Labour socialists and SSP

Can Labour be reclaimed? Are avenues of dissent concreted over? Vince Mills secretary of the Campaign for Socialism - a group within the Scottish Labour Party - speaks to Mark Fischer

What is the Campaign for Socialism and what role does it play?

It began around the time of the attempt to get rid of clause four. There was a broad-based campaign in Scotland to resist that.

After the defeat of clause four, there was a real desire to continue fighting for a socialist position inside the party. Gradually, it has cohered. Initially, it was a very loose network - you would be invited to meetings informally, simply if someone knew you were on the left. We moved to a membership organisation and consolidated the funding for the campaign’s quarterly journal, The citizen. We also improved it as a publication - initially it was pretty amateur.

We now have around 100 members. We have a constitution that commits us to the transformation of society from capitalism to socialism. We are entirely open and up-front as an inner party group and usually organise events around Scottish party conference, our AGM in January and a late summer event.

And is there a wider layer of support for the campaign? Is the party in Scotland to the left of Labour elsewhere?

That’s a difficult question. I’ll give you an example. Perhaps people in Wales look to Scotland and think the party is a bit more left. But then, we in Scotland would look to the Welsh assembly elections and see that the more ‘real Labour’ position adopted by the party was to the left of the mainstream party in Scotland.

I get the same feeling when I look at England. If you simply ‘aggregate’ politics in England, then perhaps you might conclude that Scotland has a more social democratic, ‘welfarist’ approach. But if you take particular bits of England - the north east, or London - and make comparisons, then you could actually argue that these have more socialists on the ground with more support than us. So the picture is complex.

Also history changes. In one of the elections in the 1950s, for instance, over 50% in Scotland actually voted for the Tories. So, the decline of the Tories here has been comparatively recent in historical terms.

Rozanne Foyer - assistant secretary of the Scottish TUC and a member of the Campaign for Socialism - told us about the revolt at the Scottish Labour Party in March over the right to debate Iraq (Weekly Worker April 3). What has happened since?

Basically, quiet consolidation. One of the biggest pluses of that conference was the development of closer links between the unions that are prepared to take the leadership on, the CFS and other left-of-centre constituency Labour Party activists.

That involved us talking to each other before the conference, primarily discussing how we would get that Iraq debate. We were successful in referring back standing orders and getting it, although arguably we didn’t get the kind of discussion we wanted.

More positively, afterwards we organised a joint press conference, where leaders of Unison, GMB and other important unions sat with us on the platform. Since then, the dialogue has continued. The extent to which that has borne fruit waits to be seen in the levels of cooperation at the next Scottish Labour Party conference in late February next year.

Perhaps that cooperation will move to a new level of organisation - we might set up a Scottish version of what Mick Rix has advanced, a Labour Representation Committee, although whether we call it by the same name or ‘put a kilt on it’, depends on how the whole thing develops, of course. I certainly sense in the big public sector and service unions a continued desire to work with radical CLP activists who want change both in policy and in the democratic structures of the party.

How did you view the Bournemouth conference? Some on the left - the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Party in England and Wales, for example - either downplayed the revolt by the trade unions, or ignored it altogether.

Clearly, there were real signs of a change, although weaknesses remain. I shared with many others a real sense of disappointment with Derek Simpson’s contribution to the debate. I would have liked him to be a tad more ‘up an’ at ’em’. But other unions leaders are in opposition already. That was the real story of this conference and a boost to the left.

However, the CLPs are still very patchy in Scotland. Personally, I’m in Glasgow Kelvin CLP, which is actually quite active. The last branch meeting had 15 people at it - and oddly enough, we had a discussion on the structure of the party and the Scottish leadership’s idea that branches should be abolished. What that would do is destroy Labour as a political party. You would have US-style conventions of members to elect candidates, but you wouldn’t have a political community that talks to each other, develops and challenges ideas.

But, whereas in bits of Glasgow the party is alive and well - and quite leftwing in places - in areas of rural Scotland and even in other cities, that’s not the case. It’s much more characterised by dying branches and low political activity.

However, I’d hasten to add that this is not a new phenomenon for the Labour Party. To some extent, that’s always been the picture. Personally, I’d like to look at the impact of the disaffiliation of the Independent Labour Party in 1932. At that point, the ILP provided a real political community, right down to organising dances at the weekend.

When that ended with disaffiliation, I have a strong suspicion that the soul went out of the party to a certain extent, that it became much more of an electoral machine - although there have been attempts to reassert that kind of socialism in initiatives like the Socialist Fellowship and so on.

Many tend to view Labour as an empty shell - it comes alive for elections and little else.

That was precisely my experience growing up on a scheme in the north of Glasgow - which is probably why I joined the Communist Party. I didn’t actually know there was such a thing as the Labour Party - I knew there were Labour councillors and MPs, but I didn’t see any party life at all. Probably because there was none there to see.

Do you see the Scottish Socialist Party as a serious threat?

No, not really. It’s very difficult to be entirely objective here. Partly because I was in the Labour Party when Militant were behaving at their absolute worst - and that included Tommy Sheridan - who has since been sainted, of course.

In Glasgow, where they picked up about 15% of the vote in the Scottish parliament elections, they have a small, but genuine base and they expose the weakness of the mainstream labour movement. Everywhere else in Scotland, they scarcely feature. If - as some people are talking about - there was a move away from the ‘top up’ to a single transferable vote system for the Scottish parliament elections, then they would lose two seats based on their last performance.

In effect, their electoral performance is entirely dependent on PR. I sometimes think that unfavourable comparisons between the Socialist Alliance’s performance in England and Wales and the SSP fail to take that into account sufficiently. PR transforms what the left can do electorally.

You’re being too hard on the SSP (and not hard enough on the SA). PR is one aspect. But this organisation has succeeded in doing something that the left outside Labour in the rest of the country has palpably failed to - that is, to generate enthusiasm for a party project. It has some democracy, it has united important sections of the left without smothering them as distinct trends and it has an ambitious approach to politics. That’s its key lesson, surely?

I think you’ve just put your finger on the tension in its ranks. Is it is a revolutionary socialist party? If so, then clearly the kind of statements made by Rosie Kane, for example, where theory is denigrated in favour of a ‘campaignism’ - however worthy - is a real problem. How can a socialist party with a culture like that start to develop a theory of the socialist transformation of society, when most of its members are simply wrapped up in the latest campaigns?

There is a more profound problem. In order for them to be successful, in a sense they have to unravel the alliance between the trade unions and the CLPs. You need to get disaffiliation. If successful, how can you guarantee that disaffiliated unions will either affiliate to any political party, or necessarily put their newly freed funds into progressive cause? We could have a step away from politics, a regression to the situation before the Labour Party was actually founded. We have the example of the United States, which should act as a warning.

If you move to dissolve the alliance between the unions and Labour, on what basis do you assume that coming out the other end will be a progressive outcome? The SSP clearly have not thought that out. Indeed, when you read the book Imagine by Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes [see review Weekly Worker March 1 2001 - ed], it is extremely short on the strategic vectors for change. You get a good description of the ills of capitalism; you get a liberal - in the positive sense - vision of what socialism might look like: ie, it’s not statist, it allows for democratic initiative from below, etc. But the bit in between is missing - how do we get from here to there?

People accuse them of being Trotskyists but I don’t think so - they haven’t been clandestine about it, their leaders have been quite direct that they think these labels are not helpful any more. But one thing they seem to have retained is the sanguine assumption that the working class is pretty well up for - if not socialism - at least radical change.

They don’t acknowledge how difficult it is to win that. To get a more sober judgement, all we need to do is look at the number of people involved in the elections in the unions. 20% of the membership put Woodley in the leadership of the T&G. Just 15% put Kevin Curran of the GMB in. Mick Rix lost on a much bigger turnout. That’s my fear. The SSP underestimates the conservatism of many working class people.

Isn’t this where the question of the SSP’s nationalism comes in? It puts a left, socialistic tinge on aspects of the existing consciousness of the working class in Scotland - ie, nationalism.

What’s surprising and disappointing about this is that the Marxism that they must have espoused at some point tells us that nationalism is a historically constructed entity, designed to serve the interests of a particular class and its political project. In early 21st century capitalism, the kind of nationalism that can be forged today is of the kind we saw in Bosnia and to some extent in Northern Ireland. It’s regressive, often based on ethnicities and xenophobic fears of being ‘overwhelmed’.

I attended a Morning Star conference up here two weeks ago where Tommy Sheridan spoke. When I raised this, there was a real sensitivity. I suggested that, once you move towards nationalism, in order to define what a nation is, you have to define what it is not - you have to define the other. That opens the door to racism and chauvinism. That went down like a fart in a spacesuit, of course. But this is a serious question and they have not addressed it.

Lastly then, is the Labour Party really reclaimable? And reclaimable for what? Do we want a Labour left that replicates all the mistakes of the past, or is something new required?

So, we’re finishing with an easy question then …

First, people forget how quick politics can change. In the 1980s, the ranks of the Labour Party were full of radical and left ideas. That has been transformed over a decade or so. Logically, it must be possible to transform it in another direction - I don’t want to say ‘back’. In this, the trade unions will be key and they will have to move in a more combative direction simply because of what the neoliberalism of New Labour does to their members. To survive as trade unions, they must challenge what the government is doing to their rank and file - they are workers’ organisations so of necessity they are going to be pushed into opposition, with all the implications that will have for developments in the Labour Party itself.

Second, you’re right. There is a romantic view that there was a ‘golden age’ when party conferences were democratic and branches were vibrant and running exciting education programmes, etc.

Nonsense! Party conferences were stitched up by the union barons. Ordinary activists had damn near no say at all - you were lucky if you got three words in a composite somewhere. We do not want to return to that. Without being too prescriptive, we need to talk both to the unions and to the party activists to see what can be salvaged from the New Labour period that might be useful after it ends.

For example, policy forums that were properly democratic and allow for minority reports could be retained. These might allow for a more sustained dialogue about policy - we don’t need to go back to a system where you turn up at conference, the unions have already taken their position and you’re lucky if you get to second it. So I’m not arguing for a return to the past. That past was deeply flawed in terms of its democratic processes.

And the left outside Labour - are you simply calling on them to join?

From a purely pragmatic point of view, that would be very useful. The left inside the party is under strength and probably exhausted after 10 years of defensive politics.

More realistically, I think we have to work together to help generate radical constituencies in the wider community. All socialists will eventually benefit from a process like that.

If that tide comes in, then all our boats rise - the left in the party and outside.