PC tokenism

This year's conference of the Scottish Socialist Party has been flooded with motions and amendments - so much so that the conference arrangements committee (CAC) has asked branches to prioritise motions and agendaed them accordingly. As a result, the conference, to be held over the weekend of March 2-3, is split into five sections: eg, policies, campaigns, international issues. The CAC informs us that, "Motions and amendments with most support from branches were put towards the front of each section. Motions/amendments which were debated at length last year were put towards the back unless given considerable support this year." What this will mean in practice is that, for example, the closure of a local swimming pool is given priority over major issues such as the national question. So the motion calling for the SSP to aim for an all-Britain party comes second-last in the final section. This is followed by another important issue - the right to sell publications - which is the last item on the entire agenda. It is highly unlikely that either of these motions will see the light of day. There is an obvious political problem underlying what is at face value a technical matter. Minority positions are less likely to be heard. The essence of a democratic organisation is that it is possible for a minority to win over the majority through debate. This is of course impossible if the debate does not take place. While on one level it appears very democratic to give branches free rein in deciding the agenda in such detail, in practice there is a tendency for local units to opt to hear motions of a sectional nature - especially since they assume that the 'big questions' will be among the motions prioritised by others (each branch was asked to choose five, excluding their own). Surely there is a role for some central leadership here? As I have already pointed out, ensuring a prompt start and extending the finish beyond the projected 4.30pm might allow all motions to be heard in any case (Weekly Worker January 31). As always, there is one motion which causes contention long before the conference itself. Last year this came in the form of guidelines preventing platforms and individuals from selling or distributing non-SSP literature. This year the issue which has sparked off considerable debate in the past weeks comes from the SSP's women's network. The motion in question advocates compulsory 50-50 gender representation in the regional proportional representation lists for the Scottish parliament elections. Kevin Williamson has even penned a bizarre pseudo-scientific justification for dividing the party along male-female lines. According to our biological determinist, everything goes back to the African planes of three million years ago. "Males", you see, were "almost exclusively hunter-gatherers" who often "travelled great distance". The "women tended to stay at home and protect the nest." This, for our Kevin, explains the present-day differences between men and women: eg, why "women tend" to "put much more store on conversation, facial expression and building relationships with other people" (Scottish Socialist Voice, February 22) This stuff could be dismissed as the worthless rubbish it is, if it were not being used for political purposes. Needless to say, 50-50 quotas institutionalise sexist discrimination. They mean that regional branches cannot democratically decide who they wish to have at the top of their list. They mean that comrades who do end up at the top of regional lists could be there because of their gender rather than their abilities or their ideas. This also raises the question of which regions will have men and which will have women: for example, if Glasgow ended up as an area which had a woman at the top of the list then Tommy Sheridan would most likely lose his seat in parliament. Also it could have the opposite effect of that desired by the women's network, in that where a man was designated to be first on the list it would be impossible for comrades in the area to vote for a woman. This tokenistic, PC approach to gender equality does more to entrench discrimination than it does to overcome it. It puts gender before ability, ideology or class. While it is essential that working class organisations actively foster a culture whereby women comrades are encouraged and promoted, it is always counterproductive to attempt to achieve this through bureaucratic methods. There is one counter-motion submitted from the West Lothian branch and several amendments to both motions. The CAC has handled this debate in an unsatisfactory manner - not for any political reason, but purely in an attempt to save conference time. It has allocated three hours on the Saturday to the issue - a long time, considering that other motions will in all likelihood fall off the agenda. It is certainly true that the issue does deserve some degree of extended debate, given the controversy it has generated, but the problem lies in the order in which the motions/amendments will be taken. Firstly there will be a straight vote between the women's network motion and the West Lothian motion, and amendments will be moved only to the motion which has passed. Therefore amendments which improve the case for the failed motion will not be heard. Instead both motions should be moved, along with their amendments, which should then be voted on, leaving two substantives. Only then the two motions should be taken against each other. Three hours should provide adequate time for such a debate to be heard in full. The question of gender balance is not the only contentious issue to be discussed over the weekend of March 2-3. It looks like there will be some interesting debates over the euro and controversy is also likely around the way the SSP dealt with the war, our position on Palestine and the SSP's intervention in the anti-capitalist movement. Sarah McDonald