The split in the Scottish Socialist Party

Issue: 112

Mike Gonzalez

Since Seattle in 1999, and the explosive growth of the anti-capitalist movement, all of us in the international socialist movement have been sailing in uncharted waters. The one thing that we have almost all agreed on is that the left must develop new forms of organisation that can both reflect and engage with this new and growing radical shift. After 9/11 the explosion of anti-war protests opened new directions and possibilities. For the revolutionary left, the potential was enormous provided that we were governed above all by the commitment to become socialists within the movement, working with a broader spectrum of forces than we had perhaps been used to in the previous two decades. That was the challenge.

In Scotland the Scottish Socialist Party offered an exciting possibility of responding to that challenge. Founded in 1998, with comrades from the Militant Tendency playing a central role, it was committed to a project of left unity expressed in a party which could act in an agreed and united way while acknowledging that political debate was the lifeblood of any socialist organisation. In that spirit, the Socialist Workers Party in Scotland was invited to join the SSP as a platform—an opportunity we grasped with the overwhelming agreement of our membership.

The signs were extremely promising, and the party’s electoral success in 2003 confirmed that there was widespread support for a principled socialist anti-war party. It is a matter of great regret, therefore, that just three years after that major electoral advance the Scottish Socialist Party has reached a point of insoluble crisis. The project, however, remains as urgent and as hopeful as it was when we joined just five years ago. The deepening crisis of New Labour, the public revulsion against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the assault on Lebanon, the aggressive privatisation of public services confirm the objective necessity for an open, democratic, mass-based socialist party. It will not now be the SSP; but it is our hope that the new formation that we have helped to found, provisionally called Solidarity, and which includes Tommy Sheridan, perhaps the key individual on the left of Scottish politics, the majority of previous members of the SSP, and a number of other elements of the wider social movement, will draw towards it the widest range of anti-capitalists.

What follows is an account of the crisis and collapse of the SSP. Its purpose is not to win some abstract moral contest, but to show that the events which brought about the crisis, while apparently personal, were in fact profoundly political. They demonstrate that what was exposed in the course of recent months was a faultline in a particular model of socialist organisation. The point of this narrative, therefore, is to identify that weakness as a warning and a lesson for the next chapter.

1: The catalyst

The immediate cause of the collapse of the SSP was a consequence of a decision by perhaps its best known leading member, Tommy Sheridan, to sue the News of the World, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News International corporation, over a story concerning his private life. For socialists, matters of private morality are not our concern; consensual sexual relations concern only those engaged in them. We judge our comrades by their political conduct, not their personal life. The News of the World is a newspaper which publishes scandalous reports of sexual behaviour—but more importantly, it is a consistent enemy of the working class movement, using its pages and those of its sister papers to systematically attack trade unionists, socialists, and all those who fight oppression, whether their own or that of others. This is common knowledge, even among many of those who buy the paper for its titillating content. And that is why Sheridan’s victory, when a jury found by a majority against the paper, was widely celebrated by working class people in Scotland and beyond.

What caused the internal crisis within the SSP, however, was the astonishing fact that a number of members of the Executive Committee (a) of the SSP came to court to testify for the News of the World. Their presence in the court was not just the result of legal compulsion, as they claimed: it was a consequence of a series of actions and decisions taken over previous months which were not only wrong in themselves, but which revealed a much deeper malaise within the party. When the newspaper reports originally emerged, Sheridan asked the executive at a long, fraught meeting to recognise his right to individually pursue his libel case; instead he was pressured to resign. An extremely detailed account of that critical meeting was kept, without informing other executive committee members (including myself) of its content—and this account later became the substance of the News of the World’s case. In the days that followed several executive committee members distanced the party from him in a very public way, and leaked rumours and suggestions about him to the press.

The position of the Socialist Worker Platform at the time was well known and repeated on a number of occasions—that we supported Sheridan’s right to pursue the case and condemned the mounting campaign against him. For it seemed to us very clear from the outset that there was a coordinated and consistent campaign to remove Sheridan from his leading position in the SSP. The extraordinary bitterness and ferocity of the continuing attacks on him and all of those who supported him from within the SSP after the conclusion of the court case have shocked even the most seasoned socialists—and ensured the collapse of the SSP as we knew it.

What matters here, of course, is not anecdotal accounts—though the response of the SSP executive committee immediately after the trial ended was to produce a 12-page document consisting entirely of personal vituperation and accusations against Sheridan. Its effect was to convince the majority of party activists that they could no longer work in a party led by people who could produce such a document.

The question that will be asked is why this happened.

It is my view that the crisis in the SSP has its origins in the central question of the relationship between socialists and the movement. Our original optimistic assessment of the SSP, and our decision to join, reflected its declared commitment to building a broad, open, mass socialist party. The authority and recognition that had been won by Tommy Sheridan in the campaign against the poll tax and his subsequent actions as the sole SSP member of the Scottish Parliament, were a key contributor to that assessment. And the most resounding confirmation of the SSP’s potential came with the Scottish parliamentary elections in May 2003, when the party won 6 percent of the national vote, a total of 130,000, and sent six members to the Scottish Parliament.

It was a historic moment—and it was a victory, in our view, that arose directly out of the public perception of the party’s leading role in the anti-war movement: 100,000 marched through Glasgow on 15 February that year. It is no coincidence that that figure so closely reflected the numbers in the election.

The conflicts within the party, although as yet unstated, began at that very moment of success. The large numbers voting for the SSP suggested a real possibility of ‘opening the gates of the party’ to them, laying the foundations for a genuine mass organisation. Yet it was clear even then that there was resistance to embracing the wider movement, and a continuing insistence on SSP-led and SSP-controlled campaigns. There had already been considerable debate between the Socialist Worker Platform and the executive committee majority regarding the anti-war movement. While we had argued that we should set out to replicate the best experiences of the Stop the War campaign and build a broad anti-war movement in alliance with Muslim organisations, the majority of the leadership rejected that view and insisted instead on allying with some very backward Stalinist elements in a recently created bureaucracy which consistently blocked any grassroots activity from that point on.

That suspicion of the wider forces that had entered the historical scene after Seattle reflected a sectarian response which was to characterise the relationship between the SSP and every and any social movement. Curiously, the election result led not, as we had argued, to a more open and dynamic relationship with the wider movement, but to its opposite—an over-emphasis on parliamentary activity at the expense of grassroots activity. Parliaments can be a useful propaganda platform in the building of socialist organisation—as Tommy Sheridan had shown so emphatically when he was the sole member between 1999 and 2003. With six members in the parliament the party became entitled to a number of full-time research and case workers, and the commitment to the MSPs remitting half their parliamentary salary to the party added to the party’s resources. But it also reinforced the party’s bureaucratic character, and focused its attention on a parliamentary role which could not but be limited and constrained.

The rhetoric, of course, endlessly reasserted the party’s commitment to the working class and the purity of its socialist credentials. But it was a serious misrepresentation if this was intended to indicate a concentration on issues in the trade union movement, for example, or a commitment to building the resistance in working class areas around issues like health or housing. Trade union work was limited in reality to seeking relationships with leading trade union officials with a view to affiliation. The Socialist Worker Platform has always argued that we should build links with and between the rank and file; this was questioned time and again because it threatened an often asserted but rarely visible sympathetic relationship with union officials. When the party did move on trade union questions, it was invariably at the last moment, generally tokenistic, and often sectarian in the tone of its interventions.

One consequence of what we regard as a squandered opportunity was that party membership began to decline, as did sales of the party’s newspaper Scottish Socialist Voice. The paper itself was weak and inward looking and very consciously controlled by the executive committee majority faction. While occasional articles were printed from other positions within the party, they were few and did not reflect any opening of the paper to debate—still less any attempt to make it reflect the wider movement that had carried six comrades into the parliament. The internal atmosphere grew increasingly fractious, and criticisms of Sheridan from a supposedly feminist perspective became increasingly vocal at executive meetings.This was the background to the events of the executive committee meeting November 9th 2004 which forced Sheridan’s resignation.
But it was the G8 meeting at Gleneagles in Scotland in July 2005 which would provide the proof of the two perspectives that were in a bitter but undeclared conflict within the SSP. In January 2005, at the regular executive meeting, Socialist Worker Platform members called for a discussion of our preparations for G8. At that meeting and at every subsequent one the SSP’s leadership refused to address the question. The people who would attend the Make Poverty History demonstration, it was argued, were middle class liberals; working class people were not interested in such issues, any more than they were concerned with the war in Iraq. Workers were interested only in ‘bread and butter questions’.

In the meantime Socialist Worker Platform members within the SSP together with a broad range of other groups and organisations had taken the initiative in setting up a committee to prepare for the Gleneagles protest on the first day of the G8, and the organisation of a counter-conference in Edinburgh on the previous Sunday. The meetings were regular, large and enthusiastic as well as very broad in character. One MSP, Frances Curran, was assigned to link up with that organising group, together with a platform member who had been deeply involved from the outset. The role of the SSP leadership in that activity was a disgrace: time and again their interventions were simply designed to block or spoil what was a broad and democratic initiative, while offering no real practical or political support to the organisers. Refusing to contribute to the Alternative Summit, beyond accepting the opportunity to speak on its platforms, those comrades stuck to the tried and well-worn formula that this was not of interest to workers and the abstention continued. On the Friday before the demonstration four of the six MSPs staged an absurd and pointless stunt in the parliament to veil their ineffectiveness and distance from the movement. The cost was £30,000 in fines and other expenses and the general scorn of the public.

As we expected, the Make Poverty History demonstration was enormous (around 300,000) and as varied, diverse and dynamic as such demonstrations always are. The SSP leadership’s main concern, however, was not how party members could best connect with this new movement but rather how we could differentiate ourselves from other marchers. Thus SSP members wore red T-shirts (not white, like everyone else) and organised a tight, closed contingent rather than participating throughout the march in the delegations of trade unionists, students, anti-capitalist protesters and the like.

The Sunday Alternatives Summit was an extraordinary success, with 5,000 people attending a vibrant, open and exciting event full of political ideas and debate. It was sad, then, to see the SSP leadership standing outside the main hall throughout the day collecting signatures for a petition to defend the MSPs who had been expelled from the parliament. Most significantly, Frances Curran speaking at the final rally went to considerable pains to emphasise the differences between the SSP and the movement, and the distance separating the SSP from the major international figures with whom she was sharing a platform, including Trevor Ngwane from South Africa, Susan George, Caroline Lucas and George Galloway.

Several members of the executive committee complained bitterly in the subsequent meeting about the conduct of the SSP at this great event, with a supporter of the leadership group publishing a frank and withering assessment of the party’s performance in the next issue of Frontline, the magazine of the leadership’s ISM platform within the SSP. As a party, the SSP had deliberately and explicitly refused to engage with the movement, though the Socialist Worker Platform together with other rank and file members of the SSP, as well as many others outside the party, had worked tirelessly for months to build the event.

It might have been asserted, of course, that this was a political error and lessons could be drawn from it. Instead it was argued in the immediate aftermath that this was an event somehow ‘staged’ by the SWP. What was not addressed was the paradox that, at a time of intense political debate among growing numbers of working class people, not only had the SSP abstained as an organisation, but its numbers were continuing to decline, as were the sales of its paper, in what was an extraordinarily favourable atmosphere.
Two months after these massive events, the policy coordinator of the party, Alan McCombes, presented a paper to the executive committee which argued that the party’s main audience lay not in those who were disaffected by New Labour or those involved in the anti-war or anti-capitalist movement but rather in the poor and dispossessed in the housing schemes:

The biggest potential reservoir of support for the SSP is not to be found among Labour voters, SNP voters, Lib Dem voters or even Green Party voters, but among the 50 percent of the population who do not participate in elections. Well over 1 million people did not bother to vote in the 2003 Scottish election or in the 2005 general election.

Of course the poor and dispossessed must be part of the SSP’s potential audience and it is right that a socialist party should be trying to encourage their entry into political life, while recognising the difficulties involved in doing so. McCombes’s mistake, however, is to imagine that the dispossessed can be the main or leading component in our social base (one reason, along with his suggestion that party organisation in future be based on a series of interest groups or ‘networks’ rather than geographical branches, that his paper was not supported by the executive committee).

2: The parting of the ways

If much of the leadership seemed unaffected by the events at Gleneagles, the same cannot be said of the membership of the SSP. The national conference of the SSP in March of this year (2006) was notable for its changed atmosphere. Around issues of war, racism and climate change, delegates consistently rejected sectarian motions which argued for an ‘ourselves alone’ approach, in favour of working with other activist and campaigners. When Rosie Kane MSP, for example, spoke in a debate on environmental issues (she is, it should be remembered, the party’s most prominent environmental spokesperson) on behalf of the executive committee, she specifically rejected the motion that the party should become involved in the broad Campaign Against Climate Change, arguing instead that ‘we don’t need to work with anyone else—we can do it by ourselves’. Her position was decisively rejected by the delegates.

The conference delegations included a number of new people who had come towards the SSP through the work around G8 and anti-war activities—the very activities that had been repeatedly rejected as irrelevant and marginal by the leadership of the organisation. It was largely through contact with members of the Socialist Worker Platform that they had joined the SSP; they were mostly young and non-sectarian. But they saw little of their spirit reflected in the party’s paper or in the branch meetings. Indeed what they had entered felt like a party in decline, controlled by a bureaucratic layer which saw growth through the movement as a ‘dilution’.

The spirit of the conference made no impact on the executive committee. The reality was that our support in the country was ebbing away—a series of local and parliamentary by-elections in 2006 had shown how slender that support now was, slipping in some cases below 2 percent of the votes cast. The process of preparing for the Scottish elections in May 2007 should already have begun, with candidates being selected and campaigns begun at a local level. Instead the party leadership remained totally absorbed in the continuing question of Tommy Sheridan’s libel action, and intensified its factional activity, continuing the arguments which had first surfaced nearly two years earlier. Sheridan had been elected chair of the party by conference. But the party’s leadership was not prepared to accept the declared will of the party. Instead it counter-attacked, launching yet another whispering campaign intended to force Sheridan to drop the case, and effectively withdrawing the political support of the party from him at a critical moment.

There is a clear pattern of behaviour on the part of the SSP leadership throughout the last three years, whose roots lie still further back in the SSP’s history. When put to the test, on every occasion those in control of the party have shown that the declared intention to move towards a new kind of open, mass-based political formation was worth little more than the paper it was written on. The existing membership of the party, declining day by day, neither controlled nor understood what was happening at the top. The prevailing method remained sectarian in relation to the class and bureaucratic in relation to the membership. Far from engaging with and winning the leadership of the movement in Scotland, the SSP stood back from the movement, refused to work to win the leadership of it, and more often than not condemned it for its political limitations.

Sheridan himself was a member of the ISM platform; those who turned against him were almost all his close political allies until very recently. They have now turned against him for reasons that are far more profoundly political than personal. While Sheridan shares his political roots with the SSP leadership, he has had a major influence in winning support for the party in the class with his consistent record of political activism around war, asylum seekers and anti-capitalism. In 2003 his name was on the ballot paper beside the party logo. The project for which people voted was inescapably associated in the public mind with Tommy Sheridan. That is why the majority of party members represented at a party national council in June gave their full support to Sheridan and rejected the convoluted arguments presented by the executive committee majority to justify what was seen as a public betrayal of a leading socialist and the project he represented.

One argument offered by the leadership was that the principal issue was gender rather than class. Sheridan himself has suggested that the conflict is between what he characterises as ‘gender politics’ and ‘class politics’. This is not necessarily a characterisation that we would accept, not least since we see the struggle against class exploitation and for women’s liberation as intimately linked. Nevertheless, the dominance of feminist ideas among a section of the party has led them to see the central issue as being Sheridan’s alleged personal behaviour rather than News International’s attacks on a leading socialist.

The SWP was able to clarify its understanding of the real Marxist tradition on women’s liberation through a lengthy and sometimes bitter faction fight in the early 1980s around the question of ‘autonomous’ women’s organisation. By contrast no such debate took place within Militant, which was in fact notorious on the left in the 1970s and 1980s for its denunciation of the women’s liberation movement as ‘petty bourgeois’. Perhaps as a consequence of that experience, leading SSP members who are former Militant supporters have now ‘flip-flopped’ into an uncritical acceptance of many feminist ideas. As an example of where such positions can lead, in an article in the Sunday Herald MSP Carolyn Leckie (who was not previously in Militant) claimed that the SSP took the nursery nurses’ dispute less seriously than other disputes because it involved women workers. This was an outrageous slander against the many SSP comrades, male and female, who visited picket lines on a daily basis but is particularly inaccurate in that an important source of support for Sheridan comes from nursery nurses who joined the party because of his support for their strike!

For the majority of party members it was clear that the court case would never have gone ahead had some executive committee members not attempted to use the case to oust Sheridan from his leadership role. The reasons were always political—at root, a conflict between two different visions of the party. Tommy Sheridan did not argue the case for a wider involvement in the movement against his own colleagues, and until relatively recently he did not openly criticise the intensifying sectarianism within the party. Yet for significant numbers of party members, and many more outside the party, because of his consistent activity and his public association with the anti-war campaign at several levels he has come to represent the kind of broad, activist party the SSP should have become.
The decision by party members at a further delegate meeting was that a national conference of the SSP should be held as soon as possible after the ending of the libel case. Motions proposed for that meeting made it very clear that the purpose of that conference would be to force out the old leadership and elect a new and different one. We in the Socialist Worker Platform began to prepare actively for what could have been an important opportunity to change the direction of the party.

In the weeks that followed, however, it became obvious to us all that those controlling the SSP would never allow the change to happen. The campaign of vilification was conducted through the press and the media; so poisonous was it that a number of normally unsympathetic commentators began to offer support to Sheridan. Party members opposed to the present leadership were sent anonymous notes in their party mailing, while others were physically assaulted during branch meetings. It was a clear indication that the sectarian faction still controlling the party would destroy it rather than release their control.

There was still a clear majority of SSP members committed to the project that had brought us together five years ago; our loyalty was to that project, and not to a party which now offered only a sectarian model isolated from the movements and buried in abstraction, a party which continued its slanders against Tommy Sheridan throughout the period when Lebanon was being destroyed by Israeli arms. This was not a minor dispute but a fundamental parting of the ways.

We hope that those forces committed to building a mass-based socialist alternative to New Labour, an anti-capitalist formation open to all those opposed to global capital and war, can now work together to build the newly formed Solidarity organisation. This was the basis of the decision of the members of the Socialist Worker Platform to throw our weight and our commitment behind this new organisation:

The Socialist Worker Platform recognises with some sadness that the SSP is no longer the broad and open mass party of the left we committed ourselves to building when we joined it some five years ago. While the imperialist war intensifies and spreads into Lebanon, and the level of public anger and opposition grows, the SSP has proved unable to respond to that anger or provide any direction for it.

The potential for building a broad and inclusive organisation of the Scottish left is as great as ever. It is the duty of socialists to respond to and build on that potential. We welcome the initiative of calling an open public meeting of the Scottish left on 3 September in Glasgow to launch Solidarity and will actively work to build it, in the belief that it could represent the first stage in building a new political formation that can answer the needs of the many socialists and activists in Scotland, a launching pad for a new Scottish left that will be open, democratic, internationalist and committed to the building of a new and better world.

(a) The overwhelming majority of the EC had been members of the Militant Tendency. Three were members of the Socialist Worker platform, including myself. The one member of our platform present at the meeting in November 2004 voted for the decision calling on Sheridan to resign but immediately and publicly acknowledged that she had been wrong.