According to some newspaper reports, the Scottish Socialist Party is a smoking ruin since the hasty exit of Tommy Sheridan (see Red Pepper, October 2006). But the truth is more mundane. We're fine. Membership took a knock but is now on the increase, paper sales have steadied, funds are recovering, campaigns are back on track and we're even doing well in the polls - stabilising at the same level (around 5 per cent) that we achieved six months before the 2003 election, in which we returned six MSPs to Holyrood.
But it's not quite business as usual. When you've had your party's reputation dragged through the central sewer of the Scottish tabloids, you start to ask yourself some serious questions. And that's just what we've been doing.
At our national conference in October, motions for constitutional change included examining the role of convenor - a post, incidentally, created for the benefit of Tommy Sheridan when he was elected as our sole MSP in 1999 - and debating possible alternatives, such as a collective convenorship. Many ideas were put on hold when a motion proposing the establishment of a commission to 'investigate the existing structures, organisation, culture and constitution of the party' was voted through overwhelmingly. This will happen next year, when a bit of time has opened up between us and 'Tommygate'.
Another conference motion mooted the possibility of scrapping the 50:50 gender balance policy, which requires equal representation of women on the SSP national council, election lists and among conference delegates. This sank like a cement wellie, but there is no doubt that the 50:50 policy is a blunt instrument. It requires rather than facilitates, and has caused friction when, for instance, a branch cannot send a full delegation to the conference because it has too few women members. That's a pity, but it doesn't mean, in most members' minds, that the 50:50 rule should be scrapped. What should be scrapped is the notion that having too few women members is somehow an immutable fact of nature.
And thus we move onto the less concise but infinitely more interesting question of how to change the culture of a socialist party from one in which men dominate (generally white, able-bodied, 30- to 50- year-old men, living in or around Scotland's central belt) to one in which everyone's voice has equal weight? Not easy. But not avoidable either.
So how do we engage women? And young people? And old ones? And people with disabilities? And people living on islands and farmsteads and distant housing schemes? And people who want to be in the SSP but are only interested in the environment or human rights issues?
Let's consider the cliché of the socialist party branch meeting, with its 7.30pm start, gloomy venue and earnest, bearded speaker brandishing spidery notes. Would you pay £20 for a babysitter so you could come to that?
Evening meetings are difficult if you have kids, or don't like walking home alone through dark streets, or have two part-time jobs that sometimes involve out-of-office hours. Or live somewhere so remote that travelling to them involves an 80-mile round trip.
But without meetings, how do you meet? Daytime events at weekends are one idea. So too is a virtual branch, where comrades in far-flung places talk to each other via the internet. Another possibility put forward involves twinning branches, so that urbanites can learn from their country cousins and vice versa. The weekly paper, the Scottish Socialist Voice, is a conduit of information too, with regular reports on street campaigns, branch activities and educational initiatives, allowing comrades to swap notes, longdistance.
For the single-issue people, through our new system of networks, which are autonomously organised, we can help people channel their energy into what they're passionate about. The SSP women's network has already made progress in various ways, drawing in women who have otherwise not attended SSP events. It organises its own meetings (weekends and daytime, creche included), hosts discussions at the annual Socialism event, formulates its own motions to conference and even produces its own literature, the most recent being a very successful pamphlet on prostitution.
The bid to engage members will inform the way we write our next parliamentary manifesto. This is our opportunity to set out our stall to a wider audience, to get across the message of who we are and what we hope for to the election-time window-shoppers. If we are to turn our young, small party into a mass movement for change, we can't be doing with a manifesto written hurriedly by torchlight ten minutes into the printers' deadline by a handful of party workers. We need the man from Shetland to tell us why large-scale wind farms won't work, just as we need the young woman from Glasgow's inner city to argue for a living maternity allowance.
To this end, we're writing the manifesto on a 'wiki' space, an access-restricted internet site that allows users to edit and add, as well as scroll through previous versions. It is very user-friendly, and enables everyone involved (that is, every SSP member who asks to be included) to see stuff as it goes up.
Another important strand of thought is education. We need to bin those spidery notes. In place of the 45-minute lead-off followed by recitations on a Marxist- Leninist theme from the floor, we're thinking theatre forum - where people roleplay through their ideas - and facilitators, flip-charts and Paulo Freire. It's much more demanding, but it draws people into the circle of discussion and brings on new ideas about organising, campaigning and thinking.
The SSP, from its inception, has been about newness, about cracking the mould of the traditional socialist party and reaching outwards. We want socialism, open borders and justice, free health care, education for education's sake, an end to war and a beginning to peace.
We have to keep pushing forward to achieve any of this. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, if you're not being born, you're already dying. And despite press notices to the contrary, we're definitely not dying.
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