Stepping stone to socialism

The Scottish Socialist Party is a model for many comrades in England and Wales. In this interview with Sarah McDonald, SSP leader Tommy Sheridan discusses the June 7 election campaign and looks forward to a peaceful road to socialism

Since we?ve had time to reflect on the election, how do you feel the campaign went?

I thought the campaign for the Scottish Socialist Party was a tremendous experience. I think that the party equipped itself so well, you would think we had always fought elections across Scotland instead of it being the first time we?d ever tried it. The candidates, the agents, the local campaigns themselves were a tribute to the commitment of the party. I?m pleased that just about every area felt enthused by the result we actually got.

Whether it be the Argyll and Bute or the Orkney Islands, whether it be Glasgow or Edinburgh, all the areas of the country got the rewards for what they put in. And when you consider the media blackout, then you realise how significant our support was.

What do you think of the result itself?

Well, I think the 72,500 votes for a party only two and a half years old is simply unprecedented. It has never been achieved in Scotland?s political history. It took the SNP 30 years to record 60,000 votes. It took the SNP 30 years to stand in all 72 seats in Scotland. It has taken us only two and a half years to do that. From all angles, in all political analysis, the SSP is now breaking all records for a new political force.

What I think was the vital component of all that was our programme. Regardless of all the individuals, regardless of the campaigning skills - all of which are a tribute to our party - the most important of all is the political programme upon which we are organised - and that is a class-politics programme that is radical in its socialism, radical in its intent.

Do you think the Socialist Workers Party?s decision to join on May Day helped the campaign and the development of the SSP?

I don?t think there is any doubt whatsoever that each and every new member that joins the SSP is an addition to our armoury, so to speak. It provides another set of legs, another set of hands, another set of ears, another mouth to help in our campaigns - and therefore to get 200 in one fell swoop is a boost. Whether it concretely improved the vote significantly no one really knows. I think we would have got around what we got anyway, because our vote wasn?t achieved in four weeks: it was achieved in two and a half years.

The comrades in the SWP have made a positive contribution and we now have to build on the spirit of cooperation that has been erected and ensure that we can move forward in harmony.

How should we continue to build on the work from the election campaign?

The undoubted priority for the SSP right now is to try and turn the 1,200 applications to join into 1,200 new members. We had an absolutely unprecedented level of interest in our party, its manifesto, our policies. One of the most encouraging signs is the number of young people who are interested in our party, whether it be school students or young workers. We won a whole series of mock election debates in schools up and down the country. In areas where we don?t have anything we actually won elections!

There is a growing realisation that socialism is popular; socialism does offer young people a vision, offers them the ability to be proud of something, to be involved in a movement for genuine human solidarity - and that can be very, very powerful. Our task is to make sure we don?t allow this to pass us by. It?s like a handful of sand: if you hold it long enough it just slips through your fingers. What we?ve got to do is turn that interest into actual members. That has got to be the priority over the coming weeks and months.

The Socialist Labour Party did very badly, particularly in Scotland. Do you think that the SLP can survive if it continues to remain outwith the SSP and Socialist Alliance?

Organisations that have an apparently bottomless pit of finance can survive regardless of the support they?ve got. I don?t wish to make a comparison because the SLP has some good socialists within it and I would love it if they would be prepared to join us as a party and fling their oars in with us in recognition that the SSP is a major new force in Scotland for all socialists, not just for certain socialists. However, if you look for instance at the UK Independence Party, it?s a party that has virtually no base - but it?s got plenty of money and is still surviving.

The SLP nationally outside of Scotland literally stood still compared to 1997. Their vote fell slightly in some areas, greatly in others, but their overall vote stood still. In Scotland their vote collapsed, became non-existent. I would appeal to socialists within the SLP and I?d appeal to the SLP at a national level, similarly to what happened with the SWP, to support their Scottish section joining us. If they wish to have a platform within the party then so be it.

They may wish to have a platform for their very distinctive views on Europe. That may be a platform that would probably be supported by a whole number of members in the SSP. However, that is where the battle is taking place; that?s where the action is - it?s within the SSP. While the SLP remains outside the SSP I think they will continue to wither on the vine.

One of our main tasks is getting the working class to break with Labour. How should the left go about this?

I think the SSP?s accumulation of three percent of the popular vote across Scotland is a great stride forward, but it does show the amount of work that has to be done. I mean, we?ve got to be aiming to conquer 70-80% of the popular vote, which means we?ve got a long way to go.

How are we going to break the link with Labour? We?re going to break the link by offering viable alternative policies within an ideological context. We?re socialists: that makes us distinctive because there is no other mainstream party that is socialist. Every other one of these parties are free market, big business parties. Some of them in different ways but all of them accept the big business ideology and promote the big business agenda.

The SSP is completely different from that, in that we reject the rigged free market. But we?ve also got to be able to relate and connect with the working class. That means policies like, for instance, the abolition of the council tax, policies like the democratisation of the NHS, policies in opposition to privatisation within health, education and other public services. That means policies like a higher minimum wage, like a shorter working week, policies like free school meals.

Policies that connect to the day-to-day lives of ordinary men and women across the country are absolutely essential, because having an ideology is vital, but in and of itself is not enough. We have to be able to connect that ideology to people?s everyday lives. That?s where we?ve got to work on the actual policy content of the SSP and promote and develop our policies.

Although the Scottish National Party didn?t do too well in the election, they?re likely to do well in 2003. Do you think the rise in national consciousness is replacing class consciousness?

I think the SNP had a poor general election. There are a number of factors for that. Important among those factors is the fact that it was a Westminster election and the SNP is a Scottish-based party and people don?t give them the same support for a Westminster election as they would a Scottish election. We suffer from that as well. Since there is no chance of them forming a government at Westminster, there is the perception of a wasted vote.

There won?t be that element to the Scottish election where there is also proportional representation, and that?s a big advantage for us as well. So partly the SNP?s poor showing was related to the nature of the election and the electoral system.

Another factor, an extremely important factor, was the SNP?s programme. The SNP has increasingly moved to the right. They have dropped many of their radical policies in relation to the restoration of benefits for 16 to 17-year-olds, in relation to their minimum wage policy, in relation to renationalisation of public utilities, in relation to house building, in relation to a whole area of social policies which marked the SNP out in 1992 as a left party. They have dropped a lot of that and have moved closer to New Labour, closer to the big business agenda, closer to what the millionaires want them to say in Scotland.

That led to them losing a lot of support and they will continue to lose support on that basis over the next couple of years. The SNP aren?t returning to the left: they?re continuing to mimic what is happening in the Labour Party in relation to them swallowing the big business agenda. That means that, although they will do better in 2003 than they have done in 2001, I don?t think they will do as well as their trends will have predicted.

In other words I don?t think they?ll record such an increase in support as they?ve recorded over recent elections. In fact evidence shows that their best jump in support was between 1987 and 1991-92, when their programme was more to the left than it has ever been. Since then progress has been rather stunted.

That provides an opportunity for us, the SSP, because we share one single outlook, and that is independence. Their independence is an end in itself; our independence is a means to an end. Their independence is to have a free-market Scotland; our independence is a stepping stone towards a genuine democratic socialist Scotland - we are for a republic which opens it arms to other countries and other peoples throughout the world.

So that?s the concrete difference and I think we could recruit a lot of supporters and members who currently consider themselves to be SNP supporters.

But don?t you think that the rise in national consciousness that has occurred over the last two decades acts to replace class consciousness?

No, I don?t actually. I think the increase in national consciousness is more of a class consciousness than people give it credit for. What people see is an independent Scotland delivering a fairer, more just Scotland. It?s an outward-looking nationalism rather than an inward-looking and insular nationalism.

I don?t perceive that the narrow nationalism of the Balkan states or the narrow nationalism of the former national socialist movements is apparent in any way, shape or form within the SNP or within Scotland. That is not to say there aren?t minorities, but in terms of a general existence it is not evident. It?s a more radical nationalism of the left variety rather than of the right variety. Therefore we have an opportunity to give a class content to that consciousness - and I don?t think that?s hard to do because the class consciousness is already there.

Were you disappointed by the Socialist Alliance results and why do you think the SA did not do as well as the SSP?

I think the SA?s performance at the election was credible. I think it was vital that they took part in the way that they did. I think that it?s vital that they begin discussing solidifying the whole alliance project, trying to build greater unity of purpose and unity of action.

I?m not disappointed by the result. We have a solid three to four years behind us. They?ve had less than a year to try and build up an identity, so I think the problem might be that expectations were so high. Many socialists look to Scotland and try and compare the SA results with what we achieved in Scotland and think, ?Oh, goodness, they did very well in Scotland and we didn?t.?

In actual fact it is the wrong comparison. If you compare the 1997 result, where we got around one percent of the vote, then that would be more comparable with the alliance performance at the general election.

I hope the alliance now examines where it?s going and continues to build its structures, continues to build trust in action, trust in policy, develops its campaigns - hopefully against privatisation, hopefully in favour of genuine public ownership, and looks towards local elections up and down the country. If it builds up its own confidence, builds its solidarity, builds its identity, so that by the time of the next major election there is a more unified force, it can actually be a real alternative to the Labour Party.

Do you think it should move towards a party?

I don?t think the SSP should lecture the alliance on the form that it takes and the speed at which it develops its structures. I think what is important is that we?re seen to support the development of a structure, whether that structure becomes a fully fledged party or not.

Personally, I think a party structure gives a sharper cutting edge to a political message. It?s more implicit in a party that you can actually join and participate in than maybe an alliance provides. I think the timing is entirely the responsibility of the alliance comrades rather than the responsibility of us here in Scotland.

If the SA and Welsh Socialist Alliance were to become party-type structures, do you see any reason why we should continue to operate separately, given that we have a common enemy in the British state?

I think the SSP will continue to operate in a Scottish context until we break the UK and break the British state. We have developed a democratic party based on the idea that Scotland is a nation and that there is an increased and accepted national consciousness which recognises a democratic deficit in a nation not having its own parliament.

We will therefore continue to operate as a distinctly separate Scottish Socialist Party, but our task is to ensure that our outlook is always on a comradely, fraternal, encouraging basis, rather than a narrow, insular basis, so that we encourage and support our comrades in England, Wales, Europe and throughout the world.

Another element to the general election was the BNP?s result in Oldham. Could the left have done more to prevent it?

I think the British National Party result in Oldham was distinctly to do with the circumstances within that city at that time. If you examine the BNP and National Front results in other parts of the country, they did nowhere near as well. In fact the BNP and NF results fell between 1997 and 2001. It?s not the case that they?ve been striding forward on all fronts. There was a specific racial tension which has been built up in Oldham and Burnley.

These incidents have undoubtedly given an edge to BNP organisers of an English nationalist outlook. I think the BNP has been clever in promoting this rather than its racist/fascist agenda. In fact they have changed a lot of their policies. The BNP used to be very proud of its forced repatriation policy. They?ve actually changed that to say that now, instead of forced repatriation, they would rather see separate development. There would be separate areas for black and whites, which is a new form of apartheid. The point being that it?s just as disgusting and poisonous as repatriation, but it does show you they?re trying to be more clever: because they were getting nowhere with their forced repatriation, they are trying to fuel the poison of racist division on the basis of separate development.

They?ve concentrated on the one area where there have been specific problems in terms of the race riots. I think that the left?s job is to try and intervene on the basis of fighting poverty and inequality and offering a political voice to the disillusioned white and Asian youth rather that allowing the BNP to offer their poisonous solution to the white youth in particular.

Do you think that socialism can be achieve peacefully through parliament?

That it is an unanswered question. I hope socialism can be achieve peacefully: I don?t think it will be achieved peacefully though parliament. I think parliament will be part of the movement for socialist change, in that we will use elected representatives to be tribunes for socialist ideas, but socialism will be delivered on the streets of Scotland, on the streets of Britain, on the streets of the world.

It is always going to be a street movement, but it will have different wings to it: it will have a parliamentary wing, it will have an industrial wing, it will have a youth wing. The important factor in a successful socialist movement will be uniting all of these wings in a powerful and unstoppable force. I sincerely hope it?s peaceful because if it?s not then those who suffer will be the working class. Whenever historically there has been a clash of ideas that turns into a physical confrontation, then it is working class people who suffer.

If we manage to conquer a majority of opinion within Scotland, then, yes, it is possible to deliver peaceful revolution. But it wouldn?t be a parliamentary revolution. It would be a revolution that used parliament, but concentrated on the strength of feeling in the streets and the workplaces.