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Scottish Socialist Party: left regroupment in crisis

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The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) has often been held up as a model left unity but it now finds itself in crisis.

In Scotland, former Scottish Militant members Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes, who set up the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), have recently been engaged in a fierce public battle that threatens to split the party wide open. Any party formation with competing political trends within it, in this case competing centrist tendencies, reformists and nationalists, is necessarily unstable because each seeks to pull the party different strategic directions.

The trigger was an apolitical scandal involving national convenor Sheridan in November 2004. The Murdoch owned News of the World claimed that Sheridan had been having an affair while his wife was pregnant with their first baby. The response of the SSP executive committee (EC) was to ask Sheridan to step down as convenor of the party and Sheridan agreed, with both parties agreeing to claim that this was because he wanted to ‘spend more time with his family’. The News of the World published its allegations and Sheridan launched a libel case contesting them.

These responses – the libel case and the forced resignation – further illustrate the electoral opportunism of the SSP in that it could not bring themselves to say simply that it was a private matter, unconnected to the SSP and its politics.

Sheridan’s sidelining by the executive committee, led by his former collaborator, McCombes, has resulted in 18 month factional struggle within the party. There has been rumours, that Sheridan allegations originate with EC members around McCombes, that Sheridan is an unrepentant sexist and bully. While Sheridan has not returned as convenor of the party, he has remained a prominent front man for the party.

Sheridan’s libel case has infuriated the EC as the party’s internal life has become played out in the courts. Lawyers representing Murdoch’s News International have demanded minutes of the meeting that led Sheridan to resign. The court agreed and the party was asked to hand them over, but they refused and McCombes spent a week in jail as a result.

For all this personal scandal underpinning the struggle within the SSP it is very much a political crisis. At root this crisis has arises out of the failure of the SSP, despite limited electoral success, to make a significant breakthrough.

The International Socialist Movement (ISM), set up by Sheridan and McCombes after they left the Militant, has been the largest force in the party over the past eight years with a clear majority on the party’s EC. But there has been increasingly a split between Sheridan and McCombes over the party’s orientation and their respective positions on Scottish independence.

McCombes and his supporters in the right wing of the ISM and the Scottish Republican Socialist platform have argued for the party to place its biggest campaigning emphasis on the fight for an independent Scotland even if at first it is formed on a capitalist basis. This has led to them supporting an “Independence Convention” with the Green Party and the SNP and to Scottish Socialist Voice, controlled by the McCombes wing, arguing that the 2007 elections are “a referendum for an independent Scotland”.

Some on the right-wing of the party have even advocated they publicly call for a tactical vote for the SNP at these elections and have been furious with SSP branches that have stood candidates in SNP strongholds for “splitting the independence vote”. Sheridan by contrast has pushed the SSP to campaign more on working class issues and seems to rightly baulk at the possibility of a stitch up with Scotland’s bourgeois nationalist party.

This conflict led to the dissolution of the ISM earlier this year and since then there has been the formation of two competing factions within the SSP: one led by the McCombes wing called the United Left platform; and one led by Sheridan, supported by the SWP and Committee for a Workers International, called the SSP Majority.

Sheridan wrote an open letter to the SSP membership at the end of May that was a tirade against the McCombes faction entitled. The document stressed the need for socialist and working class politics without explicitly attacking the Independence position of the McCombes wing. After all how could it when Sheridan had been so complicit in developing the policy and McCombes was taking it to its logical conclusion? Whatever the truth of the rumours of Sheridan’s alleged sexism the letter made several come-ons for sexist support including accusing his opponents of wanting to turn the SSP into “a gender based discussion group”.

Sheridan seems to have rallied the party’s rank and file to his side and looks set to secure a majority at the National Conference in the Autumn. What will be left of the SSP then though is difficult to say.

The CWI and SWP’s support for Sheridan is significant because they will court his support for the two main left-of-Labour initiatives they lead south of the border, the Campaign for a New Workers Party and Respect respectively. Galloway is already on record as saying a Galloway-Sheridan partnership would be a “dream ticket” for the next elections. The seemingly imminent split in the SSP may increase the fragmentation in the left alternative initiatives or it may well provide a stimulus to a new formation.

If so, the lessons of the SSP will have to be learned. The SSP has always been a small centrist party with various smaller components that have united around a reformist programme that its leaders hoped would allow them to “hit the big time” in terms of electoral gains. At the first signs that the strategy was faltering, and with little growth, indeed stagnation and decline in party membership, those same campaigns inevitably pulled in different directions.

The RMT affiliation presented great opportunities for the SSP to turn to the trade unions and campaign within them for a new working class party. But because it presented itself as a (fake) left reformist alternative and was tied to being a “Scotland only” party it could not play this role.

The rightward shift of Labour and its effects on the relationship to the trade unions and consciousness of working class militants has advanced far beyond the period of the SML’s breakthrough in the 1990s with nine years of Labour’s neo-liberal programme and war.

The moves to build alternatives in the Socialist Labour Party, the Socialist Alliance, the Scottish Socialist Party and Respect have all suffered from opportunistic centrist leadership – that on the one hand presents reformist and populist politics to the working class and on the other shy away from a fight with the union bureaucracy to build the pressure for them to form a working class alternative.

The fragmentation of the existing initiatives must be overcome by forming a principled united front around the need to fight for a new working class party in the unions, for fighting trade unions, rank and file movement and against the anti-trade union laws, if we are to realise the opportunities that lie ahead. We in Workers Power are committed to carrying on the fight for these demands and raising the banner of revolutionary socialism as the only solution to the nightmare of global capitalism.