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Scotland’s Socialists

Gregor Gall

THE first weekend of September 2006 marked the official schism in the socialist movement in Scotland. In the same room, in the same hotel and a mere matter of only 19 hours apart, the SSP held its "we're still standing" rally, while Solidarity launched itself under the working subtitle of "Scotland's socialist movement."

Following this, the SSP held an annual conference of 250-300 delegate members in early October while, in early November, Solidarity gathered together nationally for the first time since a speaking tour of Scotland by Tommy Sheridan and Rosemary Byrne MSPs had ended.

The conference saw around 250 of its current 650 members meet to discuss the name, constitution, purpose and office-bearers of Solidarity.

Although it may not be obvious to the outside observer, the two socialist organisations are cojoined in some senses but also "separated at birth" in others.

The SSP is unashamedly a socialist party – a party of left-wing class struggle, putting people before profit and for the millions, not the millionaires. It was created in 1998 to bring together different elements of the left into a single party that pulled and pushed in one direction, albeit after internal discussion has produced this agreed upon single direction.

It united reformists and revolutionaries, socialists and social democrats upon an immediate campaigning programme and a long-term aim of an independent socialist Scotland.

The SSP sees itself as a combat party rather than a vanguard party, which aims to work with existing struggles and learn from them as well as providing leadership and support to struggles. Despite the split, it has retained the vast bulk of its membership, currently some 2,000 members.

Although Solidarity refers to itself as a party, this as much to do with being required to do so by the Electoral Commission so that it can stand in public elections and in order to suggest a single, united entity to the public. But, in fact, Solidarity is a peculiar beast in as much as it declares itself as both a movement and a coalition.

Indeed, the use of the term movement is more than just avoiding using the term party – otherwise, it would be Solidarity: Scotland's Socialist Party, ie SSP. Solidarity aims to be a campaigning movement. This signifies a different way of looking at the form and purpose of socialist organisation. Solidarity talks about being a movement of the movements, bringing together the different strands of the anti-Establishment from various oppositional movements.

It talks of being a coalition of these various groups at the time of elections. Movements cannot be called into existence at a whim and no matter how sincere the wish, they only arise organically in and from social struggles. Coalitions, on the other hand, can be put together but imply a much looser, less deep-rooted, less permanent relationship.

In formal political terms, Solidarity is stunningly similar to the SSP on the range of its key campaigning issues and priorities. This is what made the debate on Solidarity's name and constitution at its founding conference so interesting.

Three options were on the ballot paper – Solidarity, Solidarity: Scotland's Socialist Movement and Solidarity: Fighting for a Better World. By a small margin, the interim title of Solidarity: Scotland's Socialist Movement beat its closest rival by 119 to 111 votes.

The debate centred around whether to have the term "socialist" in the title of the organisation. Those who favoured using this made some obvious arguments along the lines of "it does what it says on the tin" and socialists should not be ashamed of being openly and proudly socialist, because it is not a liability to do so. These included the Socialist Party and many of the non-aligned Solidarity members.

Opposing this was the Socialist Workers Party, which argued that Solidarity should attract those who are fighting against the symptoms of capitalism but are not yet fully against capitalism and that having socialist in the title would put these people off. This appears to be consistent with its strategy behind setting up Respect: The Unity Coalition south of the border.

So, at the centre of this debate is how socialists relate to and work with non-socialists. The debate is about how people engaged in struggle change their ideas and consciousness and how to convince them to be socialists.

The SWP adopts a position of recruiting them to Solidarity and then recruiting them to socialism if they are not already socialists. The Socialist Party adopts a position of working with them and recruiting to them to Solidarity as socialists.

Unfortunately, the debate at the Solidarity conference became polarised around spurious caricatures, which shed more heat than light. The SWP accused its detractors of being purists who would only work with those who came over politically to them. Meanwhile, the Socialist Party and others accused their detractors of not being prepared to be openly socialist.

All this appears to sit rather at odds with that fact that Solidarity also adopted a constitution which in almost all respects is the same as that of the SSP.

It does diverge on two important issues, though – gender balance and voting structures. Unlike the SSP, there is no inclusion of gender balance for elected positions from delegates to executive members to candidates for elected office. Again, unlike the SSP, national officers of Solidarity will be elected by one member, one vote, and not by delegates.

The underlying rationale for the way that Solidarity will operate comes from two sources.

The first is the balance of forces between the SWP, on the one hand, and the Socialist Party and a coalition of independents on the other. The second is that, as Solidarity's biggest single public asset, Tommy Sheridan, will be free to plough his own furrow as a George Galloway-type figure. Around him, Sheridan has the "Sheridanistas."

As explained above, a central tension running through Solidarity is between partyist and coalition conceptions of the organisation.

In return, for bringing their 350-odd combined members with them from the SSP, the SWP and the Socialist Party have platform rights – as they had in the SSP. Both organisations went to Solidarity because of their view, in the words of one of the SWP members who testified for Sheridan in court, that "Tommy ... is the goose that lays the golden eggs" for socialism.

In return for this, both organisations are allowed to openly sell their literature in public and campaign, under the Solidarity banner, on the issues they want to prioritise.

Although Sheridan was elected co-chair of Solidarity with Rosemary Byrne MSP, it is he who rules the Solidarity roost. Given this, he is likely to operate in the manner of an independent, influential freewheeling MSP. The utilisation of his public persona will be the key tool for Solidarity and in this Tommy will have a huge say in how he is deployed.

Solidarity has its work cut out. It has just registered in opinion polls at around the 1 per cent mark. Meanwhile, the SSP is recording between 4 per cent to 5 per cent. The Scottish Parliament and local councils elections next May will be crucial barometers for how both organisations are doing and will determine their fates for a long-time afterwards. If either Solidarity or the SSP fail to get MSPs re-elected, they will be significantly weakened.

Published in the Morning Star, 13 November 2006

Gregor Gall is professor of Industrial Relations at Centre for Research in Employment Studies at the University of Hertfordshire. He lives in Edinburgh and is author of the forthcoming books Tommy Sheridan: A Political Biography and The Scottish Socialist Party: The Rise and Fall of a New Political Force?