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Trouble Ahead for the SSP

Vince Mills

THE Scottish Socialist Party faces the possibility of electoral decimation. And no, it is not because Tommy Sheridan has resigned as leader, although his absence from political debate won’t help and the manner of his departure will harm the SSP. The threat to the party’s electoral presence is a good deal less dramatic, but much more damaging.

Firstly, just in case anyone has not been keeping up with the soap opera, here’s the omnibus version. Sheridan’s decision to resign was, according to his early statements, provoked by his desire to be a good father. He and his wife Gail are expecting their first baby next year and it is known that Gail has not been particularly well.

The Scottish press corps was, to say the least, sceptical about this. They asked about the £200,000 debt which the party has incurred over its new headquarters and they raised the rumours about Sheridan’s private life.

Sheridan denied that either had anything to do with his decision, describing gossip about his private life as "crap". And, when a Sunday "newspaper" ran even more lurid stories about his private life, he responded by denouncing the paper as a "scummy rag" and promised to take it to court. Sheridan also initially made the point that his resignation would give the lie to the allegation that the SSP was a one-man band. New talent, he argued, would emerge as a consequence of his absence.

So far, so good. His decision seemed based on his commitment to be a caring parent and to help grow talent in the SSP. Furthermore, it appeared that he had the full blessing of the SSP leadership.

However, a few days after his sudden resignation, more information surfaced which undermined Sheridan’s early explanations. It emerged that the SSP executive, apparently uncomfortable about his handling of allegations about his private life, had, reportedly – although it is difficult to get an objective account of this – passed a unanimous vote, 19 to 0, giving Sheridan an ultimatum to stand down or be forced out. Since then, the party leadership has been a little less than enthusiastic about public support for his battle to clear his name.

All of this is a great pity. First, I find the intrusions of the gutter press into his private life at a difficult time despicable and I hope that that reaction will be shared by all on the left. Second, while I do not agree with Sheridan’s politics – in particular his belief that the SSP can offer a route to a radical Scotland – I nevertheless recognise and applaud the contribution that he has made and, hopefully, will continue to make to popularising socialism.

In his capacity to make arguments for socialism seem like common sense in a culture imbued with individualism and in a relaxed way that the electronic media loves, he is a real asset to the SSP and, indeed, the broader left. He may well have the same mass appeal that Jimmy Maxton or Willie Gallacher had, albeit expressed through very different media and in very different times. Gallacher famously replied to Tory suggestions to the poor that they should improve their diet by eating cod’s-head soup by asking what had happened to the rest of the cod! Unfortunately, gone are the mass meetings of the ’30s and ’40s and the mass memberships of left organisations.

I will return to these historical references, but, first, I would like to explain why, whatever damage Sheridan’s resignation might inflict, it is not the main source of likely difficulty for the fledgling SSP, at least in terms of its electoral profile.

Morning Star readers will probably be aware that, as a result of the devolution settlement, the number of Scottish MPs is to be reduced at Westminster. In future, there will only be 59 MPs in Scotland, rather than the current 73. However, it was the 73 constituencies which formed the basis for the setting up the Scottish Parliament and the 73 constituencies which delivered 120-plus MSPs for the Scottish Parliament remain unchanged, but only for the moment. That means that there will be 14 more Scottish Parliament constituencies than Westminster constituencies.

Furthermore, voters in Scotland, as elsewhere in Britain, elect their local MP under the first-past-the-post system, but elect MSPs through a multi-member "additional member system" which sees a top-up of additional candidates. In local government, much to the dismay of the Labour heartlands councillors, the Scottish Parliament has just assented to local councillors being elected on the basis of single transferable voting. And, as we know, EU elections use a variation of proportional representation based on a list of candidates drawn up by the parties before the election.

There’s enough satirical material in this confusing plethora of systems and assemblies to fill up several episodes of Bremner, Bird and Fortune. Inevitably, there have been calls for some sort of rationalisation in Scotland, so an independent inquiry has been set up to sort it out. While it is by no means certain what the outcome of the Arbuthnot inquiry will be, there is a very strong likelihood that the current electoral system for the Scottish Parliament will go, because there will be a strong desire to unify the Westminster and Scottish parliamentary boundaries.

It is the list system used to top up the first-past-the-post MSPs that has given both the Scottish Greens and the SSP all their seats. Neither party has won a seat on a first-past-the-post basis. The lists are based on fairly large geographical areas, allowing both small parties to capitalise on widespread areas of support – like the whole of Glasgow, in the case of the SSP.

But, if Scotland were to move to two-member seats, for example, on a PR basis, based on the new Westminster constituencies, the SSP would find it much harder. Even leading SSP members believe that, on current levels of support, the number of seats that the party holds could fall from six to two. One of those likely to hang on to his seat would be Sheridan, because he gets the highest personal vote of all SSP MSPs.

So, without losing a single vote and perhaps even gaining some, the SSP would become peripheral to the Scottish Parliament and, consequently, would find it that much harder to propagate its politics, that much harder to get into the media, that much harder to demonstrate its relevance and that much harder to recruit and retain members. It is quite possible, though, given his media savvy, that, even in this isolated position, Tommy would retain the interest of the press.

Even if a system more sympathetic to the SSP is adopted, this surely demonstrates how tentative a toehold the SSP has in electoral politics and how very far it has to go to make a serious challenge for power.

The British left has been here before. Both the ILP and the Communist Party at different times and in different places were able to win and retain electoral support on the back of personal support for powerful and beloved orators. This is not a criticism of either party and certainly not of Maxton and Gallacher – their contribution was extraordinary. Nor is it to deny that, in those areas, pockets of socialism were created. But we know that, to win socialism on a national basis, such exceptionalism is not enough. We need to win the mass of workers in the trade unions and their political organisation, the Labour Party, to socialism.

We need to do that because the Labour Party, despite the disgusting political direction of its current leadership, remains the only vehicle capable of winning state power that organised workers through their unions, as well as individual members, have a constitutional right to influence, ultimately shaping policy and choosing public representatives. And there are forces inside the Labour Party – for example, the Campaign for Socialism in Scotland – sophisticated enough to make the necessary alliances with the trade union movement to change the nature of the Labour leadership.

Planting socialism at the very heart of the major party of reform defends it against being marginalised and allows the socialist left to both legitimise itself and, speaking as it does from a party of power, to legitimise socialism. The socialist left needs to simultaneously win Labour Party members to socialism and win socialists to the Labour Party. We need to be active in and beyond the Labour Party. I would appeal to all socialists who understand that to join us in that fight.

Vince Mills is secretary of the Campaign for Socialism. This article was published in the 19 November 2004 issue of the Morning Star