Serious concerns

It has always been a trademark of the SSP, and before its foundation the Scottish Socialist Alliance, that we have been able to bring together socialists from different traditions into a united party. This unity has not come naturally to the left. It involved socialists and socialist organisations making a determined and sustained effort over several years to work towards achieving and maintaining unity. The party has been pleased to eventually welcome the Socialist Worker platform into its ranks. There is no doubting the energy, experience and commitment that the comrades from the SW platform have brought to the party. On every big issue there has been agreement on core principles - from taking a clear anti-imperialist position on anti-war activities to the importance of solidarity with the FBU. Of course, there are differences over tactics and emphasis, but these are the sort of discussions that should be easily accommodated in an open, democratic and pluralist party like the SSP. Given that the Socialist Workers Party was consistently hostile to this unity project until shortly before the SWP members in Scotland joined the party, we have always been aware of the potential difficulties maintaining such a spirit of unity. This is why a set of guidelines was agreed on how the SW platform should operate within the party. It is, therefore, with deep disappointment that we are now forced into a position where we have to write to express our serious concerns over the ongoing activities of the SW platform. Build-up to the current problems The SSP has been aware that the SW platform did not have prior experience in working in a unified manner with others on the left. Likewise much of the SSP had little or no experience of working with the SWP. It was always anticipated that there would be teething problems - and there were. However, there was the political goodwill all round to discuss the problems and to work to overcome them. Now, more than 18 months after the SWP joined the party in Scotland, the problems are of a different order. The SW platform steering committee now knows that it will considerably raise tensions in the party if it bypasses party structures and launches independent initiatives linked to the SWP in England and Wales. In October, at the request of the SSP executive, there was an informal meeting between representatives of the SSP executive and the SW platform steering committee. This took place after increased tensions in the party over the nature of SW platform activity over the summer. The SSP EC was concerned that the SW platform had been operating outwith the spirit of the unity agreement. We believed this was confirmed by the tone and approach taken in SW Platform Notes distributed to its members. After the informal discussion, it was then reported to the October EC that there was a possibility that the SW platform would now work in closer cooperation with the rest of the party in the build-up to the May elections. Unfortunately, this has not happened. Background importance of the FBU struggle The firefighters' strike is the most significant national trade union struggle since the miners' strike. The stakes are huge in terms of the wider class struggle. It is clear that the government wants to dampen down general expectations over public sector pay, pave the way for further privatisations and take on and smash one of the most organised and determined trade unions in the country. The New Labour government has itself politicised the strike by declaring the dispute as a litmus test for the entire public sector. Simpson's reference to the firefighters as fascists and Raynsford's description of them as criminals are just the more colourful expressions of New Labour's determination to crush the trade unions. The SSP has been at the forefront of organising support for the firefighters. We have agreed with the FBU in Scotland a comprehensive range of solidarity activities that the party should be involved with, building support in workplaces, trade unions, communities and support groups. We have supported FBU activities and rallies and also held impressive SSP rallies (for example, around 250 attended the SSP solidarity rally in Partick Burgh Halls). The trust and respect that the rank and file firefighters and the FBU leadership in Scotland have for the SSP is clear. The FBU have invited Tommy Sheridan onto their public platforms, have publicly spoken warmly of the SSP and are happy to speak at SSP meetings. Indeed, the question of the trade unions breaking the Labour-union link has been explicitly raised from the platform of their national rally. FBU Scottish officials have been openly speculating in the media that, due to rank and file pressure, the FBU could ditch its links with Labour and support the SSP. This dispute, in addition to being crucial in immediate terms, has huge longer-term significance for trade unionists and trade unions drawing lessons about the role of the New Labour Party and the need for a clear socialist alternative. At times like this it is crucial that the party takes the opportunity to discuss its solidarity role, comes to a clear position on what should be done and then operates in a serious, determined, coordinated and united manner. The SSP has always been proud of its record as a class-struggle combat party that has open discussion then unites together in the struggle. SW platform launches independent initiatives The SW platform will certainly agree with the rest of the party on the importance of this dispute. The SW platform has also agreed a set of guidelines "¦ which indicates how unity of the SW platform and the rest of the party can best be achieved. The SW platform participated in the SSP national council where the party's solidarity role with the firefighters was agreed without any opposition. On the surface then there should be little room for confusion and division over the solidarity work of the party as a whole, including the SW platform. However, in practice, independently of the SSP, the SW platform steering committee has been organising its own parallel intervention around the FBU strike. The SW platform has been organising around the Red Watch paper in street activity, public rallies, fire station pickets and ongoing communications with individual firefighters. This has usually been at the expense of the intervention around the party paper and the SSP bulletin, the Firefighters Voice. The SW platform basically is organising and coordinating activity as if it is a separate party and one in competition with the SSP. SWP (England and Wales) discussed and planned the use of Red Watch - so why were the SSP membership denied the opportunity? The SW platform did not even make an attempt to first engage in a discussion with the rest of the party over the use of Red Watch. At the November 17 national council, papers from SSP industrial organiser Richie Venton, outlining the solidarity role of the party, were passed unanimously. Yet, the SW platform did not seek support through party structures where it is represented - branches, trade union committee, national council and executive committee - that the SSP should publicly promote Red Watch. Party members have instead turned up to public events to discover that the SW platform is not working with the rest of the party, but is working on a line of its own. SW platform members did take part in a recent session of the SWP (England and Wales) annual conference where Red Watch was discussed and promoted as part of the industrial strategy of the SWP in England and Wales. All the SSP knew about Red Watch, through having an observer at the SWP conference in London, prior to the SW platform publicly distributing it in Scotland, was that it was one of several papers promoted by the SWP at their annual conference. As well as Red Watch there is The Class Issue (for teachers), The Post Worker, The Health Worker, Civil Unrest (civil servants), etc. Even where there is agreement on what to do around the firefighters' strike, there have been difficulties. For example, the SSP is for building support groups. The recent NC agreed that there should be support groups, coordinated on a city-wide basis when appropriate. Even here, SW platform comrades have been centrally involved in setting up localised support groups, without the coordination agreed at the NC and, incredibly, sometimes without even prior discussion with the appropriate SSP branch organisers. These actions breed confusion and are unnecessarily divisive. Why there should have been prior discussion in the party With regard to Red Watch, there are several points that are valid questions for discussion within the SSP prior to its launch. Red Watch is a declared rank and file firefighters' paper. But it does not represent an already existing organised left current within the FBU. SSP members of the FBU were not approached about it prior to it being sold by SW platform members (who by and large are not members of the FBU). This is a very serious point: why make no effort whatsoever to consult with SSP firefighters before deciding how to build a rank and file movement in Scotland? Does the SW platform really believe that the line on Red Watch agreed by the SWP conference in England automatically takes precedence over the opinions of other party members and firefighters in Scotland? The party has a clear position around solidarity with the FBU in Scotland. The SSP must always be willing to put its own position and be willing, if necessary, to criticise any trade union leadership. But we must bear in mind that Tony Blair and the Labour government have launched a direct attack on the entire FBU, including its leadership, which it describes as Scargillite. Compared to many other trade union leaderships, the FBU leadership in Scotland have a tremendous record on a wide range of trade union and wider political issues (eg, support for Scottish Campaign against Privatisation, Anti-Nazi League, Chhokar Family Justice Campaign, etc). In these concrete circumstances, our emphasis is not to build a left opposition inside the FBU to its leadership in Scotland. Therefore, why should party members who are not even FBU members be making their main intervention selling Red Watch rather then distributing the SSP's own Firefighters Voice (which is openly the bulletin of the SSP)? At the very least this is a point that the SW platform comrades should have been willing to raise and discuss. The SWP in England and Wales appears, in its approach to the firefighters' dispute, to be underestimating the opportunity of building the Socialist Alliance. The Socialist Alliance has some good leaflets and posters but, as will be confirmed by a quick glance through the Socialist Worker paper, the main emphasis of the SWP is certainly not on working through the Socialist Alliance. Conclusions on the SW platform actions in the firefighters dispute * The SW platform does not appear to be willing to work in a unified manner along the lines agreed in the guidelines. * The SW platform has ensured that there has been no possibility of a united SSP intervention in a dispute as important as the current firefighters' strikes. This is unhelpful to building effective solidarity. * The SW platform by its action clearly believes that the line of the SWP in England and Wales should be implemented in Scotland. So why not try to convince the rest of the party? Perhaps the SW platform is not confident that this line would stand up to scrutiny within the SSP? Maybe the SW platform is more concerned about getting a few more people persuaded about their line (and recruited to the SW platform) rather than trying to influence the party as a whole? * The SW platform appears to deliberately bypass the structures of the SSP when it has doubts over whether the SSP will accept its position. * It as very difficult to avoid the conclusion that the SW platform is simply following the position of the SWP in England and Wales as if it is still part of the SWP. Breakdown of trust and growing friction within the party Different individuals and branches will have different experiences of the problem. Many SW platform members on an individual basis continue to play a very positive role. The problems arise when the SW platform steering committee directs its members towards a particular line of work without reference to party structures or agreed priorities. In some cases, this has led to a severe breakdown of trust and very difficult working relations within the party. The unhealthy atmosphere has a negative impact on party activity, as it encourages an unofficial division of labour, with the SW platform and other party members tending to concentrate on different campaigns. Branch members around the country have been noting, and often complaining of, SW platform comrades working to their own agenda without reference to the party branch or priorities. SW platform members frequently organise meetings where the only SSP speakers are from the SW platform. More and more SSP members are being left with the impression that the SW platform is first and foremost interested in building itself and the initiatives it chooses to initiate. There is a real danger that at a time when the party is gearing up for an historic breakthrough in the Scottish elections in six months times, the actions of the SW platform, no matter their intention, are causing confusion, division and poor morale. The party is currently working to deliver one million bulletins to Scottish households but, with a few heroic exceptions, the SW platform does not appear to be throwing their weight behind this. At a time when it is more important than ever for the party to try to pull together and work in a systematic, coordinated manner, the SW platform appears to be withdrawing cooperation with the rest of the party. Is the SW platform willing to think, discuss and act in a Scottish context or is it committed to routinely following the line of the SWP England and Wales? The unity project in Scotland has formally existed at least since 1995 and, through joint campaigning and socialist forums, the process was underway even earlier. Through most of this time the SWP in Scotland was openly hostile to the unity process. It is ironic that the SWP in Scotland only became interested in joining the SSP after the SWP in England had some modest success, achieving 1.6% of the vote across the city, working with the London Socialist Alliance at the assembly elections in 2000. With the SWP subsequently resolving to work through the Socialist Alliances in England in the build-up to the 2001 Westminster election, the SWP finally agreed to respond to the SSP's unity advances. Even then it was noteworthy that the unity discussions were conducted between representatives of the SSP EC and the SWP London-based leadership. There has always been a tendency for the SW platform comrades to want to work along the lines of the SWP in England and Wales. In many ways this is understandable. However, as the tactics of the SWP have started to diverge more and more away from prioritising building the Socialist Alliance in England towards the Stop the War Coalition, Globalise Resistance, Red Watch, etc, this has obviously posed a challenge to the SW platform. How does the SW platform adjust when they are part of a unified party in Scotland? In England and Wales, the SWP has developed a political line that says the Socialist Alliance is one united front (albeit of a special kind) among many that the SWP will work through. We believe that this policy is mistaken and is partly responsible for the lack of development of the Socialist Alliance in England. There is a price to pay for the lack of a strong, unified socialist political force in England. In Scotland the SSP has established itself as the major radical force to the left of the pro-business parties, achieving in opinion polls over the last 18 months between 5% and 9% support nationally. The Socialist Alliance in England clearly does not have the same breadth and depth of support. In England, the Greens have been clearly outpolling the Socialist Alliance in most elections. Far more dangerous has been the rise in support of the nazi BNP in England, whilst in Scotland they are still very marginal and isolated "¦. Political direction of the SW platform's international tendency The SW platform is part of an international tendency, the International Socialist Tendency, with the main party being the SWP England and Wales. This international tendency is well known for working in similar ways in different countries. After the SWP decided to support the Socialist Alliances in England, this approach was taken up in other countries. For example, the International Socialist Organisation in Australia supported the creation of a Socialist Alliance in Australia. However, with the SWP in England now appearing to rule out that the Socialist Alliances should prepare for working towards a unified pluralist party and instead concentrate on a range of united front tactical activity, there has been a noticeable shift internationally, and not just in Scotland. In Australia, the Democratic Socialist Party is the largest component of the SA. The DSP has proposed that it stops operating as a party and instead becomes a tendency inside the SA. DSP staff and resources would then, after discussion and agreement with the rest of the SA, be at the disposal of the SA. In some ways, although clearly not in an identical situation, this could be compared to the approach of Scottish Militant Labour/International Socialist Movement at the time of the launch of the SSP. The Australian counterpart of the SW platform has responded by saying that if the DSP votes for this at their congress, they will pull out of the SA. Basically, it appears to be the case that they would prefer that the SA unity project be damaged rather than allow a deepening of the process. If the approach is typical of the thinking inside the international tendency which the SW platform is part of, then this is a very worrying development for other socialists internationally, including the SSP. SWP constitutional position The SW platform steering committee may not be experienced in working in a pluralist party but it is well used to the arguments for the importance of a party uniting in the struggle. * The SWP England and Wales constitution states: "Permanent or secret factions are not allowed." Temporary factions are permitted during pre-conference debates, but even here their documents "must be circulated through the national office". * "The SWP is democratic centralist because the revolutionary party must be a disciplined, activist, combat organisation. It is democratic in reaching its decisions and centralist in carrying them out." * "The lower bodies of the party are subordinated to higher bodies and all are subordinate to the delegate conference." * "A member is one who ... works within and under the direction of the appropriate bodies of the organisation." * "The branch structures "¦ direct the work of the branch and its members within the framework of national policy." Therefore, there can be little doubt that the SW platform steering committee is well versed in the arguments in favour of unity in action. Indeed, the SWP England and Wales would simply expel any members who, without prior agreement within the SWP, organised campaigns on the political lines of another party. However, the SSP is an open, democratic and inclusive party. We prefer to deal with problems politically rather than through bureaucratic expulsions. Summary In these circumstances, the SSP EC is formally asking for a written response from the SW platform steering committee to the following points: * Is the SW platform still committed to the long-term building of the SSP as a mass socialist party? * Does the SW platform accept that the SSP is a unified political party and not a united front (even one of a special kind)? If so, does the SW platform accept that there are then obligations on the SW platform to discuss issues through the SSP rather than automatically operating in the same way as the SWP in England does with the Socialist Alliance? * Does the SW platform agree to work according to the guidelines agreed by the SWP and SSP prior to the SW platform joining the party? * Does the SW platform agree that it is vital for the SSP to have a unified and coordinated campaign around issues such as solidarity with the firefighters? Will the SW platform agree to this? * Will the SW platform give an undertaking to discuss political issues (eg, the use of Red Watch) within the party and not simply launch initiatives in Scotland that have been decided by the SWP in England and Wales? At the Holyrood elections in six months, the party is poised to make an historic advance for socialism. This will be another huge step forward in our march towards the building of a mass party. The positive effects of a team of socialist MSPs being elected will be felt well beyond Scotland. We believe that the actions of the SW platform steering committee are disruptive, divisive and damaging. In the current period these actions are quite simply reckless. We hope that the SW platform will take this opportunity to carefully reflect on its actions and its relations with the rest of the party. We call on the SW platform to adopt an honest, open and constructive approach. We appeal to the SW platform to actively work for a united Scottish Socialist Party. Allan Green December 1 2002 Letter from the SW platform steering committee Reply to Allan Green Dear Allan Your letter of December 1 is a serious complaint about the conduct of the SW platform. The SW platform has been accused of activities in relation to the firefighters' strike, which supposedly result from our implementing the strategy of the SWP in England and Wales rather than that of the SSP. In particular, SW platform members are said to have promoted the rank and file paper Red Watch rather than SSP publications, to have built united front local support groups and meetings rather than SSP city-wide ones, and to have abstained from delivering the SSP election bulletin. You claim that, "The SW platform basically is organising and coordinating activity as if it is a separate party and one in competition with the SSP." You also claim that "these actions breed confusion and are unnecessarily divisive". None of this is true. The SW platform is entirely committed to building the SSP and to securing maximum representation in the Scottish parliament. We have not done anything that contradicts SSP policy. We have not done anything that contravenes SSP membership guidelines. We have not done anything that breaches the agreement that the SWP and SSP reached when SWP members joined the SSP in Scotland. We have not sold SW platform literature in public, nor have we used SSP public meetings to promote either our platform or the International Socialist Tendency. We are therefore concerned that your letter is part of an attempt to portray SW platform members as not playing a full part in the build-up to the elections, and more seriously of undermining the unity of socialists in the SSP. SW platform members' activities, along with other SSP comrades, over the period of the firefighters' strike have been focussed on building both solidarity for the firefighters and support for the SSP. It would have been more in keeping with the dictates of natural justice had we been asked to provide evidence that this is not the case before you wrote your letter and presented it to the EC, or issued it to the email list. However, instead of inviting us to respond and then considering the evidence on both sides, you have taken it upon yourself to play the role of judge and jury in simply deciding that the accusations are true. When we hear of such practices in our trade unions or the Labour Party, socialists have rightly been the first to complain. Our attitude to the SSP is not, as you claim, to treat it as a kind of united front (even if one of a 'special type'); it is to build the party as a political alternative to Labour in Scotland and as a space for socialist discussion and organisation. But we should be very clear at the same time that the alternative we seek to build is not only electoral. We do not counterpose strike solidarity work to the election campaign. They all strengthen each other. The four-page SSP election broadsheet is good precisely because it addresses wider issues. It is the firefighters' strike, however, which has brought a number of extremely important political issues - such as the difference between rank and file and broad left strategies and the proper relationship between socialists and the trade union bureaucracy - into sharp focus. But rather than open up debate on these issues, your paper, which you purport to have the backing of the EC, appears to be attempting to block off discussion by bureaucratic fiat. In other words, any positions which are contrary to the views of the 'majority' will simply be dismissed as manifestations of SW platform activity, and so discussion and debate can be avoided. But national conference is the sovereign policy-making body of the SSP, not the executive committee or the national council, whose role, as the constitution states, is to 'implement' conference policy. We do not feel our actions have contradicted in any way the spirit of building a new type of 'inclusive, pluralist party'. However, unfortunately, the behaviour and attitude of some SSP members have led to some of our platform comrades feeling alienated within the party. We would prefer differences of opinion to be solved by political discussion and debate, not hectoring, which some of our, in particular, younger comrades have experienced. The SSP's sovereign body, the national conference, supports the building of rank and file organisations in our unions. The motion passed at conference 2002 noted the "growth of left organisations within the unions, which offer a strategy based on rank and file militancy and a challenge to the bureaucracy". It further called for "the SSP to have an orientation on the unions and play a leading role in the development of rank and file organisations", including many of those explicitly referred to in your letter. The platform upholds this policy - does the EC? As far as the leadership of the FBU is concerned, our attitude should not be to oppose (or support) the FBU leadership for the sake of it, but rather (in the words of the Clyde Workers Committee in 1915) that, "We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them "¦ We can act immediately according to the merits of the case and the desire of the rank and file." This is a central part of the socialist tradition, and one Scottish precedent which should be much more widely known about and acted on in the SSP. SW platform members have worked with the leadership of the FBU in Scotland for many years - both before we joined the SSP and since, as SSP members. At the same time it is unfortunate that the FBU EC voted to suspend the strikes and previously backed Andy Gilchrist at FBU conference in opposing a motion from Socialist Alliance supporters (Matt Wrack, etc) on democratising the political fund, which is also SSP policy. Are you saying that these decisions are above criticism? This is the context in which Red Watch has been produced. Red Watch is a rank and file paper set up by FBU stewards from Clerkenwell and Dowgate London fire stations in the early summer (well before the dispute), although the calling off of the strike by the FBU executive has only underlined the need for the rank and file to organise independently. Red Watch continues to be written by and for firefighters and control staff. It is not an SWP paper or indeed that of any particular party. Labour Party, SWP, SSP and no-party firefighters contribute. Andy Gilchrist has contributed twice, as have Ronnie Robertson, who is the ex-chair of Strathclyde FBU and other Scottish firefighters. Both George Galloway and Tony Benn have contributed, as have Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary, and RMT leader Bob Crow. It is of course a UK-wide publication because the union organises across the UK, and the dispute is with the government in Westminster. We believe it would be a serious mistake not to embrace Red Watch. The FBU is a UK-wide trade union and Red Watch reflects this in a way which Scottish Socialist Voice cannot, by including articles written by firefighters from different political backgrounds the length and breadth of the UK "¦. As noted above, it is SSP conference policy to support rank and file papers. Are you saying, in disregard of this policy, that SSP members are not allowed to take part in rank and file organisations within the trade unions? Would you tell SSP members in Amicus not to contribute or promote the Engineers Gazette or our CWU members to dissociate themselves from the network of rank and file activists based around Post Worker? We believe not to participate in these forums is tantamount to operating in a sectarian manner. Unbelievably, SW platform members have been condemned for helping to establish local firefighters support groups. Whilst welcoming and participating in the Glasgow city-wide SSP meeting, we also helped, along with other SSP members, to set up local united front support groups. The two types of meetings should not be counterposed, but should be perceived as both contributing towards supporting the firefighters and indeed raising the profile of the SSP. We are shocked that our involvement in local support groups is being perceived by your paper as detrimental to the firefighters and to the SSP "¦. Finally two other issues you raise. Firstly on the distribution of the election bulletin. Our comrades take great offence at the suggestion that we have not been involved in its distribution. We have not only welcomed it, but have also played a full part in its distribution in all regions of the country .We will continue to do so. Your comment that there only are a "few honourable exceptions" is inaccurate and insulting to all those in our platform who have worked hard to get them out. Secondly on your criticisms of the Socialist Alliance and the International Socialist Tendency, we suggest you take these matters up with them directly. We fail to understand what this has got to do with us. Conclusion The criticisms of the SW platform therefore amount to two 'crimes'. We built united front local support groups for the firefighters and we promoted the rank and file paper Red Watch. These two activities hardly merit the harsh condemnations and accusations that we are presently experiencing. We joined the SSP on the basis that it was a "democratic, pluralist socialist party", in which different points of view could be expressed. That is the party we joined and which we seek to build. We further recognise that political debate is crucial to developing a clear strategy. We therefore believe that issues as important as the correctness, or otherwise, of a rank and file approach should be debated openly and fraternally in the pages of Scottish Socialist Voice and not the subject of discussions behind closed doors "¦