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Scottish Socialist Party Conference Report

Allan Armstrong

THE FIRST Annual Conference of the new Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) was held on 21 February. This followed from the decision of the Special Conference of the old Scottish Socialist Alliance (SSA), held last September, to ratify the leadership’s call for a change from a united front Alliance to a Party. This was opposed at the time by two affiliated tendencies – ourselves, the Red Republicans, and also the Campaign for a Federal Republic (CFR).

Therefore, it is worthwhile, in the light of our criticisms then, to examine the current trajectory of the SSP. The first thing that needs to be said is that the relaunch has been followed by an influx of new members. The Conference had about 150 present, which, despite the foul weather outside, is more than a 50% increase on September! This reflects a growth both in the number of branches and in the membership of already existing branches, also highlighted in a number of high profile recruits, such as the actor Peter Mullen.

A feature retained from the Alliance was the conduct of the conference. Once again, the debates on the day were fraternal and the sessions well chaired by Tommy Sheridan. Minority motions were allowed from branches, including one only initially backed by a single Socialist Outlook supporter in Kelvin SSP, Campbell MacGregor! Nevertheless, this led to a useful debate on the possible direction of the SSP.

The dogs that didn’t bark!
Two of the keynote debates, however, both held in the afternoon, turned out to be somewhat non-events. The first, on drugs, was presented by Kevin Williamson of Edinburgh SSP. Kevin has done some pioneering work in this area and there had been previous good discussions at the National Council, the Edinburgh branch and the Glasgow day school, held the previous week. The agreed policy is a major advance and puts the SSP in the lead over this issue, as well as ensuring publicity (much of which will be sensationalist and malicious). What was the most interesting, though, was the silence on the day of Bill Bonnar (Constitutional Spokesperson and Communist Party of Scotland), who had earlier expressed his opposition in very strong terms. This self-denying ordinance was also followed by the CWI (Militant) proposers of the Dundee SSP motion on Europe. Their motion was a lot more anti-EU than that proposed by the Executive Committee, also dominated by the CWI. However, the Dundee branch allowed this motion to be remitted to the new National Council, rather than have it debated in front of the wider membership at Conference!

It is quite clear what is going on here. The CWI have the forces on the ground to get their favoured policy passed (although there may indeed be differences within their ranks, as a gap grows between their more Labour-accommodationist and their formally more revolutionary wings). However, the SSP leadership has Allan Green (ex-Socialist Movement) and MEP Hugh Kerr (Independent Labour Network) in it, both avowedly pro-EU. These members are central to the CWI’s overtures to possible future defectors from Labour, seen by them as valuable in gaining electoral credibility. Differences amongst the leadership can be acknowledged in day schools and publications, but must be restricted as much as possible in front of the wider membership. This has become even more evident now that we are a "united" Party, with elections as top priority, rather than an Alliance. Therefore, instead of open debate, deals are cobbled up at office bearer and National Council level - an indicator of a leadership emerging above the membership.

The emergence of a "parliamentary party"?
The drive behind this two-level split is the growing electoralism of the SSP. There can be little doubt that the SSP leadership sees the way to power as lying through the new Scottish Parliament. Other political, social and economic struggles are likely to be increasingly subordinated to achieving the maximum number of SSP MSPs, MEPs and councillors. There is no vision, at the leadership level, of our class reconstituting itself anew and creating new independent organisations, outside of and in defiance of capitalist representational bodies.

Therefore, the National Council has to be remoulded as a `Parliamentary Party’ above the ordinary membership, mirroring the path followed by the Labour Party. Allan Green has been the most persistent in this. In the original paper sent out to branches with the "Amendments to Interim Constitution", it was proposed that the National Council should include "elected persons". If this new addition was allowed, it would mean that our National Council could be swamped overnight by a batch of Old Labour defectors, worried about their future council or parliamentary prospects under New Labour’s control freaks. It’s not that we shouldn’t welcome people breaking from Labour into the SSP, but, given the extremely unsavoury and anti-working-class actions any still remaining Labour representative has had to agree to, there should be no such automatic entry to the leading body of the SSP. A requirement to attend such meetings, to participate in debates and to seek guidance from elected delegates should indeed be encouraged, but certainly not National Council voting rights (unless they are also elected delegates enjoying the full confidence of the members).

The Red Republicans raised this spectre at the Edinburgh SSP branch meeting to discuss motions prior to the Conference. Here, even leading lights of the CWI appeared not to have fully appreciated the consequences of such a constitutional amendment. Anyhow, this proposal was quietly dropped when the final version of the proposals for "Amendments to Interim Constitution" was produced on the day!

It is in this context that the motion from the "Kelvin 1" was also revealing. This motion challenged the attempt by the SSP leadership to "impose" Hugh Kerr as Number One on the SSP list for the European elections, instead of having him chosen on the same basis as any other candidate. The parallel with New Labour’s imposed candidates was so evident that an embarrassed Phil Stott (SSP Northern Area Organiser and CWI) had to say that this was only a recommendation, and that Hugh would also be subject to the same normal democratic nomination procedures as other candidates! However, doubts were now raised and nearly 30 votes were given to the "Kelvin 1" motion!

Attempts to marginalise the left
Allan Green was also at the forefront of the move against the retention of full tendency rights within the SSP, initiated by the Red Republicans and advocated by the Edinburgh SSP branch. In the Alliance, affiliated tendencies had been allowed to submit motions to Conference in their own name, and to have delegates to the National Council. The new SSP Executive opposed this. Allan claimed that now we were a party with a rapidly growing membership, it was time to move away from debates dominated by tendencies, to encouraging a wider branch involvement reflecting this new reality. However, when you examine the "nomenklatura" for the Office Bearers, Spokespersons and Committees, one thing is very apparent. The CWI members dominate the new leadership even more than the old SSA, giving this tendency alone inbuilt rights. Nor does this seem to reflect a new influx into SSP ranks, since all their nominations were long established members!

Once again, the real reason behind curtailing tendency rights appears to be to build up a united leadership level and marginalise other tendencies – reducing them to the role of left opposition at Conferences. Old Labour Party habits die hard! When it was pointed out that other substantial socialist organisations, like the Socialist Workers Party, were hardly likely to answer the SSP’s call to join, if they weren’t entitled to representation at National Council, Allan said that in such a case he would advocate a Special Conference to change the rules! So, no guaranteed representational rights for tendencies which have committed themselves to the unity project from the beginning (Red Republicans and CFR), but sweeping offers for an organisation Allan is pretty sure won’t join!

This proved to be the closest debate of the day. The Edinburgh motion was only lost by 48 to 49. To his credit, Hugh Kerr supported the motion. So too did many CWI supporters, despite the obvious decision of their full-timers (including Colin Fox, who had earlier joined the unanimous vote in Edinburgh for the emotion) to oppose this. However, a number of issues highlighted growing divisions in CWI ranks, showing increased concern about the political accommodation being made to the openly reformist wing of the party.

The issue of Ireland highlights the SSP leadership’s weaknesses ...
The weakness of the CWI’s chosen method of ensuring "revolutionary" control of the SSP was highlighted in the debated over the 16 Point Programme. The CWI have opted for numerical domination of the leadership and Scottish Socialist Voice positions, rather than having open political debate between revolutionaries and reformists. In order to disguise the reality of CWI bureaucratic control, their key personnel then adopt a Labourist guise, and oppose actions and motions they think would be too left-wing for the average Labour member they hope to recruit to the SSP! Naturally, this must be quite frustrating to your rank-and-file CWI member, who is instructed to vote against motions which sound too radical! This makes it very hard for the CWI to simultaneously appear as the Marxist Tendency inside the SSP.

The Conference gave a classic illustration of this when leading CWI members opposed the Edinburgh minority motion (initiated by the Red Republicans) calling for "the withdrawal of Scotland from NATO". When longstanding anti-nuclear campaigner Les Robertson of Dumbarton SSP pointed out that this had been previous SSA policy, Tommy appeared a little sheepish!

However, the likely reason for CWI "oversight" on this matter was that they were mesmerised by the other half of the Edinburgh motion, which was "for the recall of all Scottish regiments stationed overseas, including in Northern Ireland". The CWI are notoriously coy on Ireland, whilst their sister organisation there, the Socialist Party (SP), supported the British-state-promoted Labour Coalition in last year’s Northern Irish Forum elections and the CWI has given a platform to the PUP, the political organisation fronting the UVF, a Loyalist death squad.

One reason for the urgency of this suggested addition to the Programme, under the "Internationalism" section, is the proposal for the SSP to stand in joint European slate for the Euro-elections. How can you stand on such a joint slate, and not oppose your country’s military occupation of a fraternal organisation’s country?! Allan Green stepped in to suggest that the SSP hadn’t enough time to make a decision on an issue which new members might not understand. Yet, there didn’t seem to be any such problem with accepting a completely new (but, as it turned out, not clearly worded) programmatic amendment on genetic engineering, first seen on the day of the Conference! Funnily enough, there had been a June SSA day school and November Special Conference on Ireland in 1997. Certainly the Policy Statement which was passed then left a lot to be desired, but it did "support a complete demilitarisation of the North of Ireland" – something which can hardly be achieved with a continued Scottish regimental presence!

In contrast, the same SSA Policy Statement had deleted an earlier draft’s reference to links with the Socialist Party in Ireland. Yet the SSP Executive’s motion at the Conference recommended "support for parties and workers’ lists who are standing in the European elections in June ... such as the RC in Italy, the United Left in Spain, the LO/LCR in France, the workers’ lists in Belgium, the SP in Ireland and the left lists in England and Wales". Conspicuously, the CWI-affiliated SP in Ireland is the only exclusive Party in the list.

There was no prior policy basis for recommending a joint slate with the Socialist Party in Ireland, yet the Edinburgh motion for "the recall of Scottish regiments" was based on previous widely debated policy. Policies shouldn’t be trimmed to what is fully acceptable to the most recent recruit. Furthermore, if all the CWI comrades had voted to honour the elementary democratic demand in the Edinburgh motion (even more important for a nation trying to achieve its own self-determination), it is highly unlikely there would be much opposition. After all, Ron Brown, who can be said to represent the Old Labour tradition, was keen to support the demand. The motion received a respectable 37 votes.

... and so does the issue of the monarchy!
The other motion which received good support was moved by CWI dissident Kevin, from the Kelvin SSP branch. He wanted to remove the reference to "a referendum on abolishing the monarchy" and replace it with "We are in favour of abolishing the monarchy", an altogether better formulation. The Executive proposal confirms what the Red Republicans have already pointed out. In reality the SSP has no real independent constitutional proposals, but will just allow the Scottish National Party (SNP) to make the running. The Executive’s suggestion for a referendum is identical to that decided at last year’s SNP conference, and reveals just how skin deep the SSP’s republicanism is. As Kevin pointed out, in a short but succinct speech, would we campaign for a 35-hour week or minimum wage, or leave it up to a referendum to decide?! Along with Alice Sheridan’s earlier disquiet about any SSP MSP swearing the oath of allegiance to the Crown, Kevin’s opposition to the official CWI line clearly shows internal opposition over the issue of the republic. The Kelvin motion received 40 votes.

Other aspects of the SSP
Two other debates showed up different aspects of SSP politics. Joanne Coyle (Edinburgh SSP and CWI) spoke well on the need for solidarity with the people of Kurdistan, particularly in the aftermath of the joint CIA/Mossad/Turkish state seizure of Kurdish Workers Party leader Abdullah Ocalan. Yet, a lot of what she said could have been applied to Ireland too!

The CFR went for a second bite at the cherry, repeating their September Conference call for the SSP to adopt support for a Federal Republic of Britain. This provoked some debate, the most revealing of which came from Bill Bonnar. The Communist Party of Scotland (CPS), to which Bill also belongs, was the first socialist organisation to adopt Scottish independence. Yet, the CPS has a very gradualist, stageist way of going about this. For example, no sooner had the CPS announced its Scottish independence policy, than it recommended votes for New Labour at the last General Election, to enable devolution to be achieved as a first step. Bill made it clear in the debate that, although he recommended sticking to the `independent socialist Scotland’ position, he had some sympathy with Mary Ward’s federal republicanism. Bill’s old CPGB training can help him spot yet another stage, if conditions become more auspicious!

Keith Baldasara’s (Treasurer, and CWI) financial appeal made a few people, unused to the evangelical traditions of Militant, feel uncomfortable. Yet, the £14,000 pledged for the Election Campaign was impressive. A similar evangelical tone was adopted by Richie Venton (Area Organiser for the West, CWI) in his appeal to get out and campaign, along with a definite hint of hellfire and damnation, if anyone failed "to see the light"! But an overall good-natured and optimistic Conference was well finished off by a hearty rendering of The Internationale.

Where is the SSP heading?
What conclusions can be drawn? The SSP is well placed to capitalise on the growing disillusionment with New Labour. It may also recruit a few more astute members of the SNP, who can already see a similar "modernisation" of their Party under Alex Salmond. However, in the absence of any constitutional policies different from the SNP, most, even of the SNP Left, will stay on board, believing that their current Party is far more likely to deliver "independence". Quite clearly, the SSP leadership’s project is to reconstitute a more vigorous social democracy, like that associated with the Old Labour Left, but on a Scottish national, rather than British "national", basis.

Although the declaration of a Party (primarily for electoral reasons) has reinforced the classic social democratic division between leadership and members (and even raised the first hints of a "Parliamentary Party"), the SSP still remains relatively open, with official recognition of organised tendencies. With a growing membership, both the leadership and the opposition gained a considerable increase in support, shown in the voting patterns at the Conference. The Red Republicans and the CFR produced a joint bulletin for the Conference, covering the SSP constitutional and policy proposals we agreed on, leaving both organisations free to put in their own material on issues where there was no agreement.

The CWI – caught on the horns of a dilemma
Ironically, the organisation facing the biggest immediate problems is the CWI. Having chosen to create an artificial traditional social democratic outer shell, around what remains a CWI controlling core, they face a dilemma. Instead of letting the balance of revolutionary and reformist being decided by open debate and election within the SSP (with all affiliates, both revolutionary and reformist, allowed full tendency rights to guarantee representation at all levels), the CWI leadership has opted instead to "license" an open social democratic component of the leadership. This section of the "nomenklatura" is fully aware that they mainly enjoy their elevated status courtesy of the CWI, which is why they prefer leadership deals, rather than open debate at Conference. However, since social democrats like Allan Green, Bill Bonnar and Hugh Kerr would be unlikely to win the SSP majority to some of their key positions by themselves, the CWI leadership find themselves, as part of the "deal", defending classic social democratic fudges in the face of demands for more revolutionary, or even just more democratic, policies. This certainly can’t be a healthy position for a group claiming to be the Marxist Tendency in the SSP. The clear evidence at Conference of CWI dissidents and voting splits reflects this problem. The Red Republicans offer a more coherent revolutionary alternative.

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