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Lessons from the SSP experience

The recent Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) conference confirmed the difficulties facing the party. PHILIP STOTT, of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) platform in the SSP – the International Socialists – looks at the lessons to be drawn from the current situation, and the way ahead.

THE SCOTTISH SOCIALIST Party (SSP) met in conference on March 4th with the party still struggling to recover from the impact of the resignation of Tommy Sheridan, the best known SSP figure, as national convenor in November 2004. His resignation was prompted by decisions taken by the party’s executive committee over fears about tabloid stories involving Sheridan’s private life. Tommy Sheridan has taken out a libel action against the News Of The World, due to be heard in July.

Since the time of his resignation as convenor, the SSP’s electoral support has dipped significantly. Last year’s general election in May (for the all-Britain Westminster parliament), saw the party secure 1.9% of the poll in Scotland (43,516 votes), a fall from the 3.1% (72,518 votes) achieved in 2001. A series of by-elections at both parliamentary and council level have confirmed this trend. On average, in these elections the SSP has lost about 40-50% of its vote.

The most recent Dunfermline and West Fife by-election, which produced a humiliating defeat for New Labour, saw the SSP poll 1.5% - a slight fall even when compared to the disappointing 2005 general election. All the SSP’s Scottish parliament members (MSPs) are up for election in 2007 and unless there is a significant improvement in the polls the SSP could lose a number of seats. There has also been a reduction in the number of activists involved in the party as the SSP has struggled to find a road out of these difficulties.

Yet the conditions are there to re-build the SSP. Two hundred and fifty thousand local government workers in Scotland have voted to strike over pensions and there is a growing revolt over the pro-big business policies of the sleaze-ridden Blair government, and the Scottish Executive. Under these circumstances, there exist real opportunities to re-build the SSP. However, this would require a new political course to be taken.

The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) platform in the SSP – the International Socialists – has criticised the SSP leadership over their handling of the situation regarding Tommy Sheridan. The CWI have also opposed, in the main, the political direction and approach of the SSP leadership, which has been primarily responsible for the setbacks the SSP has suffered. (see Where now for the SSP? But we have also consistently put forward a strategy that we believe could strengthen the SSP, and help re-build its support.

Late last year, for example, the SSP leadership proposed to launch a national ten-point campaign entitled, ‘People Not Profit’. The CWI welcomed and supported this initiative which, we argued, could help to popularise some of the SSP’s key policies. The ten-point programme included demands like, ‘End Low Pay’, ‘End privatisation’ and ‘opposition to the war in Iraq’.

However, we did not agree, as the SSP executive committee (EC) had initially proposed, that this campaign should, in the main, only be based on what the existing powers held by the Scottish parliament could deliver. This meant that on low pay, for example, only the demand to increase the minimum wage for public sector workers would be included in the campaign. We called for this demand to include all workers – without exemptions.

The SSP executive’s original proposals had also suggested that, on privatisation, only the call for the abolition of private finance initiative (PFI) and public-private partnership (PPP) schemes would be included.

At the SSP conference the CWI platform sought to widen this out, to also call for the re-nationalisation, under democratic working class control, of all industries and services privatised by the Tories and New Labour. This would be linked to explaining the need to fight for the public ownership of all the major industries, as a part of a socialist planned economic alternative to free-market chaos.

In the run-up to the conference the SSP executive had indicated that they were sticking to their original, limited, proposals. However, the leaflets now produced for the campaign, which appeared on the day the conference began, have taken on board many of the CWI’s suggestions and, as a result, are much more effective, and will strengthen the impact of the People Not Profit campaign.

SSP conference debates

THERE WAS AN important debate on the European Left at the SSP conference. A motion from CWI platform supporters welcomed the emergence of new left parties in Europe that could potentially play a role in turning the tide against the neo-liberal attacks on the working class.

Motions from the party leadership asked the SSP to join the Gauche Unitaire European (GUE – European United Left), and one from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) urged the SSP to join the European Left Party (ELP).

The GUE, an organisation of the ‘left’ in the European parliament, includes such organisations as Sinn Fein, the PDS/Left Party in Germany (the PDS, the Party of Democratic Socialism, originates from the Stalinist ruling party in the former East Germany) and the Party of Communist Refoundation (PRC) in Italy. Some of the same parties have formed the ELP.

In the debate, CWI members pointed out that the PRC has agreed to take part in a re-run of the ‘Olive Tree’ coalition government of the 1990s, if Silvio Berlusconi is defeated in Italy’s general election on April 9. This would involve the PRC being in coalition with other pro-business parties – a coalition which, because the pro-business parties are committed to defending capitalism, would carry out attacks on Italian workers.

We also explained the role of the PDS/Left Party in Germany, which is in a local coalition government with the pro-market Social Democratic Party (SPD) in two regions, including Berlin. In Berlin, the PDS have been instrumental in carrying out privatisations, attacking trade unionists’ right to collective bargaining, and in implementing vicious attacks on jobs and services.

The CWI speakers welcomed the election of 54 MPs from the Left Party and a new party, the WASG (Electoral Alternative – Work and Social Justice), in last year’s German general election. The CWI in Germany, Sozialistische Alternative (SAV), fully participates in the WASG, playing an important role in the new party in many areas, including Berlin (see the article in Socialism Today No.98, The Left in Germany).

However, our motion called on the SSP conference to support the decision of the new WASG party in Berlin, confirmed in a recent ballot of party members, to stand independently from the PDS in the Berlin elections to be held later this year.

Fizz Garvie and Frances Curran MSP, who moved and summed up in favour of joining GUE, argued that a ‘united left project’ was the over-riding necessity. Fizz Garvie said that anything that threatened an historic opportunity to ‘unite the left in Germany’, ie the merging of the PDS and the WASG without preconditions, would be a big setback. Unfortunately, this put Fizz and others in the same position as the national leaders of the WASG and PDS, who hope to rush ahead with a merger without calling for the PDS to abandon its involvement in cuts coalitions.

The Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) wanted the SSP to join the European Left Party (ELP), so that "we can influence these other left parties". But it is clear that the SWP are not prepared to criticise the actions of the likes of the PDS in Germany, the PRC in Italy, or Sinn Fein in Ireland (which carried out PFI privatisation projects when Sinn Fein held ministerial positions in the Northern Ireland assembly, before that collapsed several years ago).

This approach has led the SWP to support an unprincipled merger of the PDS/Left Party and the WASG in Germany, while criticising the CWI for arguing for a strong left based on principled opposition to attacks on workers’ rights and privatisation.

The CWI motion called on the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) to take a clear position in opposition to left parties participating in cuts coalitions at a local, regional or national level, and, therefore, proposed discussions on that basis before joining the European Left Party (ELP). An amendment that called for the SSP to work closely with the GUE, but not to join it, was only defeated by a small margin. There was no vote taken on the CWI motion, as a vote for the SSP to join the GUE and ELP was passed.

The SWP also spoke against an amendment on climate change that would have committed the SSP to call for a sustainable planned socialist economy to tackle the growing environmental crisis. One SWP speaker said: "If we accept this amendment we will be building a fence between us and others in the environmental movement". The amendment was defeated. The SWP’s baleful role, which is not countered by the SSP leadership, is to actively oppose any moves to raise the case for socialism in any of the ‘movements’ they participate in. This includes the anti-war movement, the Respect coalition, environmental campaigns and the anti-globalisation movement. At the same time as arguing that advancing a socialist explanation on the environment would ‘build a fence around the SSP’, the SWP refuse to condemn reactionary acts like 9/11 or the July 2005 bombings in London, which can only alienate the mass of the working class, including big sections of the Muslim community.

Unfortunately, the lack of confidence in advancing a clear, independent, socialist banner also applies to sections of the SSP leadership. In the debate on the ‘Independence Convention’ the SSP executive committee motion described the launch rally of the Convention – made up of the SSP, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Greens – as "left-wing and internationalist". CWI member Gary Clark, who attended the rally, said it was a meeting at which the St Andrews flag (Scotland’s national flag) was placed on every seat in the hall and where a majority of the audience were SNP members and supporters. There was no identifiable contingent of workers.

The executive committee motion described the independence movement in Scotland as being "concerned about global and local inequality of wealth". A Dundee West motion pointed to the dangers of giving the SNP such left-wing credentials: "The SNP use every opportunity to advocate their vision of a free market Scotland, that would emulate the so-called ‘Celtic Tiger’ of the Irish economy. We believe that the [SSP] EC motion, in seeking to minimise the clear differences that exist between the SSP and the SNP, can do real damage to the SSP and the socialist movement in Scotland. This could have the effect of further weakening our appeal to working-class people in Scotland who have looked to the SSP as a refreshing alternative to the pro-capitalist political establishment, including the SNP".

CWI member Sinead Daly, was elected to the SSP executive committee, gaining the fourth highest vote on the female list. This was a significant increase in the vote for the CWI, compared to last year, when Sinead was eighth on the list. CWI members Janice Godrich and Jim McFarlane were both elected to the National Trade Union Committee and Sinead Daly was also elected to the International Committee. These results, alongside the number of delegates who have approached us for discussions, and commented on the clarity of our ideas since the conference, shows the consistent approach taken by the CWI is having an increasing impact on a layer of SSP members.

ISM to dissolve

THE REVERSES SUFFERED by the SSP have brought into sharp focus the role played by the leadership of the party in these events. In particular, it has raised the question of the political role of the SSP leadership, many of whom left the CWI in 2001.

The majority political bloc among the SSP leadership has been the International Socialist Movement (ISM). This is the organisation that left the CWI in 2001 and whose members, who included Tommy Sheridan, Alan McCombes, Colin Fox, and Frances Curran, still play a leading role in the SSP today. The ISM have now proposed to dissolve their organisation, which had been in a state of chaotic disarray during the last 18 months.

The ISM have accused the CWI of opposing the setting up of the SSP and of being implacably opposed to everything the SSP was trying to achieve in Scotland. These completely false allegations – repeated in a statement for the ISM 2006 conference that proposed to wind-up their platform – have been used in an attempt to rewrite the history and substance of the debate inside the CWI over the setting-up of the SSP. (A debate that we think has important lessons for socialists today and for those who are working to help the SSP re-build its lost support. The documentation of that debate can be found at

The majority of the ISM leadership had, by 1998, drawn the conclusion that the task of building a revolutionary Marxist organisation was redundant. Ironically, despite accusations of taking an "overwhelmingly negative approach to the launch of the SSP" (ISM statement, March 2006), it was the CWI leadership in the early 1990s that first raised the idea of the need to build new mass workers’ organisations.

This flowed from our analysis that the former ‘workers’ parties’ like the Labour Party in Britain, which always had a pro-capitalist leadership, were now completely bourgeois parties and closed off to workers, trade unionists and young people. While supporting the building of new working-class parties, or even potential steps in that direction like the socialist alliances, the SSP and other left-unity projects, we also defended the need to build independent Marxist organisations based on the programme and methods of the CWI. We described Marxists as having a ‘dual task’ in this period: of encouraging, where the forces exist, the building of new political parties to act as a vehicle for the working class, while at the same time striving to strengthen the sections of the CWI.

Unfortunately, Alan McCombes, Tommy Sheridan and others who had played a leading role in building a powerful Marxist organisation in Scotland in the past – Militant and Scottish Militant Labour – were in the process of abandoning the second of these tasks and the fighting Marxist programme that went along with it.

Instead, they proposed the launching of the politically broader SSP while advocating the winding-up of a revolutionary Marxist organisation. This was to be done as a way, they thought, of escaping the difficulties and set-backs that the left and Marxists had faced in the 1990s. The 1990s had placed enormous ideological pressure on the very idea of socialism being a viable alternative to the capitalist market. The concept of the need for a revolutionary Marxist party was also a casualty in this one-sided ‘war of ideas’. Groupings like the SWP, and the so-called ‘Fourth International’, have either abandoned completely, or placed in the deep freeze, the need to advocate the building of a Marxist organisation, programme and methods. Politically all these groupings have moved to the right. Only the CWI has consistently defended the need for a revolutionary Marxist party. Unfortunately, this has placed us in political opposition to the leadership of the SSP on concrete day-to-day questions as well as the vital issues of what political programme the SSP should stand on.

The CWI opposed the dissolution of the Marxist SML into the Scottish Socialist Party and called for a viable Marxist organisation to be maintained in the broader party. This was rejected by a majority of the ISM. A minority of the ISM went on to form the CWI platform in the SSP.

By taking those steps the ISM leaders were breaking politically not just with the CWI but with genuine Marxism and a revolutionary socialist programme. This has had huge political consequences for the Scottish Socialist Party, resulting in the SSP leadership now putting forward left-nationalist and reformist political ideas that, alongside their mistakes over Tommy Sheridan’s resignation, have caused damage to the SSP.

The CWI sees as a central task in this period the need to build a fighting, working-class based alternative to the neo-liberal capitalist onslaught. Concretely, we have welcomed and participated in the new WASG formation in Germany. In England and Wales we have launched the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party. At the same time, we seek to build and strengthen our own Marxist forces who, we believe, can play a decisive role in helping these new formations reach their potential.

This has been the approach we have taken to our work in the SSP. We welcome any initiative that strengthens the forces of socialism, while opposing those that would lead to the weakening of the SSP.

Political mistakes take their revenge

THIS PRINCIPLED APPROACH to the Scottish Socialist Party has brought us into conflict with the SSP leadership, who in the main come have from the ISM group. The fact that the ISM is proposing to carry out ‘voluntary euthanasia’ after only five years of existence is an indication of the political crisis that not only the ISM but also the SSP has been in. The comrades say: "The ISM played a central role in the major advances [of the SSP] – by throwing all our time and resources into the SSP… Yet this had a price. The diminution of the ISM’s coherence meant that no clear political direction was given on a number of issues. This has been much more evident during difficult times".

But they do themselves a disservice. In fact, it has been the leading ISM members who have played the key role in moving the SSP onto the ground of left-nationalism through the proposal to launch the independence convention alongside the SNP. It was ISM members who argued against the idea of adopting a programme that would commit the SSP to supporting the nationalisation of the major sections of the economy under working-class control in the SSP’s manifesto for the 2004 European elections. ISM members have on more than one occasion attempted to lampoon the CWI for arguing for ‘old fashioned’ ideas like the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy. Instead, socialists today, they argued, should support "new forms of social and community ownership and control".

Such ideas are not new and reflect the pressure on the SSP to adopt a policy in practice that falls short of calling for the ending of capitalism.

The ISM statement touches very briefly and in a one-sided way on political conditions in Scotland, where class struggle, they say, is at a "low ebb" and where the "firefighters and nursery nurses strikes ended in complete or partial defeat". They even admit that the struggle over the national question has "not been to the fore in this period". So why then initiate the launch of a pro-independence campaign with the SNP and the Greens? Moreover, it is a campaign in which the distinction between the SSP and the pro-capitalist SNP has been blurred in the eyes of a significant layer of SSP supporters.

References to ‘difficult times’ in the ISM statement are clearly referring to the events around Tommy Sheridan’s resignation as national convenor, which plunged the SSP into a crisis. The ISM itself split into two wings with one group in Glasgow supporting Alan McCombes, and therefore the action taken by the executive committee, as Tommy Sheridan’s replacement, while another section of ISM members supported Colin Fox. While in practice the ISM was always in reality a platform for the SSP leadership, these events have left the ISM, in their own words, in a state of "paralysis".

"The ISM has really ceased to function as a platform within the party", they write, while there is "disorientation in the ranks of the SSP". They go on to state that: "all of these factors have meant that Marxist forces in Scotland are less organised than they have been for a decade". Without perhaps understanding the irony, they go on to say: "The ISM has fulfilled its historical role within the SSP and now is no longer of any utility".

But the main responsibility for this crisis both in the SSP and now the wreckage of the ISM lies with a leadership who a number of years ago made a political break from Marxism. It was that political retreat that was at the heart of the debate that opened up between the CWI and the former CWI members who went on to form the ISM. And it is the political mistakes by those former CWI members that have been the main factor in the undermining of the SSP.

The CWI in Scotland has grown and has been able to begin to rebuild its forces following the split in 2001. The ISM statement tries to explain this away by stating: "The CWI has its uniform line and support mechanisms and have to some extent been inured from the fluctuations within the party and even to some extent broader society". The ‘support mechanism’ for the CWI in Scotland primarily consists of the programme and analysis of the CWI. This has helped the parties and organisations affiliated to the CWI maintain our forces, despite the difficulties we and other socialists have faced in the 1990s. In fact, we have even been able to strengthen our roots in the working class – particularly in the trade unions. This has now laid the basis for important advances as the class struggle and the possibilities of wining a new generation, especially the youth, to socialist ideas increases.

Although still a relatively small organisation, the CWI in Scotland has in its ranks many members who are playing a leading role in the current local government battle over pensions in Scotland. We have two comrades who are on the NEC of the PCS civil service union, including the national president of the union, Janice Godrich, as well as a number of PCS members in leading positions at branch level. Nursery nurses and PCS members have joined the CWI in Scotland recently, as have SSP members who have seen the principled position the CWI have taken on the way forward for the SSP.

The setbacks suffered by the SSP are a setback for all socialists and Marxists. The CWI has put forward a strategy we believe can help the SSP recover. However, unless this is done on a clear class and socialist basis the SSP may be unable to grasp the opportunities that clearly exist to move forward. SSP members, including those in the former ISM, have a responsibility to learn lessons from these events. The most important is to draw the conclusion that the building of a more powerful Marxist organisation in Scotland, as the CWI is attempting to do, is a vital task. A task that if achieved can help ensure that the socialist and wider workers’ movement can achieve the historic task of ending the capitalist system which would lay the basis for the building of a socialist future for humanity.


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