Scottish Socialist Party spirals into all out civil war

Peter Manson looks at the factions and politics behind the headlines and Tommy Sheridan's grab for power

The Scottish Socialist Party is in profound crisis. It is cleaved down the middle between, on the one hand, supporters of its former national convenor and most prominent figure, Tommy Sheridan, and, on the other, comrade Sheridan's opponents and critics, led by press and policy coordinator Alan McCombes.

The last week has seen comrade McCombes jailed, then released, the hurling of accusation and counter-accusation via the bourgeois press and SSP policy turned upside down. At a highly charged, acrimonious and unruly emergency meeting of the party's national council on May 28, delegates voted to overturn the leadership's whole stance over Sheridan's libel action against the News of the World. The executive had consistently voted, by an overwhelming majority, to distance the party from comrade Sheridan's action following publication of allegations about his private life in November 2004. But now it is instructed to "offer him our full political support in his battle against one of the most vicious and anti-working class organs of the ruling class".

The crisis had been building up in the weeks prior to the NC, with the demand of News International, owners of the Sunday gutter rag, to see the minutes of the November 9 2004 EC meeting which forced comrade Sheridan to resign as convenor. News International believes that details of the EC's discussions would help it defend the defamation action, and the Edinburgh court of sessions ruled that the minutes and other documents must be handed over. On Friday May 26 comrade McCombes was jailed for refusing to comply, on the grounds that the executive - and subsequently the NC - had in 2004 decided that these documents must remain confidential.

So the NC - the SSP's sovereign body between conferences - gathered at Glasgow's Caledonian University without comrade McCombes. The EC wanted delegates to confirm the policy of upholding the confidentiality of the November 2004 discussions and continue defying the courts. The leadership was proposing no specific action apart from this and it seemed it was prepared to see comrade McCombes languish in jail "¦ unless comrade Sheridan abandoned his legal action (the EC had passed a resolution to that effect the previous week).

Indeed it was clearly undesirable for Sheridan to have brought the case. It did not take a genius to work out that the News of the World, in defending the action, would demand to know of any unease or dissatisfaction with the former convenor on the part of his comrades. Did they believe the stories about his private life? What could they be forced to reveal? Apart from the jailing of comrade McCombes, 13 other EC members have been cited by News International and are due to appear as witnesses after the case begins before a jury on July 4.

It was never going to be a tenable solution for the SSP to refuse to reveal, on the grounds of 'confidentiality', the real reasons why it forced its leader to resign. It was always going to appear that there was something to hide. So the November 2004 demand from the EC that Sheridan should not pursue the action, but instead either come clean or say nothing at all about his private life, was in essence correct. It was reasonable to demand his resignation when he insisted on his right to go to court. But it was not reasonable to agree that the whole discussion (not just the personal details) should remain confidential. The members had a right to know.

Eighteen months later, the tactic of the EC majority seemed to be to shame comrade Sheridan into dropping the case. Letting comrade McCombes be jailed would, it was thought, give the executive the 'moral high ground'. It could not be accused of stabbing Sheridan in the back by releasing the minutes and the onus would now be on him to make a move. In the meantime warrants were issued for messengers-at-arms to search for the documents demanded by the court (a convenient cover for an MI5 hoovering operation?).

The SSP's Glasgow offices and comrades' private homes were entered, and the SSP now faces a bill of several thousand pounds to cover the warrant costs in addition to barrister's fees (comrade McCombes is ably represented by Paul Cullen QC, former Tory solicitor general for Scotland). The judge has also demanded the names of Cardonald members who passed a motion calling for any records of discussions of comrades' private lives to be destroyed.

Sheridan offensive

Comrade Sheridan decided to use the occasion of the NC to launch a full-scale offensive - not only to complete his own rehabilitation (he had been elected SSP co-chair at the March annual conference despite the wishes of the McCombes wing of the leadership), but to replace the "unsavoury cabal" of those who had allegedly pursued "personal vendettas" against him.

His 'open letter' was given to comrades entering the NC and simultaneously handed out or emailed to journalists (see back page). The main butt of his attacks were the "three female MSP comrades who have consistently sought to undermine me" (Carolyn Leckie, Rosie Kane and Frances Curran). But the open letter indicated his support for Rosemary Byrne MSP, while a pro-Sheridan motion to the NC praised Colin Fox, who defeated comrade McCombes for the convenor's post with Sheridan's backing in 2005.

This Sheridan offensive was given a boost on the morning of the NC with the claim published in the Sunday Herald that a "senior Scottish Socialist Party official" had given the paper details of the November 9 2004 EC meeting in a "sworn affidavit" 18 months ago (May 28). No doubt the story was deliberately timed to provoke the furore that did indeed ensue.

It was seized upon by Sheridan supporters as an indication that the McCombes camp had all the while been sabotaging his legal action by leaking details of internal discussions to the press. "Affidavit" was taken by some to mean 'minutes' - the very document News International wanted to see. In fact the Sunday Herald splash was basically the same as the story it had published in November 2004 - the only difference being that it was now revealed that the EC member responsible for the briefing had, for some reason, given the information in the form of a legal document.

When the NC meeting started, the first move was in the form of an emergency motion from the Sheridan camp. Inverness called for an enquiry to identify the "mole" and discipline whoever was responsible. The motion was supported by Dundee West, a branch dominated by the Taaffeite Committee for a Workers' International. Also lined up behind Sheridan were the Socialist Worker platform, at least some Republican Communist Network comrades and John Milligan from the RMT union delegation.

EC supporters wanted the motion ruled out of order on the technical ground that it could not possibly have been agreed by a properly constituted branch meeting, as the story had only broken a few hours earlier. The Inverness comrade stated that he had got the agreement of individual comrades to move it by telephone.

This was typical of the disputes that continued throughout the meeting - accompanied by the hurling of insults from a minority of enraged comrades in both camps. The scene had been set when Sheridan entered the room to a cacophony of applause, cheers and stomping. This highly charged atmosphere persisted until the end, when frayed tempers resulted in a good deal of shouting, pushing and shoving.

Chair Morag Belfour had the greatest of difficulty in controlling the meeting and was pulled between the EC's bureaucratic attempts to steer proceedings and the heckling of the Sheridanites. She eventually allowed the emergency motion to be heard and comrade Fox said the "mole" must have been Duncan Rowan, the disgraced former north-east organiser who gave the original anti-Sheridan story to the News of the World. This struck many as being just a little too convenient for the EC.

After a long and fraught debate, the emergency motion was passed and at last the EC motion was debated. But comrade Sheridan himself had pulled the ground from under the EC's feet by calling for the disputed minutes to be released to the court "under protest". Yet EC supporters still called for a continuation of the 'defy' tactic - they said it was in Tommy's own interest that the minutes should not be not released.

But comrade Sheridan was determined to deprive the EC of the 'moral high ground' (and comrade McCombes of martyrdom status) and the EC motion to continue defying the court was defeated by 82 votes to 67. At this stage the EC wanted the meeting closed, but the Sheridan camp objected that none of the other dozen or so motions had been heard. EC supporters said that the emergency motion had taken up so much time that the meeting would have to end - it would be unfair to force university staff to work overtime.

While the haggling continued, comrade Sheridan himself announced that a 15-minute extension had been negotiated with the university and insisted that the motion from Aberdeen South be put. This credited Tommy personally for the "excellent vote" won by the SSP in the Scottish parliamentary elections in 2003 and stated he "must play a leading role in the 2007 election campaign". It condemned the "failure by sections of the SSP leadership to support Tommy when he was attacked by the News of the World" and offered him "full political support" in his libel case. The motion also applauded "the very positive role played by Colin Fox in trying to heal the party's wounds". While all the other motions were forgotten, this was put to the vote without debate and carried by 70 to 49.

The EC had been routed. No formal decision had been taken to release the minutes to the courts, but the comrades knew when they were beaten and comrade Fox handed them over in a sealed envelope the following day. As a result comrade McCombes was granted "interim liberation" on the evening of Monday May 29.

He must now appear once more before the court of sessions on Tuesday June 6. And in a further display of her majesty's courts flexing their muscles and sticking its nose into the internal affairs of the SSP, comrade McCombes has been ordered to supply the names of the Cardonald comrades who called for the minutes to be destroyed.

Meanwhile, EC supporters were left licking their wounds, complaining about the meeting being hijacked by "a baying, tribal mob" and the "organised atmosphere of intimidation". One comrade said it had been "the worse day as an activist I have had at a so-called socialist meeting". In truth, however, the Sheridanites did not have a monopoly over the insults or the shouting down of opponents.

Where's the politics?

What is the political significance of comrade Sheridan's comeback? For Socialist Worker it is pretty straightforward - the May 28 NC was "a positive step for the party" (June 3).

According to Iain Ferguson of the SW platform, "There have been two competing visions of where the party should be going, with those grouped around Sheridan fighting for an outward-looking, mass party, as against those who want a smaller, narrower, 'pure' party."

This, to put it mildly, is poppycock. The notion that comrades McCombes, Leckie, Kane and Curran do not want "an outward-looking, mass party" is just too ludicrous for words. They want to support the Scottish National Party into government in Holyrood with an eye not only on the goal of independence, but ministerial posts for themselves too.

You can see how the notion of a Sheridan "mass party" would fit in with Socialist Workers Party schemes, though. Ever since comrade Sheridan's resignation as convenor the SWP has been trying to entice him into the Respect camp - there has even been talk of Tommy fronting a George Galloway-backed electoral challenge in Scotland in 2007. Allegedly it was a supporter of Respect in Scotland who was issuing Sheridan's 'open letter' to the press last Sunday. It would also fit into SWP plans for the SSP to drop what remains of its 'Marxist' baggage so as to leave a clearer space for the already existing 'revolutionary party' - the SWP itself. For "outward-looking" and "mass" read 'left populist'.

Comrade Ferguson notes of the 2004 EC that forced out comrade Sheridan: "At that meeting, executive members shamefully refused to publicly back Sheridan and demanded his resignation as party convenor, which he accepted under pressure." He forgets to tell us that this line was supported by the SW platform comrades too. Similarly he writes: "The Herald article has also left the executive's strategy of 'defiance' of the courts over these minutes in tatters." Somehow the fact that the SW comrades had been amongst the most vociferous in the 'defy' camp - until Tommy himself changed his tune - is also omitted.

No, we can safely dismiss the SWP interpretation of the anti-leadership, pro-Sheridan mood amongst a section of the SSP rank and file. Much of this is, of course, based on loyalty to Tommy as an individual and an instinctive desire to support him when he is under attack. But, on the face of it at least, there is very little politically that separates Sheridan and McCombes.

It is well known that comrade Sheridan, the brilliant orator, was the "front man" (his own words) for the 'theory' developed by comrade McCombes - a partnership symbolised by their 'joint' book Imagine, every word of which was written by the latter. When comrade McCombes dreamt up the 'independent socialist Scotland' policy (which rapidly evolved into an 'independent capitalist Scotland' as an intermediary stage), comrade Sheridan was happy to front that too.

But the descent into Scottish nationalism was based almost entirely on comrade McCombes's 'opinion poll politics' - the embracing of what is perceived to be popular at a given moment. Opportunism, in other words. While no doubt McCombes et al have come to actually believe in separatism, it is far from certain that for Sheridan it is more than skin-deep.

It is noticeable that in Tommy's list of the policies that now ought to be pressed forward, contained in his open letter, "independence" appears at the very end, after such items as the abolition of council tax and prescription charges, free school meals, public ownership and the defence of asylum-seekers (comrade Ferguson does not mention it at all in his own list of desirable policies in Socialist Worker).

Another notable aspect of comrade Sheridan's open letter is its distinct anti-feminism: "We are a class-based socialist party. Not a gender-obsessed discussion group." He is now clearly rejecting the so-called '50-50' policy, which bureaucratically promotes equal female representation amongst delegates and candidates, irrespective of the practicalities, and sometimes at the expense of ensuring that the best comrade for the job is chosen.

Petty bourgeois feminism has gone hand in hand with petty bourgeois nationalism for the majority around comrade McCombes. Both are symptomatic of the opportunistic rejection of working class socialism in pursuit of what seems fashionable and popular. Of course, it goes without saying that revolutionary socialists and communists are the best fighters for democracy - we champion genuine equality for women, which cannot be achieved through bureaucratic quotas. We also fight for Scotland's right to self-determination, which should be exercised in favour of a voluntary, working class-led unity of Scotland, England and Wales through a federal republic.

Comrade Sheridan, cut adrift from his McCombes moorings, could well drop his adopted adherence to Scottish independence just as easily as he has clearly discarded his previous formal support for 50-50. Which is why, of course, the pro-feminist ultra-nationalists are on the side of comrade McCombes - they also backed him against Colin Fox, who is deemed to be insufficiently nationalist.

While comrade Sheridan's open letter undoubtedly contains many accusations against his erstwhile comrades that are no more than exaggerations and half-truths, it also has elements that ring true. A section of the SSP views him as anti-women, is prepared to believe almost any allegation and views stories of his alleged sexual liaisons with extreme distaste.

What is certain is that Tommy Sheridan's populist opportunism is no more an answer for Scotland's working class than Alan McCombes's. What is needed - in Scotland, Wales and England - is a party capable of uniting all advanced workers in a common struggle against our common oppressors: the United Kingdom state and the capitalist class.

And the left in England and Wales must rid itself of the notion that the Scottish Socialist Party is something for us to aspire to. The May 28 national council meeting demonstrated the superficiality of its democratic culture and regime of toleration. Shallow politics will inevitably be exposed for what they are - form must follow content.