Bitter fruits of personality politics

SSP member Nick Rogers gives his view of the crisis engulfing the party. Tommy Sheridan's celebrity status should have been tackled decisively at an early stage

As judge Lady Smith ups the stakes by launching a determined assault on the Scottish Socialist Party, the acrimonious struggle for control of whatever will remain of the party shows no sign of abating.

The latest issue of Scottish Socialist Voice publishes a long letter from Tommy Sheridan attacking the journal's coverage of the SSP May 28 national council. He describes it as a "report laced with precisely the 'bias' and lack of 'balance' the Voice has become notorious for" and designed to "promote the cabal line that it's all Tommy's fault". Apparently, "the Voice has been a tool of the undeclared faction over the last 18 months ..." (June 9).

The vehemence and unalloyed anger of comrade Sheridan's assault on his opponents in the SSP has convinced many observers on the left that the SSP's former convenor and current co-chair has indeed been shabbily treated by his party. Ian Donovan's condemnation of the Weekly Worker's coverage is typical of the response of many - that the issue at stake is whether we support a working class leader or the gutter press (Letters, June 8). In Sheridan's own words, "a basic socialist test" is "whose side are you on when a socialist takes on the Murdoch empire?" He concludes that "Sections of the EC are clearly batting for the wrong side" (Weekly Worker June 1).

Demagoguery about unflinching courage under fire disguises the real issue exposed by the SSP's power struggle. Personality clashes and competitive press briefings aside, the SSP is riven by civil war because it failed to get right the relationship between an immensely charismatic and able political leader, and the socialist political party as a collective.

In November 2004 the party's executive decided unanimously (with, it should be noted, a member of the Socialist Worker platform present) to insist that Tommy Sheridan resign. The EC meeting took place before the specific allegations that are the subject of comrade Sheridan's libel action appeared in the News of the World, but the executive members gave Sheridan a number of options for dealing with any allegations about his private life. He chose to follow none of them. The EC was left with little option but to remove him as convenor. A subsequent national council endorsed the executive's action - with even Tommy Sheridan voting in support. As I wrote a few months after the events, "In effect the SSP exercised for the first time the procedures in its constitution to recall an elected national officer" (Weekly Worker February 17 2005).

The consequences of comrade Sheridan's removal from his leadership role were never going to be easy for the SSP. His standing as a principled working class fighter was a key asset during the evolution of the party. Elected as a councillor for Scottish Militant Labour from his prison cell during the anti-poll tax campaign; at the forefront of one campaign after another during the 1990s - comrade Sheridan is unquestionably a tireless campaigner, prepared to criss-cross Scotland in pursuit of a punishing schedule of public meetings, picket-line attendances and demonstrations.

In the 1997 general election in his Glasgow Pollok constituency (representing the Scottish Socialist Alliance, which generally performed pretty abysmally) comrade Sheridan secured one of the strongest left votes in the whole of Britain. Two years later he was returned as the SSP's only MSP in the first elections for the Scottish parliament. Sheridan's profile in Scottish politics - including several periods of incarceration for protesting outside the Faslane nuclear base - played a huge role in propelling the party to a parliamentary group of six in 2003. Even today, Tommy Sheridan is probably the best-known politician in the Scottish parliament.

But there is another side to Scotland's pre-eminent working class politician. The side that revels in celebrity. The side that never lets a photo opportunity or a superficial magazine profile go begging. The side that exposes his photogenic wife, Gail, to the media spotlight. In the days that followed his 'resignation', Sheridan toured radio and TV stations, talking about how his decision was driven by his desire to help Gail through the birth and upbringing of the child they were expecting. And now, while seizing the strategic high ground offered by the same media outlets to ram home his attack on those who removed him as convenor, Sheridan invites photographers to his daughter's first birthday party (Evening Times May 30).

It is this aspect of his character that made it impossible for the convenor of the Scottish Socialist Party to accept the instruction of his own party executive when it touched directly on the media image he had crafted.

But November 2004 was very late in the day for the SSP as a collective body to assert authority over its convenor. Since the SSP's formation, virtually all its electoral and campaign material had featured Sheridan's photograph, accompanied by a short statement from the leader. Until the election of six MSPs in 2003, Scottish Socialist Voice had unfailingly carried Sheridan's image on its masthead. In a number of elections after comrade Sheridan became the SSP's lone MSP in 1999, its convenor's name appeared in brackets after that of the party on ballot papers - indicating something of a collective identity crisis.

The SSP always loudly protested when the politicians of other parties labelled the SSP a one-man band, but the fact is that the party over-exploited the resource of Sheridan's leadership qualities and media exposure. The SSP did work to build branches throughout Scotland, to create regional structures and to move to weekly publication of SSV. But a much stronger effort should have been made to fashion a publicly visible collective leadership. And crucially the emerging cult of Tommy Sheridan's celebrity status should have been tackled decisively at an early stage.

The working class movement should nurture, train and make maximum use of its leaders, but at all times those leaders must be fully accountable - to a much greater extent than rank-and-file members - to the organisations they represent. In November 2004 Sheridan broke that 'contract' with the SSP. But the SSP must accept responsibility for mishandling the leadership of Sheridan in the years before the crucial break.

A year and a half later it looks as if comrade Sheridan may be on the verge of a decisive comeback. What has changed? Well, in the first place, Sheridan has skilfully constructed what looks very much like a majority coalition within the party out of a number of disparate factions.

The Committee for a Workers' International and the SW platform both quickly swung behind the critics of the executive's action. The advantages of forming part of a new majority bloc are obvious - especially as both groups have found themselves politically marginalised within the party.

The crucial factor was the split within the International Socialist Movement (dissolved on March 25) - primarily over a series of changes in SSP organisation. The 50-50, male-female, reform to the party's method of selecting its list candidates is the key to deciphering comrade Sheridan's image of a "gender-obsessed discussion group".

Peter Manson argues that the strategy represents an "opportunistic rejection of working class socialism in pursuit of what seems fashionable and popular" (Weekly Worker June 1). However, the SSP's attempts to increase the involvement of women in the party's structures directly confronted very real problems affecting the representation of women in the working class movement. The election of four women MSPs was a major breakthrough in its own right - and simply would not have happened without 50-50 being in place.

From the outside it is impossible to understand the internal dynamics of the SSP's post-2003 parliamentary group, but it is telling that the cabal Sheridan condemns contains three of the women MSPs - a team he has previously dismissed as "witches".

50-50 also struck at the authority wielded by a number of the SSP's regional organisers - all of whom are men. Hopes they might have harboured to either head the lists themselves or fill them with their closest (male) cronies would be put in jeopardy if the national party were to decide that a woman should top the list in their region. And the 50-50 debate was followed by a decision to open up the majority of the EC to direct election by national conference. The reserved places for regional organisers were lost.

Add to the cocktail of the marginalised and the disgruntled the SSP's evident loss of direction over the last 18 months, plus the likely loss of votes in 2007, and you have a potent (if unstable) mix. And the very real possibility that comrade Sheridan can continue to put together a majority on the national council and win a majority at the special conference that is being mooted to re-elect the EC.

It is the failure to adopt a policy of complete honesty before the working class that has allowed the poison injected into the SSP in November 2004 to fester. Members' meetings were organised in the aftermath of November 2004 to explain comrade Sheridan's removal as convenor. But the SSP's supporters outside the party and the working class as a whole have been left entirely in the dark. And even within the SSP different versions of the events have begun to emerge.

This is an intolerable situation. Some members of the executive did vote in November 2004 to release the minutes of the crucial EC meeting. The failure of the majority of the EC to back that strategy has cost the party dear. It is ludicrous for comrade Sheridan to suggest that an accountable record of the meeting at which the party's convenor was sacked should not have been made, but if the party votes to keep that record entirely unavailable - even to members of the executive - it might as well not exist. And the EC cannot be held to account for the most critical decision it has ever made.

Certainly comrade Sheridan immediately proceeded to spin a completely fabricated version of events. And even if the wilder allegations he has made about the tactics of his opponents in the party prove not to be entirely accurate, it seems likely that attempts were made to discredit Sheridan's rewriting of recent SSP history. So we have a situation where rival factions are whispering in the ears of journalists, but the SSP is afraid to tell the working class the unvarnished truth. Now, of course, the lawyers for News International - publishers of the News of the World - are perusing the minutes at their leisure. Yet the minutes have still not been circulated among the party's own members.

It remains to be seen whether the SSP can survive and, if so, on what basis; but a party worth saving can only be reconstructed if all attempts to practise any kind of deception on the working class are abandoned.