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A tale of two meetings

At the beginning of September two rallies took place in Glasgow - one for the renewal of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and one for Tommy Sheridan's breakaway grouping, Solidarity. Jim Jepps was present at both

October 1, 2006
6 min read

Both rallies were well attended, with around 350 at the SSP meeting and 500 or so at Solidarity’s. It’s possible that many of those attending Sheridan’s rally had come for the show (reports say less than half joined the new group). When Tommy spoke he got a standing ovation from around two thirds of the room – the remainder clapped, but stayed seated, indicating interest rather than deep commitment.

Although both meetings had negative aspects, neither were characterised by them. There were some personal remarks made about Sheridan at the SSP meeting and there were some aggressive and silly remarks made at the Solidarity event – but on the whole both camps put forward an outward looking agenda.

Political differences

Some people have claimed there are no political differences between the two camps. This is entirely wrong. There are differences – all within the wide spectrum of left ideas. For the SSP, Scottish independence is clearly a very important policy and it was given a high profile by speakers at its rally. At the Solidarity event there was no talk of it at all, although it is mentioned in its founding document.

Both meetings talked about the war and advertised the lobby of the Labour conference. But for Socialist Workers Party (SWP) speakers at the Solidarity event the anti-war movement is clearly the ‘mother ship’ and every political point was related to it in some way. For the SSP, the war is an important issue but not the single defining feature of the political landscape.

Leadership models

Solidarity is intent on reproducing the old structures of the left but ‘bigger’ and with ‘better’ leaders. In contrast, a large part of the SSP rally involved a discussion of new organising techniques, participatory democracy and accountability. There was some talk of abolishing the convenor’s post, formerly held by Tommy Sheridan, altogether and introducing a more collective, consensusbased model.

One instructive example was that of Bolivia, which was raised at both meetings. The SSP discussed lessons to be learned from the movements, how they organise, how radicals relate to the community, how they keep their leaders accountable. Tommy Sheridan was very impressed by the size of the vote Morales got.

The SSP is immersed in a wide ranging and open debate, including in its paper and not excluding a critical examination of the ‘cultural baggage’ inherited from the far left. Sadly, some Solidarity supporters seem to be of the opinion that they are right about everything. One speaker, Jim Walls, even went so far as to say (of SSP members who would not join Solidarity) that, ‘You are either part of the problem or part of the solution…there are no shades of grey. ‘

Fortunately, many speakers at the Solidarity rally were far more open minded and called for a less sectarian approach. Mike Gonzalez made a measured, intelligent speech; and Gary Fraser argued that ‘our fight is not with the United Left [the main grouping of those who stayed with the SSP] but with the warmongers’, warning that infighting on the left would serve no one’s purpose.

Attendees

Many of those attending Tommy Sheridan’s meeting had never been members of the SSP. The Solidarity rally also had a wider geographical spread, while most SSP attendees were from the Glasgow area. On the other hand, there were few young people at the Solidarity meeting, whereas the SSP had lots of youngsters, including as key speakers.

SWP members at the Solidarity event spoke time and again about there being no entry requirements for the party except a willingness to take on the powers that be. Sheridan wanted to appeal to both the 3 per cent that ‘vote socialist’ and the 53 per cent required to see a Solidarity government elected. In other words, Solidarity must be open to those who do not self-identify as socialist, perhaps on a similar model to Respect.

Style and feel

When Tommy Sheridan spoke it was a raging, shouted torrent. Sheridan’s successor as SSP convenor, Colin Fox, spoke well and reflectively without bombast or hyperbole. While the SSP meeting had a tone of ‘Let’s use this as an opportunity to think creatively’, Solidarity was about demonstrations, filling in your standing order form (five or six times we were badgered about this), giving donations and lots of speakers using the word ‘enthusiasm’.

The Solidarity rally was also a touch goonish. The chair began by telling us that anyone who heckled would be thrown out. When someone called out ‘But we can have a debate, can’t we?’ a steward descended on him and stood over him for the next three hours. Where is Walter Wolfgang when you need him?

The end song of each rally was also informative. The SSP finished with the ‘Internationale’, everyone fist aloft, while Solidarity ended with Tommy’s mother saying she’d made a promise to his gran and singing ‘Dream the Impossible Dream’ really, really badly.

Should we mourn the split?

The circumstances that led to the split could have been avoided, no question – but there is no prospect of the two groups coming back into one organisation. The split had to happen.

I spoke to a number of SSP and Solidarity supporters who admitted that their union branch or campaign group contained supporters of both factions. These activists must work together. Working relations must be established as soon as possible – although this could well require a monumental effort from the ‘cooperators’ in both camps.

Speakers who advised against seeing the other camp as the enemy, such as Mike Gonzalez for Solidarity and the SSP’s John MacAllion, are to be commended. Those who seek to deepen the rift with point scoring and attempts to gatekeep who is and is not allowed to be an active socialist should be reasoned with – whether they are in Scotland or simply commentating from abroad.See www.socialistunity.org for a longer report by Jim Jepps and full links to every aspect of the SSP debate

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