resolutely anti-nationalist, would never dream of calling ourselves “Scottish” (or “British” or “Welsh” or “Irish”) socialists, we can agree that any confusion between us and the SSP is going to be minimal.