Scottish Socialist Party co-spokesperson Colin Fox reflects on the lessons of the rise of the SSP and the way forward for the Scottish left today.
I attended the Frontline fringe meeting on ‘The prospects for Left unity’ at the Scottish Socialist Party conference in Edinburgh recently and enjoyed listening to Gregor Gall (SSP) and Pete Ramand (ISG) outline the issues facing us. Whilst nothing new arose from the discussion it nonetheless offered a chance to examine the issues afresh with representatives from the SWP, ISG and ISN. So I welcome this further opportunity to calmly consider the position facing those of us committed to building a broad based, mass socialist party in Scotland.
Looking at the left in Scotland today reminds me of Tony Benn’s observation, offered to me as a young socialist some 30 years ago, ‘there are too many socialist parties and not enough socialists.’
In this article I look at the current situation, the lessons of previous successes, the type of programme and model of unity we need, the impediments to unity and offer suggestions on how progress might nonetheless be made, and last but not least, I consider the views some have presented about abandoning the need for a party altogether. Inevitably an article like this can only scratch the surface of this debate, but I offer it nonetheless.
Before I consider all those issues however I feel compelled to focus this discussion on one incontrovertible truth, the Scottish Socialist Party remains the most successful Left unity model in post war Scottish history. That fact seems to be lost on many people, not least those former SSP ‘comrades’ subsequently blinded by their desire to bury us. I would respectfully suggest that instead of writing off the SSP they might be better served studying why we succeeded and what lessons are to be learned from that early experience. No student serious about this discussion would surely dispute that such an exercise offers a treasury of valuable information?
The SSP’s emergence in 1998/9 was no accident. Rather it was the result of a strategic political decision and a lengthy process of deliberation, discussion and agreement. Scottish Militant Labour, the project’s driving influence, began making overtures to others on the anti-capitalist Left in Scotland in 1995/6 about the possibility of a political realignment. This realignment would give voice to substantial sections of the Scottish working class who felt disenfranchised by Labour’s historic lurch to the right. Contact was sought and made with like-minded comrades from the Labour Left, the SNP Left (gathered around Liberation magazine), the Communist Party of Scotland, trade union activists, intellectuals, peaceniks, direct action environmental campaigners and many non-aligned socialists across Scotland. Agreement was reached on a substantial political programme based on shared anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, pro public ownership policies and not least a pro-Independence programme and to enlist SML’s skills base, its finances, its elected representatives, its full time organisers, its weekly newspaper [Scottish Socialist Voice] and its membership to help launch the Scottish Socialist Alliance. We had been heavily involved in campaigns like the Liverpool Dockers Support Group, the Hands off our Water campaign, the Glacier Metals dispute on Glasgow’s Southside and we had worked well together on single issues. Through this Alliance we achieved a remarkable degree of political unity, cohesion and trust around a programme that enjoyed the support of everyone on most key issues. Where there was discord on policy, such as Ireland, we agreed to ‘park’ those debates for the time being having reached the maximum consensual agreement possible.
On top of this programmatic unity we built organisational strength and trust by adopting a groundbreaking constitution which included a series of clauses based on a pluralist and democratic model. Comrades from SML, for example, recognising the need to display unity and respect in action as much as in words, suggested all platforms, tendencies and groups should have equal voting rights regardless of their numerical strength. This was an important commitment designed to emphasise the politically pluralist nature of the new alliance and build the necessary understanding, trust and respect between all the groups involved.
The undoubted success of the SSA – modest at first – developed into the Scottish Socialist Party. This crucial step from a loose alliance to a tighter party was deemed necessary if we were to win a seat in the inaugural Holyrood elections of 1999. We felt this victory was within our reach and we saw the huge electoral opportunity it offered in gaining further political credibility and mass popular support.
Of course not everyone on the Left joined in this left unity project. The Socialist Labour Party of Arthur Scargill for example rejected the idea as they did not support Independence and also opposed the ‘bottom up’ democratic structure of the new party preferring a powerful hegemonic role for Scargill instead. They were nonetheless an important part of the Left in Scotland at that time and went on to stand against the SSP in the 1999 Holyrood elections. Despite polling more votes across Scotland they did not win any seats. Had there been one left candidate in each region we would have won 5 socialist MSP’s.
The Socialist Workers Party also dismissed the SSA/SSP project out of hand. In fact the SWP denounced the SSP as ‘reformist’ and ‘nationalist’ because we called for an independent socialist Scotland. Whereas until recently they have been ambivalent on the issue of Independence at that time they opposed it. They preferred to call for a vote for Labour in 1997. ‘Vote Labour and build a socialist alternative’ was their slogan as we in the SSA were building that very ‘alternative’. To be fair they did change their minds when the SSP won a seat at Holyrood and tripled our membership in the 12 months following.
The SSP continued to operate on this pluralist basis with an unparalleled democratic constitution unmatched anywhere else on the left. We enshrined open platform rights for all registered tendencies including the newly joined SWP with branches meeting fortnightly, elected Regional Committees, a quarterly National Committee and an annual delegate Conference whose decisions were sovereign.
We built the SSP inside and outside Parliament and confounded sceptics inside and outside the left with our progress. We effectively led the anti-war movement in Scotland and were present on every picket line, community fight back and progressive campaign in the land. In 2003 we won 6 MSP’s, secured 131,000 votes for a full-blooded socialist programme and changed the face of Scottish politics entirely.
We soon had 3,000 members in 80 branches organised across 7 regions.
And what are the lessons? That with a pluralist, inclusive, democratic and bold orientation to the masses, in particular to new layers of activists entering the fray, it was possible to build a popular and effective broad, socialist party. This impressive achievement was widely acknowledged and respected.
SSP Lives On
The SSP remains at the heart of an albeit diminished left in Scotland today. Yet there has been a tendency for many on the left to write the SSP’s political obituary over the past few years. And the words of the American author and wit Mark Twain seem most apt here. ‘Rumours of my death’ he famously noted ‘have been greatly exaggerated’.
And as the National Convenor/Spokesman of the SSP throughout the last 8 years I pay tribute to the incredible dedication, unbreakable loyalty and personal nobility of those hundreds of members who stuck with their party, and indeed who joined it afresh, and carried out important groundbreaking work often in the face of ‘tortuous’ provocation. We defended our party in the bourgeois courts, in the bourgeois press, and most importantly of all, in the court of working class public opinion despite being vilified and blackened by almost everyone including so called former ‘comrades’ to a degree non-members can barely imagine.
So I feel duty bound to insist, and here I put it most modestly, that the SSP has a great deal of experience, judgement and knowledge to offer this debate. Those who talk of a ‘post SSP’ political landscape are guilty of wishful thinking. The Scottish Socialist Party, now 15 years old, has every intention of being here in another 15 years!
Despite the obvious setback the Sheridan debacle inflicted on our project, and I will return to that presently, the SSP today remains the only socialist party in Scotland with an elected Councillor(SSP Cllr Jim Bollan in West Dumbartonshire), the only party with a fortnightly socialist newspaper edited, printed and published in Scotland (the Scottish Socialist Voice), the only socialist party with a seat on the Yes Scotland Advisory Board, with a network of full time organisers and branches throughout Scotland, active on the streets, in communities and in the trade unions. Moreover in former MSP’s John McAllion and Campbell Martin we have two figures hugely respected within the Labour and SNP Left respectively. And last but not least we have a profound knowledge of working class struggle in Scotland, both at community and workplace levels, with an unrivalled track record of engaging in such struggles raising our socialist vision and alternatives.
So whilst I have no intention of belittling anyone else’s role, I am sure no one will want to see the SSP denied the respect we are due.
A Better Left in Scotland
All that having been said I entirely accept the Left in Scotland could and should be doing far better. Our shared frustration then must surely compel us to re-examine what progress might be made.
On the positive side there is much that unites us on policy. Nor do we disagree by and large about the possibilities for advancing socialist ideas. I will therefore not take up much space here outlining those possibilities suffice it to say that the worst economic recession in 80 years is forcing many people to draw conclusions favourable to ours. And their widespread experience, of falling living standards and corrupt mainstream politics, opens up minds previously closed to us. Moreover the movements growing in opposition to austerity and the cuts augurs well for the left. And the rising Independence movement provides further substantial possibilities for advance as Stephen Maxwell points out in his book ‘Arguments for Independence’.
Yet whilst we can be positive about the strength of the programme we share and the rise, albeit uneven, in working class consciousness we must all equally recognise that the Lefts divisions often confuse, demoralise and even anger many sections of the working class looking to us for assistance and leadership.
What then are the impediments to progress and how can they be ameliorated?
If ‘we agree on 90% of issues and disagree on 10% ’ how profound is the 10%?
There is certainly a fundamental difference between those of us who believe you start with a socialist party and try to build it and those who aim to transform existing non-socialist parties like Labour or the SNP. Whilst I respect all tactical considerations, for me this ‘entryism’ appears pointless as Labour continues to move further and further to the right and encompass a neo-liberal model that is the antithesis of social democracy far less socialism. So whilst I respect those socialists like Neil Findlay, MSP, who argues (in ‘The Scottish Road to Socialism’ 2013) that since Labour and the SNP enjoy mass support the Left must work inside them otherwise it confines itself to the electoral wilderness, I think this position is just not credible or sustainable. Either way it is certainly no basis for uniting the left in Scotland.
So if the first aim is a common programme, the second is surely an agreed political orientation. And the best way to build an effective broad left party is by orienting to new layers of activists not joining neo-liberal parties.
There is one other issue that cannot be avoided in any honest examination of the prospects for principled, sustainable Left unity in Scotland today. And that is the rather euphemistically referenced ‘Sheridan’ issue. Tommy Sheridan’s decision to sue a tabloid newspaper over stories he knew to be true was foolhardy in the extreme. His demand that all 3,000 members of the SSP traipse into court and perjure themselves for him was worse. But his all out attempt to destroy the Scottish Socialist Party did more damage to the socialist cause here than Margaret Thatcher could ever dream of. And despite a 3 years prison sentence, convicted on several counts of perjury, he has never shown an ounce of remorse. Were he capable of taking responsibility for his actions he might eventually be forgiven. In the meantime he remains an utterly divisive and widely ridiculed political figure. Too many people would not work with him again nor trust him not to wreck the socialist movement a second time.
After examining these impediments what do we find? Is any progress possible? I believe it is. After all we work well together in the Yes Scotland movement, in the Radical Independence Campaign, in Trades Unionists for Independence, in the anti-Trident coalition, in local cuts groups and against the hated ‘bedroom tax’.
The SSP is keen for example to engage with others on the left to examine the possibility of presenting a common programme and joint slate for next years European Parliament elections. Now it might be possible and it might not, but we are fully prepared to give the project our best efforts.
Clearly working together in joint campaigns with shared goals is one thing, constructing an organised mass party is quite another. The SSP has developed a comprehensive socialist programme over the years that takes up the rights of working class people and links their immediate concerns and struggles to policies that challenge capitalism and promote socialism. No other group on the left in Scotland has invested as much in such a rounded-out socialist challenge to capitalism that can appeal to broad masses of working class people.
A Party or A Movement?
And this brings me to the question others have posed in this discussion ‘Is such a party desirable’? In my view it is essential. For me there are no realistic or workable alternatives to a party. I hear people talk about how the era of political parties is over, bypassed by events and that single-issue campaigns, networks or groups, like the ‘Occupy’ movement, are the way ahead. And I must say whilst I listen carefully to their case I must confess I have never found it persuasive. Groups, networks and alliances have their place of course but they are transitional. The Scottish Socialist Alliance for example was always clear it would aim to become a party.
And as I understand for example that the SNP has just reached 25,000 members in Scotland it would appear they have found a way forward as a party.
There are in truth no short cuts to party building and no substitute for painstaking effort and patient party organisation. The distilled experience and learning a party collects is invaluable to the socialist struggle. There is a quote Jack Straw celebrated as leader of the National Union of Students. Unfashionably it was from Stalin and went ‘When the political line has been decided organisation is everything’. Dare I say it, there is much sense in Josep Djugashvili’s famous aphorism. To suggest the socialist struggle can be advanced in the face of ruthless capitalism and the state, its political instruments and our political enemies without an organised, disciplined and effective party organisation is to deny history and to prepare for failure.
So whom are we all aiming at in trying to build this new party? For me it’s the new layers of young activists changing their political allegiances and open to democratic, pluralist and above all socialist ideas. And in this regard the Yes movement and the Radical Independence Campaign are key. A ‘Yes’ vote in the 2014 Independence Referendum will transform politics in Scotland and throughout Britain. That prospect offers up enormous opportunities for the left in the run up to the crucial 2016 Holyrood elections where we again have a realistic prospect of winning seats.
And what model of party is required? For me the SSP at its height remains the most successful, democratic, plural and disciplined example I’ve ever seen. Regardless of whether you agreed with it or not it had, and still has, a coherent narrative with a fully worked out anti-capitalist programme. The SSP remains a central feature of the socialist landscape in Scotland and can again provide the basis for building the broad based, mass party of socialism we desire. Our party has seen clear and welcome signs of renewal these past few months. We have seen a tremendous improvement in the numbers attending our public meetings up and down the country for example on ‘The case for an Independent socialist Scotland’ with John McAllion, Campbell Martin, John Finnie, myself and Sandra Webster. More than 100 people have applied to join via our national website in the past two months as our support for an Independent socialist Scotland and our opposition to the bedroom tax and the worst recession in 80 years reaches a wider and wider audience. The Scottish working class badly needs a well-organised mass party of socialism and the SSP has proven it can play that role with aplomb. Toughened by recent experiences, this time we are wiser.
The Scottish Socialist Party remains open to all genuine Left unity initiatives but this must mean more than stitching together tiny groups on the Left. It must involve a rather more ambitious vision attracting those considerable sections of the Left who are not members of any political party.
‘Scotland’s Road to Socialism, Time to Choose’  Edited by Gregor Gall, Published by Scottish Left Review Press, Biggar.
‘Scotland’s Economy: the case for Independence’  Published by The Scottish Government, Edinburgh.
‘Arguing for Independence’  By Stephen Maxwell, Published by Luath Press Ltd, Edinburgh