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Scotland’s brave new world

Roz Paterson celebrates the plurality and electoral success of the Scottish Socialist Party

May 1, 2004
12 min read

March 1996: The Scottish Socialist Alliance (SSA), which will become the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) within two years, is dismissed by political commentator Alex Neil as “a ragbag of far-left revolutionaries and malcontents who never stay in any party for longer than 10 minutes’.

May 2003: At an election count in Glasgow outgoing Scottish National Party MSP Kenny Gibson calls the SSP the party of “neds, drug-dealers and housebreakers’. Gibson has reason to be angry. His party has just suffered painful electoral losses. The SSP, by contrast, has exceeded everyone’s expectations, returning six MSPs to the Scottish Parliament.

December 2003: Five Scottish branches of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union vote overwhelmingly to affiliate to the SSP – a development that spells the beginning of the end for the Labour Party’s working-class credentials in Scotland.

Today, the SSP’s membership exceeds 3,000, which makes it one of the biggest socialist parties in Europe per head of population. How did this happen? How did the SSP grow from a tiny grouping of left and single-issue activists (a grouping that was ridiculed or ignored by the Scottish media, had no money, few resources and any number of ideological sticking points to thrash out) into one of the fastest growing new left parties in Europe? And in such a short time?

These are good and timely questions. The Iraq war has raised people’s political consciousness, and opened the window on the shortcomings of parliamentary democracy – the manoeuvrings by governments on behalf of international capital and their sheer, bloody disregard for ordinary people’s lives.

But this window will not stay open for long. Human beings cannot gape in horror for ever, and if they don’t find a place to run to soon they’ll run back home – to political disengagement or the safe confines of the “reclaim the Labour Party’ campaign – and the left will have lost them.

The SSP’s roots can be traced back to a variety of soils: the Scottish anti-poll tax campaign, motorway protest groups, hunt sabs, the Socialist Conferences in Chesterfield (which, after the miners’ strike of 1984-85, sought to bring together socialists from inside and outside the Labour Party) and the radical nationalist movement. People up trees and down mines and round trade union negotiating tables came together to mould the SSP, and they’re still bloody well arguing today, which is probably a very good thing.

The ability to conduct debate, furiously and openly, without sustaining multiple fractures or jeopardising the possibility of united action, is one of the secrets of the SSP’s success. It is perhaps the key thing that distinguishes it from other socialist parties; that and its affinity with the social movements rising like waves across Europe and beyond.

SSP ally and former Labour MSP John McAllion says: “The SSP’s great strength is its reaching outside of itself& It used to be that once a political party established a line, its members were loyal to that: my party, right or wrong. That kind of politics is finished.’

The SSP story begins in the 1980s – in the wake of the miners’ strike, which left the Labour Party discredited and the trade union movement in sharp reverse gear, and the collapse of Stalinism. The left was reeling as it read the press announcements of its own demise.

But before the earth had been stamped down on the left’s grave, new shoots were pushing through. In 1989 the Conservative government in Westminster introduced the “community charge’, or poll tax, to Scotland (one year ahead of the rest of the UK). This flat-rate tax was a body blow to the already struggling working-class people of Scotland, and they revolted against it. Scottish Militant Labour (SML), with Tommy Sheridan as its most prominent figure, organised a campaign that brought together people from across the political and class spectrum.

The Anti-Poll Tax Federation organised huge demonstrations and a non-payment campaign; at one stage half the population of Glasgow refused to pay the tax. Though members of political parties were involved, their political colours stayed out of it: Sheridan was elected to Glasgow City Council on an anti-poll tax union ticket, not as a member of SML. “The federation got people together, got them marching into the city chambers, destroying files, doing things they’d never done before,’ says SSP policy coordinator Alan McCombes.

The poll tax activity set a precedent for subsequent campaigns, such as that against the Criminal Justice Bill. SML contacted hunt saboteurs, the anti-M77 motorway campaign Pollok Free State, ravers, ramblers, political groups – anyone whose rights were potentially infringed by the bill’s clampdown on civil liberties – to link up protests and, more importantly, get the scattered resistance talking to itself.

That was how anti-roads protester turned SSP MSP for Glasgow Rosie Kane got involved. “That was my in from being just anti-motorway,’ says Kane, “the realisation that something bigger was going on, that the decision-making process wasn’t democratic.’

Meanwhile, socialists within the Labour party were gathering at the Chesterfield conferences, debating the future of the left and whether their party was still relevant. Socialist Forums were also organised in Scotland, and were attended by non-aligned individuals and delegates and members of the Communist Party, Labour, the SNP, SML, and small protest groups and campaigns. Tentatively, a new way of working was mooted, a new party even. You might have thought that a mixture of traditionalist Trotskyists, hardened trade unionists, nationalists and political virgins wouldn’t work. You’d have been wrong.

“It worked because it encouraged difference, and it encouraged people like me, working-class people, who had nowhere to run,’ says Kane. “I wasn’t politically intelligent, but I knew that Glasgow was under attack and that this thing was drawing in people from all kinds of direct-action backgrounds and listening to what they had to say.’

The SSA was launched in February 1996, alongside the Save Our Services campaign, created in response to a swingeing diet of school and community closures in Glasgow. The campaign, recalls SSP national secretary Allan Green, “saw the majority of the schools reprieved and drew in a lot of community activists’. Green says: “As well as generating a lot of local activity and putting forward the idea of a real political alternative, [it] showed that the SSA wasn’t a front organisation that fought elections and then, between times, fell back into its constituent parts.’

The SSA’s formation had been accelerated by the launch of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party (SLP). The latter was organised on the lines of a traditional, democratic, centralist party, with a pre-written constitution and a non-negotiable UK-wide basis. “In Scotland we’d always been clear that the new left party had to be an autonomous one,’ says Green. “The class struggle was tied up in people’s minds with the issue of Scottish autonomy.’

It was already clear that Labour would win the 1997 general election and that a Scottish parliament was inevitable. That the party’s voting systems would incorporate proportional representation meant that small parties stood a chance of getting elected. But an electoral alliance could only ever be a stage in the process.

In 1996 “people were still suspicious’, says Green. “They weren’t ready for the big leap then, and we felt we wouldn’t get anywhere by issuing ultimatums.’ Similarly, it was implicitly understood that SML had to take its time if its pro-SSA activists were to take the majority of members with them.

Efforts were made to sustain trust between the SML and the alliance. Former Militant organiser Frances Curran is now a West of Scotland SSP MSP. She says: “We saw the dangers of making decisions behind closed doors, which is why, when we were still having meetings as SML, we invited people like Allan Green along to them. I’d tell him everything. Working together brings down a lot of barriers.’

The SML braced itself for a bitter divorce from the traditionally top-down Socialist Party (formerly Militant) in England and Wales. A new party needed a new way of organising itself. The top-down approach rankled: it closed down debate and proved to be self-limiting.

Like the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), SML had put down some roots in working-class communities, had got so far but no further. It wasn’t a mass movement, and showed no signs of becoming one. On the other hand, the dissent that Labour wore on its sleeve like a badge of honour, but which allowed its elected representatives and leadership to disregard conference votes, wasn’t much better.

The SSP heeded these lessons. The majority of its executive committee is elected directly at conference. The national conference also sets the party’s policies. And the SSP’s national council comprises delegates from every branch.

Mindful of its majority status within the fledgling SSP, SML chose not to organise a rigid, centralist faction. SML members knew that a united left movement could not progress, or build trust, if one faction dominated and used that position to fashion a party in its own image. Though the old SML still exists as the International Socialist Movement (ISM) platform within the SSP, it functions as a forum for ideas – not as an organisational caucus.

The SSP was formed in 1998; Sheridan became the party’s first MSP at the 1999 Scottish Parliament elections. The SWP came on board in 2001. The SWP faction within the SSP operates as a solid phalanx that pre-determines its position before entering discussions with the broader party. Given that most SSP members approach debates with an open mind, this can cause friction. But because the SWP platform doesn’t dominate the SSP, it cannot undermine its integrity.

That the SSP’s membership is witness to the rigorous democracy of the party is hugely important – not least when contentious debates over issues such as the national question arise. Those who opposed the proposal to join a cross-party “Independence Convention’ argued that independence was not a pressing issue for ordinary Scots; those in favour described independence as an extension of democracy and part of the transition to socialism. That particular debate was, to put it mildly, heated; there were regrettable outbreaks of name-calling.

Generally, however, name-calling is rare in the SSP. Carolyn Leckie and Catriona Grant, the party’s national co-chairs, always remind conference and the national council that the enemy is “out there’, not sitting next to you. Implying someone’s a racist or reformist because they don’t agree with you is strongly discouraged; aggressive posturing achieves nothing.

The “50/50′ debate, on the issue of equal representation for women on regional election lists, proved equally stormy. But the party survived and everyone accepted the democratic decision. “It showed our maturity as a party,’ says Kane.

That maturity was rubber-stamped by the electorate in last May’s Scottish Parliament elections. The SSP did well because it was seen to be consistent and campaigning, and because people were crying out for a political alternative.

OK, so a small parliamentary group can’t implement a comprehensive socialist programme. But it can undermine an elitism that cons ordinary people into thinking that only members of a “political class’ can become MSPs. By taking only half their wages – the other £24,000 is donated to the party – SSP MSPs are in no danger of being neutered by an addiction to comfy cars and big houses.

Apart from raising important issues, the business of tabling bills facilitates campaigns with branches, members and outside organisations. The SSP’s engagement with social movements, charities, community groups and NGOs is ongoing. The party has a system of networks (black and Asian, animal rights and women’s networks) that link up with groups outside the party – and always in the pluralistic manner in which the party was founded. “We wouldn’t approach anyone and demand they accept our programme,’ says Curran. “We don’t adopt the attitude that we’ve got nothing to learn; we’ve got everything to learn.’

In the short term, the party is preparing for a sustained campaign against the council tax, in tandem with Sheridan’s Parliamentary bill calling for its abolition. Then there’s the European elections. An SSP MEP (a tall order given that more people vote for Pop Idol than turn out for European elections) could make hugely important links with like-minded parties and organisations in Europe, could use the EU’s resources to highlight issues such as asylum, and would continue the valuable process of demystifying our supposedly democratic institutions.

The SSP has other tasks ahead. It needs, for example, to break out beyond its west of Scotland heartland, and to turn those 129,000 votes for socialism into members without compromising the robust, internal democracy that holds the broad-based party together. It also needs to continue reaching out to the disenfranchised, the people in Scotland’s housing schemes who’ve never been to a political meeting, never been to college, never read books, never even had a job. People say homophobic, sectarian, stupid things; it doesn’t mean they believe them, and it doesn’t mean we should dismiss them. As Kane says: “If we don’t tolerate people, help them to learn, how are we going to get into the housing schemes? How are we going to change the world?’Roz Paterson is deputy editor of the SSP’s weekly paper Scottish Socialist Voice; this article was commissioned in collaboration with the New Politics Project of the Transnational Institute,

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