Splits at the top, confusion all round

The Scottish Socialist Party has a new convenor. Colin Fox, MSP for the Lothians, was decisively elected by delegates to the party's annual conference. Nick Rogers reports from Scotland on the implications for the SSP

Delegates at the Perth conference, held over the weekend of February 12-13, cast 252 votes (62%) for Colin Fox, as against 154 (38%) for Alan McCombes. Colin FoxWhat are the implications for the party's future evolution? During 2004, even before the crisis surrounding the resignation of Tommy Sheridan as convenor, concerns began to emerge that the SSP's strategic sense of purpose had been less assured in the period since six of its comrades were elected as members of the Scottish parliament in May 2003. Over the previous four years, from May 1999, the party has shown resolute single-mindedness in seizing the opportunity presented by the election of Tommy Sheridan as sole MSP for the SSP to dramatically raise its political profile. Support spread from the party's Glasgow heartland throughout Scotland, as new branches were established and three regional organisers became a team of eight. Membership and electoral support grew rapidly. Across Scotland the SSP vote increased from just over two percent in 1999 to seven percent in 2003. Tommy Sheridan vigorously promoted the campaign to ditch the council tax in favour of a Scottish service tax. In the year before the 2003 Scottish parliamentary elections, comrade Sheridan also initiated a free school meals campaign, gaining the support of Labour MSP John McAllion and a swathe of poverty and campaigning organisations. The SSP placed itself at the heart of the Scottish Campaign for Justice Not War in opposition to the imperialist adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since May 2003 the SSP can hardly be said to have entered a political trough. The five new MSPs have all made their mark. Rosie Kane, the party's second Glasgow MSP, in particular, quickly became a household name. Carolyn Leckie, Colin Fox, Frances Curran and Rosemary Byrne also became well known to different degrees. The party's campaign against the council tax has continued with a large march almost a year ago. The bill for free school meals was also reintroduced. Colin Fox is pushing another bill to abolish prescription charges in the Holyrood parliament. Scottish Socialist Youth is an increasingly vibrant campaigning body, noticeably lowering the age profile of party meetings and demonstrations. The affiliation of several RMT union branches and then the Scottish region of the RMT was a major breakthrough, occurring much sooner than almost anyone had anticipated. Affiliation by FBU branches is a distinct possibility - the party has long enjoyed a very productive relationship with the FBU's Glasgow region. Problems Yet, as 2004 progressed, problems were also revealed. The party's elected representatives pledge to live on the wage of a skilled worker (approximately £23,000) and donate the rest of their parliamentary salary to party coffers. In the run-up to the May 2003 elections, in anticipation of the post-election stream of income the election of a team of MSPs would release, the party consciously committed to live beyond its means, employing extra regional organisers and other paid workers. The gamble paid off in terms of increasing the party's representation in the Scottish parliament six-fold. But it quickly became apparent that the SSP was continuing to add to its debts. At the beginning of 2004 the party was carrying a monthly operating deficit of around £3,400. Reports appeared in the media about a total debt of £200,000. Although this global figure included the mortgage on new premises, the financial position was untenable. A freeze on staff posts was implemented. Two of the eight regions currently have no paid regional organiser. Staff on the party weekly Scottish Socialist Voice have been reduced. The party's treasurer, Alison Kane, reported to this weekend's conference that the monthly operating budget is now in balance. It is hoped that net debt will have been eliminated by April 2006. Nevertheless, the party's financial problems leave it in a difficult position when it comes to deploying resources to fight forthcoming elections. The rapidly approaching general election is a case in point. At conference, the Scottish Republican Socialist Movement and Kevin Williamson, a weekly columnist in Scottish Socialist Voice and the party's outgoing drugs spokesperson, urged a boycott of the election on nationalist grounds, but they were also able to point to the savings to be made on lost deposits and campaign materials. Their motion was defeated (or rather the conference arrangements committee's ruling that their proposal could not be taken as a 'delete all' amendment to the general election manifesto was agreed), but the SSP is likely to be highly constrained in the campaign it will be able to run in two months time. The health of the party will be crucial for the May 2007 Holyrood elections - especially as the SSP may be facing a change in the electoral system to multi-seat single transferable vote (from the current additional member system). This is likely to considerably reduce the chances of the party retaining, let alone expanding on, its current level of parliamentary representation. A change to STV for local authority elections (the price of Liberal Democrat participation with the Labour Party in the Scottish executive) will provide the SSP with a morale-boosting rise in its tally of councillors that will compensate in part for what may well be a setback in the Scottish parliament. Further progress for the SSP as a formation that prides itself on being a combat party of the working class will have to depend largely on what it achieves outside of parliamentary bodies. An expansion in membership, especially the activist core, would help. Also a focus on campaigns that go beyond the bills submitted by the party's parliamentary representatives. The protest against the meeting of the G8 in Gleneagles this July beckons. The Scottish Independence Convention was the SSP's misconceived attempt to capture the strategic high ground of Scottish politics. The initiative was agreed at SSP national council in August 2003. At the same time Alex Neil of the SNP was visiting SNP branches urging the participation of his party. The support of the Greens was sought. The SSP's advocacy of the convention was part of a strategy of placing the party at the radical cutting edge of the move towards independence. But subsequently launch dates have constantly been deferred. The convention is still not up and running. What was supposed to be the centrepiece of the bid to seize the political initiative in the run-up to May 2007 has diverted the energies of the party for very little return. The convention may come to be seen as one of the most striking symbols of the SSP's failure to define successfully its purpose in the two years after its greatest triumph to date. Even the most enthusiastic advocates of Scottish independence in the party must begin to wonder whether the issue has the requisite potency to mobilise Scottish workers. Sheridan crisis Loss of direction is one thing, but the resignation of Tommy Sheridan as convenor in November 2004 saw the party's most serious crisis to date begin to unfold. It quickly became clear that comrade Sheridan's resignation was in response to a vote of the party's executive committee. Minutes have not been released, but it can be reported that the members of the executive had no confidence in the strategy Sheridan proposed for handling allegations about his private life. The executive issued him with a series of options for dealing with the press - he rejected all of them. The subsequent vote urging Tommy Sheridan to resign was unanimous. The course of action taken by the executive was later confirmed at a special meeting of the national council. At the national council even Tommy Sheridan gave his support to the vote of confidence in the executive. In effect the SSP exercised for the first time the procedures in its constitution to recall an elected national officer. That the elected officer was one of the best known public figures in Scottish public life could not but have major repercussions for the SSP. For one thing the political partnership at the heart of the SSP was broken. The public face of the SSP (at least until May 2003) was Tommy Sheridan: accomplished parliamentary performer, charismatic public speaker, tirelessly criss-crossing Scotland to attend one political meeting after another. Alan McCombes, however, was no less the SSP's leader than Tommy Sheridan: founder-editor of Scottish Socialist Voice, author of countless articles and columns (including many that appeared in Tommy Sheridan's name) and the book Imagine (which also features Sheridan as joint author), initiator of the key strategic turns of Scottish Militant Labour, the Scottish Socialist Alliance and the SSP, including making Scottish independence an increasingly important priority. Comrade McCombes was closely associated with the decisive actions of the executive back in November. Sheridan's split with McCombes and others in the SSP has led him into a series of political initiatives displaying a strong streak of populism. A socialist who advocates a mandatory three-year sentence for the illegal carrying of knives, who expresses sympathy with the Fathers for Justice campaign and talks of sexism against men, and who has intervened to try to stop the extradition to Texas of three Natwest bankers implicated in the Enron scandal is someone who is politically cut adrift. Colin Fox has added his name to Tommy Sheridan's motion on the 'Natwest three'. When questioned about this at the Glasgow hustings, comrade Fox suggested the questioner speak to Tommy Sheridan at the back of the room (who, unfortunately, disappeared at the end of the meeting). An odd abdication of responsibility by the SSP's justice spokesperson in the Scottish parliament and candidate for the convenorship. Fox too is perhaps displaying a tendency to populism, appearing alongside Tory MSPs in a photo-call of those opposing the proposed congestion charge for Edinburgh (an issue on which the SSP has not reached a decision). There would appear to be a worrying lack of collective decision-making within the SSP's parliamentary team or accountability to wider party bodies. The SSP constitution envisages that the SSP's parliamentary committee will "oversee the strategy and tactics of the SSP group of MSPs", but their accountability was an issue addressed in a motion pointedly moved by two of them, Carolyn Leckie and Frances Curran. The motion reaffirmed "the need for political initiatives in the parliament to be guided by the political priorities set by the national party as a whole"; demanded that "decisions on major parliamentary spending priorities must be taken collectively at all times"; and that "the majority of parliamentary monies be pooled collectively by MSPs". Passed overwhelmingly, the motion apparently reflected tensions over the last few months over the allocation of parliamentary office and research funds. Convenor split The fallout from comrade Sheridan's resignation was reflected to some extent in the contest between comrades McCombes and Fox. Tommy Sheridan strongly supported Colin Fox, as did Rosemary Byrne. Alan McCombes originally urged a women MSP to stand, eventually throwing his own hat into the ring just five days before nominations closed. Comrade McCombes had the support of the other three MSPs, comrades Curran, Kane and Leckie. It is telling that the key activists in Tommy Sheridan's stomping ground of Pollok, Keith Baldassara and George McNeilage, supported both Alan McCombes in the election and the original executive decision to force Sheridan's resignation. Other differences go back to SSP conferences in 2002 that approved the 50-50 mechanism to secure gender equality in the selection of SSP candidates to the Scottish parliament, and approved the removal of the right of regional organisers to automatic places on the executive, so as to make space for the direct election of the majority of EC members by STV. Comrade McCombes was a strong supporter of both decisions; comrade Fox opposed both. He has no intention of reversing the 50-50 mechanism, but he has proposed returning regional organisers to the executive. This will require a change in the SSP's constitution. Fox secured the support of virtually all the regional organisers - and in some regions the organisers exercise enormous influence, since they have virtually single-handedly established the SSP in their area. This was a significant factor in enhancing the margin of comrade Fox's victory. At the hustings around the country and at conference there were two key themes: * The respective political records of the candidates. Alan McCombes issued a document in the last week of the contest in which he detailed the occasions on which he had been forced to persuade Colin Fox of the wisdom of a new policy or campaigning initiative. Comrade Fox pointed to his role as regional organiser in the East of Scotland and the Lothians. * The value of an extra-parliamentary leader devoted exclusively to building the party around Scotland versus an existing MSP with the political profile to make a real impact with the media and lead from the front. Platforms So how did the various platforms line up? The largest, the International Socialist Movement, was split (both candidates are ISM members). The Socialist Worker platform and Committee for a Workers' International overwhelmingly backed Colin Fox. The ultra-nationalist Scottish Republican Socialist Movement was the only platform to nominate a candidate, Alan McCombes, who also received the support of the bulk of the Republican Communist Network. The anti-independence Workers Unity abstained, since both candidates were opposed to the organisational unity of the working class throughout Britain. Elsewhere on the conference agenda the platforms clashed over Iraq, with the CWI, ISM and RCN backing amendments that committed the SSP to support the Iraqi labour movement and condemned the actions of the reactionary elements of the resistance to the occupation, against opposition from the SW platform. A Workers Unity bid to have a speaker from the Worker-communist Party of Iraq address the conference during this debate was rejected by the conference arrangements committee. A fringe meeting was arranged and 20 SSP members came along to hear Burhan Fatah speak. The CWI and ISM also fought the SW platform over the backing given by the SSP group within Unison to Roger Bannister for the union's general secretaryship. An SWP attempt to switch support to Jon Rogers was defeated. Motions and amendments on Brazil and Argentina saw clashes between the SWP and CWI - the SWP deployed Mike Gonzales, the Latin America expert, to great effect. Despite the problems of recent months, more the 400 delegates and perhaps a hundred visitors demonstrated the continued vibrancy of the SSP. Youth and women members, although minorities, were better represented than at most meetings of the left. The RMT put the first two motions by an affiliated trade union moved at an SSP conference. Other delegates moved motions addressing a range of social and industrial issues, illustrating the breadth of experience of the SSP's membership. Some motions, however, lacked a clear commitment to socialist transformation. Joe Eyre took issue with a motion on dentistry that seemed to accept that the organisation of dentists into private practices, rather than as direct employees of the NHS (the original proposal back in 1947 by Nye Bevan for both doctors and dentists), was the natural order of things. Detailed motions were passed on economic policy that contained only a limited vision of socialisation and did not address the question of how political power should be exercised - at the level of the state and in the workplace. Alan McCombes has spoken in the past of bringing together the workforce within industries to discuss how to reorganise their industries, so as to transfer real power to the workers and draw up policy recommendations for the SSP. The idea should be revived. After all, the RMT is supporting the SSP's campaign in favour of rail renationalisation (in Scotland). Why cannot railworkers have a direct input into discussion of how to force the government to concede this demand and how to reorganise the industry in the interests of the working class? Independence Comrade McCombes moved the outline of the SSP's manifesto for the general election. As always, he emphasised the SSP's support for Scottish independence as a central plank of its policy. His speech reached a crescendo with the demand that the North Sea oil revenues come back to Scotland - not just the few drops proposed by an SNP that would cut corporation tax, but "the billions plundered by the profiteers". The idea that resources belong to nations, or even national working classes, is inherently divisive. Nor does it fit easily with the SSP's supposed commitment to transform the world economy so as to end global poverty and underdevelopment - that will receive enormous exposure at the protests against the G8 in July. Socialism can only achieve its historic tasks if all resources belong to the people of the whole world. What of the future with Colin Fox as convenor? Comrade Fox is certainly personable. Many delegates reported that he had made the better impression as a speaker at their hustings. He stated in his campaign that the priority is to reconnect with the SSP's supporters and the Scottish working class in a series of dynamic campaigns. He does not mention the development of policy, but then he has said he wants Alan McCombes to continue playing the role he always has as head policy and research honcho and economics spokesperson. Comrade Fox emphasises his desire for unity. If unity takes a while to break out, it will be interesting to see how the balance on the new executive plays out. Catriona Grant (a backer of Alan McCombes) was defeated by Rosemary Byrne as co-chair of the party (a position Catriona has held since the SSP was launched). Tommy Sheridan was re-elected to the executive by delegates, as was his sister, Lynn. But what will be the SSP's big idea for capturing the imagination of the working class? Colin Fox has expressed a certain lack of enthusiasm for the Independence Convention. He has said that he would emphasise the republicanism of the Calton Hill declaration as a general campaigning theme. The very last debate of conference sought to relaunch the convention as a body that would fight for "(a) the creation of a sovereign, democratic Scottish republic with the abolition of all crown powers; (b) a declaration of Scotland's military neutrality and withdrawal from Nato". The motion was submitted by the RCN and was passed with the support of the ISM and SRSM. Last year's conference saw a motion from the RCN secure majority support for the first time. This year the RCN, ISM and SRSM appear to inhabit a very similar stretch of the political spectrum within the SSP. A key task in the period ahead for socialists committed to building the broadest possible socialist offensive should be to demonstrate to wider groups of SSP activists that campaigning and organising across Britain is the most effective way to fight a common capitalist state and capitalist class. This would be made easier if the Workers Unity platform reorganised itself along more efficient lines and if socialists in England and Wales were to launch a serious unity project.