A pox on both their houses
The split between the two wings of the Scottish Socialist Party continues to widen. Peter Manson examines latest developments
In response to the formation earlier this month of the anti-Tommy Sheridan United Left platform, the Sheridanites have hit back by setting up the 'SSP Majority' alliance - made up not only of those around the former convenor, but also of the Socialist Worker platform and Committee for a Workers' International.
Unlike the United Left, it appears that, for the moment at least, the 'SSP Majority' is not misnamed - it already has more than 300 signatories, as against less than 200 for the UL. A pro-Sheridan majority emerged at the May 28 national council meeting, when delegates voted by 82 to 67 to reject the executive committee's handling of the whole News of the World affair.
However, UL support is particularly concentrated in a couple of key areas, including parts of Glasgow, and there is no doubt that when the crunch comes at the rearranged annual conference - now brought forward to October 7-8 - the old executive majority around press and policy coordinator Alan McCombes, now defined more and more by their opposition to Sheridan alone, will be able to muster a considerable number of delegates.
While the momentum is still with the Sheridanites, next week will see the beginning of his libel action against the News of the World - the Sunday gutter rag published salacious allegations about comrade Sheridan's private life in November 2004. It is impossible to say which of the two wings will come out of it less damaged - 13 SSP current and former EC members have been cited by News International, owner of the News of the World, to appear as witnesses against comrade Sheridan.
The new alliance is quite clear what the duty of those comrades is: ""¦ comrade Tommy Sheridan is about to engage in a titanic battle with the most hated anti-trade union and anti-socialist representatives, namely News International," it states. ""¦ we call on all members to back the NC decision to support Tommy Sheridan against the Murdoch press. To side with or assist News International in any way would play into the hands of the class enemy and cause lasting damage to the SSP."
So, while News International's lawyers will be prodding and probing as to why the EC voted unanimously for comrade Sheridan to resign from the convenorship on November 9 2004, those EC members will be expected to demonstrate, under NC instructions, their confidence and trust in him in July 2006. Not an easy task.
The United Left statement made great play about the fact that comrade Sheridan now seems to have renounced his former support for the SSP policy of equal male-female representation for delegations and electoral lists. It expressed concern at "a growing culture of indifference, even hostility," to the bureaucratic policy known as 50-50 (see Weekly Worker June 22).
The new alliance attempts to counteract this UL defence of the "principles" behind 50-50: "We reject the early claims of this platform to some sort of special wisdom or commitment to gender and equality issues, and the implication that those who haven't signed up to this minority group are not fully committed to the maximum involvement and participation of women in the SSP."
In its brief statement the 'SSP Majority' makes empty calls for SSP 'unity' - around a new, pro-Sheridan leadership after the October conference: "We must then aim, despite other disagreements and passionate debate, to unite the party on a principled basis to promote our distinctive socialist policies on wealth redistribution, public ownership and democracy in time to build for successful Scottish parliament and council elections in 2007."
Did you notice something missing from that short list of "distinctive socialist policies"? What about the key demand for an "independent socialist Scotland" - or, more recently, simply "independence"?
For example, last week's issue of the SSP weekly, Scottish Socialist Voice, has a front page which screams: "For an independent socialist Scotland". 2007, declares the editorial, "looks increasingly like the independence election. This paper, like the SSP, puts independence at the core of its demands" (June 22).
The Voice - controlled, of course, by the McCombes wing, is at pains to state that its independence is radically different from that of the Scottish National Party: "The SNP see independence as the final goal. We see it as the first step to a Scottish socialist republic, which would be run by the people of Scotland for the good of all its citizens."
How could the Sheridanites be so careless as to forget this? As we have previously noted, Tommy's own commitment to independence was in all likelihood skin-deep. As for the SW platform and CWI, both have opportunistically gone along with this disastrous separatism as a valid "tactic" (SW platform). What the other signatories to the 'majority' statement think of this omission is an altogether different matter, however.
It is hardly surprising that both the SW platform and the CWI have jumped on the Sheridan bandwagon (although it is certainly noteworthy that they find themselves, temporarily at least, in alliance). As we know, both the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party in England and Wales are for left unity only so long as they can dominate the organisational form it takes, sponging off it for recruits.
So it is with their Scottish counterparts - the SW platform is aiming for the link-up of a Sheridan-led SSP, or split, with Respect, while, of course, the CWI wants a more weighty Scottish component to boost its Campaign for a New Workers' Party.
No wonder the SSP ultra-nationalists are so scathing in their condemnation of these two pathetic factions of the "Brit left". They both deserve it - for failing to adhere to proletarian internationalist principles in opposition to the SSP's petty bourgeois nationalism.
Ex-ISM for Sheridan
Also in the pro-Sheridan camp are the authors of yet another open letter - this time addressed to "comrades who have signed the United Left statement". They are led, amongst others, by Gordon Morgan (Fourth Internationalist, ex-International Marxist Group), Joe Eyre (ex-Workers Revolutionary Party) and Graham Campbell (ex-Workers Fight).
Like the leaders of the United Left network/platform, these comrades were part of the International Socialist Movement milieu - the ISM, finally dissolved earlier this year, was formed by the Scottish Militant Labour majority that split from the CWI over the formation of the SSP.
The signatories of this latest open letter seem to agree wholeheartedly with the main planks of the UL platform - not least the need to "defend the party's commitment to gender equality", its "involvement in community and workplace struggles or around other issues such as gender or race" and the "promotion of self-organisation among oppressed and marginalised groups".
Its open letter reads: "We defend 50-50 gender balance mechanisms within the SSP and oppose any sexist attacks made on SSP women members. However, socialist-feminist ideas are not the preserve of any one platform or network."
The statement also agrees with the UL on the need for "internal accountability of all party organisations to the membership", the "requirement that all party members elected to public positions should be subject to accountability to the party" and the "promotion of comradely democratic debate and criticism within the party".
However, they state that some of the United Left signatories "have been involved in a vicious, undeclared factional struggle since at least November 2004". This is actually a bit one-sided - over most of that period the McCombes wing not only had a clear majority on the EC, but got overwhelming backing for its actions from national council, including over the forced resignation of Tommy Sheridan.
Much of the Morgan-Eyre-Campbell open letter reads like a cut-and-paste copy of comrade Sheridan's own version, particularly over the minutes of that all-important November 9 2004 EC meeting. It complains: "A record was made, and retained, of the content of what should have been a confidential meeting about an individual's private life."
What nonsense. The meeting debated the way in which the News International assault should be handled, not comrade Sheridan's "private life" per se. It is absurd to suggest, as the Sheridanites do, that no record should have been kept of such a discussion or of the decisions made - the real reason why comrade Sheridan was told to step down, for instance.
The membership still does not know the full reason why their convenor was asked (and agreed) to resign - an absurd situation. They should have been given a report of their leaders' deliberations and decisions, obviously omitting details of comrade Sheridan's private life, which ought indeed to be confidential - a matter for him, his family and close associates alone.
In view of the rising tensions, the June 25 national council meeting at Linlithgow came as something of an anti-climax, with a temporary truce agreed between the two wings. This was possible because of the consensus around the need to bring forward the SSP's annual conference from early 2007 to October this year.
The low-key NC, where numbers were well down on the previous month's acrimonious gathering in Glasgow, accepted the EC's recommendation that none of the emergency motions relating to the Sheridan case be taken: "There are sound political and legal reasons 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."
No doubt on the advice of comrade Sheridan's lawyers, the opposition agreed. The meeting voted virtually unanimously for conference to be held over the weekend of October 7-8, using the venue - Glasgow Caledonian University - already booked for the SSP's annual school, Socialism 2006, which will now be cancelled.
The NC also passed another emergency motion from executive committee, ironically entitled 'For principled socialist unity in action', which began: "This national council reaffirms our founding aims of building a broad, inclusive, united socialist party, based on class struggle politics, which simultaneously stands up against inequality and discrimination on grounds of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age. We appeal to every member to unite around our existing core, socialist policies and fighting demands, as agreed at successive national conferences."
So that's the crisis dealt with. The motion carried a list of bullet points, which it urged the members to carry out, including: "take an active part in your branch meetings, local street stalls, including sales of Scottish Socialist Voice, public meetings, door-to-door leafleting" and "system-atically build our base in the workplaces and trade unions".
Members are also implored to "raise the banner high of the united [sic] SSP at all events, including actions against war, nuclear weapons, new nuclear power stations, and on asylum rights" and to respond to the urgent appeal to meet legal costs and fund the 2007 election campaign by "regular and increased subs payments" and "generous donations". Everyone should also "seek to recruit a new member to our party".
In short, the NC agreed to forget their differences and "collectively face outwards" - you must be joking.
There was a blazing row outside the hall where the NC was taking place between comrade McCombes and a former national chair, Catriona Grant (now a leading light in the UL). This was because in the meeting comrade McCombes had denied being one of the six EC members, back in 2004, who had voted for an outline of the EC's November 9 discussions to be published in Scottish Socialist Voice.
It was comrade Grant who had previously revealed the names of the six EC members who - quite rightly in my view - wanted to inform the members why their convenor was told to resign (when they were defeated on this, the EC put out a lying statement saying comrade Sheridan had stepped down to "spend more time with his family").
Speaking at the NC, Gordon Morgan wanted to know how comrade McCombes could reconcile his alleged action in calling for the minutes to be published with the fact that in May 2006 he was prepared to go to jail for refusing, on the grounds of their confidentiality, to abide by the order of the Edinburgh court of sessions to hand them over. He spent a long weekend in Saughton jail for contempt as a result of this refusal.
It was this that prompted comrade McCombes to deny he was one of the six - and was accused of lying by comrade Grant. Whatever the truth of the matter, this row symbolises the disintegration of the McCombes wing resulting from the pressure from the Sheridanites. A further sign of this disintegration comes with the letter from national secretary Allan Green, a loyal McCombes ally, announcing he will not seek re-election at the October conference:
"I took a decision some time back that I would prepare to stand down from this post and assist someone else to take on the duties. I then decided to stay in post, subject of course to the wishes of the party membership, until the situation became clearer after the internal difficulties that we have been experiencing for the past 18 months or so" (letter to members, June 27). Presumably he thinks the "internal difficulties" have now been resolved.
Another McCombesite who is stepping down - this time as an MSP - is, it is said, Frances Curran, who has decided against seeking re-election in May 2007, although apparently she is prepared to contest a council ward in Glasgow.
Meanwhile the ultra-nats are becoming more and more disenchanted with the McCombes leadership, despite backing him against comrade Sheridan's protégé, Colin Fox, for convenor last year. SSV columnist Kevin Williamson looks to be on his way out of the party - comrade McCombes and co, despite the latest Voice editorial, just will not come out openly for a tactical vote for the SNP. Comrade McCombes may be for a cross-class independence convention, but he has not publicly supported the electoral alliance demanded by Independence First, Williamson's favourite pressure group.
Williamson has claimed that both the CWI and SW platform are full of British "state agents" - proof of which is demonstrated by the CWI's insistence on standing John McAllion for the Scottish parliament in Dundee. The CWI knows full well, claims Williamson, that both Dundee constituencies are prime SNP target seats and it is the duty of all good socialists to leave the way clear for the nationalists.
SSP policy is for standing a full list of candidates for all the proportional representation seats, but not, in general, contesting the first-past-the-post constituencies. Regions may, however, decide to put up candidates for selected FPTP seats, but, for Williamson, anyone who does so must be an anti-independence "wrecker".
The increasingly forlorn Scottish Republican Socialist Movement platform also looks destined to quit the SSP - what remains of it, that is, since a section dropped out when the SW platform came on board. For them the current crisis is evidence that "dualism" - a joint party of separatists and 'unionists' - cannot work.
Before the current crisis broke, party treasurer Allison Kane was already warning about the SSP's precarious financial predicament.
But the legal charges arising from the Sheridan case - lawyers' fees, court costs for searching SSP offices, the fine for contempt - are said to amount to £45,000 all told. Part of that has been incurred by individuals, not least McCombes himself, but the SSP must pay £13,500 by the end of June and a further £6,000 by the end of July.
This comes at a time when the party's debt is becoming unmanageable, according to comrade Kane: "Some bills have been outstanding for around a year. We are already in breach of several repayment plans." While she believes the party "would not be able to operate with outstanding bills much over £20,000", her projections show these will rise to around £29,000 by May 2007. "Legal commitments mean that some bills will have to be paid earlier: hence wages may not be paid on time."
In a year's time total debts are estimated to climb to around £118,000, but the Glasgow headquarters would only fetch around £105,000 at current prices. Comrade Kane therefore proposes: "We should set a target of increasing income or reducing expenditure by £11,000 - ie, £1,000 a month, each month till the election."
On the face of it, £1,000 a month is hardly impossible for a party that claims almost 3,000 members - an extra 40p each would more than cover it. To put this in context, the CPGB, whose membership is a fraction of that of the SSP, set itself a target of raising an extra £1,000 a month at the end of last year (we have succeeded in pulling in more than half so far).
But the SSP has a high membership turnover and slack discipline. According to the Morgan-Eyre-Campbell open letter, sales of Scottish Socialist Voice are "less than half our claimed membership". There is also a poor record of dues-paying (the SSP receives on average only about £8,000 a month in subscriptions). Comrade Kane states: "There is some evidence that subs are increasing. However, they are still around £400 less than this time last year."
There is another problem. A large part of SSP income is derived from its councillors and, more importantly, its six MSPs. Under their commitment to take home only the equivalent of a skilled worker's wage they pay a monthly total of over £7,000 into party coffers from their salaries and expenses. In addition comrades Sheridan and Rosie Kane MSP rent out office space from the party, which provides an additional £4,000 a quarter - not to mention the occasional advert they take out for their surgeries in SSV.
But how many MSPs will there be next May? Current projections do not look good, with support for the SSP slipping down in the polls. The current crisis will hardly have helped.
And what about the appeal for funds? With a split almost certain, the partisans of either wing will be wary about donating cash that could end up in the hands of their rivals. It was this that lay behind the call by comrade Sheridan to send contributions to Colin Fox at the Edinburgh office, while Allison Kane immediately 'corrected' him, urging that monies be sent to the Stanley Street headquarters in Glasgow.
Underlying the crisis of organisation and personality is a profound political crisis. Both wings of the SSP are opportunistic to the core and it is this that leaves them paralysed. There is no getting round the fact that the party was set up on the basis of a cruel deception - that is could achieve success for socialism through some quick-fix short cut.
Both the nationalism of Alan McCombes and the Bonapartist populism of Tommy Sheridan are dead ends. The working class in Scotland, like their counterparts in Wales and England, need an all-Britain revolutionary party, which alone can take on the might of the UK state.