Battle lines drawn

Tommy Sheridan has launched a Bonapartist power-grab. This weekend's national council looks set to ratchet up tensions even further, writes Peter Manson

The crisis shaking the Scottish Socialist Party has deepened over the last couple of weeks and latest developments point even more clearly to a permanent split between the two rival wings.

On the one side, the SSP's most well known member and former convenor, the Bonapartist figure of Tommy Sheridan, who has just stepped up his propaganda and organisational assault on the executive committee majority. On the other, the beleaguered camp around press and policy coordinator Alan McCombes, who in the SSP passes as its main theoretician. Showing the internal strains, one disgruntled group from the McCombes camp has angrily formed itself into a new 'network' - recognised as a platform by national secretary Allan Green - that defines itself around policy points that are primarily anti-Sheridan. They are the hard anti-Sheridanites.

Since the success of his 'open letter' tactic - a full-scale public barrage against the McCombes leadership - which saw the whole executive approach to comrade Sheridan's libel action against the News of the World overturned - the former convenor has obviously decided that the best way to regain his position as party leader is through more of the same. Bypassing the executive, he has appealed directly to the rank and file.

Comrade Sheridan sent a letter to the SSP weekly, Scottish Socialist Voice, accusing it of being "a tool of the undeclared [anti-Sheridan] faction over the last 18 months" (June 8) - for example, in its allegedly biased reporting of the May 28 national council meeting, which voted to back Sheridan in his legal case. The basis for this accusation was that the Voice report of the previous week had described the emergency NC as having been "called in response to the crisis precipitated by former convenor Tommy Sheridan's legal action against News International [owners of the News of the World]" (June 1).

Comrade Sheridan interpreted this accurate statement of fact as meaning: "It's Tommy's fault!" He commented: "The current crisis is not 'precipitated' by Tommy Sheridan, but by a group of individuals who have acted in a duplicitous, anti-democratic and anti-socialist fashion."

He further complained that the Voice had not reported his latest intervention in the Scottish parliament: "Myself and comrade Rosemary Byrne have grown accustomed to such marginalisation in the Voice, but that doesn't make it right "¦ your alleged commitment to 'fairness' and 'balance' is increasingly cutting no ice with rank and file members" (June 8).

This was disputed the following week (June 15) by a pro-leadership letter which gave figures for the number of recent mentions in the Voice of each of the SSP's six MSPs. This showed that comrade Sheridan and his ally, Rosemary Byrne, had had at least as much coverage as the three anti-Sheridan MSPs, Frances Curran, Rosie Kane and Carolyn Leckie, and Colin Fox, the present national convenor and the party's sixth MSP. Every one of the letters published in the June 15 edition of SSV was critical of comrade Sheridan's "sad" letter and, in a clearly orchestrated response, attempted to rebut - albeit in restrained tones - various aspects of comrade Sheridan's accusations.

Meanwhile most of the SSP's 2,000-plus members had received by last week a copy of comrade Sheridan's anti-McCombes open letter, together with a covering note calling for a "complete democratic renewal" of the SSP (see p6). The party must be "built from the bottom up. By returning to that basic philosophy and the class-based politics we championed in our formative years we can emerge from the current crisis wiser and stronger" (letter to members, undated).

Comrade Sheridan alleged that the current executive majority had "derailed and diverted from the class war and those responsible must be held to account for their actions". To that end he demanded a conference in the autumn, when he and his followers would expect to translate the majority evident at the May 28 NC into control of the party itself.

In fact both SSP wings are now calling for an autumn conference. The only difference is over whether it should be a special one-day gathering or the full annual conference brought forward from early 2007 (see below).

Battle for funds

The fact that Tommy has once again bypassed official structures and gone over the heads of the leadership in sending out this latest letter (he is said to have requested the names and addresses following his election as one of the SSP's two co-chairs at this year's annual conference in March) caused some commotion amongst the anti-Sheridanites. But much more serious was another part of the contents, which amounted to an open rebellion by the Sheridan wing.

Comrade Sheridan called for funds to be raised for next year's Scottish parliamentary election campaign and to meet the estimated £45,000 so far incurred by the party in legal costs arising from the libel case - the leadership had refused to comply with the demand of the court of sessions to hand over the minutes of the November 2004 EC meeting which forced Sheridan to resign as convenor (News International believes these minutes will help its defence against comrade Sheridan's action following the publication of allegations concerning his private life). Comrade McCombes was jailed for contempt and party offices were searched in an attempt to find the minutes - which were eventually handed over after the May national council voted to back Tommy's case, but to comply with the court order.

There is, of course, nothing untoward in appealing for funds per se. But comrade Sheridan did not call for contributions to be sent to the national office in Glasgow. He wrote: "Please send donations to our national convenor directly at the Scottish Socialist Party, 52 Dark Street, Edinburgh EH8 9JD, to ensure proper recording and administration."

As an MSP, national convenor Colin Fox is based in Edinburgh, but donations to an official party account are clearly handled by the party treasurer in Glasgow. A mistake? Hardly. Comrade Fox was elected with Sheridan's backing in 2005, when he defeated Alan McCombes for the vacant convenorship. Comrade Fox has attempted to portray himself as standing above the current factional battle, but Tommy and his supporters have made it clear that comrade Fox continues to enjoy their full backing. It would be remarkable if comrade Sheridan had not consulted with him before calling for donations to be sent to his office.

Clearly Sheridan is planning ahead. What if his wing wins out in the autumn conference, but McCombes et al challenge some aspect of the results? If there is a formal split, the side holding the funds will have a considerable advantage in any subsequent legal wrangle.

The leadership was quick to come back in the shape of an official note from national treasurer Allison Kane, circulated by Allan Green. Comrade Kane begins her response to the Sheridan letter by stating: "I wish to make no comment on his letter per se other than the paragraph he has included under the heading of finance." No comment, that is, apart from "endorsing wholeheartedly Tommy's closing sentiments, that 'the only war worth fighting is the class war!'"

On finance, she writes, "I welcome and endorse" Tommy's appeal for money to be raised for both the legal costs and the 2007 elections: "To that end a general appeal to all party members and supporters went out in this week's issue of the Voice and will continue to be carried over the next six weeks or so. Once again I would echo Tommy's call to give generously - no amount is too little nor too great! An appeal letter was also sent out by me to all branches yesterday from the national office."

Having made it clear that the leadership had already taken the initiative on this question, she went on: "I must reinforce, however, the need not only for the monies donated/collected to come directly to myself as the party treasurer, but also to the party's national office. Failure so to do would result in serious problems for the party with both the electoral commission and potentially with our party auditors. I and several other office-bearers are registered with the commission, as is our premise at 70 Stanley Street, and it is legally incumbent on me to record and report all monies raised with particular emphasis at election time to the political parties' governing body, which is the electoral commission. That is why we have a national account set up and this is the only legally recognised account for collection of monies at national level. We have operated in this way since the Political Parties Reform Act became law in 2001. Any breach of the act could result in hefty fines and even imprisonment!"

I have quoted this section in full so as to give a flavour of the way in which the official leadership is so far responding to Sheridan's full-frontal onslaught - with diplomacy and kid gloves. Obviously the EC majority is aware of the depth of empathy and affection for Tommy not only within the SSP, but the working class as a whole. But it cannot hope to win by downplaying the nature of the attacks it is facing. No doubt things will start to heat up sooner rather than later.

Anti-Sheridan faction

Under the stresses and strains brought about by Sheridan's offensive, the McCombes wing is showing signs of disintegration. Set up on June 11, the misnamed United Left contains neither Allan Green nor comrade McCombes himself among its 140 signatories, although comrade McCombes's partner, Carolyn Leckie, is a signatory - along with the other two MSPs dubbed "witches" by Sheridan: Frances Curran and Rosie Kane.

The founding statement of the United Left was sent to comrade Green as national secretary by executive member Pam Currie. Other EC signatories are Keith Baldassara, Davy Landels, Ken Ferguson, Kevin McVey and co-chair Morag Balfour (the other co-chair is comrade Sheridan himself, of course). Also prominent are former press officer and ultra-nationalist Eddie Truman, Scottish Socialist Youth organiser James Nesbitt and Alister Black, former editor of the International Socialist Movement's journal Frontline. The ISM, dissolved earlier this year, was originally set up by the Scottish Militant Labour majority that split from Peter Taaffe's Committee for a Workers' International over the formation of the SSP.

The statement betrays not only the anti-Sheridan agenda, but the founders' eclectic politics - a mixture of petty bourgeois mollycoddling, bureaucratic quota-fixing and 'transitional' voodoo: "We want our elected representatives to be wholly accountable to the party, putting the collective interests of the party before individual concerns. We are concerned by a growing culture of indifference, even hostility, to our commitment to gender equality. Finally, we are committed to a united and non-sectarian left, and in favour of a transitional approach to socialism, where no struggle, whether based in a community, workplace or around a gender or race issue, can be ignored. We actively support and participate in all such work."

The CWI milieu, like much of the Trotskyist left, uses "transitional approach" as a mantra to cover a whole array of reformist sins. 'Transitional demands' are supposed to act as a bridge between spontaneously expressed current needs and the goal of workers' revolution. In practice, revolutionary theory is reserved for Sunday debates, and we are left with only the individual reforms, detached from any kind of revolutionary minimum programme.

In the hands of the SSP's United Left all manner of petty bourgeois solutions are posed as "transitional" - not just petty bourgeois nationalism, but petty bourgeois feminism too. So we have the "principles of equal representation and gender equality at all levels of the party"- the "hard-won, ground-breaking policy of 50-50". In fact, the SSP's 50-50 policy, aimed at ensuring equal male-female representation, is a bureaucratic, top-down device which can be used as a means of control. At the May NC, for example, the leadership tried to prevent certain branches having their complement of delegates because they were unable to find a woman willing to represent them.

Comrade Sheridan, after originally giving formal support to 50-50, now appears to have renounced it - which is why the anti-Sheridan wing makes it one of its central planks. Similarly, the demand for "elected representatives to be wholly accountable" is a specifically anti-Sheridan demand for the UL. It is, of course, correct to insist on the accountability of our representatives, but for these comrades it is rather late in the day to start enforcing it. After all, it was the promotion of the Sheridan personality cult - actively pursued by the leadership prior to his removal in 2004 - which led to the comrade being regarded as beyond party discipline. When the EC wanted him to fight News International's smears using means other than the courts, he insisted on his right to do as he saw fit, being more concerned with his own image than the interests of his party.

A third UL policy point also has distinctly anti-Sheridan overtones: "Our network is built on the principles of openness, inclusiveness, equality and respect, where all contributions are valued and comradely debate is welcomed. We are a grassroots, bottom-up organisation and, as such, promote participatory meeting techniques, where all members are encouraged to speak up and have their say, without fear of being ridiculed, intimidated or shouted down."

The very opposite of the May 28 national council, where, the McCombes wing would have us believe, the heckling, shouting of abuse and physical confrontation was exclusively the preserve of the Sheridanites. Some leadership supporters (although not comrades McCombes and Green themselves) have even questioned the legitimacy of the vote because of the 'atmosphere of intimidation' at the May NC.

Another notable feature of the United Left document is the phrase used to represent a key SSP tenet: that of an 'independent socialist Scotland'. Instead of this, the statement refers to a "Scottish socialist republic" - the word 'republic' is more usually associated with the ultra-nationalists. Despite this, most of the ultras seem to have steered clear - SSV columnist Kevin Williamson has even damned the statement as paying only lip service to independence (although he himself would be happy to drop the 'socialist' from 'independent socialist Scotland').

By contrast Eddie Truman has praised the new platform - for him its principal virtue is the absence of the "Brit left" in the shape of the Socialist Worker platform and the CWI. In truth, however, both wings of the party are united more by what they oppose than what they agree on. It is true that the SW platform and CWI are using Sheridan as an ally of convenience to pursue their own sectarian agenda, but the anti-Sheridanites are hardly as one behind comrade McCombes's schema for an SNP-SSP-Green alliance to usher in a referendum on independence.

In fact he has still not been able to speak out openly for such an alliance, which remains a strategy that is revealed simply by the tactics being pursued by the SSP: ie, the independence convention.

NC battleground

The next round of the battle will be at this weekend's national council meeting on Sunday June 25, to be held at Linlithgow, near Edinburgh.

On the agenda (or, to be more precise, one of two alternative agendas proposed by the executive) are no less than 20 emergency motions on the current crisis. But the EC is proposing to hear only those calling for an autumn conference (but stripped of any pro- or anti-Sheridan preamble). The leadership line is 'Don't talk about Tommy'. Instead it wants the meeting to deal with a whole range of routine matters: "There are sound political and legal reasons," according to the EC, "for delaying further discussion on matters directly or indirectly concerned with the libel action until the court case has ended and the situation becomes clearer and free from potential judicial interference."

In strictly legalistic terms that may be true. But it is absurd to bring together delegates from all over Scotland and expect them to bite their lips on the question that every one of them is burning to discuss. And it seems highly unlikely that delegates will go along with this. Not only the Sheridanites, but a section of the pro-McCombes wing, will want to hear all the emergency motions, I am sure.

The EC has, as I say, put forward two alternative agendas - the first without most of the emergency motions, the second with. In either case, if it gets its way, the first substantive debate will be around the EC's own first 'emergency motion', which, in reality, is no such thing. This calls on the party to "collectively face outwards" and stresses the need to raise funds (this one short paragraph in a long, platitudinous motion is the only part that is genuinely urgent).

Next, the EC wants the NC to hear a list of campaigning items and routine reports, before moving on to "ordinary motions from branches", which were proposed before the current crisis broke. These deal with such questions as the drawing up of branch 'action plans', the re-establishment of an all-members bulletin, sustainable biofuels and renewable energy.

Only then will the emergency motions be heard. The EC is proposing that those relating to a special conference or brought forward annual conference must be addressed, it seems, without reference to the reason such an early conference is considered necessary.

The EC's own emergency motion on this question proposes that the scheduled 2007 annual conference be brought forward to October 6-7 2006, and that subsequent annual conferences be held in the autumn rather than spring. Glasgow Caledonian University is already booked for that weekend for Socialism 2006, the SSP's annual school, which the EC is "reluctantly" recommending be cancelled. It proposes that one day of conference to be given over to "internal matters directly or indirectly relating" to the Sheridan case. It also wants a special one-day conference to be called in early 2007 to consider the SSP manifesto and preparations for the Scottish parliament elections due in May. Although pro-Sheridan branches have called for a special rather than annual conference at various times in the autumn, I doubt that this will be a sticking point - everyone is agreed that a conference must be held.

Some of the remaining emergency motions, which the EC wants the meeting not to take, are actually those not heard at the May NC. But the motion from the anti-Sheridan Edinburgh Central and South branches does not fall into that category, since it expresses disapproval of some people's conduct on May 28. Not only are shouts of "scum" and "liar" beyond the pale for the Edinburgh comrades, but so are "chanting and stamping feet".

An amendment from the pro-Sheridan Cathcart branch wants to delete such clauses and blames the unruly meeting on the "atmosphere created by the leadership" after its "total mishandling of the issues".

Another pro-Sheridan branch, Glenrothes and Levenmouth, wants the NC to offer its full support to Colin Fox, who "has been made to seem indecisive and inept" by unnamed comrades. "If anyone in this party wants to challenge Colin for the leadership, they should do so honestly and openly," concludes the motion.

Dennistoun reminds comrades that the May 28 NC voted to give "100% political support" to comrade Sheridan in his libel action against the News of the World. The comrades would like "further clarification of the practical implications of this strategy, particularly in light of the citation of 13 comrades to appear before the court on July 4". In other words, it wants the Sheridanites to say how they think the 13 - mostly McCombes supporters - should deal with potentially awkward questions in the witness box.

Renfrewshire gives its answer: "This NC notes that so far 13 comrades have been cited to give verbal evidence in comrade Sheridan's libel trial. The NC advises that comrades should answer the questions honestly."

Cathcart East has another motion, held over from the May NC, which states: "There is no place in this party for detailed notes being taken of individuals' alleged private lives"; and adds, somewhat contradictorily: "and these notes being passed to the press without the agreement or knowledge of the party".

Dundee West, where the CWI is the main force, also has a motion criticising the EC over the minutes, while Motherwell declares that the party should not "draw up formal documents of a sensitive nature - especially when they could be used by our enemies to damage the interests of a party member and the party itself".

The Sheridanites are arguing themselves into an anti-democratic corner on this question. Our class enemies will try to use all sorts of material - "formal documents" or not - to try and damage us. Our best defence, in general, is openness - we have to ensure that the class itself understands and supports the reasons for the decisions its leaders takes - and for that in needs to be informed.

It is ridiculous to suggest that there should have been no minutes taken at the EC meeting which forced Tommy to resign. Is it seriously being suggested that the reasons behind the decision should not have been noted? There is obviously no need to record details of a personal nature, but the members - and the whole class - should have been told the truth: comrade Sheridan was told to step down because he would not accept the EC recommendation about the way the News of the World allegations should be dealt with, not because he wanted to "spend more time with his family".

However, Cathcart East, in another emergency motion, wants to take this one step further: "This national council insists that until further notice no member of the EC shall make any further statement to the media concerning internal party matters and that all such statements shall be made only by the national convenor."

While Dumfries is proposing a simple motion of "no confidence in the EC's handling" of the minutes, Dunfermline makes a forlorn call for unity: "Unite behind Colin Fox in his attempts to unify and promote the Scottish Socialist Party" and "support the courage of Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes in standing up to the power of the bourgeois courts and capitalist media".

I rather feel that things have gone too far for such an even-handed 'support our leaders' approach.