Labour's Scottish rebel

Dundee East constituency of the Scottish Socialist Party has withdrawn its candidate, Harvey Duke, from the Scottish parliamentary elections on May 1. Party members and supporters will be urged instead to offer "critical" support for the sitting Labour MSP, John McAllion. The hope is that his voters will use their second vote for the SSP's list candidate. It is a gamble. But the SSP believes it will help it achieve 10% in the polls. Under the partial proportional representation system of voting this could mean the return of as many as seven more SSP MSPs to work alongside Tommy Sheridan in the Edinburgh parliament. The decision to withdraw from the election shocked many Dundee East members. They first heard the news at the branch meeting on March 2. Only five days before the declaration of candidates deadline. An emergency debate followed the announcement. Though there was a vote of eight to five to contest the election, not all of the membership had been informed. A further meeting was called. There existed some concern that comrade Duke - a leading member of the Committee for a Workers' International - had not declared his position earlier. Apparently he approached McAllion 10 days prior to the branch meeting. He did not first inform those who had selected him. All that was clear at this stage was that comrade Duke felt that his withdrawal as a candidate would give the sitting MSP, a popular leftwinger and campaigner, a stronger chance of retaining his seat. Feelings ran high. There was even talk of resignation. Hardly the mood to begin a campaign for what could be a major political breakthrough for socialists in Scotland. Five more members from the Dundee East constituency, as well as representatives from the other two local branches, attended the decisive meeting. This was one day before the declaration deadline. Comrades were faced with two options: support the withdrawal or select another candidate. SSP North East organiser, Duncan Rowan, opened with an account of 'secret' negotiations that had taken place in November 2002 with Tommy Sheridan (SSP national convenor), Alan McCombes (editor, Scottish Socialist Voice) and John McAllion. Because of McAllion's anti-war credentials, his support for the firefighters and his support for Tommy Sheridan in the Scottish parliament, comrades Sheridan and McCombes had attempted to persuade him again to join the SSP. It would appear at this stage McAllion was willing ... but not yet. By February he had agreed to join, and an announcement was planned at the SSP conference. The major stumbling block for McAllion had been the SSP's "long term goal to create an independent socialist Scottish republic" (SSP manifesto). This he now accepted along with the SSP's six fast track pledges: abolition of the council tax, provision of free school meals for all state school pupils, a £7.32 minimum wage for all public sector workers, a 35 hour maximum working week across the public sector, an end to PFI and private profiteering in public services and opposition to the war on Iraq. Just as the SSP leadership thought they had brought off a major political coup, he backed down. McAllion felt he would be deserting friends and connections in the Labour Party. Comrade Rowan explained that, because of the sensitive nature of the ongoing negotiations, the SSP leadership had insisted - understandably - on total secrecy. Full discussion within the party was not possible. Comrade Duke explained his position in terms of the implications for the working class throughout Dundee if the SSP were to oppose McAllion. It could result in a victory for the Scottish National Party, whose "Ginny come lately", "not without UN backing" support for the anti-war movement is anathema to socialists. Despite his reluctance to break from New Labour, McAllion's record at the Scottish parliament indicated he had a closer affinity to SSP policies than New Labour's. McAllion has consistently defied the official Labour line. He has been a vociferous and consistent opponent of the warmongers and supporter of the firefighters. Also he co-sponsored Sheridan's free school meals bill in the Scottish parliament and the SSP sponsored bill, which successfully abolished warrant sales. Comrade Duke concluded that McAllion is a principled socialist whose re-election would be a blow to Tony Blair and Jack McConnell (Labour first minister). It would be a victory for the anti-war movement and a victory for socialists. Discussion centred on whether the SSP should concern itself with the "fate" of Labour candidates. Mary Ward (of the left nationalist Republican Communist Network platform) passionately opposed the decision to stand down. She felt that as long as McAllion continued to be a Labour Party member, he should face rejections at the polls. That would be the fault of Labour's unpopularity, not the SSP. She also indicated that SNP candidate, Shona Robinson, had also indicated support for the anti-war movement and the firefighters. Comrade Ward would only countenance the SSP standing down if the Labour candidate accepted our platform of six key policies. Sarah McDonald (CPGB) argued that support for a Labour left candidate was possible given the nature of the Labour Party. It is still a bourgeois workers' party. There were wide forces within Labour who could be won over to socialist policies. McAllion has a good track record in supporting working class causes in the community and in the Scottish parliament. McAllion represents genuine working class sentiment. By approaching Labour lefts tactically and skilfully we could help bring about a new mass worker's party in Britain. McAllion should be asked to support the six key SSP election pledges. Comrade McDonald advocated active work in the constituency on behalf of McAllion to ensure that his election was seen as a victory for the left and the forces of socialism. This tactic would ensure that a principled MSP was returned and SSP "list" candidates would gain Labour supporters' second votes. Jim Barlow (Socialist Worker platform) spoke strongly against any support being offered to the Labour Party, whether conditional or otherwise. The SSP was the only anti-war party contesting the election and could not possibly support Blair's party. McAllion's election material was already circulating. It gave no indication of his disputes with the Labour leadership. Nor support for SSP policies. Ronnie Mejka (CPGB) advised that SSP support for John McAllion had to be critical. We would support his record as an MSP. But not the record of the anti-working class Labour Party. In order to build a socialist alternative to New Labour, we had to seek out working class allies within the Labour left. The anti-war movement had sparked off the Labour Against the War conference and inspired a grassroots rebellion against "stage-managing" and open debate at the Scottish Labour Party conference. There was strong evidence that other Labour MPs and MSPs are ready to risk expulsion. We should support them. Philip Stott (CWI) stressed the importance of retaining a socialist presence in Dundee East. He re-emphasised the contribution McAllion had made to the working class movement. The forthcoming contest was expected to be extremely close. With comrade Duke possibly polling around 1,000 votes, local firefighters openly declaring their refusal to support Labour ever again and mass public opinion against Blair's' invasion of Iraq, the haemorrhaging of New Labour support could lead to McAllion's narrow, 2,000 majority, being overturned. Maximising the socialist vote was crucial to the aim of building a mass workers' party. McAllion was part of the movement and his continued presence in the Scottish parliament was essential. The call by CWI comrades to back McAllion flies in the face of the dogmatic insistence that the Labour Party is dead terrain for socialist intervention. By the same measure, the SW platform position of no support for Labour under any circumstances contrasts bizarrely with the previous position of auto-Labourism. A final vote was taken. Those in favour of withdrawing the SSP candidate won by the narrowest margin. Revolutionary socialists and communists throughout Britain would be well advised to fully debate the issues raised in Dundee. They have far wider significance. Ronnie Mejka