SSP factions unite

Tom Delargy reports on Scotland

The Republican Communist Network in Scotland held a meeting on Saturday 8 January in Edinburgh. It was organised in the hope of coordinating the intervention of the far left at the Scottish Socialist Party's two-day conference in February. Representatives came from Socialist Outlook, Alliance for Workers Liberty, Campaign for a Federal Republic, Red Republicans, Glasgow Marxist Forum and other non-aligned leftists.

I am pleased to report that debate was conducted in a fraternal manner, with no self-censorship or fear that views would be stifled. Also, at least as important, it was apparent to everyone that no one was able to automatically carry a majority simply out of deference to a 'charismatic' leader, nor to someone having smuggled in a bunch of brain-dead voting fodder. Everyone felt able to raise amendments to proposed conference motions, and to argue the toss over the tactics necessary to get them onto the conference agenda in the first place, and on how to persuade conference to endorse them. I do not think anyone is in any doubt that the breadth and diversity of forces at the meeting represents an enormous strength, and that positive contributions were made by all. In the process of democratic debate, minds were changed. People not only switched sides but, occasionally, switched back again. Even when a clear majority emerged, no attempt was made to prematurely rush to a quick vote without first trying to win unanimity - or at least give the dissidents ample opportunity to fully explain the nature of their opposition.

This is extremely important, as it enables the minority to influence the majority group if its policies are mistaken. Also, if a minority can, in time, say to the rest "I told you so", then they have every right to do so. The rest of us ought, in such circumstances, to give them due credit and listen with more care and attention to what they say on related matters in the future. A motion was drawn up on Ireland by Allan Armstrong. In what is likely to become a precedent inside the RCN, the AWL representative, Stan Crooke, went out for a smoke at this point. This made sense to everybody since there is little potential for a meeting of minds on this question between the AWL and the rest of us in the foreseeable future. Yet both the AWL and the rest are grown-ups. We should not let differences on one or more important issues cripple the potential for unity. I personally would argue that the RCN endorses at least 90% of the contents of the AWL draft for their proposed SSP faction.

While minor differences within the RCN on Ireland no doubt fester beneath the surface, there appears to be a basic agreement. Our views should be known to regular Weekly Worker readers as they have been expressed in articles written by Allan Armstrong, Dave Craig, myself and by other non-RCN critics of Jack Conrad's theses. The only significant change to Allan's document was proposed by Sandy McBurney. In the original draft, the anti-catholic 'Act of Settlement' was used as a pretext for the SSP to not call for an immediate end to all religious segregation in schools.

It did not take too much prompting from the meeting to persuade Allan that this was a serious mistake, and the text was reworded. The debate around the draft motion on republicanism saw not one but two seismic shifts inside the constituent parts of the RCN. Drawn up in advance by members of the CFR, it did not call for an exclusively Scottish solution to the problems posed by the hereditary monarchy - this being the norm inside the SSP. In a welcome break from the past, the Red Republicans raised no objections to the CFR motion's implicit call for the overthrow of the monarchy throughout the United Kingdom.

I consider that this is a great achievement, and fully justifies the decision of the CFR and the Red Republicans to drag themselves beyond their respective sectarian ghettos and to invite others on the SSP left to join them in the RCN. What happened next was a far bigger surprise and more welcome still.

Having made this concession to the RCN majority, the CFR seemed surprised to find themselves suddenly targeted by the Red Republicans. A temporary alliance formed at this point between those who advocate, in the first place, a Scottish Workers' Republic, on the one hand, and, on the other, those who are agnostic, if not openly hostile, to the idea of Scottish independence. The temporary allies of the Red Republicans in this instance advocate an all-Britain Workers' Republic.

This latter group are themselves subdivided into two camps: there are those who want a centralised workers' republic (Sandy McBurney's preference), and there are those who want a federal workers republic (my own preference). We all insisted on calling for a discussion on the meaning the CFR attaches to their "modern democratic republic". By this, do they mean what is generally meant: a normal bourgeoisie republic along the lines of the USA and Germany? Under relentless questioning, Mary Ward eventually conceded that it was legitimate for the CFR to be forced to differentiate the kind of republic they advocate from that of what everyone else thinks they must mean.

Mary argued that since, contrary to what everyone else feared, the CFR will not content themselves with a bourgeoisie republic, then, by implication, they must designate it as a socialist, or as a workers', republic. Nick Clarke put up much greater resistance. In time, though, he too was won over. The RCN managed, unanimously, to agree on the following conference motion: "The SSP is committed to the abolition of the monarchy and all crown powers without recourse to referenda and to campaign for wider political democratic demands, and to a genuinely democratic workers' republic free from all vestiges of feudalism". While I am over the moon that the CFR were persuaded to make this historic concession to their critics, I suspect that Dave Craig, and the CPGB PCC, might need some convincing. Some excellent contributions from Marcus Larsen, in the Weekly Worker and on the AWL website, suggests that he is already clear in his own mind that all references by him to "democratic republic" are synonyms for workers' (or proletarian) republic, modelled along the lines of the Paris Commune and the early months of Soviet Russia. It is time for the CPGB to be as explicit as Marcus about this matter.

The main debate, though, centred around the CFR's proposed constitutional amendments. Theirs was an alternative draft to one agreed by the SSP's executive committee. This, along with a motion proposed by East of Scotland SSP organiser Colin Fox, represents a serious attack on the democratic structures of the party. Only Campbell McGregor of Socialist Outlook saw any merit in the executive's proposal of a delegate based conference, everyone else favouring the retention (and, where possible, strengthening) of a direct democracy that encourages the widest possible participation of the membership in policy formation. This executive proposal, along with Colin Fox's advocacy that branch representatives to each national council should be elected for a full year (rather than to be recallable and subject to re-election prior to each NC meeting) proves that, far from being a 'party of a new type', the SSP is in immanent danger of degenerating to a very familiar and discredited model.

The SSP policy of a workers' MP on a workers' wage is taken from the Paris Commune. If those other principles drawn from the Paris Commune (an annual conference based on direct democracy, and on the recall-ability of delegates) are junked, how much longer before justifications for "socialist differentials", rewards for "responsibility", become the order of the day? The cult of the personality, the norm inside all bureaucratic workers' organisations, has been latent in the SSP from the very beginning.

One of the most nauseating expressions of this trend is the fact that the editor of Scottish Socialist Voice misses no opportunity to splash a smiling mugshot of party spokespersons, and regular SSV columnists, in the paper. The CFR motion tried to cut party spokespersons down to size by insisting that they only have the right to propose motions to conference when they relate to their brief, rather than, as the executive wants, to give such individuals rights on a par with that of entire branches. In what, on the face of it, looks like a concession to tendencies, the executive has proposed that, from next year, factions ought to have the automatic right to present conference with a motion in their own name. However, in return for this concession, certain riders were added. Factions, for the first time, will be required to have at least ten fully paid up members of the SSP, the names of members have to be registered with the executive, and names which appear in one faction list cannot feature in any other. Objections were raised to every one of these provisos. None of us can accept a situation where members are forced to choose between factions.

The project the RCN has set itself, of uniting the fragments of the SSP revolutionary left, would come to an end if this bureaucratic ultimatum went through: this is one possible explanation for why the idea has suddenly appeared now. Yet, speaking personally, I do not want a situation where ten people can all belong to ten (or more) factions, thinking themselves entitled to unwarranted rights at the expense of other individuals, - ie, those who choose not to join any faction. I can equally see the sense of factions of vastly differing sizes having somewhat different rights. A faction of three people cannot reasonably expect to have the same rights as one of 50 or 100 just because their members assess their own ideas as especially praiseworthy. This, in my opinion, would be to abuse the democratic procedures of the party.

If a faction wants to run away from this challenge, then it is stating that it wants to be free from any incentive to recruit. It is exposing itself as perfectly satisfied with languishing as an uninfluential pressure group of two or three. I argued that if the RCN refuses to address these arguments, this could cost us dear at conference.

RCN comrades took little convincing that our motion had to address the key issue of our democratic right to representation on leadership bodies, rather than to content ourselves with being allowed to let off steam once a year at conference - something the SSP leadership could quite easily live with. I, therefore, proposed that our constitutional amendment included a guarantee that factions are entitled to one representative to each national council, with observer status. The SSP membership badly needs its own Freedom of Information Bill. We know, for instance, that the NC was paralysed for months on whether or not to support/organise a campaign of mass non-payment of student fees. Yet, despite the support for such a campaign from all SSP factions (the AWL, CFR, Red Republicans and, last but by no means least, the overwhelmingly dominant SCWI), the NC managed to keep the entire membership in the dark as to who precisely was acting as the social democratic break on the militant ranks of the party. Here we have the exact opposite of democracy.

Just how can the membership be genuinely free to vote for our representatives to the NC, executive, SSV editorial board, area organisers, party spokespersons, or anyone else, if those who seek to fill these positions do not have the guts to tell us how they voted in the past. If our existing elected officials do not have the courage of their convictions, then they should make way for others who do. Factional representation on the NC would seem to be a prerequisite for informing the membership as to the nature of debates at the top of the party. It is also essential to ensure that no undeclared leadership faction can abuse the levers of power inside the SSP. We need such representation to be in a position to alert the entire membership of any attempts by the leadership to bureaucratically suppress those in the minority who aspire to persuade the party as a whole to adopt their policies.

While I had anticipated that other RCN members might want to go still further, and to advocate that factions have the right to send representatives with full voting rights, it was unanimously agreed not to push our luck. Besides, token representation can be no substitute for our winning the respect of other comrades through consistent work on the ground. On the contrary, it could breed hostility amongst the large section of the party not belonging to any faction, thereby lowering the prospects of our members winning a democratic mandate from our respective branches to full representation on the NC. Once again, I wanted to restrict this right to those factions with 10 or more members and, again, I was outvoted. As a democrat, I will, of course, go along with the RCN majority decision.

However, I would appeal to all RCN members to keep their ears to the ground. If it becomes clear that we will be forced to choose between limiting this right to factions of ten members (a barrier that the RCN has no problem with) or to lose it altogether, then it would be insane of us not to make the necessary compromise. Those factions with fewer members can come in behind the RCN and, simultaneously, seek to recruit additional members behind their own, more exclusive, factional banner. Shortly before the meeting broke up, Allan Armstrong proposed that members of the Glasgow Marxist Forum draw up a motion calling on the SSP to sponsor similar forums in Edinburgh, Dundee and elsewhere.

John MacLean, much lauded inside the SSP has entered the history books partly as a consequence of the tireless work he put in to educating workers in Marxist economics and on the history of class struggles. If the SSP leadership does support socialist unity, and if it also places a high priority on Marxist education (as the SCWI executive claims), then they will find it impossible to argue against the setting up of such forums open to SSP members and non-SSP members alike.