Love in a cold climate: Scottish socialists go their separate ways

Jim Jepps

 

I had the privilege of attending two historic meetings this weekend in Glasgow. One for the renewal of the SSP and one for Tommy Sheridan's new grouping 'Solidarity'. I went to these meetings conscious of the fact that I favour UL / SSP and am wary of Sheridan and co so I have tried to stay as open minded as possible through out the weekend - and to be honest I'm glad I did because there were a lot of positive aspects about the Solidarity event that frankly should be acknowledged.

Both the SSP and Solidarity meetings were excellent and well attended - although certainly more attended Solidarity's which had been widely advertised outside of the left press and in the Big Issue. I'd say 350 at the SSP meeting and 500 at Solidarity's, although I've seen 600 bandied around and that could well be true, it was certainly packed, although I've not seen any reports on how many people actually joined Solidarity.

Of course numbers are not everything. After all the Communist Party had more members and influence than the SWP and where are they now? The Home Office. However, inevitably some people will see numbers as critical - getting more people to their meeting than the SSP and getting more votes than the SSP will be absolutely critical for them.

I was interested to read in Tony Cliff's excellent autobiography that he was very self critical of the period when the SWP were standing in elections in the late seventies. He described himself as thinking "purely as a sectarian" because all he cared about was getting more votes than the IMG. I'd like to think things have moved on since then but I suspect I'd be proved wrong.

Incidentally there had been rumours flying round that Respect were bringing people up from England. I'm 98% sure that was not true and did not happen. I looked for it and could not see it.

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

 

Political differences

Some people have claimed there is no political difference between the two camps. This is entirely wrong. There are differences - all within the scope of socialist ideas.

At the Solidarity event there was no talk of Scottish independence at all, although it is mentioned in its initial document. At the SSP's event a number of speakers talked about independence as a priority. SSV ran with a front page on Scottish independence but the issue will clearly have no prominence in Solidarity.

Both meetings talked about the war and advertised the lobby of the Labour party conference later this month in Manchester, and Rose Gentle spoke at both meetings, refusing to join either grouping. But for SWP speakers at the Solidarity event the anti-war movement was the "mother ship" to which we should all return, and every political point was related in some way to the war. For the SSP the war was clearly an important issue, but one of many, not the single defining feature, of the political landscape.

Another key difference was structures. Solidarity is clearly intent on reproducing the old structures of the left and there was no discussion of how a radical and alternative party might organise in a different way. It just had to be 'bigger'. A large part of the SSP rally was a discussion of ideas, new techniques, participatory democracy and accountability. There was some talk of abolishing the convenorship post altogether and introducing a more collective and consensus model.

At the SSP meeting people discussed the lessons of the Bolivian movement - Sheridan talked of Morales's electoral success. The SSP talked about involving young people and inexperienced activists, and how they should all be the leadership. Solidarity spoke about how the members should follow their leaders where ever they go (out of loyalty I presume).

The SSP are clearly having a wide ranging and open debate, including in their paper, about democratic structures, methods, accountability and new ways of organising and this is extremely interesting. There is a great deal of openness to new ideas and self critical examination of the methods inherited from the past.

Sadly Solidarity clearly have the opinion that they are right about everything, one speaker, Jim Walls, even going so far as to say (of SSP members who would not join Solidarity) "you are either part of the problem or part of the solution... there are no shades of grey". I think this statement is wrong anyway, but in context it was simple rubbish to confuse SSP members with George Bush.

Steve Arnott began the day by claiming Solidarity was going to destroy the SSP adding "there is only room in Scotland for one socialist party.. we will establish ourselves as the party." Bizarrely he had begun by saying "we must not look backwards" then proceeded to use the rest of his speech to attack the SSP.

Thankfully many speakers at the Solidarity rally were far more open minded and called for a less sectarian approach. Mike Gonzalez made a very well argued and intelligent speech and Gary Fraser argued "our fight is not with the United Left but with the war mongers" and warned that infighting on the left would serve no one's purpose.

I hope Solidarity's English supporters will take note that the Scottish members are not spending large amounts of their time attacking the SSP and they might like to join them in that activity.

 

Breadth

Sheridan's meeting had a large number of people who'd never been members of the SSP and activists from G8 Alternatives. It also had a wider geographical spread - whilst many of the SSP attendees were from the Glasgow area. There certainly is a geographical aspect to the split with the north and south being mainly strongholds of Sheridan and the central belt (Edinburgh and Glasgow regions) being more strongly SSP.

It was also rather interesting to note there were very few young people at the Solidarity meeting whilst the SSP meeting had lots of youngsters, including as key speakers.

It's difficult to say exactly who these people were, but my impression of the SSP meeting was, unsurprisingly, it was almost entirely SSP members - but the Solidarity meeting is harder to judge. Tommy Sheridan got a standing ovation when he started to speak and a large section of the room, at the back, did not stand - although they did applaud. My thinking is that these are people who came to the meeting to see what Solidarity was to be like, to see Sheridan, but had not actually made up their mind as yet on joining.

Both meetings had a wide range of speakers from many different campaigns and it would be hard to say one platform was 'better' than the other although Sheridan's meeting was longer (more than three hours).

Another clear political difference was that of breadth. 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. Tommy Sheridan was also very specific about wanting to appeal to both the 3% that are socialists and the 53% that would see a Solidarity government elected in Scotland.

SSP members, though less specific on this, talked about arguing for socialist ideas in the movement and in their communities. They argued about how socialist ideas informed every aspect of their campaigning. That "socialism is collective or it is not socialism at all" (Ritchie Venton) "the party must come before individual's interests" (Carolyn Leckie) and that the SSP had to start with "what are the needs of the socialist movement" (Colin Fox) "we must end the age of capitalism" (John MacAlion)

I've certainly seen some commentators take this tendency and exaggerate it into saying that the SSP wont fight for the NHS (in a weird CWI leaflet), don't oppose Blair and wont work with people who are not socialists - and other assorted nonsense. There are differences of emphasis here but we should not let our imagination run riot here comrades.
 

Looking forwards

Both meetings made a valiant effort to avoid attacks on the other camp and concentrate on their own future - this was really excellent. There were some moments at both meetings where it became rather personal - I suppose in the context it would be too much to hope for that it could be avoided entirely.

I suppose the Solidarity meeting had slightly more attacks on the SSP than visa versa although I suspect this is a product of the fact some speakers felt they had to justify leaving the SSP whilst the SSP members felt no need to justify staying. But either way there was a positive attempt to concentrate on the way forward from here at both meetings - even if it was just for show.

The confidence of both meetings was obvious and having had the opportunity to speak to people before and after I think genuine. Both groups are recruiting, both have capable and committed socialists and both have ideas for the future.

Solidarity and the SSP both mentioned many campaigns through the day although I have to say the best campaign was an SSP one, initiated by the youth in response to the right's pressure on sex education by giving out "fuck abstinence" packs at schools - including guides to getting abortions, a free condom and other items guaranteed to give every Daily Mail reader a heart attack.

 

Style and feel

The biggest difference was the feel of the meetings I think. Both meetings were confident and big - but not in the same ways, despite the fact that both meetings used songs, poetry and videos to break up the events.

When Tommy Sheridan spoke it was a raging, shouted torrent (and quite frightening I thought). Colin Fox spoke well and reflectively. There was no bombast or hyperbole. It was the first time I'd heard him speak and I was very impressed.

Whilst the SSP meeting had a tone of "let's use this as an opportunity" and thinking creatively Solidarity was about demonstrations, filling in your standing order form (five times we were asked), giving donations, sit where you're told and lots of speakers using the E word - yes it's back "enthusiasm".

Solidarity was also a touch goon-ish I'm afraid to say. The chair began proceedings by telling us that anyone who heckled would be thrown out of the meeting and someone shouted out "but we can have a debate can't we" where upon a steward descended on him and stood over him *for the next three hours*. Where is Walter Wolfgang where you need him?

That said perhaps the end song of each rally says something about the way the two meetings compared. The SSP ended with the International sing along with everyone fist held high belting it out (incidentally I hate the International - what a dirge) whilst Solidarity ended with Tommy's mother saying she'd made a promise to his gran and singing "Dream the Impossible Dream" (lyrics) really, really badly.



 

Should we mourn the split?

No, not at all.

The circumstances that led to the split could have been avoided, no question - but given where we are now a split was the best thing for both sides of the dispute. There is no prospect what so ever of the two groups coming back into one unity socialist organisation - at least for some time.

There is no point in saying there should be no split because it has to happen and the best that can be hoped for is "an amicable divorce" if that's possible after so much vitriol from both sides.

I spoke to a number of SSP and Solidarity supporters who admitted their union branch, refugee campaign etc had important players from the other faction and whatever happens party wise they *have* to work together. Allowing the political problems of the two groups to spill into trade unions and campaigns would be appalling.

However terrible you might think Sheridan is, or Leckie or Fox - the fact of the matter is that the more mud that is slung the harder it will be to build unions, build campaigns and a political alternative to neo-liberalism.

The past is important but the future more so and we need to assess where now rather than concentrate on where we came from. We have two socialist organisations with strengths and weaknesses that have good cadre in the class struggle. They can both play a valuable role in the struggle.

Sheridan did himself AND the SSP a favour by leaving and avoiding a factional war - it has allowed socialists who may otherwise have dropped out to stay active. My personal position, as someone who supports the SSP, is for an amicable divorce and getting into a position where working relations are established as soon as possible - this will not be unproblematic for either side, and it may well not happen soon, if at all, but I do think it is the correct approach.

To argue against the split at this time is pointless and abstract, we should argue for maximum *possible* unity rather than a false organisational unity masking a deep factional dispute that spills over into the movement and sends the party into paralysis. The speakers at both meetings that advised against seeing the other camp as the enemy, like Mike Gonzalez and John MacAllion, are to be commended, those who seek to deepen the rift with point scoring, name calling and an attempt to gate keep who is and is not allowed to be an active socialist should be opposed - whether they are in Scotland or simply commentating from abroad.

 

 

Over the next couple of weeks we'll be transcribing the speeches and interviews from both of these events so that people can judge for themselves the content of those speeches.

 

September 2006

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