Socialist View, No. 14, Spring 2005
Scottish Socialist Party
The battle for socialist ideas
THE MEDIA HAVE attempted to write the obituary of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) since the shock resignation of it's party leader, Tommy Sheridan MSP (Member of Scottish Parliament), last November.
By Sinead Daly SSP Executive Committee (CWI member)
The SSP was launched in 1998 and has since made some important advances. The party got six MSPs elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2003 and the affiliation of the rail workers' union, the RMT last year.
The SSP developed from its forerunner, the Scottish Socialist Alliance, which involved Scottish Militant Labour (formerly a section of the Committee for a Workers' International [CWI]), other small left groups and a number of individuals. Scottish Militant, as part of the Militant across Britain, led the mighty anti-poll tax movement which eventually resulted in the downfall of Margaret Thatcher. This movement catapulted Tommy Sheridan to national prominence. Tommy Sheridan was elected as a councillor in Glasgow from his prison cell when he was jailed in 1992 for defying a court order.
In 2001 a majority of the leadership of what had been Scottish Militant Labour including Alan McCombes, Tommy Sheridan, Colin Fox and Francis Curran left the CWI. They broke with us because they no longer accepted the need to build an international Marxist revolutionary party and programme while building the SSP.
Since then they have broken decisively from Marxism and the programme of the CWI. This has been shown graphically in their attitude towards the national question in Scotland as well as towards issues like the economy and a number of important international issues.
At last year's SSP conference, Alan McCombes, the SSP's policy coordinator, drafted the party's European Manifesto, which among other things, put forward the slogan "a socialist Scotland in a social Europe". The term "social Europe" is used by some on the left as a modified form of capitalism that could be implemented before socialism was acheived. McCombes opposed amendments that called for the SSP to stand for a socialist Europe and for the nationalisation of the monopolies that dominate the economy to be brought under workers' control.
The SSP leadership have also moved towards an increasingly left nationalist position in the past period. The SSP formally stands for an independent socialist Scotland. However, the crucial question of socialism has been put increasingly into the background, with more of an emphasis on the breaking up of the UK and the establishment of an independent Scotland. Even on the basis of capitalism, they have argued that an independent Scotland could begin the task of eradicating poverty and inequality.
The Declaration of Calton Hill, drawn up by the SSP leadership rally to coincide with the recent opening of the new Scottish Parliament building, demonstrates this trend. It called for: "an independent Scottish republic built on the principles of liberty, equality, diversity and solidarity. These principles can never be put into practise while Scotland remains subordinate to the hierarchical and anti-democratic institutions of the British State. We believe these principles can be brought about by a freely elected Scottish Government with full control of Scottish revenues."
This statement has sparked controversy within the SSP for its blatant absence of any mention of socialism. Alan McCombes defence was that he wanted it to have as broad an appeal as possible. However in doing so they are promoting illusions that an independent capitalist republic could solve the problem of inequality and poverty.
McCombes was also the main mover behind the proposal to launch an "Independence Convention" just over a year ago. This was an attempt to get the Greens and the Scottish National Party to form a campaign to win national independence for Scotland. In an article in the Scottish Socialist Voice Alan McCombes claimed the Independence Convention would be a "fast, broad highway to independence".
However, even the Greens and the SNP knew that this was a non-starter. Support for independence stands between 25 - 30% while those who expect to see an independent Scotland within 20 years has fallen from 51% in 1999 to just 29% today.
The CWI has always stood implacably for the right of the Scottish people to freely determine their own relationship with the rest of Britian up to and including the right to be an independent country. We nevertheless have opposed the proposal for an independence convention, pointing out that the SSP leadership's proposal would lead to the submerging of socialist ideas into a convention whose primary function is to promote capitalist independence. We also argued that there was little support for this amongst the working class or the youth at this stage.
It's not ruled out that support for independence could develop again in the future. But at this stage it is the class issues that dominate the minds of the working class rather than the question of engaging in a struggle for independence.
Such debates are not abstract; it is a fundamental issue of arming the working class with a programme that is capable of transforming society. We have consistently, since the formation of the SSP, put forward arguments and ideas that would strengthen the SSP's programme.
The recent 2005 conference held on 12 and 13 February was arguably the most important in its young history. The conference was set against the background of the possibility of a million strong public sector strike over the issue of pensions, the mobilisation of a likely quarter of a million people in Edinburgh against the G8 summit in July and ongoing attacks by New Labour on pay and working conditions.
Unfortunately, the party has struggled to recover from the resignation of Tommy Sheridan as SSP convenor. The subsequent head-to-head leadership contest to replace him has not helped the situation.
Tommy Sheridan's resignation was effectively forced by the SSP Executive Committee at an emergency meeting to discuss the threat of a story appearing in Murdoch's News of the World rag about an alleged sex scandal involving Sheridan. Fearful of the repercussions, the EC gave Tommy Sheridan an ultimatum to drop his plans to deny the allegations and take legal action, or resign as party convenor. The next morning he resigned as National Convenor.
Tommy Sheridan denies the allegations that subsequently appeared in the News of the World. He has taken libel action against the paper and his case is being backed by the National Union of Journalists.
Sheridan's resignation as convenor has been damaging for the SSP. There was, and indeed still is, a real sense both within the party and amongst its supporters that this whole saga was dealt with very badly and has fuelled the impression that Sheridan was sacrificed to avoid bad publicity.
More than 400 delegates attended the conference. The mood was very sombre and it was a much more questioning conference than we've seen in the past.
Although Sheridan's resignation and how it was handled was not mentioned throughout the conference, the leadership contest provided an opportunity for delegates to vent their frustration and anger towards the leadership on its handling of the situation.
Tommy Sheridan backed Colin Fox MSP for Edinburgh and the Lothians, as did Rosemary Byrne MSP for the South of Scotland. Colin Fox had tried to distance himself from the actions of the SSP executive, although at the time he voted in favour of Sheridan's resignation.
Alan McCombes, the national policy coordinator threw his name into the hat at the 11th hour. He had the backing of the other 3 MSPs, Carolyn Leckie, Rosie Kane and Frances Curran. McCombes was one of the main people pushing for the party to back the EC's actions against Sheridan.
The CWI gave critical support to Colin Fox on the basis that he was the best choice on offer for the SSP. Colin Fox received a resounding victory, 62% (252 votes) to 23% (154 votes). The election of the Co-Chair and the SSP national executive gave another indication of the mood at conference. Rosemary Byrne MSP topped the poll for the Chair. She was the only member of the EC to openly come out and say that the EC's action (which she voted for) in calling on Tommy Sheridan to stand down was wrong. Tommy Sheridan topped the poll for the male list for the EC.
The SSP claims 3,000 members (although its active base is much lower). It is also made up of platforms, including the CWI, the Socialist Workers Party platform, the International Socialist Movement platform (the grouping of those who left the CWI in 2001) and several other groups.
The CWI has many members in the SSP who play an active role in building the party, leading campaigns. Several of our members are candidates in the coming general election. We also have a member elected to the SSP Executive Committee.
The CWI made some important interventions into this year's conference. The first debate was on Iraq. A motion to conference, backed by the SWP platform, called for uncritical support to the "Iraqi popular resistance". This motion was one of the main items reported by the media on the morning of the conference - they reported that a motion to the SSP conference, if passed, would see them "support beheadings in Iraq and the killing of British troops."
The only amendment put forward on this came from Dundee West SSP and was moved by CWI members. We called for the removal of all occupying troops and for support for mass resistance to the occupation, through the building of workers' and farmers' militia that seek to unite all the different ethnic religious groups in Iraq.
We also argued that the SSP should refuse to give support to the reactionary and anti-working class forces that make up part of the resistance. We made the point that "we cannot as socialists give our support to those forces in Iraq whose ideas and methods are anti-working class, anti-women and who, in some cases, are intent on trying to provoke civil and sectarian war in Iraq. We should support a movement which will unite the working class and the poor based on a struggle for a living wage, healthcare, education, and basic services, as well as opposition to the imperialist occupation of their country."
The amendment was opposed by the SWP members, who claimed that the "working class are not able to struggle just now" and that the "trade unions are too weak to strike". They also argued that it would be very arrogant of socialists in Scotland to tell the people of Iraq how to organise their resistance. This theme was carried into every debate on international issues, in particular the debates on Latin America.
Incredibly, they opposed another motion on Iraq which called on the SSP to "support the organised working-class and trade union movement as the most important part of the resistance".
Despite the enormous damage that could have been caused to the SSP had a motion giving uncritical support to all insurgents in Iraq been passed, not one member of the SSP leadership (apart from the SWP) intervened.
The amendment was overwhelmingly passed as was the motion supporting working class struggles.
There were several motions on the economy, one of them calling for more support and indeed the development of the social economy as an interim alternative to the private sector. Another called for more taxing of the rich and making it more difficult for them to evade paying.
It went on to argue for a strategy to "examine how the dominance of multinationals can be ended and forms of ownership such as; socially owned industries, workers' co-operatives, collectives" and "locally owned business can be promoted".
These were important debates as some of the leadership have been continually shying away from putting forward a clear socialist alternative. Frances Curran, an SSP MSP, in a recent debate in the Scottish Parliament argued in favour of the social democratic model of Norway as a way forward for Scotland saying "I ask the SNP (Scottish Nationalist Party) what the model is to be - neo-liberalism or social democracy."
We backed and moved a motion at conference (that was overwhelmingly passed), that called for: "the major corporations that dominate the Scottish Economy to be brought under democratic control and management of the working class." It went on to "support the establishment of a democratically planned socialist economy as an alternative to the crisis ridden anarchy of the international capitalist market."
We also moved and supported an amendment, which pointed out "there is a fundamental difference between a socialist planned economy, in which capitalism is ended and the economy is nationalised under the control and ownership of the working class, and a 'social economy'". It also stated that those who put forward the idea of a "'social economy' are arguing for another form of capitalism."
The debates on Latin America, which discussed the tremendous revolutionary movements in Venezuela and developments in Brazil, carried on similar themes from the debate on Iraq.
There was an amendment giving support to the new Party of Socialist (P-SoL) in Brazil. A CWI-backed amendment made the call for the building of a mass socialist alternative to Lula, the Brazilian president and his Workers' Party (PT). His election as president sparked massive expectations of real change and reforms for the working class. Unfortunately, Lula has kow-towed to the demands of the IMF and the WTO and carried through a programme of attacks on the working class.
Several MPs and senators have been expelled for opposing these attacks, many of whom have been involved in setting up P-SoL. The original motion, backed by the SWP, called for the reinstatement of those who were expelled. It also gives illusions that the left can reclaim the PT and fight for working class interests.
There was a vote to remit the motion and amendment for more discussion.
During the debate on the CWI-backed motion on Venezuela, the SWP wanted to delete that the SSP should support:
"The mass mobilisation of the working class and poor through popular organisations, like the Bolivarian Committees, to defend the reforms carried out and to prevent the ruling class from overthrowing Chavez.
"The mass arming of the people, through democratic organisations, to prevent the capitalists from imposing a military dictatorship.
"The mass movement adopting a socialist programme that aims to break with capitalism and establish a workers' and peasants' Venezuela based on public ownership and democratic control of the economy."
They argued, "We cannot put forward dogmatic prescriptions for the movement in Venezuela." They went on "the revolution will develop organically and in its own way. Our role is only to give support to the mass movement."
The focus of the SSP is now on the Westminster Elections. The SSP will be standing in all 59 seats in Scotland. It could be a difficult election due to the impact of Tommy Sheridan's' resignation. In the 2003 Scottish election the SSP won 6.8% of the vote across Scotland. The SSP polled 5.2% at the 2004 Euro election. This time around the SSP is hoping to emulate the level of support at the last general election in 2001 which saw the party poll 3.1%.
The increasing mood of anger among public sector workers over the attacks on their pensions which was shown by the massive vote in favour of strike action, the mood against the war in Iraq and the potential mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of people against the G8 in July shows the potential that exists.
The future of the SSP is by no means certain. The SSP needs to turn towards the struggles of the working class and youth, and provide a clear socialist alternative to the nightmare of neo-liberal policies. On this basis, the SSP can recover and make advances in the months and years ahead.