McCombes wants to liquidate the Scottish Socialist Alliance as well

From British reformism to socialist nationalism

In this internal Scottish Militant Labour document Alan McCombes presents his nationalist proposals for a Scottish Socialist Party which would, if put into practice, make the break with the Socialist Party of Peter Taaffe complete

The purpose of this draft statement from the Executive Committee of SML is to present the case for a new merged Scottish Socialist Party based on the forces that are currently organised within SML and the Scottish Socialist Alliance. There are other socialist organisations and groupings we would like to approach for discussions about the formation of a new socialist party. These include the Communist Party of Scotland, the Socialist Labour Party, the Communist Party of Britain, the Socialist Workers Party and socialists within the Labour Party, the Scottish National Party and the Green Party.

This proposal has taken shape partly as a result of various informal discussions involving SML representatives, other leading members of the SSA and representatives of the SLP in Scotland. These discussions are still at a very early stage; as yet there has been no agreement reached on the way forward for socialist unity in Scotland. At the same time, there is growing recognition that 1999 will be a decisive year for the socialist left. Three separate sets of elections will take place in Scotland during the first half of 1999; local council elections on May 6 in which Labour will be under siege as never before; the first elections to the new Scottish parliament conducted under PR which will take place on the same day as the council elections and the Euro-elections the following month which will also be conducted under a form of PR.

The stakes are high. If the socialist left in these elections fails to make a breakthrough, the advance of socialism could be slowed down. On the other hand, socialist victories in the local elections - particularly if accompanied by the achievement of even a toehold in the new Scottish parliament - could dramatically accelerate events. In the 1989 Euro-elections, the Green Party came from virtually nowhere to take 15% of the vote across Britain. Although the Greens were unable to sustain this level of support, their 1989 electoral success nonetheless had a profound and lasting impact, dragging the issue of the environment from the periphery to the centre of politics in Britain. A breakthrough of anything like that magnitude for the socialist left in Scotland would have earth-shattering repercussions - not just in Scotland, but throughout Britain as a whole. In one fell swoop, the memory of fifteen years of defeats would be erased and a new dawn would begin to break through. Even a modest triumph for the socialist left - eg the winning of a handful of council seats and one or two in the Scottish parliament - would stimulate the start of an unstoppable revival of socialism in Scotland.

The Additional Member System

Whether or not an advance can be achieved depends partly on events and conditions which are beyond our control, including imponderables such as the future state of the economy. For example, if the British economy begins to slide into a new recession within the next 12 months, the idea of a socialist Scotland could begin to catch fire very rapidly. Nonetheless objective processes constitute one side of the equation. Equally important in determining whether socialism can make a breakthrough in 1999 will be the calibre and cohesion of the socialist opposition itself. The specific form of PR under which both the Scottish and European elections will be conducted poses sharply the need for socialist unity. Under the transferable vote system that operates in southern Ireland, voters can vote for more than one party in descending order of preference. The party obtaining the lowest number of votes then drops out and their second preference votes are reallocated. The same process is then repeated until an overall victor emerges. Under this type of system, multiparty politics are liable to flourish. It is possible for two or more left parties to compete against one another without fatally undermining the prospect of an eventual left victory. But under the Additional Member System that will operate in Scotland, there is absolutely no room or political justification for two or more socialist parties to stand in opposition to one another.

In Glasgow for example, a socialist party would required to obtain between 6-7% of the vote across the city to obtain representation in the Scottish parliament. But if two socialist parties stood in competition with each other, one obtaining 5% the other 2%, neither party would achieve representation. A unique opportunity would have been criminally squandered. To pose this hypothetical possibility is not to indulge in exaggerated scaremongering; it is to highlight a serious danger that has to be honestly confronted by socialists and ultimately resolved.

Divisions on the left

At this stage there are two serious forces - the SSA and the SLP - which offer a socialist electoral alternative to New Labour and the SNP. There is also ferment within the Scottish Labour Party and the possibility of at least a new breakaway formation emerging over the summer months - especially if it becomes clear that all potential dissidents on the left and so-called ‘nationalist’ wing will be ruthlessly prevented from standing in the Scottish parliamentary elections. In addition, there exist organisations like the SWP which up to now have shown no inclination to enter the electoral battlefield - but which could easily be forced into a tactical U-turn for fear of being further marginalised in Scotland. This poses the danger of a fragmented left playing into the hands of New Labour and the SNP. Up until now, we have promoted the SSA as the vehicle which will unify the socialist left in Scotland, supplemented if necessary by electoral pacts and agreements. Certainly, the SSA has played an important role in drawing together various groupings and individuals from different political backgrounds and traditions.

Although there have been certain overheads for SML, the decision to launch the SSA has been vindicated by events. As a result of our involvement in the Alliance, SML and the SSA now stand at the centre of left politics in Scotland, with influence and links which stretch far beyond the boundaries of the Alliance itself.

A difficult period

As we acknowledged at the time of the launch of the SSA, it would be at least several years into a Labour government before conditions would begin to mature for the development of a serious mass socialist alternative. The fact that the Alliance has held together and even made modest progress during its first two years of existence is an achievement which should not be underestimated. This two year period has been one of the most difficult in the history of the socialist movement in Scotland. The combined active forces of socialism in Scotland - and across Britain as a whole - have been reduced to a fraction of what they were ten or fifteen years ago. If we were to empirically compare election results and membership figures for SML five years ago with the situation today, it would be easy to draw the superficial conclusion that our strategy has been mistaken. On both counts, the position would appear to be weaker now than in the past. However it is necessary to set any comparison against the wider political, economic and social background.

At the time of the launch of SML, socialists faced serious difficulties. The demise of Stalinism had strengthened the ideological grip of free market capitalism - even though our organisation and others from the Trotskyist tradition had been consistent opponents of the totalitarian perversion of socialism in the USSR and other eastern European states. But there were other, more favourable, tides flowing in our direction. For example, the impact of the poll tax victory and the defeat of Thatcher was still fresh in the mind of big layers of the working class. There was also a disparate backlash in 1992-93 against the failure of Labour for the fourth time in succession to remove the Tories; SML was able to capitalise on the sense of utter despair that gripped many working class communities as they braced themselves for another four to five years of Tory government. At that stage, even the temporary ideological victory of capitalism following the collapse of the Berlin wall was partially cancelled out by the unfolding economic recession that took its toll on the British economy in the period 1992-94. In contrast, the period since the Alliance was formed has been more complex.

For several years the British economy has been on an upward curve. Even though the basic problems of poverty, low pay and long term unemployment remain endemic, the psychological effect of several years of economic growth and falling unemployment has been to reinforce the grip of free market ideology. In addition, the Alliance was launched in a pre-general election climate where the prevailing mood was to get rid of the Tories at all costs. The defeat of the Tories then led to a further phase of being prepared to give New Labour the benefit of the doubt - heightened in Scotland by the referendum result and the feeling that Labour was in the process of delivering radical constitutional change.

The turning tide

Only now is the tide beginning to turn. That is not to say that there will be a simple and straightforward growth of a socialist opposition. While there will be bitter disillusionment with New Labour among big sections of the working class, that mood could be complicated by a feeling that perhaps a Labour government in Scotland will be different from the Labour government in Westminster. In addition we face the complication of a powerful rival to the left of New Labour in the shape of the SNP; although the SNP explicitly defends free market capitalism, it can appear on the surface at least to offer a radical alternative. On issues like welfare, public spending and Trident it is well to the left of New Labour and can serve to complicate the task of building a genuine socialist opposition. But even taking these difficulties into account, there is immense potential for the building of a socialist party in Scotland capable of expressing the ideals of socialism in the language of the 21st century. At this stage, there is an extraordinary and unprecedented contradiction in Scottish politics reflecting a similar disparity in politics across Britain. On the one side, there is widespread and deep rooted abhorrence of the inequalities and injustices that lie at the heart of the free market capitalist system. Yet due to a lack of confidence that there is any viable alternative to the free market, the combined active forces of socialism are weaker than perhaps at any time this century.

However, in Scotland various factors have combined to ensure that the ideas of socialism have continued to exert a strong influence, even if only passive at this stage. Not least of these factors is the role played by SML between 1992-95 and by the SSA in the period since then. The impact especially of our electoral intervention cannot be underestimated. In Glasgow for example, SML or SSA candidates have stood in over fifty election campaigns in that period, including in 11 parliamentary constituencies, the city-wide Euro constituency, ten former district council wards, eight former regional council seats and 21 city council wards. As a result Glasgow has been bombarded with literally millions of leaflets and broadsheets outlining the socialist alternative, at least in rudimentary form. This has been accompanied by hundreds of public meetings and street meetings and thousands of individual discussions on doorsteps and street stalls. Over the same period, SML and the SSA have spearheaded numerous campaigns across Scotland, for example over water privatisation, Vat on fuel, the Criminal Justice Act, council cuts, environmental issues, benefits, the minimum wage legislation and solidarity activity on behalf of workers in struggle. At least partially as a result of the role played by SML and the SSA, parts of Scotland, including Glasgow, Dundee, Leith and parts of Lanarkshire have become highly politicised.

The high level of socialist consciousness in Glasgow can be gauged from the fact that SML took third place in the 1994 Euro elections and that in Pollock the SSA took the highest percentage of any socialist anywhere in Britain in the last general election. The 8,000 votes for the SSA in Glasgow last May under extremely difficult conditions was the equivalent of taking 80,000-90,000 votes in a city the size of London.

A necessary phase

However, while recognising the achievements of the past, complacency and inertia would be fatal. In the world of commerce and industry, those industries that refuse to innovate are those which invariably go to the wall; those which continually update their technology and marketing techniques are those which prosper. We also have to continually reappraise our methods, structures and tactics in the light of experience and of changing circumstances. In particular, we now have to pose the question, “Is the current format of the SSA the best way forward towards the building of a strong, unified socialist force in Scotland?” And - without in any way detracting from the vital role that the Alliance has played in the past two years - we have to explore whether there may be a more effective organisational and political structure that can carry forward the struggle for a socialist Scotland into the new millennium.

At its inception, the loose structure of the SSA itself represented a compromise which took into account the natural fears and suspicions of people coming from entirely different experiences and backgrounds. That period was necessary: it enabled various groups and individuals to collaborate together in elections and other campaigns, and to debate programmatic and tactical questions, without having to take the psychological leap of forming a fully fledged political party. Even at the outset, we tentatively posed the perspective that the Alliance may eventually evolve into a more cohesive political party:

“It is not ruled out that the Alliance could become more cohesive and begin to take shape as a fully fledged socialist party rather than a loose coalition. Within the Alliance, there will unavoidably be policy differences in a number of key areas, especially in the short term. Over a longer period, however, there could evolve a political convergence on the basis of experience and events as well as through debate and discussion. Ultimately a fusion of all forces involved in the Alliance may even be possible” (Conference statement, ‘SML and the Scottish Socialist Alliance’ April 1996).

Not only in Scotland, but internationally, the traditional ideological battle lines which divided the left have become blurred. This has arisen partly as a result of the failure of social democracy and the disintegration of the bureaucratic one party states of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Organisations and individuals which in the past subscribed to these ideologies have been forced to re-examine their positions. As a result, many former Communist Party members and Labour lefts hoisted the white flag and made their peace with capitalism. But a more principled and courageous minority moved in the opposite direction towards greater acceptance of a political programme which advocates full-blooded socialism combined with workers’ democracy. In the past, such a programme would have been dismissed as ‘Trotskyism’. At the same time our own organisation, partly in response to external changes and partly because we have become more and more involved in the living struggles of the working class, has been forced to adapt politically and organisationally.

These general long term processes, combined with the specific experience of working together within various campaigns, have led to a breaking down of political barriers which at an earlier stage may have appeared almost insurmountable.

Alliance: a federation or a party?

From the outset, the SSA was a hybrid, combining elements of a united front with the features of a party. If anything, the balance has tilted further in the direction of a party over the course of the past two years. When the idea of a SSA was first floated in August 1995, it was visualised as a federation of organisations such as SML, the Scottish Socialist Movement (a grouping with its origins in the Labour left), the Communist Party of Scotland and Liberation - a left wing grouping within the SNP. (See Militant Labour Members Bulletin No12, ‘Future electoral strategy in Scotland’ September 1995). Measured against the objective of establishing a broad federation, the Alliance project has not yet succeeded in involving significant forces. Of the four initial organisations involved in discussions, only SML is affiliated en bloc. The SSM has wound up, with most of its members now participating in the Alliance as individual members. The CPS has kept its distance organisationally, although individual members of the CPS participate in the Alliance. And while some former Liberation activists have now thrown in their lot with the Alliance, they have done so as individuals rather than as an organised grouping. Although most SLP activists in Scotland are open to the idea of the Alliance, they have been actively discouraged from participating in it by their national party leadership. Some animal rights and environmental activists have joined the Alliance - but again as individuals rather than in an organised fashion. Several shop stewards committees have affiliated to the Alliance, as have some very small socialist groupings, including the CPGB and the Republican Worker Tendency. That leaves the Alliance extremely lopsided, with SML by far the largest organised grouping (even though there are a number of SML members who are not yet registered members of the SSA).

On the other hand, the SSA has succeeded in attracting sizeable numbers of previously nonaligned socialists. Of the 400-500 registered members of the SSA, more that half are individual members who belong to no other organisation. It is also the case - and this is a key point - that the Alliance has evolved towards much greater political cohesion than we would have perhaps anticipated. The Charter for Socialist Change is a very clear and concrete programme for the overthrow of capitalism and the building of a new socialist Scotland with an internationalist perspective. Although there is a case to be made that the Alliance has failed to evolve into a genuine federation of the left, there is an equally strong argument to suggest that the first two years of the Alliance has at least laid the foundations for a new broad socialist party.

Torn between two tasks

Of course, it is necessary to have a sense of balance. Without SML, the Alliance would scarcely be viable. But the other side of the coin is that without the Alliance, SML would be more isolated and marginalised than is the case at the present time. It is true that SML has suffered to some degree by the lack of single-minded concentration on the task of building the organisation. Any discussion on the way forward must take that problem into account. But the worst mistake we could possibly make now would be to turn back the calendar and return to the strategy of building an independent Marxist organisation in isolation from the rest of the left. There are periods, such as the early 1990s, when such a strategy is both viable and necessary. But with conditions beginning to ripen for the emergence of a fifth political party in Scotland based on clear socialist principles, such a strategy today would be politically incompetent. We believe that a single, unified party, with a clear programme, a broad structure that would allow for the affiliation of trade unions; and a flexible constitution which tolerates the right to exist of tendencies/groupings/factions is the way forward now for socialism in Scotland. At this stage, it would be impossible to sketch in every detail. If we achieve broad agreement with the principle of proceeding towards the formation of a new party, in-depth negotiations would be required with other forces. But for the sake of clarity, we have to emphasise that we are not simply proposing the continuation of the SSA under a different name.

It is not specifically the name of the Alliance that poses a problem - although there is at least a strong case to be made that, even in terms of presentation, a SSP would have a greater cutting edge and would attract more recruits (on the basis that an Alliance implies to most people a federation of existing organisations rather than a party which anyone can join). However, from the standpoint of SML, the main problem that we face is the strain involved in attempting to build two parties with similar programmes simultaneously. This is an awesome burden; there is a danger that we will fail to do justice to either. Over the next three, four and five years, the present arrangement is likely to prove unsustainable.

Implications for SML

Therefore we are proposing that, provided we can reach agreement with other forces, the apparatus of SML, including our paper, our finances, our membership, our premises and our full time staff would be transferred to a new Scottish Socialist Party. This in turn would mean that SML would cease to exist, at least in its present form. In some areas, where there are no other left forces present, our existing branches of SML would become branches of the SSP. In other areas, our branches would merge with the existing branches of the SSA. If the SLP - or any other left groups - agree to participate, they too would be asked to merge their branches. And if any existing groups, including SML, wanted to retain an organisational structure within the new party, they should be able to be accommodated within the constitution of the new party. It is not possible to gauge at this stage whether or not it will be necessary to retain a separate SML structure, at least as a transitional arrangement. That would partly depend upon the degree of political and organisational cohesion that could be achieved in the new party; it would partly depend on the outcome of negotiations with other forces.

One potentially contentious problem is the present relationship between SML and the SP in England and Wales and the wider international organisation, the Committee for a Workers International. To impose the question of affiliation to the CWI as a precondition for any merger would almost certainly lead to a stalemate. Such a condition would be interpreted as an attempt by our organisation to simply swallow up the Alliance and other forces on the left.

From a different standpoint, the SLP leaders have floated the idea of a merged party which would be seen as a Scottish organisation of Scargill’s party. Just as that proposition would be unacceptable to our organisation, others in the Alliance would at this stage resist the idea of becoming the Scottish section of SML’s international organisation. On the other hand, the idea of individual members and leaders of a new SSP participating in the CWI and the SP in England and Wales would not pose any problem: nor would we seek to prevent any involvement by others in different international formations. In addition, the idea of the new party itself having an open relationship with several or more international organisations has been posed. In the long term, a broader regroupment on the left in England and Wales and on an international scale could begin to resolve this dilemma. In the meantime, it may be desirable to retain an organised structure through which to conduct relations with England, Wales, Ireland and the CWI as a whole. Through such a structure, in-depth Marxist political education could be organised perhaps at a city-wide level on a monthly basis, and an analytical/theoretical publication produced.

That is one possible variant; another is to throw everything into the new party, which would become the vehicle not just for fighting elections and waging campaigns, but for political education and for maintaining British-wide and international links. What is not an option - or at least what would be the worst option - would be to attempt to trundle on as before, for fear of confronting some of the difficulties that are inevitably posed by such a significant strategical turn. For that reason, we are asking the organisation to agree to begin immediate negotiations that we hope will lead to the formation of a new Scottish Socialist Party sometime before the end of 1998.

March 6 1998