Left unity and separatism

This weekend the national conference of the Scottish Socialist Party will witness its first outing post-Tommy Sheridan and will allow us to judge how well it has weathered the convulsions of the last few months

The party will be choosing a new convenor and ostensibly the contest between Alan McCombes and Colin Fox, both from the same platform, offers little in the way of ideological contrast. In fact the outcome turns on issues - the manner in which Tommy Sheridan was forced to resign, the role of the parliamentary party, the place in it of the party's outspoken women MSPs, the balance between the party's regional structures - that could make a significant difference to the SSP's future evolution. Many socialists in England and Wales have long seen the SSP as a model of left unity and its conference takes place a week after the Socialist Alliance was finally laid to rest - albeit with a large majority of those attending the funeral urging that the life support system be switched back on. At Respect's conference in October it became clear that the SWP was not much interested in uniting with other organised socialist groups. Since then most SA branches have barely met. With Respect, right now election campaigning is everything; a vibrant internal party life is seen as a positive hindrance. After the general election even Respect's current limited purpose will disappear. Despite the difficulties experienced by the SSP, the party will continue to offer important lessons, as various socialist groups manoeuvre to relaunch a unity project south of the border - whether the Socialist Green Unity Coalition, the United Socialist Party or the SADP-sponsored March 12 conference in Birmingham. In this article I will look at developments in the SSP in the light of current debates among those socialists in England and Wales still serious about unity. Left unity Compared with the fragmentation of the political spectrum left of the Labour Party south of the border, the achievement of the SSP in the six years since it was launched as a party has been remarkable. Just to list the groups brought together within the SSP is to make the point. The Scottish sections of the Committee for a Workers' International and the Socialist Workers Party, for instance, who barely manage a nodding acquaintance in England. Also the International Socialist Movement, a majority split from the CWI, the Republican Communist Network of Allan Armstrong and Mary Ward, the nationalist Scottish Republican Socialist Movement and the anti-nationalist Workers Unity platform, composed of the Critique group and the Alliance for Workers' Liberty. In addition, the SSP has attracted prominent individuals. From the Labour Party, for instance, Allan Green, SSP national secretary, and former MSP Hugh Kerr. From the Communist Party tradition such as Bill Bonnar. More recently defections from the Scottish National Party have seen figures such as former MSP Lloyd Quinn come on board. And of course the SSP has secured the affiliation of the Scottish region of the RMT. Alliance versus party In England over the coming months and years the debate about how to bring together socialists will involve proposals for a range of structures: networks (such as the Socialist Unity Network), federal structures (such as those proposed by the SGUC), alliances, and calls for a rapid movement towards a fully-fledged party. The Liverpool-based United Socialist Party has moved quickly to set up a party - with a limited geographical reach for now - that makes no allowance for internal platforms or tendencies. Others propose a multi-tendency party along the lines of the SSP. In Scotland in 1998 there was considerable resistance to moves to relaunch the Scottish Socialist Alliance as a party. It was feared that Scottish Militant Labour would dominate to the exclusion of other voices. Subsequently, most doubters have acknowledged that the formation of a party with full rights to organise as platforms successfully transformed the trajectory of the socialist unity project in Scotland. The SSA did allow a breathing space in which socialists from different traditions could discuss their differing perspectives and begin to work together. But branch structures in the alliance were rudimentary and usually ineffective, as most participating groups continued to prioritise the building of their own organisations. In the 1997 general election the SSA stood in every Glasgow seat, but outside of Tommy Sheridan's Pollok constituency, received just a handful of votes. In purely electoral terms the experience of Scottish Militant Labour in the early to mid-1990s, in the immediate aftermath of the anti-poll tax campaign, when SML held several council seats, was more positive. The SSA represented the launching of a process of left regroupment. However, the process needed to move forward if its potential was not to be lost. The role of Scottish Militant Labour in providing the newly-launched party with a newspaper, a party office and a number of full-time organisers was crucial to the success of the new project. The election of Tommy Sheridan in May 1999 as the party's sole MSP gave the party a national profile that allowed it to establish branches and bases of support throughout Scotland. Today the SSP boasts six MSPs, scores of branches and 3,000 members. The constitution deploys the single transferable vote to ensure political minorities are represented on party delegations and committees from branch level to the executive committee, and 50-50 gender representation on the party's election lists has led to four out of six of its MSPs being women. Republicanism and independence Dave Craig of the Revolutionary Democratic Group promotes the objective of a republican socialist party - preceded, if necessary, by a republican socialist alliance. By this formulation comrade Craig means a party that prioritises both socialism and democratic demands, which in the UK requires a focus on the unelected head of state and the unaccountable crown prerogatives exercised by the prime minister. Comrade Craig points to the SSP (and sometimes Sinn Féin) as an example of a republican socialist party. For much of its history the SSP's campaigning has unremittingly focussed on what are described as 'bread and butter' issues: council tax and the proposed Scottish service tax, free school meals and, more recently, the abolition of prescription charges. These campaigns have centred on bills introduced by its MSPs and aim to meet the core concerns of the party's potential supporters. Especially in the period before the May 2003 Scottish parliamentary elections, they enabled the party to consolidate and build on its heartland support in working class communities across Scotland. Certainly, though, there has been a republican theme to many of the SSP's most memorable public moments. Tommy Sheridan's raised fist when swearing the loyal oath in order to enter the Scottish parliament in 1999. And in 2003 Rosie Kane's jeans and "my oath is to the people" scribbled on the palm of her hand and Colin Fox's singing of 'A man's a man for a' that'. The anti-jubilee party on Glasgow Green to mark the 50th anniversary of the queen's coronation. The Calton Hill declaration and boycott of the official royal opening of the new Scottish parliament building last October. At its first conferences the SSP promised a referendum on the monarchy in which it would campaign for "a modern democratic republic, freed from all vestiges of feudalism", rejecting RCN proposals to make the party's commitment to republicanism a non-negotiable consequence of taking office. Now the SSP adopts a bolder stance on the issue. In the 2003 Holyrood election manifesto the second section is headed 'For a free socialist republic'. No mention of the need for a referendum. However, the cause to which the SSP's republicanism is invariably linked is Scottish independence. It is a Scottish, not a British republic to which the SSP aspires. And with the launch of the Independence Convention initiative in August 2003, the SSP is formally committed to an independent capitalist Scotland as a progressive step forward. The article by Gregor Gall, 'Scotland, social trends and socialists' (Weekly Worker January 27) focussed on the degree of Scottish identity and levels of support for independence revealed in social attitude polling over many years. The argument is often made in the SSP that the party's core constituency - young people and the poor - shows above-average support for independence. Actually no group demonstrates majority support. Indeed among trade unionists and Labour voters it is weaker than for most Scots. Furthermore, support for independence fluctuates quite sharply and in recent years has fallen. Of course, if independence were a necessary step in advancing the cause of socialism, current levels of support would be of relevance only in plotting future campaigns. But the SSP's emphasis on independence actually has the potential to damage the fight for socialism. Workers in Scotland and England face a common enemy: a capitalist state that is one of the oldest and most resolute in the world; a capitalist state that 25 years ago took the lead in privatising public services and industries and attacking the rights and conditions of workers; a capitalist state that serves as junior partner to US imperialism and that currently plays a vital role alongside the US in enforcing the imperialist occupation of Iraq. Rather than striving to unite workers and socialists to fight that state, almost all the SSP's campaigns are centred exclusively on Scotland. Whether the campaign is on the war in Iraq, republicanism, privatisation, the council tax, even rail renationalition, the SSP makes little effort to unite the efforts of Scottish, Welsh and English workers in fighting the same capitalist state and class. In every case there is a separate Scottish and English/Welsh campaign (sometimes just a campaign in Scotland) and attempts at coordination are minimal. Instead the leadership of the SSP gambles everything on the prospect of an independence majority in the Scottish parliament and winning a referendum on independence - on breaking up the British state (and leaving its constituent parts just as capitalist), rather than working to launch a full-frontal united working class assault on that state. In the meantime, a working class that has fought many all-Britain struggles throughout the last 100 years is left without an all-Britain socialist leadership. Gregor Gall argues that the unity of the working class and its unions would not be damaged (although some in the SSP seek separate Scottish unions), but surely the unity of socialists should not lag behind that of the working class. There is a Scottish nation and the Scottish people have the right to choose independence if they wish. The lack of any clear mechanism for such a wish to be expressed is surely an affront to Scotland's right to self-determination. As a solution to this democratic failing, the RDG, CPGB and AWL propose a federal republic. The right of the Scottish parliament to determine its own relationship with the rest of the UK would achieve much the same result. But the general right to self-determination of nations does not mean that it must always be exercised in favour of separation. Where a working class faces the same conditions and must solve the same problems, socialists have no business splitting their forces in the face of the common enemy. Reformists and revolutionaries What is the nature of the party we seek to build? What should be the relationship in it between revolutionaries and reformists? Most would argue that an alliance or party of left unity needs to position itself to attract disillusioned 'reformists' from the Labour Party - and in Scotland from the SNP. 'Revolutionaries' can organise in their platforms, compete with each other to demonstrate the most revolutionary credentials, seek to recruit to their ranks, and, from time to time, take pleasure in out-manoeuvring the other revolutionaries, but must hold back from seeking to impose their full programme on the party. The trouble with this model is that it fails to challenge either the reformists or, more crucially, the revolutionaries to examine how we have reached the current impasse - a labour and socialist movement weakened by a neoliberal offensive at the very time when, objectively, the case for socialism has never been stronger. It is no good trying to build a Labour Party mark two. There already is a Labour Party, at which the trade unions cast half the votes at its conference, control two-thirds of the seats on its national executive and are allotted a sizeable quota of places on its policy forums. Yet this is a party that competes with the Conservative opposition to promote the most reactionary policies on immigration and human rights, that pursues a blatantly neoliberal economic and social agenda, and that took Britain into an imperialist war against unprecedented popular opposition. At every turn New Labour is able to outwit its trade union 'allies'. A return to old Labour is not an option, for old Labour gave birth, after many twists and turns, to New Labour. A similar configuration of economic and socialism would be likely to lead to same degeneration. In any event, our task must be to build a socialist party committed to socialist transformation, inclusive of different socialist traditions, serious about developing socialist theory so that it is better prepared to face the challenges ahead. But 'revolutionaries' also need to be challenged, for no revolutionary sect has succeeded in building a viable socialist alternative to the tradition of Labourism. Undemocratic and bureaucratic practices must be shed. Open debate and tolerance of different theoretical perspectives are essential. Jack Conrad's call for Gregor Gall to be expelled by the Socialist Worker platform may succeed in embarrassing the SWP, but will hardly help promote debate within either the SWP or SSP (Weekly Worker January 27). The SSP has progressed down the road of an inclusive socialist party, but many issues remain to be resolved. The party is yet to really campaign on socialism. Sometimes it is suggested that campaigns such as for the Scottish service tax are a way of explaining the basics of socialism. But progressive taxation is hardly a significant aspect of the thorough-going transformation of society that is involved in the creation of socialism. I have heard Tommy Sheridan warn of an even rougher ride from the media when we promise to nationalise the banks, which begs the question, why not make such promises now? No doubt some in the leadership have a conception of building the strength of the party in stages and making increasingly radical or revolutionary demands at each stage in the party's development. The problem is that this strategic vision is not communicated to the membership. A membership immersed in more limited demands may not take kindly (or even understand) a turn to a more 'challenging' approach. Similarly when Gregor Gall talks about the leadership's "transitional" approach, a party structure is implied in which leaders do the thinking and the membership broadly follows. Such a stark division of labour is the danger in a party that accepts a division in its ranks between reformists and revolutionaries, or, as the International Socialist Group is fond of describing the SSP, "a small mass socialist party with a Marxist leadership". Theoretical work and strategic thinking must become the property of the whole party, not just its leadership. To this end the SSP's long-awaited theoretical/discussion magazine should become a vital instrument in the development of the party. Indeed, since the high point of May 2003, the SSP's sense of direction has been generally less assured. Membership figures have remained stubbornly static, electoral support has not risen - the May 2004 European elections were relatively disappointing. For the first time in its short history, the SSP has had to wrestle with the fear that its progress has reached a plateau - the progress of a socialist party will not be linear, but reflect the ebbs and flows in the class struggle. A number of articles by leading party figures have pondered the way forward. It will not only be the eyes of the party's Scottish supporters who will fixed on the new leader, whoever takes over as SSP convenor on February 13, but those of socialists throughout England and Wales too. The SSP should take seriously its responsibilities to the working class of the whole of Britain. Nick Rogers