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Scottish Socialist Party splits

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A day after a Scottish Socialist Party rally in a Glasgow hotel launched its 2007 election campaign before 300 faithful members, Tommy Sheridan booked himself into the same hotel and told twice as many recruits that he was founding a new party called Solidarity.

The Herald, which has been lapping up every drop of the party infighting, dryly commented, “Solidarity wins on decibel count”. We do not share the cynicism of the bosses’ gossip rags. Although, unlike many on the left, we never viewed the SSP as a model for left unity to be followed, its acrimonious break-up has not helped the working class struggle at all.

Courting disaster
The immediate reason was, of course, Sheridan’s court case against the News of the World, which he won, despite sacking his own legal team, and having a series of SSP members speak against him in court.

The jury voted 7-4 in favour of Sheridan, and awarded him £200,000 in damages. He also picked up another £25,000 from the Scottish Record for his side of the story. But he leaves his former party in ruins. Faced with the possibility of perjury charges, the United Left majority of the SSP leadership accused Sheridan of lying to the court, and defended those that had testified against him. Sheridan, though he later regretted it, labelled these same witnesses, “political scabs”. A split was clearly inevitable, and the SSP’s ratings slid to lower than 1%. The court case has been a disaster for the SSP.

Of course, the News of the World’s stories were an attempt to smear Sheridan and through him the SSP. Rupert Murdoch is about as anti-working class as one can imagine. His papers have, from the great miners strike onwards, always sought to poison the working class with racism, sexism and bigotry.

Without placing any trust in the bosses’ courts, any working class party has the right to use them to expose the true nature of the press and to educate the class. However, to do so, the party must first of all ensure that it is united in the tactic. This unity was missing. Tommy Sheridan went to the executive and they refused him their backing, arguing that it would mean asking SSP members to lie in court and risk charges of perjury being brought against them. The majority on the executive claim that Sheridan had already admitted to them that the “libels” were substantially true.

Sheridan should never have proceeded against the News of the World when he knew that this would become a sideshow for the real drama: Scotland’s most left wing party imploding on the stage of the crown court.

Both sides should have seen from the outset that the compromise struck between the SSP Executive and Sheridan that allowed him to continue his libel action if he resigned as party convenor would inevitably lead down this path.

What was really lacking was the political bravery to confront the bourgeois pseudo-moralist hacks of the News of the World with the argument that, whether the accusations were true or not, adultery is a private matter and the SSP would get on with fighting the class struggle. They should have stood firm and said, “So what? Who cares? Why don’t you confront the real moral outrages caused by the British occupation in Iraq, the deportation of asylum seeking children to war zones, the robbing of workers’ pension funds?”

Political conflict
But behind the court case is the political conflict that has been raging inside the SSP since 2003. In that year, on the back of the huge antiwar protests, the party got six MSPs in the Scottish parliament. Suddenly they went from being a party of activists to one that had a national profile, and could play a role in parliament.

Sometimes this role has been to disrupt proceedings and carry out protests; on other occasions they have put through legislation, which has helped working class people, such as Sheridan’s bill to prevent warrant sales.

But at the same time the pressure of being in parliament began to tell. Rather than brush aside the News of the World allegations as a private matter, and go onto the offensive about the filthy immorality of British imperialism at home and abroad, the party asked and Sheridan agreed to step down as national convenor. In doing so, it allowed the News of the World to change the party’s leader.

Alan McCombes stood for the post of convenor and was architect of the Independence Convention. He offered a brazen adaptation to Scottish nationalism. He was beaten by Colin Fox, who concentrated on parliamentary bloc-building, with the SSP gaining respectability, through advancing reformist legislation.

Since then, the party’s standing in local elections has fallen, while its internal life has become crisis ridden and factional. Following the trial, Sheridan made his move.

But why does Sheridan believe in a new party, which, in the words of Colin Fox, has “an identical political programme”? He may have thought the SSP was not worth reclaiming.

SWP: Too many heroes?
Certainly, the Socialist Worker platform has used the crisis from the outset to seek to garner support for a Respect-type project north of the border. They stated that the 3 September meeting “must be open to Muslim organisations”. As early as November 2004, Respect MP George Galloway described the prospect of Sheridan and himself uniting in the Scottish elections as a “dream ticket”.

In Socialist Worker (02/09/06) Chris Harman has the delicate task of explaining why they are now throwing all their weight behind Sheridan, whom they formerly criticised. Harman disarmingly draws the parallel with George Galloway and Respect.

He tells us that, “Often when a new movement is developing, certain figures emerge who seem to many new activists to embody what it stands for” and cites an incongruous list consisting of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Tariq Ali, Fausto Bertinotti and José Bové. Surely, he asks, there is a danger of elevating such leaders above their parties? Maybe, he answers himself, but -hey - nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Since the SWP built the Respect coalition around Galloway, with not an ounce of democratic accountability, why not try the same method north of the border? The principles of working class democracy, of Leninist democratic centralism? The music of the distant future at best.
Careful readers will observe that the method of the SWP can be paraphrased thus. When founding movements or parties, it is essential to start with someone who already has a high public profile. This charismatic figure will then rally the mass membership.

Later on, Harman suggests, these members will “discover their capacity to take control of things without relying on individuals”. Thus the SWP is throwing itself behind Solidarity “not because we have suddenly joined some Tommy Sheridan fan club, but because together we can draw in the forces for a new movement [what new movement?] that is powerful and confident enough to value the talents of individuals without bowing down to them.”

Well, we will see. The history of the workers movement shows that charismatic and uncontrollable leaders - Ferdinand Lasalle in Germany, Kier Hardie or Ramsay Macdonald in Britain - did quite a lot of damage. We old fashioned Marxists thought a party had to be founded on a programme, one thoroughly debated and collectively agreed. This formed the strategy and principles, which all the party members are obliged to fight for. The SWP clearly believe they have found a short cut that makes all this unnecessary.

Indeed part of the very problem of the SSP was that it was, in an important sense, a “Tommy Sheridan fan club”, just as Respect is a George Galloway fan club. We wish the SWP comrades the best of luck with two prima donnas in the opera house. We fear, however, that this too will lead to a smash up, which will demoralise the militants drawn into this unprincipled adventure.

The CWI platform (sister organisation of the Socialist Party) at least wants the new party to call itself socialist, but will duck the key questions of the capitalist state and of bourgeois property, preferring a warmed up list of reforms.

But both these centrist organisations may find the concessions they have made to Sheridan are in vain. It seems that he has the support of the Highlands and Islands and the Borders, but none of the other regions, including the central belt of Edinburgh and Glasgow. He had originally stated that he wanted to win 32 branches out of the SSP’s 70 to take it over. His launch of a new party is an admission that he was nowhere near this figure.

Why a Scottish party?
Meanwhile, the SSP majority has pointed the finger of blame at Sheridan and his “London backers” (the SWP and CWI), and have made a turn again to Scottish independence. Colin Fox told the BBC that Sheridan’s splitting showed his abandonment of Scottish independence, while Kevin Williamson, writing in the Scottish Socialist Voice, announced his departure to the Independence First campaign, saying “Sheridan will soon have to dance to the CWI/SWP line on independence or be dumped by them.”
Indeed, this is the logic of forming a separate party for the Scottish working class. Marxists have always argued for an international party of the working class, while recognising that the task of smashing the capitalist state and seizing power demands that this party is broken down into national sections.

But Scotland, though a nation, does not have a national state. Its army, police, judiciary and so on are loyal to the British state. The Scottish working class cannot be liberated without overthrowing this state, a task for which they need complete unity with their English and Welsh sisters and brothers.

The problem with the SSP and the newly formed Solidarity is that neither party takes this task seriously. Workers Power believes that SSP members and supporters, the vast majority of whom had no say whatsoever in the break-up of their old party, should learn the lessons of adaptation to nationalism and bourgeois parliamentarianism, and join us in the fight for a new working class party across Britain, and win it to a revolutionary programme.