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For a Socialist Unity Slate in the Scottish Elections

Bob Goupillot

"Sectarianism is viewing the class struggle from the perspective of a particular group rather than viewing each group from the perspective of the class struggle as a whole."

NEXT MAY the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) is standing in elections for the local authorities, and the Scottish and European Parliaments. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) has recently stated that they intend to stand candidates in the Scottish Parliamentary elections. This has created the prospect of two socialist organisations standing against each other. This is particularly damaging as the election system has a proportional element and it is in this ballot that the SSP expects to do best, perhaps getting an MSP elected.

The SWP has acknowledged this problem and has offered to form a Socialist Unity list with the SSP, Socialist Labour Party (SLP) and any other interested socialists. In its turn the SSP "have indicated that we may even step aside in specific constituencies to avoid a head-to-head clash with the SWP", but refused to contemplate a Socialist Unity List. So far, meaningful discussions have taken place only between a handful of "representatives" of the SSP and the SWP. The rank and file of neither party seem to have been involved in the discussions and in the case of the SSP members have been largely unaware that they were going on. The discussions appear to have ended before most of us were aware that they had begun.

Over the weekend of 20-22 November the SWP held a conference in Glasgow entitled "Scottish Socialism". At this conference an SSP leaflet entitled The Scottish Parliament and Socialist Unity was distributed. (All quotes are from this document.) The leaflet contained an argument against a Socialist Unity list containing the SWP. It appears to have the blessing of the SSP leadership. The appearance of such a leaflet is to be welcomed as it clarifies the position of the SSP leadership and opens up the debate. However, it would have been even better if it had been the product of a wide-ranging, inclusive and in-depth – that is, democratic – debate within the SSP.

The case against a Socialist Unity List with the SWP, outlined in the leaflet, seems to be based on the following:

  • The SWP refused to join the Scottish Socialist Alliance (SSA). This was indeed a regrettable political error by the SWP. However, our response should be to point this out to them and to strive for the maximum possible, principled Socialist Unity at any given time. Our attitude should be an example to others. This the best way in the long run to "unite into the same party as many workers as possible who reject capitalism and wish to build a socialist alternative to New Labour and the SNP" and build "a broad mass alternative which excludes no-one who wants to join the fight against free market capitalism".
  • The SWP has criticised the SSA/SSP as "electoralist, nationalist and reformist". The best way to refute these charges is by being in favour of principled United Fronts, including electoral ones, with non-SSP socialists in Scotland and elsewhere. We have to learn to respond positively to political criticism.
  • "The SWP’s proposal in effect amounts to a demand that the SSP should relinquish its party profile in favour of an amorphous slate in order to accommodate an organisation with no electoral track record and which has made no contribution to the significant left regroupment in Scotland over the past three years."
Now then, from a working class perspective, we should welcome the SWP’s commitment to challenging Labour at the ballot box as a step forward from their objectively pro-Labour, "Vote Labour, but build a fighting Socialist alternative" stance. Further, open and honest negotiations with the SWP about a Socialist Unity list will force them to debate meaningfully with the rest of the left in Scotland. This would be another healthy development for them and a necessary preamble to wider "left regroupment". The SWP would be entering a process similar to that embarked upon by Scottish Militant Labour (SML) in the aftermath of the Poll Tax struggle. Again a pro-working-class perspective demands that we support such developments.

Any Unity Slate that emerged would only be "amorphous" if we allowed this to be the case. Indeed it could be shaped around arguing for the necessity for working class and socialist unity against the bourgeoisie and its parties. There is no necessity for any constituent of Socialist Unity to stand under any other banner unless anyone is claiming that the SSP is an end in itself rather than an instrument of the working class. This could be explained to the wider class. Any suggestion that this will confuse them is an insult to their intelligence and our campaigning abilities.

It needs to be clearly noted that the SSP leadership doesn’t seem to have any problem in working towards unity with forces to the right of the SSP such as the Green Party (who incidentally have refused our offers) or those who have, until recently, stuck to Blair’s New Labour through thick and thin, like Dennis Canavan. However, when it comes to a subjectively revolutionary socialist organisation who are offering to negotiate a Unity List, all sorts of technical objections are raised. This highlights an important political division within the SSP, between those who supported Old Labour but are against New Labour and those, like the Red Republicans, who have been consistently against Labourism in all its manifestations.

Dealing with the SWP
In arguing for a Socialist Unity List involving the SWP we are not pretending for a moment that there haven’t been problems with that organisation and there isn’t a great number of issues to be dealt with. Reasons to be suspicious of the SWP’s motives include:

  • Its previous anti-electoralism, having stood no candidates in Britain since 1979 (more recently in Ireland).
  • Its changed position on Scottish sovereignty/right to self-determination.
  • Its record in previous United Front work. They dismissed the significance of the Anti-Poll Tax struggle and showed a vacillating and dilettante attitude to local groups and federations. During the Timex dispute they set up their own front group. When this failed they boycotted the subsequent broad-based support groups which had the "blessing" of the strikers, despite being repeatedly invited to join. Similarly, during the Liverpool Dockers’ strike, in over two years they failed to join local broad-based support groups. Worse still, they organised a lobby of the New Labour Conference in Brighton on the same weekend as the international demonstration called in Liverpool by the striking dockers. In addition they sought to subordinate the running of the dispute to the official "leadership" of the TGWU despite the strikers’ repeated rejection of this at their mass meetings.
  • Its sectarian mind-set.
  • Its general record of opportunism and tail-ending of the (S)TUC and the Labour Party.
This is far from an exhaustive list. However, what is important is not the faults or even the sincerity of the SWP leadership, but the maturity and vision which informs the SSP’s political response. Remember, not so long ago the label of sectarian would have just as easily have been placed on the Militant Tendency/SML. They denounced everybody outside of the Labour Party as mere sects. During the early days of the Anti-Poll Tax Movement, East of Scotland Militant tried to insist that supporters of the Anti-Poll Tax Federation joined the Labour Party. Phantom Anti-Poll Tax groups were also created to give Militant greater numbers of delegates at Federation meetings. Still, we can all learn from our mistakes and go on to improve our political practice, as SML have proved.

Open negotiations with the SWP give us the opportunity to make them account for their past sectarian attitude to United Front work and refusal to join the SSA. We should insist that such negotiations take place in front of their own members and the widest possible working class audience. However, if we refuse to enter genuine negotiations with the SWP and others, they will lay the blame for the lack of Socialist Unity at our door. We must ensure that this doesn’t happen.

Socialist unity – our unfinished task
We need to remember that the SSA was launched as a vehicle for achieving left unity. Whilst a great deal of progress has been made in this direction the process is, however, unfinished. One block to this for many left-wing socialists, who have left the SSA or refused to join the SSP, is the apparent obsession with electoralism and the reformist road shown by all of the current leadership (i.e. Tommy Sheridan, Alan McCombes, Bill Bonnar, Allan Green and Hugh Kerr). We also think that because of this electoral bias the door was closed too hastily on the Alliance by its premature transformation into the SSP.

However, more than one route exists to socialist unity. One road is unity in action as in the recent social workers’ strike where "SSA members played a leading role on the strike committee, alongside members of the SWP and other Unison activists". Another is a joint electoral slate as a step towards organisational unity. The leaflet acknowledges this possibility: "If a joint slate could be assembled in Central Scotland which involves Dennis Canavan, the Socialist Labour Party (which has a councillor in Falkirk), the SWP and the SSP, we would certainly be prepared to become involved." This is absolutely fine and correct as far as it goes, but why not apply this formula Scotland-wide?

The SSP needs to give a lead
Comrades, here is an historical opportunity opening up before us, but we will not succeed if the leadership of the SSP exhibits the same sectarian mind-set that has traditionally characterised the SWP. Imagine, if we did manage to reach a unity agreement with the SWP then we would have the political and moral authority to call on all socialists, including those left in the Labour Party and SNP, to rally to us. This will unite the left and cause splits in the bourgeois parties. This is the most important task for any serious socialist organisation at this time.

How to bring it about

  • We should begin with an in-depth and ongoing debate on the possibility of a Socialist Unity List within the SSP.
  • We must present an open and honest agenda in our negotiations with others. There must be no secret negotiations.
  • We must place our (developing) views on a Socialist Unity List before the working class using meetings, leaflets and our paper, Scottish Socialist Voice.
  • We must push the SWP, SLP and others to do the same and openly criticise them if they don’t.
  • We must initiate a debate amongst the maximum number of members of the SSP, SWP, SLP and other interested people at a local and national level. (If we wish to appeal to the rank-and-file members of the SWP and the SLP this is a great opportunity.)
  • We must call on trade unions and other working class organisations to sponsor Socialist Unity candidates and not those of the bourgeois parties.
  • We must be open to negotiating a joint programme with the other organisations participating in the Socialist Unity List.

There are greater differences in political positions between the CWI-Scotland (ex-SML) and Red Republicans than between the CWI-Scotland and the SWP. Remember comrades, there are no insurmountable technical barriers to a Socialist Unity List, only political ones.

Advantages of a socialist unity list

  • It presents a Socialist United Front to the working class and the ruling class. This is the outcome most likely to inspire and give confidence to our class and put fear into the ruling class.
  • It allows us to focus on the main enemy – the bourgeois parties.
  • It enhances the credibility of all socialists.
  • It puts class unity before party interest and so undermines and isolates sectarians in all socialist groups.
  • It increases the likelihood of future cooperation between socialists. If, for example, we successfully argue that Tommy Sheridan tops the Socialist Unity PR List, on the grounds that he is the individual most likely to gain enough votes to win a seat, then the Socialist Unity List works to our advantage.
  • The necessary debates will enable us to develop our own Party programme.

Against vanguardism, For the united front
From the false belief that only one party can successfully lead the class in its battles with the bourgeoisie, it logically follows that one of the historic tasks of such a party is to eliminate or marginalise all other parties claiming to be for the working class. The baneful influence of this vanguard theory has contributed to the disunity of our class for far too long. To push back the bourgeois offensive and advance as a class we must embrace the tactic and organisational form of the United Front.

This article first appeared in the January 1999 issue of Red Republican, the bulletin of the Red Republicans in the Scottish Socialist Party.