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No more heroes

The Scottish Socialist Party, one of the most successful political initiatives of the British left in decades, has been torn apart by its former convenor Tommy Sheridan's libel action over sex allegations in the News of the World. Here, Roz Paterson tells the story from the perspective of those who have remained with the SSP.

October 1, 2006
10 min read

My Four-in-a-Bed Romp with Tommy. The Scottish Sex Party. Tommy Drops His Briefs. The headlines that ran throughout the summer of 2006 were lurid, ugly and embarrassing. But, for the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), the Tommy Sheridan affair was never about sex; it was about politics. It was about the ‘working class hero’ who had no hesitation in lying to the working class. The trusted, respected, iconic figure who threatened to pull the roof down on his party if it didn’t stand by him.

Now he’s gone, and the SSP is shuddering in his wake. We are about to refound our party, begin anew, with a few salutary lessons on board, all learned the hard way. This time we do politics, not heroes.

The story begins on the night of 9 November 2004. An emergency meeting of the SSP’s executive committee (EC) was convened at the party’s headquarters in Glasgow. Those in attendance listened in stunned silence as Tommy Sheridan, the party’s convenor and longest-standing Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP), admitted being the unnamed, married MSP in a sordid News of the World story published that week. He had, he confessed, visited the Manchester sex club mentioned in the article at least once since his muchpublicised marriage to Gail Healy, who had recently announced her pregnancy.

The EC asked him to stand down as convenor, citing family reasons if he wished. He refused, saying the newspaper had no proof and therefore he intended to fight the claims – and wanted the SSP to back him. The EC voted unanimously to call for his resignation. Not because of his sexual behaviour, but because he wanted the party to join him in a cover-up.

Tommy was angry, and left the meeting early. But he did resign. During the following week, he held court with the press, saying he had stepped down in order to be a proper ‘socialist dad’.

Fast forward a year and a bit. Out of the blue,Tommy denied he made any such confession to the EC. Instead, a ‘source close to him’ insinuated (to the media) that a ‘cabal of witches’, who had been jealous of him for years, had said this as part of a plot to bring him down. Those witches apparently included Rosie Kane and Carolyn Leckie, his fellow MSPs.

Perhaps they also included Barbara Scott, the minutes secretary who took the 9 November minutes and, from early 2006, was roundly abused by Tommy’s supporters for both recording too much salacious detail and contriving the whole thing as part of a plot to bring him down.

It got worse. As Tommy’s and the NoW’s legal teams prepared for the defamation hearing that Tommy had initiated, the minutes of the EC meeting became hot property. The NoW’s lawyers claimed they needed them for the defence, so the court demanded they be handed over. The EC agreed a strategy of defiance, as handing over minutes of internal party meetings was a breach of our privacy and set a dangerous precedent.

Alan McCombes, SSP national press and policy co-ordinator and a founder of the party, agreed to take sole possession of the minutes. When he refused to hand them over, he was jailed.

Meanwhile, back at Tommy’s home SSP branch, Cardonald, a motion was passed calling for the minutes to be destroyed. Tommy went one better by distributing the motion via his parliamentary email.

Then, at the SSP national council of 28 May 2006, he did an abrupt about-turn, leading the call for the minutes to be released to the court, presumably in the hope that Judge Lady Smith wouldn’t throw the book at him. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI, ex- Militant) delegates on the council, who had previously been hammering the case for defiance, about-turned along with him. That same afternoon, Tommy released an open letter directly accusing SSP members of framing him.

Before this,Tommy had repeatedly said that the SSP would not be dragged into his court action. Yet by publishing these accusations, 17 SSP members, cited by the NoW and Tommy’s lawyers, had the choice of either confirming a lie or telling the truth in court. Eleven of them repeated in court what Tommy had told the EC. Their evidence was reported, word for word, by an exultant, crowing Scottish press.

In the end, the jury found for Tommy. He left the court punching the air. In an exclusive with the Daily Record, a vehemently pro-Labour tabloid, he denounced those who testified against him as ‘scabs’. The Record, which paid Tommy £30,000 for the story, published pictures of four SSP members with the word ‘scab’ emblazoned across them.

For Tommy, this backfired badly. He said he would like to return as SSP convenor, and would put himself up for election against Colin Fox, the incumbent, if he received at least 25 nominations. He got nine. Meanwhile, the biggest branch in his home city of Glasgow issued a resounding vote of no confidence motion in him.

Thus he packed up and left. One fifth of the membership, including the SWP and the CWI, went with him.

Now let’s rewind a bit. When Tommy stood down, SSP members and supporters were knocked for six. When they learned, via their branch and regional organisers, as had been agreed with Tommy, that he was not the man they thought he was, some went into mourning.

That maybe sounds extreme, but it is hard to overstate what Tommy Sheridan meant to many socialists in Scotland. He was the working-class militant boy made good, who went to jail over the poll tax, who was carried by the crowd through Glasgow’s Queen Street Station on the day of his release, who raised his fist in the socialist salute when sworn into the Scottish Parliament in 1999, in defiance of the oath of allegiance to the queen.

When you campaigned on the streets, or canvassed at elections, you said, ‘The SSP, you know,Tommy Sheridan’s party.’ That was lazy and dangerous; and, boy, did we pay the price.

Colin Fox MSP became our convenor in March 2005, but by then the party was unravelling. Tommy’s supporters were beginning to brief against the ‘faction’ that was against him. But the faction was a fiction, woven around those who clearly didn’t share Tommy’s supporters’ agenda.

The truth is that there was more to it than ‘my leader right or wrong’. Tommy was identified with an old-style socialism in which men did most of the talking, class was the only issue, and people who demanded equality for women were the ‘gender police’.

This faultline had emerged in March 2002, when the ’50:50 debate’ – which called, for example, for mechanisms to ensure equal gender representation on the regional lists – was won after fierce and rancorous argument. The fissures blew wide open after November 2004, when Tommy began to appear as the man who would lead the charge on behalf of the traditionalists, and became wider still by the time he was rolling out the one about the ‘witches’.

We began talking to each other too, meeting tentatively for the first time in February 2006. The ‘February 2006 network’, as we called ourselves before becoming the SSP ‘United Left’ in June, met every few weeks. We discussed what was happening, sharing stories and theories and having a good bellyache about it all in the pub afterwards. There was a lot of sadness and anxiety, but also a lot of warmth and hilarity. The UL helped us get our sense of humour back, as well as our fighting spirit.

We launched ourselves as an SSP ‘platform’ (an aspect of the SSP’s democracy is the right of people to form ‘platforms’ for open debate), with a statement confirming our commitment to socialism, Scottish independence and gender and racial equality. Within days, we had over 100 signatories. Within days of that, the SSP Majority, as they called themselves, posted their own statement, confirming their commitment to Tommy.

Essentially, we saw ourselves as the SSP-within-the-SSP, committed to the principles on which the party was founded – in particular, open, democratic structures; grassroots campaigning prioritised above parliamentary work; and generational change as opposed to quick victories built on compromise. We felt we could only steer the party away from the rocks through politics. We put forward no charismatic leaders or celebrities. We kept our heads, and called no one names.

On 28 May 2006, that was a tough call. The SWP, CWI, and Tommy’s supporters had a narrow majority at the SSP national council and they used it to vote through various motions – including one to root out and purge people who had briefed the press, and another to support Tommy through his libel action.

The next few months were consumed by the court case. From 4 July, the SSP got more publicity than it had in six years, and it could not have been more destructive. Yet membership held surprisingly steady. Some people even joined.

When Tommy won, causing jaws to hit the deck in legal offices across Scotland, we thought all was lost. But in truth, his winning was the worst thing that could have happened to him. Suddenly he was no longer a victim of Rupert Murdoch, but a winner. And he brayed and bullied his way through the press like there was no tomorrow. And politically, for him, maybe there is no tomorrow.

So,what have we learned?

First, that single leaders belong in mainstream parties, not socialist ones. Not only does the elevation of one individual make you a hostage to fortune, it makes you lazy. You perceive the party as having a ‘leadership’ that will ‘sort things out’. Your responsibility, as an activist, is diminished.

Tommy wasn’t really a single leader, in that he had no more say in party policy than anyone else. But he was seen to be, and ultimately that was our undoing.

Following on from that, we also learned that party structures need to change, not least to prevent regional organisers from creating their own little fiefdoms, in which internal party information is disseminated selectively and people are manipulated. Not all SSP regional organisers were guilty of this; indeed some are outstanding in their integrity. But we need to ensure the post cannot be abused in future.

We also learned that the SWP, which joined the SSP only in 2001, has no place in an evolving political organisation. We saw how it destroyed the Socialist Alliance when it realised it couldn’t control it. We thought it would be different with us because its members were such a small minority. We were caught out, never having imagined they would so ruthlessly exploit an opportunity to split the party – and, they hoped, create a new one over which they had charge.

We learned that the youth of the party, who organise autonomously as Scottish Socialist Youth and thus have a network that cuts across branches and regions, are one of our great strengths. With networks, people who can’t attend branch meetings, or don’t want to, can plug into the SSP regarding issues that are close to their heart, be it women’s issues, racial issues, environmentalism or whatever, rather than being hidebound by geography.

We also learned that the SSP is comprised of many hundreds of hardworking, principled and fighting socialists who will see this through, come what may. And that they will do so without the need for heroes.

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