Debate in the Scottish Socialist party  

Andy Newman




Given the international interest in the Scottish Socialist Party the current debate within the SSP is quite important. The SSP are to be congratulated on publishing the discussion papers on their web-site (Click here)

For those of us outside Scotland it is important that the SSP experience does not become mythologized or demonized, but most socialists who are not members of the SSP will not have the time or inclination to read the entirety of these relatively long discussion documents. The following article is therefore an attempt to summarize the debate primarily for an English audience. Perhaps disproportionate weight is given to considering the arguments of the Socialist Worker Platform given their relatively limited influence in Scotland, but in England and some other countries the position of the IST/SWP is a significant factor in the development of the left.

I have sought to honestly represent the views of all the comrades, but it is the nature of abridging an argument that subtlety is lost, and I urge you to consult the originals. All references are to the SSP discussion papers unless indicated otherwise.


The SSP debates its future

The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) have been engaged in a debate about the way forward, following a useful position paper written by the party's policy coordinator, Alan McCombes in August. The occasion for this debate is a recognition of the loss of momentum that the SSP has experienced in the last year. This is well described by the SSP National Convener, Colin Fox: "I notice when canvassing and talking to people on the street or in the many visits I undertake as an MSP a certain reserve towards us that didn't use to be there. I sense that people think we have lost our cutting edge, even that we have lost our way politically. We were seen to be bitterly divided last year and have lost the air of competence and radical determination we once had."

Alan McCombes rightly emphasizes that the overall balance sheet of the SSP is overwhelmingly positive. "The SSP remains, proportionate to the population, one of the strongest left forces in Europe,  ranking alongside parties such as the Portuguese Left Bloc, the Danish Red Green Alliance and the Italian Communist Refoundation.

Our ability to mount a challenge in every seat across Scotland compares strongly with the position elsewhere in the UK. In England, for example, in more than 80 per cent of seats there was no socialist or left candidate, with the socialist challenge in the remaining 20 per cent of seats divided among nine different left parties. ... ... The total socialist left vote in England, including the vote for Respect, the Socialist Party, the Socialist Labour Party, and a host of others amounted to fewer than 100,000 out of 25 million votes cast. In Scotland the total socialist vote (including 6000 for the SLP) was 50,000 out of 2.3 million, or five times higher than in England."

The SWP make a less positive assessment: "It would not be unreasonable to expect the SSP to have grown substantially since 2003 and to be eagerly anticipating even greater electoral success in 2007. The experience of Respect south of the border, the huge 'Non!' vote in the French referendum and most recently, the electoral breakthrough of the new Left Party in Germany, all give a sense of what is possible. Yet as comrades know, our experience has been a different one. Results in the general election and recent by-elections were disappointing and while exact figures are not available, Party membership appears to have fallen, Voice sales are low, the Party seems in a state of chronic financial crisis, and while there are some excellent and lively branches there are also too many which are moribund or have collapsed completely." It is worth saying that Colin Fox disputes that the SSP has a financial crisis: "The party can be assured that our debts are manageable and that the efforts we undertake from time to time to reduce them or to raise extra funds are effective."

The CWI (in England and Wales the CWI are the Socialist Party) point out that some electoral results have been discouraging: "We have lost significant support among those who have looked to the SSP in the past.  This was underlined by the general election result in 2005 when our vote fell by 40% compared to 2001. The recent by-elections and opinion polls for the Scottish parliament show we have a long way to go in rebuilding the confidence in the SSP that has ebbed away among working class people."

Clearly the comparison with England is an important yardstick, and both Alan McCombes and the SWP make different assessments, and in a sense they are both correct. Respect were able to make an electoral breakthrough in inner city areas which the SSP were not, yet it is also true that in many constituencies they stood in Respect fared no better than the SSP. Incidentally when the SWP say: "Respect has consistently attracted more white working-class votes than votes from the Muslim community", this assertion is simply contrary to the hard evidence. The SSP had the ambition and wherewithal to make a nationwide electoral challenge, and continues to provide a united and democratic poll of attraction for activists. In contrast, the membership of Respect in England as revealed by national committee member Alan Thornett to be stagnant at a nominal 4000, and active participation outside East London and Birmingham is much lower than the Socialist Alliance achieved. A significant layer of cadre from the SA, including most of its trade union influence has simply been lost, and Respect has failed to attract and retain hardly any socialists outside the ranks of the SWP and ISG(USFI).


The Political Background

Alan McCombes eloquently writes: "Since the turn of the century, the world has become more spectacularly chaotic, more turbulent, more openly brutal than at any time for a generation and more. In this new, deranged world of the early 21st century, more and more people will ask fundamental questions about the system they live under and will become more open to alternative ideologies."

For the SWP the twin defining characteristics of the current political period are Iraq and the anti-globalisation movement: "Any analysis of the current political climate has to begin with the issue which has now dominated British politics for almost three years: the ongoing war and occupation of Iraq. ... ... ... The summer of 2005 saw the biggest demonstration there has ever been in Scotland when more than a quarter of a million people demanded that our rulers 'make poverty history'. Of course most of them were not revolutionary socialists and many would not support the SSP. Large numbers, no doubt, had all sorts of illusions in Gordon Brown. But the vast majority would also have seen themselves as opposed to the G8 and its policies"

It is characteristic of the SWP to overestimate the current political significance of the war for working class politics (although I am not denying that it is important). If the war were indeed the overriding factor in British politics then in the general election Labour would not have been able to successfully defend its miniscule majorities in Dorset South and Dumfries and Galloway, but for many working class voters preventing a Tory victory was a more important issue than the war in Iraq. In contrast, the CWI locate their analysis on the foundation of the economy: "There has been an enormous increase in the exploitation of the working class through the introduction of neo-liberal capitalist policies. These have included privatisation, casualisation of work including extending the number of hours worked, attacks on wages, conditions and pensions and so on. In Scotland the long-term collapse of the manufacturing sector, including the so-called "sun-rise" industry of electronics, has resulted in the Scottish economy shifting overwhelmingly towards the service and public sectors. The consequence of this has been the creation of an ocean of low paid jobs. At least 35% of workers in Scotland fall into the working poor category. Even in the public sector 50% of local government workers earn less than 15,000 a year. Levels of income inequality in Scotland and Britain have soared to grotesque levels."

Fundamentally it seems that all the comrades agree with the overall economic situation, and its impact on the working class, and it is not clear why the CWI split hairs with Alan McCombes: "we should take care not to make a one-sided analysis of the effects of this limited upswing. Alan falls into this trap when he argues: "In the 1990's, capitalism, at least in the developed West, appeared to offer stability and tranquility." This was not the experience of millions of workers and young people both in Scotland and internationally "

Alan McCombes argues: "Even now, some economists are warning of hard times ahead. It may well be that the 2007 elections are fought against a background of sharply rising unemployment, falling tax revenues and a full assault against public services." The CWI agrees: "The rapid slowdown in the British economy - now expected to grow at less than 2% this year - will force the government onto the offensive against the working class." However it is reasonable to question whether the consequences of such an economic slowdown are as inevitable as the CWI argue: "Under these conditions an increase in workers struggles and more widespread opposition to capitalist policies will emerge. The SSP can recover and increase its support if it turns to the working class as well as to young people and ethnic minorities who have been radicalised by the war on Iraq and other important events like the spate of "natural disasters" which have exposed the priorities of capitalism."


The Labour Party

Of course the political situation in the working class movement cannot be considered without a discussion of the Labour party. According to Colin Fox: "New Labour is now an unashamedly capitalist party and has continued [its] political journey to the right throughout the Blair years. John Reid made what I regard as a thoroughly revealing remark earlier this year when he suggested that the biggest problem the NHS suffered today was 'the lack of entrepreneurial flair of doctors and dentists'!... ... The programme of New Labour is significantly and starkly to the right of the political centre of gravity of the mass of the population - workers and young people especially."

The CWI agree that Labour has been transformed but also contribute the valuable insight that the collapse of the Soviet union has contributed to an ideological disorientation throughout the labour movement, that has contributed to the victory of neo-liberalism within the Labour Party: " The impact of the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in the USSR and Eastern Europe, that were a distorted caricature of socialism, led to an ideological attack on there being any possible alternative to so-called "free market capitalism. Parties like New Labour, who always had a pro-capitalist leadership but with a big base among the organised working class and the trade unions moved to fully embrace the market ideology. As a result they have largely lost their active base of support among the working class

Of course the CWI goes much too far by arguing that the tendency for the Labour Party to lose its base in the workers' movement is already an accomplished fact. The contradiction is rather as Colin Fox argues: "many workers and trades unionists still stick with New Labour. We can still see clear signs of a certain loyalty to Labour in some people but at the same time hoping that things will get better and hoping that it will be different when Gordon Brown takes over. And of course all this is a huge contradiction which will in my view in due course burst the present political situation wide open."

Interestingly the SWP do not engage explicitly with the issue of the Labour Party, except to say: "Hundreds of thousands of people in Scotland are crying out for a political party which engages with their struggles, their concerns and which offers a real alternative to New Labour and the others." However, perhaps implicitly, a different view is being set out when they argue against the "People Not profit campaign": "As a strategy for engaging with the very many people within the working-class and anti-imperialist movements who are not currently SSP supporters, it is not especially useful. Clearly what Alan envisages is an SSP Campaign which people from other political parties or social movements are then invited to support: in other words, they engage with us on our terms."

The SWP does not dispute the value of the 10 points within the action programme, but seem to want separate campaigns over these issues, less closely associated with the SSP. A similar issue arises in Australia where the ISO are happy to promote the Socialist Alliance as an electoral umbrella, but outside elections prefer to work in a raft of single issue campaigns within which they promote revolutionary socialism on an essentially propagandist basis. If the Labour Party has undergone a qualitative change in its nature, then it is necessary to promote an alternative party with a coherent set of policies that address day to day issues: this is what the "People Not Profit" campaign seems to be designed for. The connection between the issues is not only inherent within capitalism, it is also a connection in the heads of the many thousands of class conscious workers who have developed a much more ambivalent attitude towards the Labour Party, as well as for the many thousands in the anti-globalisation movement. However as the SWP believe that it is in principle necessary to have organisational separation between "revolutionaries" and "reformists" then it follows that outside of elections they might not wish to promote organisational unity around a set of detailed policies: preferring work in separate single issue campaigns that avoids the issue of what type of party you are trying to build. There is a contradiction here, as the SWP are committed to staying in the SSP and building it, and yet the political model being argued from London is opposed to a such a party.



Unintentionally the SWP provide an excellent example of why independence needs to be a core part of any progressive programme: "Against the protests of school students and the Commissioner for Children's Rights Kathleen Marshall, asylum seekers and their children are dragged from their beds, handcuffed and deported, in some cases to face possible torture and death, while the Scottish Executive hides behind the argument that since immigration and asylum are not 'devolved issues', they can do nothing" [my emphasis] This brilliantly reinforces Alan McCombes argument that: "Independence is an essential underpinning of our socialist programme for Scotland: without independence, other elements of our programme..., can appear as empty abstractions, impossible to achieve without the breaking asunder of the British state."

It seems that the argument over Independence is at least partially a deflected argument about the relationship between party and class. As Alan McCombes explains "The SSP itself was initially constructed on the basis of a simple 16-point programme. In contrast, our 2003 and 2005 manifestos ran to over 50 pages, with hundreds of specific policies as well as a general explanation of our overall ideology. Some of these policies are more clearly developed than others, with for example the Scottish Service Tax and free school meals, costed in detail. We do not have the resources at this stage to apply the same rigour to every policy in our recent manifestos"

To build a mass party: a party that is deeply entwined through every muscle and sinew of the working class, a party that unites all progressives, whether or not they believe in a revolutionary or constitutional approach, requires plausibility. This is a question of symmetry. As Tony Cliff used to argue, if you are fighting someone who is armed with a stick you only need a stick, but if your opponent has a gun you need a gun. The task is no less than to replace the Labour Party as the political representation of the working class. This therefore requires a fully developed set of policies so that the party's representatives and spokespeople can hold their own in parliament, on election hustings, etc. A broad socialist party must be able to represent itself as a potential party of government, as well as a party of class struggle.

The issue of Scottish independence fits this like a glove. It allows the SSP to argue a coherent set of policies that transcends the limitations of the devolution settlement. What is more, the prospect of unshackling Scotland from Westminster rule inevitably opens a huge debate about what sort of country Scotland should be.

The SWP argues that: "the Cathcart and Livingstone by-elections have shown once again that independence is a non-issue" but that is to miss the point. The constitutional settlement between Hollyrood and Westminster inherently raises the question of independence. Consider the standoff between Ken Livingstone and the GLC and the Thatcher government over subsidized public transport. The Tories took the GLC to court and won the principle that subsidies were ultra vires, and ultimately the GLC was abolished. Neither of these options would be easily available for Westminster to discipline Hollyrood. Scotland has an independent legal system and the sovereignty of Hollyrood, while formally devolved by Westminster legislation, resides politically with the Scottish nation, and cannot be reversed. We cannot foresee what conflicts may exist in the future, where strikes and mass protest at the gates of Hollyrood, could allow the workers' movement in Scotland to compel Hollyrood to exceed its powers: but that possibility exists.

The CWI argues that there has been a refusal by the SSP leadership: "to explain the limitations of what could be achieved by the working class in a capitalist independent Scotland...  Without taking account of either the limited support that exists for independence at this stage or the need to counter some illusions that may exist in the benefits of independence for working class people in Scotland." But not being blessed with a crystal ball, how are we to know what these limitations are? Who would have predicted that the working class in Venezuela would have made so many gains in recent years?

The English left in particular have a responsibility to defend and support the advocates of Independence for Scotland and Wales. Not only is this necessary to weaken the arguments of national chauvinism (British, as well as English/ Scottish and Welsh), but the corresponding debate about the nature of England national identity is long overdue: It is time to rid ourselves of the intellectual legacy of the British Empire


Self Inflicted damage?

The CWI pulls no punches in condemning the role of the SSP leadership in last year's Sheridan controversy. "We believe that the way the SSP leadership approached this issue was wrong in principle. Nor did they take account of the impact their actions would have on the future viability of the SSP. ... It was a major political mistake not to take account of the fact that Tommy Sheridan was the central figure that the SSP had built its support around. "

For the SWP: "the Executive's failure to defend Tommy Sheridan in the face of vicious attacks by the Murdoch press was hugely damaging for the Party; and while it is encouraging to see Tommy playing a more central role again, the wounds inflicted at that time are clearly far from having healed."

Encouragingly, National Convener Colin Fox elevates using Tommy Sheridan's talents as one of the key tasks for the SSP: "One increasingly important question facing us is to find a specific and defined role for Tommy Sheridan. I believe we should be using his talents more effectively. Since I took over as the Party Convenor - and I am grateful for Tommy's full and continued support, as indeed I am of all my colleagues and comrades - I have thought more and more about how we best use Tommy's significant talents." He proposes that Sheridan could work on writing and policy development.

This discussion about the Sheridan controversy will have served a useful purpose if it is cathartic, and is not simply used by the platforms as a stick to beat the leadership with.


Proposals for the future

It was apparent in the election for National Convener that Alan McCombes and Colin Fox have subtly different approaches to the SSP. Alan McCombes placing slightly greater emphasis on developing the SSP as an activist organization outside parliament than Colin Fox. (Click here to read ) This difference should not be exaggerated, and both of the comrades stress the complementary nature of the SSP's work within and outwith parliament. This difference manifests itself again in the suggestions that the comrades make for the next steps for the organization. Again the ideas are probably complementary, but among Colin's suggestions are a series of technical and administrative measures, such as defining the role of an elections committee, and a publications committee, a day school on how to coordinate parliamentary and extra-parliamentary work, and Tommy Sheridan being involved in detailed policy development. Colin also argues for a monthly magazine. If done well, these could prove excellent initiatives.

Alan McCombes suggests a campaign around 10 basic programmatic demands, as discussed earlier, and also the development of a series of networks that allow comrades to specialize in particular areas of work, while still remaining accountable to the party.

There is also a strategic difference between McCombes and Fox over whether the SSP should aim, as Alan argues, at the 50% of society (young people and the poorest) who don't vote; or as Colin Fox argues place the emphasis on winning over those who do vote.

The CWI argue that the "people not profit" campaign should: "popularise what a socialist alternative to capitalism actually means. Today more than ever an explanation of what we mean by socialism is needed. This is especially true given how far socialist consciousness has fallen since the early 1990's. A basic principal of socialism is to fight for control of the "means of production" from the capitalists. The SSP should use this People not Profit as an important opportunity to put forward this case". They propose that the SSP should "take specific campaigning issues like scrapping the council tax etc and try to link them to the wider question of what steps are necessary to end poverty and inequality in society, i.e. socialism". To that end the propose some specific amendments to the campaign, including concrete demands for driving out of the private companies from cleaning and catering in the NHS, and the nationalization of pharmaceutical companies.

On the question of networks, the CWI argues: "The proposal for a series of networks in all likelihood would involve very few party members, beyond those already active. Geographically it would not allow for a balance of comrades to be involved. Even the ideas of a network would not be able to implemented without the work of branches and regions." The SWP agrees: "A danger of Alan's proposal, if implemented, is that the emphasis on networks/forums can reinforce political and organisational fragmentation and sideline the branches - the one place where all party members, including those involved in different campaigns, can come together at a local level to discuss connections between different political issues and activities. "

Colin Fox also argues that building the braches is the party's number one priority, and he advocates a weekend school for branch secretaries. According to the CWI: "The branches are the key campaigning units of the SSP. The parties leading bodies like the EC and NC should discuss political and campaigning priorities to act as a guide for the work of the party. But it is the local branches that know the situation on the ground and need to take the initiative on local and national and international campaigns to develop the work of the party. It is the branches that need first and foremost to be strengthened and reinvigorated. "

The SWP seems at first to be arguing something similar: "If we are to rebuild our political and electoral support, SSP branches need to become known within local communities as centres of solidarity and resistance, the place where you go if you want to oppose the detention and deportation of asylum seekers, the closure of the local primary school, the destruction of the planet by global warming, or the occupation of Iraq. That means reaching out to, and working closely with, other activists in our local communities as well as in wider social movements, around specific issues." But they conclude something different: "Creating branches that can play that role requires more than just an effort of will on the part of party activists. It will require a sea-change in the culture of the organisation at all levels.  At the moment, the Party is dominated by a 'top-down' culture which does not encourage or support initiative, either on the part of individuals or on the part of local branches. Too often, instead, the Party function as transmission belts for directives handed down from above, often stifling local initiatives and regarding them with suspicion. Yet it is precisely where comrades have felt able to take such initiatives and thrown themselves into campaigns, whether local or national, that the Party has grown."

Clearly no one is going to argue against branches or individuals taking initiatives, but this must be balanced with the question of accountability. Comrades in England may feel this description of "stifling local initiatives and regarding them with suspicion" as an exact description of how the SWP itself behaves.

The SWP may have a good point when they argue that the SSP's participation in the G8 protests saw the party punching a bit below it weight. But their solution is that: "In order to change the role of party branches, we also need to change the role of regional councils and the National Council, from bodies dominated by lengthy reports from leading members and full-time organisers, to forums where the best experience from branches, campaigns and the unions is discussed and is generalised to the rest of the party." This matches the SWP's own model for conferences: where the arrangements committee selects speakers to recount anecdotes that reinforce the correct leadership of the party's central leadership, and the "star system" where comrades who are carrying out activity consistent with the latest wheeze are pushed forward, only to be dropped in favour of some new stars once the line changes. The difficulty is how can the party decide in advance what the "best experience" is, unless it has an open mind to hearing what all the experiences are? Also, is it wise to base the perspective on the " best experience" if that experience is not representative or reproducible?

The SWP's conclusion is ". In the SSP we have a wealth of talent, experience and energy. We need to use that in the next few months to engage with the growing anger and to rebuild our roots and our party." [my emphasis]. This claim has been repeated so many times we are habituated to it: but surely it is no one's experience that British politics is dominated by "growing anger". How does this "growing anger" manifest itself, or is it simply an article of faith?

Probably the last word should go to Colin Fox: "Provided we continue to unite the party, build by turning outward, and get the benefit of a political upturn we can get the SSP project back on tracks and recover the achievements of 2003. I have been actively involved in socialist politics for twenty five years. The SSP has had a period of difficulty sure but it remains the most exciting and inspiring project I have ever had the privilege to be involved in. We can build a mass party of socialism/of the left, it remains entirely possible - but it demands huge levels of talent and energies, an abundance of fresh ideas and a culture of constructive criticism and discourse. The SSP has a collective experience and a wealth of talent. With an iron determination and real conviction, united around one another we have much yet to achieve. I remain convinced that the SSP's best days are ahead of us."