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What Future for a United Left in Scotland?

SWP demonstrators

The workers united?

The Scottish left was once a beacon of unity that socialists from across the world looked to. The split in the Scottish Socialist Party which took place around the events of Tommy Sheridan’s libel trial has dimmed that beacon. In this article Gregor Gall gives a personal view of the current state of ‘left unity’. Frontline hopes to publish other viewpoints both in print and on our website.

‘There is nothing so divisive as a call for unity’ is a phrase that is, unfortunately, so excruciatingly true of the radical left in Scotland today. With elections for the next Scottish Parliament in May 2011 and the ideological and economic crisis of neo-liberalism now turning into an age of austerity for public service workers and welfare users under a Conserative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, the self-inflicted blows to radical left are of epic proportions and significant consequences.

Trials and Tribulations

Beginning on 4 October 2010, the final denouement of the Tommy Sheridan saga – his trial for perjury and conspiracy to commit perjury – has opened up again all the old wounds that have still yet to heal between the existing and former members of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). Hope – let alone talk – of unity to begin turning back the tide of the marginalisation of the radical left is alas forlorn.

The SSP from its formation in 1998 represented not only the most advanced radical left unity project in Scotland and Britain but one that became a growing, popular and credible one (notwithstanding having some challenges in developing beyond 3,000 members, raising member’s consciousness and activity and aligning parliamentary and extra-parliamentary activity). Its highpoint was the election of six MSPs in 2003 and the use of this platform to play a major role in supporting workers like the Scottish nursery nurses in the strike action of 2003-2004.

Broad Campaigns

The groundwork for this success was put in place many years before through the joint-working around the poll tax and many subsequent campaigns as well as the willingness of the majority of members of Militant in Scotland to build a broad socialist party through Scottish Militant Labour and then the Scottish Socialist Alliance (SSA). This step change allowed an organised band of socialists to campaign and intervene in struggles and other campaigns in a way that had not existed for many generations. Looking back on those days, it is not an exaggeration to say that the radical left in the form of the SSP had become a significant – if small – player in politics and society in Scotland. Looking back upon those days, the problems encountered and the challenges faced would gladly be swapped for the situation post-November 2004.

The decision of Tommy Sheridan to sue the News of the World over allegations about his personal conduct in 2004 set on a train of events that wrecked the SSP, saw the launching of Solidarity in September 2006 and the wiping of out any radical left representation in the Scottish Parliament in the May 2007 elections.

Shrunken and Atrophied

By late 2010, the radical left, whether the SSP, Solidarity or any parts of thereof, is a shrunken and atrophied species. The washing of dirty linen in public over ‘Tommygate’ was the key factor in creating a situation where the radical left has now become a risible creature. No amounting of crowing that one part of the radical left is bigger than the other can get away from this. Any talk of the green shoots of a red recovery is the last refuge of the damned.

The implosion of the Respect Party project in England in 2007, following the actions of the SWP in reacting to the suggestion that Respect was not ready to fight an imminent election, completed the picture of fratricide on the radical left. The Left List fighting Respect in 2008 London elections was the replication of the situation in Scotland a year earlier.


What has emerged out of these ashes is a stillborn attempt supported by the Socialist Party and RMT union to fashion another attempt at radical left unity in the form of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). A meeting of its constituents in Scotland on 2 October 2010 in Glasgow, under the auspices of the Motherwell and Wishaw RMT branch, indicated that its vision of what a united left would comprise: some (internally) non-aligned members of Solidarity and its Democratic Green Socialist network, the Socialist Party Scotland (formerly the International Socialists but still affiliated to the Committee for a Workers’ International), the SWP and a number of relatively prominent union activists from left unions like the FBU, RMT and PCS. No rapprochement with members of the continuing SSP is envisaged. The existing leadership of the SSP, and thus SSP, is regarded as being not part of the left because of its role before and after the split in 2007 as a result of its stance in regard of Sheridan’s ‘Tommygate’.

With the SSP already having announced that it will stand its own candidates in the forthcoming Scottish Parliament elections (for the eight list seats), there is no sign that it will move towards the middle ground of accommodation with its erstwhile members either.

At the time of going to press the outcome of the perjury trial is unknown, however in this respect it is critical. If Sheridan is convicted, he and his supporters will claim that the SSP delivered the knockout treacherous blow by effectively allying with the state and forces of reaction, namely, the News of the World. He will forever protest his innocence and no doubt appeal. If Sheridan is acquitted, he and his supporters will claim that despite the SSP attempting to deliver the knockout treacherous blow by effectively allying with the state and forces of reaction, namely, the News of the World, the genuine radical left has triumphed and will be able to go on the offensive – not just against capitalism, the Tories, Labour etc but also against the SSP.

For the SSP, if Sheridan is convicted, its members will reluctantly conclude that the end of a very sorry saga has ended, and with the stage cleared, the task of rebuilding the radical left can begin anew. If Sheridan is acquitted, the feeling in the SSP will be that justice has been evaded again and that no peace can be made with Sheridan and his allies who wrecked the SSP through a catastrophic misjudgement they were warned against taking back in November 2004.

Either way, the radical left is up the proverbial creek without a paddle. Add to this that the trial will close towards the end of 2010 and not only there is little prospect in the remaining months before May 2011 that even a non-aggression pact could be agreed between the two sides of the divided radical left, but when both side stand with fresh rancour in the air, they will be doing well to get the derisory combined vote they got in the 2007 Scottish elections.

A way out?

Is there any way out of this mess? Part of the answer depends upon how the radical left is now conceived.

If the future of the radical left in Scotland is equated with either or both of Solidarity and the SSP, or parts thereof, it is difficult to see in the short- or medium-term how any unity will come out of this. Unity cannot just be declared but as with the SSA and SSP has to be rebuilt and re-created. This will take time – probably a very long time – even if the will is there on both sides. It used to be thought that the perjury trial would bring closure to ‘Tommygate’ but it now appears more likely that it will be a political feud that some people will take to their graves or cremations. Even if these people move out of the way to allow new untainted blood to emerge and lead within their respective organisations, it is doubtful that the past can effectively be put behind as organisational legacies will remain. But apart from that, those that might constitute the new blood are not great in numbers or stature to play this role. In similar terms, there are no outside forces that are capable or willing to bang heads together to ensure unity. The left-led unions like RMT, FBU and PCS in Scotland and in Britain – which may have an interest in doing so – would be unlikely to do so because of their internal politics. For example, some are more favourable to Solidarity while others would see the situation as an un-resolvable hornet’s nest they would not wish to become involved with.

Is it possible one side of the former SSP will triumph over the other by growing in number and influence and so the problem will be solved through the effective liquidation of the other? This seems unlikely as neither side – relative to the other - is endowed with the resources that would facilitate this. Both will continue to fish in the same pools for members and influence, whether these be amongst unions, students, the anti-cuts movement and so on. Moreover, to the outsider neither is sufficiently different in politics and orientation (despite views that one is more committed to party building than the other or more commitment to building united fronts in the so-called movements) so there is no real point of market or brand differentiation. Neither will stand out more than the other.


What is more likely is a continuing war of attrition as we have already witnessed. Ironically enough, both the SSP and Solidarity have enough members and resources to continue to eke out a future for itself at the low levels of standing some candidates in elections, holding public meetings and so on. The Socialist Labour Party, led by Arthur Scargill, amongst others testifies to the possibility of this.

Both those scenarios are premised on that view that whatever happens to the radical left in Scotland, it will be inextricably linked to the parts of the former unified SSP. Is this necessarily so? While there is a more amorphous radical left in Scotland, its very state of being amorphous and without organisational weight means that it holds no particular sway so is not a contender to provide a different pole of attraction. This is true also for the non-traditional left that has emerged through the Green Party (since weakened by the 2007 election outcome) and the different ‘movements’ such as the environment, peace, anti-racism, and anti-fascism.


Following the emergence of the Tories as the largest single party in government with its cuts agenda and the maintenance of some presence of the Labour left in the Westminster Parliament, there is evidence that some of the left outside Labour is joining/re-joining Labour and re-orientating upon it. Thus, any prospect that Labour left might leave Labour to establish a new socialist project evaporated. For some – like the soft left and a number of union leaderships - the defeat of David Miliband has strengthened this ‘rejoin and reclaim’ Labour project as the site to struggle within to create a force to defeat the Tories and Liberal Democrats. But notwithstanding this, social democracy – quintessentially defined as the regulation of the market and its outcomes for progressive popular ends – is not in a state of health to be able to, indirectly, offer much succour to the radical left.

Whilst left unity projects in Germany and Portugal continue to progress and gain influence, Scotland (and England) seem more headed in the Italian direction of disintegration and despair. The likely decision of George Galloway to stand as a candidate for Respect in the Glasgow list seat in the Scottish Parliament elections of May 2011 merely adds to the sense of division and woe. It remains to be seen whether a new type or form of the radical left will emerge out of the battle against the cuts in public service. In part this depends on whether the battle records any success. Despite the historical precedents of the poll tax and anti-war movement, there is no reason why one would necessarily emerge because those that did emerge on those occasions were the sons and daughters of the longstanding left. Today, that precedent would not seem to be as valuable as it once was.

Professor Gregor Gall, University of Hertfordshire