Is the party over?

The 2007 Scottish elections are being billed as ‘make or break’ for the Scottish Socialist Party, which has struggled to build on its electoral breakthrough in 2003. Gregor Gall argues that its success is crucial to the left both north and south of the border

April 1, 2006
8 min read

More than 350 Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) delegates met in early March for their annual policy gathering. The conference marked Colin Fox’s first year as the party’s national convenor. (The SSP is moving away from the idea of a single ‘leader’ since the resignation of Tommy Sheridan on 9 November 2004.) The party has travelled a rocky road over the past 18 months.

Continuing financial difficulties, poor results in the general election and three by-elections, the public backlash over its MSPs’ direct action protest at the G8 summit, together with party infighting, all seemed to have consigned the SSP to the dustbin of history. So is the party really over for the SSP?

Even the most faithful SSP members admit there have been recent troubles, but there’s no consensus over the causes. Some argue it’s merely the establishment response to the 2003 parliamentary breakthrough (when the SSP went from one MSP to six). Others stress the diversion of energies resulting from the party’s enlarged parliamentary presence; or the result of relying too much on one high-profile, charismatic individual. Among some of the organised internal platforms (a distinctive feature of the party, and no doubt one of the reasons that it has been able to unite so much of the left, is that members have the right to form political tendencies), the woes are the result of becoming a ‘nationalist’ and ‘reformist’ party.

What has happened, and does happen, to the SSP matters to the left far beyond Scotland. This is because the SSP has achieved five critical steps towards the renewal of the socialist project in Britain.

First, it has united the far left in Scotland – with the exception of the 200 members of the Communist Party and its Labour left co-thinkers such as the Campaign for Socialism.

Second, it has attracted into membership hundreds of disillusioned activists from Labour and the SNP, as well as many people never before involved in left-wing politics.

Third, it has established an organic relationship with a milieu of radical thought in Scottish society, the size of which varies from 40,000 (in the 2005 general election) to 130,000 (in the 2003 Scottish elections).

Fourth, the SSP has gained a national platform from which to agitate and organise around its agenda and support various non-SSP campaigns.

And fifth, the party has learnt from the failures of the radical left in many important respects. It has been able to move from general socialist argument to practical proposals on bringing the railways back into public ownership; introducing free prescriptions and free school meals; and replacing the council tax with a local income tax based on the ability to pay – around all of which the SSP built both parliamentary alliances and street-level campaigns. It has created a party culture founded on a deeply rooted belief in democratic debate and the value of diversity.

All of this has enabled the SSP to establish a national presence throughout Scotland, with 3,000 members organised in 86 branches; a national and local media presence; and its own weekly 12-page newspaper with a staff of four, as well as 20 other party and parliamentary workers. The number of regular activists is probably around 400-500 members. To imagine what this means in English terms, what the SSP has achieved needs to be multiplied by a factor of ten to get some idea of how embedded it has become throughout Scotland.

Of course, many will say that most of the SSP’s success has been the gift of proportional representation – to which there is some truth. But the ability to take advantage of PR is something else and goes back to a careful process of building trust across a diverse spectrum of the left – political organisations and social movements – and working together both on specific campaigns and on building a common organisation. New thinking was combined with joint work resisting privatisation and cuts, building on the legacy of the anti-poll tax work that went before.

The SSP emerged out of two predecessors: Scottish Militant Labour (SML) and the Scottish Socialist Alliance (SSA). Militant in Scotland took its ‘Scottish turn’ after many of its members were expelled from Labour; it also understood that it needed to operate as an independent organisation and break from vanguardist notions of a political party. This, in turn, involved standing in elections and relating to the desire of a long-established current of thought in Scotland for devolution. .

When the SSA proved relatively successful in terms of campaigning activity, growth and profile, and with the Scottish Parliament elections looming in 1999, the SSP was established in 1998 to take the project further. This was rewarded with Tommy Sheridan’s election as a list MSP for Glasgow. His tireless and high profile work between 1999 and 2003, in the context of rising social struggles, gave the SSP a good platform for the 2003 breakthrough.

The crux of the SSP’s current problems is its credibility and the goodwill towards it, both of which have been eroded since 2004. The leadership debacle provided opposition parties and the media with an open season. But the reason why this onslaught has been so effective is that the SSP was not in a good state to withstand it. The dynamics of its own enlarged internal organisation, the shifting of its centre of gravity towards the Scottish Parliament, the considerable resources required to operate there, and members withdrawing from activity after the successes of 2003 (there was something of an attitude of ‘We’ve made it, now its up to the MSP’s’) have all demobilised the SSP.

On top of this, the absence of the same social struggles as previously has exposed the susceptibility of the SSP to the underlying political conditions. The 2007 Scottish election is widely seen as ‘make or break’ for it. Standing still would represent a triumph, while losing its MSPs would set the SSP back many years by dint of the ensuing demoralisation and disorientation. Some success in the council elections, where the SSP will benefit from the newly introduced proportional representation, may offset this.

Politically the SSP is not adrift. Its 2006 conference showed a mature and considered approach to grappling with the issues it faces over electoral strategy, Scottish independence, crime and justice and pensions, among others. The detailed nature of the debates, drawing on the daily experiences of working class communities, was impressive.

On electoral strategy, the SSP will focus more heavily on list, and not constituency, seats. Inside the Independence Convention, the SSP will work with others to promote its commitment to Scottish independence, but without diluting its socialist and republican politics. All this was achieved with the national executive being defeated on several occasions, indicating a healthy, thinking party membership.

This is reflected more widely in the SSP’s internal structures and culture of democratic accountability. It has not just the organised political platforms but also self-organised networks of women, black and Asian, lesbian and gay and disabled members. Similarly, it has a number of working parties on various specific issues and an education network that encourages branches to move towards more inclusive and participatory ways of running their meetings and committees.

With its politics and democratic structures remaining healthy, the SSP’s prospects revolve around whether it can re-energise and re-motivate its wider membership to tap into the considerable possibilities that still exist for it. Next year, the Liberal Democrats will find it less easy to pose as the party of opposition given that they are part of the ruling coalition; and since late 2005, the SSP has had a better run in the media by virtue of grassroots campaigning for its parliamentary bills to abolish prescription charges and the council tax. In the unions, it has agitated around the attack on public sector pensions. Through these campaigns, it has begun recruiting substantially again and has established, and further built upon, relationships with an array of progressive pressure groups and campaigning organisations.

At its annual conference, the SSP also launched its ‘People not Profit’ initiative for the 2007 elections. ‘People not Profit’ seeks to relate the SSP’s work over everyday concerns on the NHS, free school meals, education, the environment, imperialism and the council tax to socialist ideals. It provides a unifying theme to all the SSP’s various activities. In the year left, if SSP members can get out into the communities, schools, colleges, workplaces and streets in sufficient numbers and do this work successfully, it will boost not only its own fortunes but also those of the left south of the border.Gregor Gall is author of The Political Economy of Scotland – Red Scotland? Radical Scotland? (University of Wales Press, 2005).


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