Current Issue
Next Issue
Back Issues
Marxist Theory
Socialist History
Left Politics
Left Groups
New Interventions
Islamophobia Watch

Socialism in Scotland: A Cruel and Unnecessary Catastrophe

Gregor Gall

The only sensible and realistic motto for socialists to have approached the parliamentary and council elections in Scotland on 3 May 2007 was "prepared for the worst, hoping for something a tiny bit better". This is a cruel and devastating indictment of a situation four short years on from the Scottish Socialist Party’s electoral breakthrough in May 2003. The best opportunity in a generation for a left of Labour socialist project was squandered right in front of everybody’s eyes as well as our own. The SSP took socialism out of the ghetto and now it and socialism have been forced back into the ghetto. Solidarity: Scotland’s Socialist Movement makes no difference to this equation.

All this was predictable in the weeks before 3 May: predictable by the polls commissioned by media, predictable by the underlying feeling inside the SSP and predictable from the turnout from members for election activity. Of the fifty-odd polls since June 2005 measuring the regional list voting intentions, most put the SSP at between 2%-3%, with the occasional 4% and 5% as well as 1%. But as May 2007 drew closer, the 1% and 2% ratings became more common. Without a regional breakdown of these cross-Scotland polls, some hoped that this would still lead to the return of list SSP MSPs in the Glasgow, Central and West regions. Meanwhile, Solidarity was either not registering at all or it was on 1% (again with no regional breakdown available). Predictions from the SSP and Solidarity of returning an MSP each per region were unsurprising but laughable, being an overhang of the terrible left tradition of talking things up in the misconceived hope of inspiring and motivating people.

The feeling in the SSP campaign was dominated by two moods: one of fighting in hope against all the odds, knowing that the worst thing we could do was to do nothing, and one of an ultra-left, naïve mentality that things were actually going quite well. No canvassing was done because it was deemed too time consuming and no party polls were commissioned because that was deemed too expensive. In the main, leaflets were put though doors so contact with the public was minimal and the contact that did exist led to the use of anecdotes to foolishly try to build a bigger, more generalised picture out of. The election material and broadcasts were good but the ears of the public were no longer particularly receptive to those the material was coming from, certainly not in terms of voting. Individuals could agree with the various policies but not necessarily vote or vote for other parties.

In terms of activists, the SSP was down to the hard, hardcore. After the split, members went three ways: stay, Solidarity and drop out. Of those that stayed with the SSP, this was the patently obvious time to rally to the party in its hour of need and to do party work. But, alas, the majority did not, too demoralised by the predicament of the party since November 2004, the split and by the poll ratings. The hard, hardcore generously numbered around 250. In Edinburgh and the Lothians, we numbered around fifty.

The SSP campaign was a holding operation, trying to stand against the incoming tide where it did not particularly matter that the policies put forward included new and imaginative ones like free public transport and the mainstays of independence, free school meals and abolition of the council tax. With our backs to the wall, there was no other option but to stand and fight. But you’d have to say that even if the SSP had done no campaigning the result could scarcely have been much worse.

Worse than imagined
The most sensible thought in the SSP knew that SSP was facing wipe out at Holyrood and that the most likely MSP to be returned was Tommy Sheridan. The most sensible thought was prepared to admit this well before 3 May. The conditions in the approach to May 2007 were far different from those in the approach to May 2003. Quite apart from the relative demobilisation of members after gaining six MSPs, and the impact of the resignation of Sheridan as national convenor, the debacle over the G8 parliamentary protest and the court case (which were major blows the credibility, standing and coherence of the party), the SSP was not buoyed up by and pushed forward by particularly favourable "objective" conditions.

In the run-up to 2003, the SSP was able to be part of and benefit from the vibrant and rising anti-war and anti-globalisation movements as well as key prolonged industrial disputes like those of the firefighters and the beginning of that by the nursery nurses. This time round the anti-war and anti-globalisation movements were shadows of their former selves, having lost battles and suffering from a lack of purpose and direction, while the major industrial disputes like those over pensions and job losses in the civil service were not of the same sustained, more salient for Scottish politics nature as the firefighters’ and the nursery nurses’ disputes had been. The independence "movement" is not one that exists as such and was unable to make major headway because of the de facto ownership of independence by the SNP in the run up to May 2007.

But this sensible thought never expected that the SSP would be beaten not just by Solidarity in all the regions, let alone beaten by the BNP in all regions and by the SLP in nearly all regions. From achieving 6.7% (128,026 votes) of the list vote and 6.2% (118,764 votes) of the constituency vote in 2003, the SSP (literally) plummeted to 0.66% in 2007 where it stood in the list vote. The SSP got 12,572 votes (and Solidarity 31,047 or 1.62%). The total number of votes the SSP gained across Scotland in 2007 was less than it got in the Lothians alone in 2003 (where the SSP won an MSP by less than 100 votes) and shockingly just 10% of what it got in 2003. This takes the left unity project embodied in the SSP and its predecessor, the SSA, back ten years at least in electoral and public credibility terms. And the staggeringly poor performance of the SSP must indicate that the SSP took far more of the hit for allegedly "doing Tommy in" than Solidarity did for splitting the left.

SSP members are rightly shocked at this result: there is no other way of staring the result in the face and concluding otherwise. Nobody, thank goodness, has tried to publicly trumpet the SSP result as "12,000 votes for ‘real’ socialism" in the face of adversity. But whether they are gutted, or the degree to which they are gutted, by the result depends on what analysis they entered the election campaign with. For example Alan McCombes, chief SSP strategist, argued:

"[T]he SSP went into this election in a brutally realistic frame of mind. This was a damage limitation exercise. At best, the party hoped to maintain a fragile toehold in Holyrood in preparation for better days to come.... Yet no-one expected the sheer scale of the collapse of the socialist vote, down by 100,000 votes from 2003. The final tally of votes appeared completely out of synch with the attitude of voters on the streets and at polling stations, which was open and receptive to the politics of the SSP." (Scottish Socialist Voice, 10 May 2007)

In essence, what has happened was that the 2007 election was the catch up of the real standing of the SSP in the public’s mind and the overall political situation just as 2003 was the electoral catch up of the risen standing of the SSP and the overall political situation. So this time round, any agreement on SSP policies was torpedoed by the lack of credibility of the SSP as a political party.

It is very obvious that the desire to punish and reject "new" Labour was the motivating factor in the SNP surge, although there are clearly limits to this surge overall and particularly in the west of Scotland. Labour has gone down from 56 to 50 to 46 seats in the consecutive elections to the Parliament since 1999 but it retains a degree of loyalty and support that needs to be comprehended: its popular vote went down in the constituencies only from 0.664m (2003) to 0.648m (2007) and actually rose on the list from 0.561m (2003) to 0.595m (2007). So from 1999 to 2007, Labour’s share of the vote went from 38.8% to 34.6% to 32.1% in the constituencies and 33.6% to 29.3% to 29.2% on the list. (Meanwhile, the SNP’s figures were 28.7% to 23.8% to 32.9% (constituency) and 27.3% to 20.9% to 31.0% (list)). So much for the meltdown that was predicted for "new" Labour/Labour by many commentators including those on the left and far left! After a negative campaign and trailing in the polls, Labour’s denigration and negativism seemed to win back some votes towards the end. Under the SNP "surge", the small parties and independents were crushed but the fate of the Greens showed that, if the SSP had not written its own suicide note, the complete wipe out could probably have avoided so that there were one or two socialist MSPs returned.

Despite the desperate position of Solidarity in the pre-election polls, the feeling was that Tommy Sheridan was likely to be returned, given his standing and respect amongst some and the continual promotion of him as Solidarity per se. The raison d’être of Solidarity was to use Tommy’s profile and stature to get him re-elected and to then build Solidarity around him in the next four years in order to pave the way for an enhanced Solidarity presence in Holyrood in 2011 à la the SSP between 1999 and 2003. Clearly, Solidarity has suffered an enormous setback and publicly crowing that it is now the biggest force on the left in Scotland is, in effect, the last refuge of the damned:

"[The election] revealed without doubt the emergence of Solidarity as the only credible and viable socialist party in Scotland. That we have been able to do so in just eight months of being formed is testament to both the tireless work of our volunteers and to the historic necessity of our formation." (Website press release, 6 May 2007)

"Solidarity, Scotland’s Socialist Movement emerged as Scotland’s leading party of the left in yesterday’s Scottish elections. After only a few short months in existence the Solidarity vote totalled twice as many as the other left parties combined and came close to electing an MSP, despite small parties being squeezed across the country." (Website press release, 4 May 2007)

From the Solidarity affiliate, the Socialist Workers Party in Scotland, we had: "The result has also decisively shown which party of the radical left will act as a focus for electoral resistance.... This is a tribute to the work of Solidarity members over the past months and vindicates their decision to split from the SSP." (Neil Davidson, Socialist Worker, 12 May 2007)

And from the other main affiliate the Committee for a Workers International (ex-Militant and organised as the International Socialists and sister organisation of the Socialist Party):

"The absence of socialist MSPs is a serious setback. The responsibility for this lies with the actions and policies of the SSP leadership that led to a split and the formation of the new socialist party – Solidarity – last September.... Not only were the SSP wiped out in terms of parliamentary representation but it was Solidarity that clearly emerged as the main socialist force, winning 70% of the socialist vote.... Solidarity out-polled the SSP everywhere in Scotland.... The decision to launch Solidarity in an effort to rebuild a viable socialist force in Scotland was justified by this result. The SSP is finished as a serious force." (Philip Stott, The Socialist, 10 May 2007)

Being the biggest electoral force amongst the two components of the pre-2006 SSP which fought on almost identical political platforms and together got only 34% of the SSP’s votes in 2003 is no victory whatsoever. The only way you can see that being the biggest on the left and getting 24% of what the SSP got in 2003 as some kind of victory is if you are of a sectarian mentality which thinks that a setback of ten years or a generation is just one of those things that you can shrug off with the trite observation "We need to and we can rebuild". This reeks of political irresponsibility and political immaturity. It makes the observation of SSP leader, Colin Fox, about the split even more salient: "It’s like two bald men fighting over a comb."

Solidarity seemed to think that any mention of Tommy (the media, the lamp posters, the ballot papers) was advantageous, but the public decided that while his name still had some currency it was a much diminished one and a whole lot lower than Solidarity imagined. Tommy has been confirmed as damaged goods. And Solidarity can again crow about being (allegedly) Scotland’s fastest growing political party and achieving what they did in only eight months. But this did not start from scratch and they did wreck the existing left unity project, the SSP.

Just as worryingly, and lest we forget the senseless role of the wider divided hard or socialist left, the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) split the tiny socialist vote even further. Although it has almost no members in Scotland, it got 24% of the left vote – because of the continuing confusion of voters between the SLP and the Labour Party, rather than the association of Arthur Scargill and Ricky Tomlinson with the SLP. But the SLP fell from 21,657 votes in 2003 to 13,563 votes in 2007, and it is in no position to attempt to build something out of this vote as was the case in 1999 and 2003. A united left candidate would have been returned in Glasgow on the existing 2007 vote (with or without the SLP) making sure at least there was one socialist in the Parliament. This outcome was not possible in any other region given the reduced number of votes to Solidarity, the SSP and SLP.

As alluded to above, sensible opinion thought we would be back to the 1999 situation: one socialist MSP but with a divided left vote that could have returned more than one socialist MSP. The situation is worse that that: we have no socialist MSPs and a splintered, wretchedly weakened left. In terms of elected public representatives, the socialist left in Scotland, with two councillors (1 SSP, 1 Solidarity) is now in a weaker position than the socialist left in England which has just under 30 councillors (Respect 20, Socialist Party 5, various others in Oxford) given that England has a population roughly ten times the size of that of Scotland.

For others in Scotland like the Communist Party of Britain and the Campaign for Socialism (CfS) within the Scottish Labour Party, the collapse of the SSP (and Solidarity) vote will provide further confirmation that life outside Labour is a mirage rather than an oasis in a desert. For example, Vince Mills argued before the election:

"The SSP is going to find it very difficult to get any seats in the May elections in Scotland. This is not just because of recent self-inflicted damage. It follows a pattern of failed left breakaways from the Labour Party. [It] fail[s] because they do not acknowledge the centrality of the party as the expression of organised labour." (Morning Star, 29 March 2007)

And while the SSP vote was squeezed by the SNP "surge", it would be mistaken to conclude as some have done (see, for example, Weekly Worker, 10 May 2007) that the SSP’s travails were the result of becoming "left nationalist" – for no other reason than this fails to adequately comprehend that a substantial number of voters looked to the most credible left-of-centre force to do the job of punishing Scottish Labour and "new" Labour. Being more openly or properly socialist, as the argument goes, would have not dented this desire. The SNP really squeezed Labour on the basis of political discontent not political nationalism.

The crying game: the crying shame
What is the single worst aspect of the 3 May result? It has to be that socialists in Scotland are in no significant position to influence the nature of the new political landscape in Scotland and Britain. Without the SSP leadership debacle, the court case and the split and their attendant effects, it might have been possible to return a couple of MSPs as was the case with the Greens. If Labour had won and quickly formed the new Scottish Executive with a minority partner, the shutters would have come down hard on many progressive causes like the anti-war, anti-Trident, anti-PPP and the like. But by the SNP winning the largest number of seats and having the initiative to form the Scottish Executive (now a minority administration), there is more political space for these issues to operate and make modest progress in. This situation is amplified by the political fluidity and instability that it is likely to follow with a minority administration. The likelihood is that a socialist voice in Parliament would have been able to attack the SNP more effectively on its pro-business policies as well as given sustenance to extra-parliamentary struggles directed towards Holyrood or Westminster. The same basic point is true with regard to colouring the progressive anti-Labour mood as Brown becomes PM and as the faltering trajectory towards independence moves up a gear.

Where now?
There is one obvious route forward for the left in Scotland: based on inbreed sectarianism and ultra-left super-optimistic perspectives (which were only temporally and marginally dented by the experience of the SSP prior to 2006), it would be for the SSP and Solidarity to try to slog it out until only one is left standing. This could take an unspecified length of time as both have enough activists to maintain themselves as barebones organisations for some time to come. Sheridan has made it clear that he thinks there is enough room for two socialist parties in Scotland (Herald, 2 September 2006). Both would seek to prove they were the best by growing out of the wreckage, although it is seriously doubted whether this is possible for either and at all even in their own terms. Major turning points along the way for each would surely be the reporting of the police perjury investigation (thought to be late summer/early autumn 2007), any subsequent perjury trial, and the News of the World appeal (originally scheduled to start 4 December 2007).

This is the obvious route but it is also the wrong route. There is no room for two serious socialist parties in Scotland (the SLP is put aside in this equation as a basket case with no tangible membership base). Sheridan claimed that in the run up to its launch that Solidarity would gain the votes of those who do not vote. This was and is patent nonsense for those disillusioned with electoral politics did not make a return to the ballot box in May 2007 – the overall turnout was only just up to 51.7% in the constituency vote and 52.4% on the list vote from both being 49.4% in 2003 – and they have always been the hardest to mobilise in these terms.

A divided far left is a nonsense: it weakens the left and helps the neo-liberals. Most importantly, a divided left cannot grow substantially from where we are now because the far left (SSP and Solidarity) lack credibility. Regaining credibility with sympathetic milieus is the most urgent task and that requires that there is a united left. People at large are just not interested in a divided left; they despise a disunited left. So, the need for a united far left is now more pressing than ever. None of the twists and turns of the last two and a half years negate or obviate the principle of a united socialist party in Scotland. Former Labour MP and MSP and now SSP member John McAllion made this point before and after the 3 May (see, for example, Morning Star, 31 May 2007) and represents a more substantial call for reunification than that from former SSP and now Solidarity member John Dennis of Dumfries (Herald, 7 May 2007).

So if unity and reunification are the order of the day, the question is on what basis? There is no way that even the most sensible elements in Solidarity will rejoin the SSP just as there is no way that the most sensible elements in the SSP will join Solidarity. By "sensible", it is meant those in Solidarity who are independent minded, not members of the CWI or SWP and not ultra-left. In the SSP, "sensible" means those that are neither ultra-left nor fixated with internal party issues. The civil war and split were too bitter for that to happen and the differences that exist on those issues may never be reconciled. Furthermore, the SSP will forever be remembered by many as the party "that did Tommy in" while Solidarity will continue to be seen as "Tommy’s outfit". Both these associations are albatrosses around the neck of the far left in Scotland.

This means that the order of the day is a new left unity party, and one that starts with a blank sheet about what it should look like, what it should do and how it should do it. It means putting much of the past baggage of the left behind it in order to create a future for the left. However, the same principles on which the SSP was established are still relevant: a broad, pluralist organisation based on "struggle, solidarity and socialism" and "independence and internationalism". The issues for discussion would concern the orientations on different social movements, community campaigns and organisational building (see below). But anyone prepared to enter this project must leave their notions of "truth" and "betrayal" at the door before entering. For this reason, for example, Tommy Sheridan cannot play a role in the new left unity project. He also cannot play a role in this new left unity project because he is no longer a figure for left unity but a figure for left division. Furthermore, the left cannot afford to take the risk again of relying so much on one key figure. It is too risky and too distorting no matter how attractive it seems in the short- and medium-term.

The SSP must be in as strong a position to work for a new left unity project. Being starkly honest, that Sheridan was not re-elected makes the prospect of a new left unity project that bit more achievable (although still very difficult). If Sheridan had been re-elected, Solidarity would have been in a stronger position to stake its claim to being the principal socialist force in Scotland. Incidentally, George Galloway’s constant overtures to unite the left around a Respect in Scotland (see, for example, Edinburgh Evening News, 5 June 2007) are stillborn attempts.

The other side of the coin to a new united left organisation is that it cannot be a party building organisation. Initially, it will be too weakened and lacking in credibility to entertain recruiting significant numbers of new entrants. The initial purposes will be, on the one hand, to work in communities on community issues and, on the other hand, to organise internal debate and education to develop cadres that have robust, rounded perspectives as well as the national and international issues.

Community campaigns, as opposed to just campaigning in the communities on national issues, potentially allow the left to engage with new people on issues that are manifestly important to these people. Such campaigns may concern bus routes, mobile phone masts, closure of leisure facilities and the like rather than the high ideals of socialism and the open class struggle. For the left, it would provide grounding in what the concerns of ordinary people are and how the left must then seek to patiently win people’s respect at a time when levels of political disengagement are at an all time high. For socialists, these cannot be "hit and run" raids where the point is to recruit or sell papers. The purpose is to build links, credibility and influence (for the left) as well as wider mobilising capacity (of people). Only then, and on that basis, can we hope to make real headway on the bigger issues. Here the idea is to sink deep roots in the way the Communist Party did in its industrial work between 1945 and 1979.

Internal education and debate are needed of the scale and kind that led Militant in Scotland to form the open organisation, SML, and SML and others to form the SSA and then SSP – this is needed not just to create this new left unity party but to have the measured orientation and perspective outlined previously. Part of this must be to understand the huge challenges facing us and the lessened ability we now have to meet these.

The need for internal party education on basic questions for socialists, ranging from war and imperialism to women’s rights and state and capital are desperately needed to stabilise and replenish the hardcore of party activists. In this period of retreat for socialists in Scotland, the need for ideological sustenance and understanding are even more acute than ever, and such socialists need also to be able to both relax their exclusive focus on Scotland and inform it more broadly with knowledge and understanding of world events and, for example, Latin America in particular.

Towards reunification and rebuilding
If reunification is the order of the day, how can this come about? The work towards reunification needs to start now and must consist of two types of activities.

The first, on the part of both the sensible elements of the SSP and Solidarity, is outward, campaigning activity in unions, campaigns and communities which seek to reconnect with those that (recently) entertained socialists and socialism and those that have been involved in some form of progressive campaigning. It goes without saying that on the part of the two organisations, members must carry out this work in a cooperative and non-sectarian manner. It should also go without saying that there should be a concentration of building the forces of resistance and opposition rather than organisational-cum-party building. The point of this type of activity is not just to generate rebuilding and cooperation but to generate rebuilding through cooperation and vice-versa because the end point is to create a strong and credible left. To this extent the outward campaigning work is a vital but indirect route to reunification.

The second must be informal discussions between the sensible activists within and between the two organisations which lay the ground for future formal negotiations. If this seems pie-in-the-sky, people must identify what the roadblocks to re-unification are and remove or ameliorate them. The timetable for reunification could then be around two years on from May 2007.

So underlying these two activities is the necessity of a balanced, measured perspective on what is possible for the two organisations and their successor re-unified organisation. Although there is widespread recognition of the electoral catastrophe, there is still as yet no widespread willingness to reassess expectations, much less act upon the resultant conclusions. We can talk endlessly about the forthcoming and potential opportunities we have but unless these are closely aligned or matched to the scale of the resources we can call upon, that is, the quantity and quality of activists either has, we will be setting ourselves up for failure, demoralisation and worse.

Inside the SSP, there is still a sense of "business as usual"-cum-"carry on as usual" rather than a step change in the ways and means of operating. Alan McCombes expounded this view where if we hold tight, things will come back our way:

"[The new political situation] is likely to open up a new, turbulent phase in Scottish politics, a time of strife, which could accelerate the ultimate break-up of the United Kingdom and pave the way for the resurgence of socialism.... In contrast, a minority SNP government could allow Salmond to portray the SNP as a party which is trying to introduce radical changes, but is being blocked and obstructed at every turn by the three unionist parties....

"Either way, the sands of Scottish politics are shifting. The socialist left may have been marginalised for the time being, but that can change rapidly and dramatically in the future.... As sure as the sun rises in the morning, the socialist left will be back with vengeance in the future. And whatever the arithmetical breakdown last Thursday, the only socialist party with the capacity of coming back from this defeat is the Scottish Socialist Party....

"[T]wo or three years down the road, the events of the past year will have begun to fade into the mists of history. With the removal of Tommy Sheridan from Holyrood, the Solidarity bubble will burst. That will be a massive step forward for the left, allowing Scottish socialism to be rebuilt under the clean banner of the SSP." (Scottish Socialist Voice, 10 May 2007)

The Scottish Socialist Voice (10 May 2007) weighed in with the same line: "We fought in hope, and we got beat. Big time. But last Thursday’s electoral rout does not mean that the Scottish Socialist Party is a spent force, or that we’re about to implode for months on end to indulge in self-recrimination and doubt before tentatively hitting the streets again.... [We] are intact, our membership is increasing, our ideas are powerful, persuasive and making a difference...."

But for the SSP in itself and as a prime mover in a reunification project to regain momentum and credibility, it needs to fundamentally rethink the way it campaigns and outwardly operates in terms of the aims, objectives and means for the standard work of stalls, leafleting selling papers, using petitions and the like are not capable of delivering the degree of embeddedness and influence that we seek either per se or in the current context. What was laid out above for a new left unity project – an influencing, not party, building operation, with an emphasis on community campaigns and internal party education is also needed for the SSP in order to stabilise the SSP and prefigure a new left unity project in order to create that new left unity project. This work will be as important as the work the SSP undertakes to try to push forward on its policies that were contained in its 2007 election manifesto.

Those in the SSP must be bold enough to recognise that the SSP as presently constituted is not the best or most ideal vehicle for socialism in Scotland. It is not a "rump" as some suggest but it is very far from what it once was. But the SSP as presently constituted has a vital role to play in creating a reunified, reconfigured and reinvigorated united left party for Scotland. Reunification means reunification with the better elements of Solidarity, reconfiguration means approaching old questions in new ways, and reinvigoration means expanding influence and contact outwards into new milieus. If this path is not taken, the possibility of building a substantial united left party in Scotland will recede again for another decade or more.