Why the SSP is Worth Fighting For
The national secretary of the Scottish Socialist Party replies to Gregor Gall’s article ‘Socialism in Scotland: A Cruel and Unnecessary Catastrophe’
THERE can be no doubt that 3 May 2007 marks a low point in the SSP’s nine year history. The election result was a massive disappointment, following on the heels of the car-crash of the summer of 2006, the libel action and the split. But does it sound the death knell of the Scottish Socialist Party? Is the party so damaged and discredited that it cannot recover? And has almost a decade’s hard work by the activists who built the SSP – one of the most successful left unity projects in the world in recent years – been destroyed by the actions of one man? I would answer a resounding "no" – and I’m confident that the vast majority of the SSP’s members and supporters would concur.
On the face of it, the bare figures from May 3 would suggest otherwise – a vote of just 12,572 across the country, 0.66% on average in the regions, below the bizarre collection of uncomfortable bedfellows assembled in Sheridan’s hastily cobbled-together "Solidarity" faction and below the racist, far-right BNP. But disillusioned campaigners would do well to remember that an election takes place on one day – it is a snapshot, nothing more, nothing less. Reports from around the country during the course of the campaign suggest that the SSP’s percentage of the vote did not reflect the broader support for policies such as free school meals, scrapping the council tax and prescription charges, and free public transport.
We can put forward a number of theories as to why this failed to translate into electoral support. There was undoubtedly a "squeeze" affecting all of the smaller parties as the mainstream parties slogged it out in the press, with Labour and the SNP running neck and neck in the polls. There was a sense of change not incomparable to 1997 – the feeling that however much you distrusted the slick suits and the advertising campaign, "things could only get better" – articulated effectively by the SNP with the slogan of "Alex Salmond for First Minister". As McConnell faltered and Labour lurched from bad to worse in the final days of the campaign, the Electoral Commission’s decision to allow parties to use descriptions in place of the party name meant that this slogan was the first thing voters saw as they studied the new ballot papers, a major boon to SNP support on the list vote. The list vote has nothing to do with electing the First Minister but the SNP recognised that it was SSP and Green success on the proportional list that cost them MSP’s in 2003, and this ruse was designed to negate that support in 2007 – an effective tactic, backed as it was by a hugely expensive advertising campaign.
Beyond the narrowest of Nationalist victories, the most notable feature of the 2007 elections – and one which Gregor curiously fails to address – must be the unprecedented volume of spoilt ballot papers, over 140,000 or 7% of the total cast. A report last month by the University of Strathclyde came as little surprise when it found that the number of spoiled papers was highest in the poorest constituencies, and it is not unreasonable to assume that a good portion of these were destined for the SSP or Solidarity. Making decisions based on a result which discounted so many working class voices would be rash indeed.
But as things stand, the votes – such as they were – have been counted, and a re-run ruled out. Is it possible, therefore, for the SSP to recover from a defeat of this scale? A glance at recent Scottish electoral history would suggest that it is. The SNP was founded in 1934; three decades later, in 1964, they won just 2% of the national vote. Three years later, of course, they won the Hamilton by-election. A decade after that, they shook the British establishment when they won 11 MPs and nearly a third of the vote in the Westminster elections. Yet this rapid ascent was followed by just as drastic a decline in Nationalist fortunes, when they held only two seats in 1979 on 17% of the vote. By the mid-1980s, the SNP had hit rock bottom, with negligible media coverage, and by 1987, just one MP in the Western Isles. Since then, of course, the SNP have enjoyed an upswing in support that has culminated in their forming the government just 20 years after being virtually wiped off the electoral map.
The Greens, perhaps a closer comparison to ourselves, have enjoyed similarly mixed fortunes, winning 15% of the UK-wide vote in the 1989 European Elections, 7.5% in Scotland, before plunging to just 0.3% five years later. The Greens were stunned by their poor showing on May 3, yet it is inconceivable that they would have faced calls to dissolve their party and start over, even had they lost all of their Parliamentary representation. The Greens will no doubt take succour from last Sunday’s YouGov poll which showed them on 7%, and the SSP should do likewise, with a 5% showing from a polling company which consistently gave the gloomiest predictions for the party’s fortunes on May 3. The same poll places Sheridan’s "Solidarity" party on just 1% support.
History suggests that to abandon the SSP as a viable force for socialist ideas in Scotland would be electorally premature; politically, it would be reckless in the extreme. The SSP represents more than a recognised name on a ballot paper; it represents the efforts of hundreds of activists, party workers and elected representatives in developing radical policies and a broad, well-developed programme reflected in our manifesto; it also represents the work that has been done in campaigns in communities and workplaces on issues ranging from free school meals to support for striking workers, building a reputation which should not be discarded on a whim. Political parties are not t-shirts to be thrown out when the logo becomes faded from the wash; a democratic political party is built up over years by its members, through debate, discussion and action – it cannot be anything other than a long term project.
Equally unlikely is Gregor’s suggestion that if we were all just to be "sensible" about it, the damage done by Tommy Sheridan to the Left in Scotland could simply be smoothed over and the pieces glued back together again. The events of last summer were not simply a question of Tommy "doing in" the party for his own ends – they were an attempt to denigrate and destroy the reputations of individuals with many decades’ standing in the socialist movement, smearing innocent people with accusations of "scabs" and of lying in the highest court in the country – an accusation which may well still result in lengthy prison sentences for those convicted of perjury.
Few of those Gregor identifies as "independent" are likely to sustain activity in Solidarity, an organisation dominated by the sectarian squabbles of the SWP and CWI and likely to require life support to survive until the outcome of a criminal trial. Those who did leave the SSP – many of whom have simply drifted into inactivity – may well rejoin the SSP at some point in future. Sadly, the lies and distortions spread by Sheridan and his supporters mean that this is likely to be some time after the (almost certain) perjury trial takes place, if at all. The collective finger-crossing of Solidarity members is unlikely to make this go away; the police investigation and media interest noticeably stepped up after May 3, and it seems highly unlikely that it will be dropped now, given the trial judge Lord Turnbull’s indication that MSPs had potentially committed perjury and the resources the state has subsequently pumped into the investigation. Sheridan’s narcissism, placing his own interests before those of the party, has handed a fine opportunity to the state to rake through the party’s private business, and will see leading party members dragged through the courts and media circus once more.
More disturbing, however, is the suggestion that in order to form a new party, we must be prepared to "leave ... notions of ‘truth’ and ‘betrayal’ at the door". The SSP is built upon its history and experience – to think that we can simply "wipe the slate clean" is utterly fanciful. What constitutes "sensible" behaviour in this context? A willingness to accept unity at any price? Do we accept only those who are prepared to rewrite history in order to sooth the egos of those who were wrong? Surveying the darker moments of the history of the socialist movement, it is clear that far from a "sensible" means of moving forward, this is a dangerous strategy indeed. The "truth" is not a "notion", nor is it a piece of luggage that can be set aside when it becomes awkward or inconvenient, to be rewritten and ironed out "Polyanna" style to make everything all right again.
To rewrite the truth is to create a falsehood, to lie to our supporters, to those who join our movement in the future, to the working class. What credibility could such a party ever hope to have? At best, like Solidarity, it would be a house built on sand – a temporary formation which may be sustained for weeks or months, but which sooner or later will come crashing back down.
The lessons of last summer should have taught us this, at least. We saw last May, in the dreadful weeks leading up to the trial, the potential for Stalinism on a small, tawdry scale – demands for the destruction of evidence, demands that the party lie on Sheridan’s behalf – to what end? Not to further the cause of socialism, to "take on" the media giants of News International or to defend the gains made by the SSP and its predecessors, but to maintain the illusion of Sheridan as the "family man", a gross spectacle of utter hypocrisy.
Sheridan’s obsession with his family image screams from the rooftops the wider issues at stake last year: patriarchy, misogyny and power. From the ill-fated EC meeting on 9 November 2004 to the Court of Session, women have been under attack – cross-examined by Sheridan and denigrated in the media as mentally unstable whores, or screamed down as "c*nts" and witches at our own internal meetings if they dared stand up to the venomous attacks unleashed by sections of our own party. Last May’s National Council meeting provided a master class not only in the lessons of Stalinism but also in the pitiful failure of the Scottish Left to understand the feminist questions of the last 30 years. Sheridan was not the "little man" taking on the big, bad, News of the World – he was an abuser of women, extending his abuse of power to the highest court of the country, cheered on by his supporters, with scant regard for the women he destroyed in doing so. This is not a question of "bourgeois morality" or what Sheridan did or did not do – it is about whether, as socialists, we are serious about gender equality. If we are, then we need to examine how we could reach a position where women were denigrated both in the party and in the media in a way which would have sparked absolute outrage had the question been one of race rather than sex, and we cannot do that through "leaving our differences at the door".
There are, of course, other lessons to be learned, lessons which will be critical to rebuilding the SSP as a viable, respected force in Scottish politics. We should not repeat the error of reliance on one individual, and must re-examine our methods of organising. We should be educating our members so that every member of the SSP is able to be critical, to think independently, and to hold their elected representatives to democratic account so that we never repeat the "Empire building" that came to characterise large parts of the SSP and led to the degeneration and crisis last summer.
The SSP does need to change – we have experienced a major defeat, which has already forced changing in our staffing and resources, and changes to our internal structure are likely to follow. A "business as usual" approach, even if it were possible, would not work – rebuilding the SSP will take time, commitment and patience. The Commission elected at last year’s Conference has already begun a root and branch review of the internal structures and culture of the party, questioning the ways in which we organise, behave and our expectations of each other. The changes in staffing have seen a shift in emphasis to the re-politicisation of members and devolving of responsibility from paid staff to the lay structures of the party, focusing on towards facilitation and passing on skills. Of course, members – new and old, across the country – have to be prepared to take on that responsibility. Things will not change overnight, nor will they change of their own accord – "the party" is us, the members, not some mysterious, separate creature with a will of its own.
Alternative ways of working already exist – the United Left, formed by rank and file members to defend the SSP, has barely been spoken of in recent months, fading into an almost mythical existence. Those who participated in its meetings – almost all of the 150+ signatories – saw an alternative way of working spring up organically and almost immediately. The UL had no "leadership" as such, a conscious choice replaced by an attempt to share out specific tasks like arranging meetings and facilitating, but every comrade’s voice was heard, in many cases for the first time. No UL member would claim that it had all of the answers – there were many times when decision making was frustrating, when things didn’t work – but in its brief existence, it showed that taken away from the context of "how we’ve always done it", alternatives can flourish.
The Commission will address the internal structures and constitution of the party – these are not simply questions of rules and standing orders, but also of the wider culture of the party. Our finances, too, have to be re-politicised – we no longer have the luxury of MSPs’ income to cushion our infrastructure and activities. The Executive have set a realistic budget, but the party will not grow and develop on this alone, and we must consider our fundraising activity as an integral part of our political activity.
I agree wholeheartedly with Gregor in the need for an honest and open evaluation of our activities as a party – was the tireless effort of comrades in the recent elections to best effect? How can we engage those who are unable or unwilling to engage in traditional forms of "activism"? There may be agreement in the party on the need to dig deeper roots in our communities and workplaces, but how do we best achieve this? A good beginning may be to delegate responsibilities to members for particular activities; to be realistic about what we can achieve, instead of expecting everything from everybody, and to recognise individuals’ participation in different types of activity. The Free School Meals campaign offers an excellent example of the type of campaigning we need in the coming period. Through this, we have built links with groups outwith SSP, and created a campaign which is now regenerating itself without SSP MSPs, forming new links but with SSP activists continuing to be fully involved.
Whatever activities our members engage in, the now-fortnightly Voice is incredibly important tool, and we should recognise that in it, we have a unique and valuable resource. The Voice is the only Left newspaper written and produced in Scotland – with vastly reduced coverage in the national media as a result of our election defeat, the Voice offers our best opportunity to communicate with a wider audience, and we need to use it, whether writing for it, selling it or promoting it to others in our branches and regions. The Voice also has a role in the constant mantra of the party in recent years – "education, education!" The elections may represent a major setback to the party’s ambitions, but they also represent an opportunity, a breathing space in which to develop some of the structures which had been neglected in the party’s rapid growth following the initial Parliamentary breakthrough in 1999. Comrades have begun meeting as the Radical Education Network – a small group just now, but with a firm action plan in place, initial workshops under development, and intentions to roll this out to the wider party through the Socialism 2007 event in Dundee in October.
There is plenty to be optimistic about in the SSP in 2007. Not only do we have a desire to change and an understanding of at least some of the problems facing the party, but we have the resources with which to enact that change. In Scottish Socialist Youth, we have a vibrant, growing youth section unmatched in any other party in Scotland, perhaps even the UK, and which represents the future of the SSP and the socialist movement in Scotland. SSY members were to the fore in defending and sustaining the SSP last summer, as older members looked on in dismay. When the split came, SSY’s membership stayed with the SSP almost to a woman and to a man. SSY lost their paid, full time organiser in the financial fall-out of the elections, but they have the confidence to move to a collective form of leadership – a measure which is untested, but which they’re willing to try and to evaluate. In the election campaign and its aftermath, SSY has continued to attract new members and to organise successful education events and campaigning activities.
The SSP has to change – the events of May 2007 have decided that for us. But we also have also to hold our nerve politically, and to learn the lessons of the last few years. The SSP began as a left unity project, and this should continue to be our goal, but unity at any price can not be sustained, and we have to accept that some groups destroy more than they ever create. We should not be ashamed to say that we have made mistakes, or that things have gone wrong – after all, if the achieving the socialist transformation of society was that easy, we wouldn’t be here today.