After the court victory, civil war begins in earnest

Peter Manson comments on what awaits the Scottish Socialist Party in the aftermath of Tommy Sheridan's court victory

As Tommy Sheridan celebrates a stunning victory in his defamation case against the News of the World, the factional fighting gripping the Scottish Socialist Party has developed into an all-out civil war.

Communists can only welcome the defeat (for the time being at least) of News International's smear campaign against such a prominent working class leader - but at what price? Comrade Sheridan's reckless insistence on pursuing his legal action, against the unanimous recommendation of the SSP's executive that other means be adopted, has led directly to the party's terminal crisis.

The CPGB has always ruthlessly criticised the SSP's degeneration into left nationalism and looked forward to the day when its best elements could be won away from the Scottish separatist dead end into the fight for an all-Britain revolutionary working class party. But now, with the imminent destruction of the SSP project, the danger is that a good part of its cadre will be scattered to the four winds. While its positive gains - not least the idea that it is possible for rival trends to unite in the same party, however defective - will be lost, the disastrous nationalism infecting the left in Scotland will, if anything, be strengthened.

It was paradoxical that the most persuasive evidence that Sheridan had actually engaged in some of the sexual activities claimed by the News of the World came from his own SSP comrades - 11 members of the EC who stated that the minute of the November 9 2004 meeting which recorded comrade Sheridan's own admission was accurate (two others denied it). It was because the minute contained such an admission that it was kept confidential, they said, and because comrade Sheridan still intended to bring the defamation action despite this that he was forced to resign as convenor.

It is likely, however, that for some members of the jury - they voted seven to four in favour of comrade Sheridan - the evidence was immaterial. Any working class juror with even a modicum of class-consciousness will instinctively side with Scotland's most prominent and tenacious working class fighter against a widely despised gutter rag. So what if someone has a fling? It is no-one's business apart from the individuals concerned, and the prying snoopers of the NOTW should be told where to get off. Quite right too. One lawyer quoted in The Scotsman took the view that the jury may have preferred 90 minutes of Tommy Sheridan's oratory in his closing speech to six hours of Mike Jones QC.

But for many of comrade Sheridan's more gullible supporters the verdict was absolute proof that every allegation was without a grain of truth and, by extension, confirmation that virtually the entire SSP executive had in effect conspired with News International in "the mother of all frame-ups".

The EC majority - most notably policy coordinator Alan McCombes - argues that it is essential to keep an undisputed, written record of decisions, especially when it comes to such questions as the resignation of the party's leader. This is undoubtedly correct, although the argument falls down somewhat when that record is kept "confidential" - out of the view of the members and indeed the class.

Unusually in a defamation case, no injunction was requested preventing the allegations from being repeated - perhaps this omission resulted from Tommy sacking his counsel, although one would have expected a request for an injunction to be part of the initial submission to the court. Either way, nobody, it seems, is treating the verdict as final. Not only did the NOTW in the edition immediately following the end of the trial (August 6) effectively assert that the verdict was wrong and Sheridan had lied: the United Left network has issued a long statement denouncing comrade Sheridan and his supporters for lying in court and dragging the party's name in the mud.

Several UL supporters have accused Sheridan of forms of sexual abuse of women, clearly assuming that what the NOTW and its witnesses said was at least partly true. And comrade McCombes has penned a 12-page article - officially circulated throughout the party in the newly re-established All-Members' Bulletin - listing in elaborate detail every one of comrade Sheridan's alleged lies and deceitful actions, many of which have never been revealed before.

The UL statement slates Sheridan for openly accusing leading SSP members of perjury, opening up the possibility of lengthy prison sentences. It declares: "The SSP must decide now how to hold Tommy Sheridan to account for his destructive acts and his appalling approach to fellow socialists. We call on Tommy Sheridan to begin by giving an uncompromising apology to the party as a whole for putting them through this tortuous process, and to the individual members that he has slandered, castigated and cross-examined in a hostile fashion. It is time he started taking responsibility for his own actions."

Likewise comrade McCombes demands a "public apology". Some hope! Almost simultaneously, Sheridan himself hailed his own "historic victory" against "the scab empire of Murdoch's News International" - "despite the parade of political scabs who were prepared to testify to a dodgy and illegitimate minute, in effect collaborating with the NOTW". The 'leadership had failed the test of "fundamental socialist solidarity".

And, of course, comrade Sheridan now intends to retake his rightful position as SSP convenor at the October 6-7 conference: "We who represent the majority of the SSP must now take our party back ... Never again must socialist betray socialist and side with the bosses' press!"

Presumably the Daily Record is not considered part of the "bosses' press" by comrade Sheridan. Its August 7 edition carries a full-length interview with the former convenor with a large photograph on the front page. The headline reads: "I'll destroy the scabs who tried to ruin me." On an inside page there are photos of MSPs Frances Curran, Rosie Kane, Carolyn Leckie and Colin Fox, who were all called by News International to testify against him, with the word "Scab" in large letters stamped over each of them.

For their part comrades Curran, Kane and Leckie issued a statement which asserted that Tommy had "lied his way through this court case". There is "no plot, no frame-up of Tommy Sheridan", they said - "the idea only exists in his paranoid imagination". Comrade Kane used her column in The Sunday Mail to repeat allegations that Tommy had admitted frequenting a sex club at the November 2004 EC and added: "Never mind welcoming a police investigation into alleged perjury - I am demanding an investigation" (August 6).

The same paper has a fetching picture of the Sheridan family and an article entitled "Gail Sheridan - not for a heartbeat did I doubt my Tommy", for which she was paid a handsome five-figure sum. Not bad - especially coming so soon after Tommy's £200,000 windfall from the NOTW case.

Both sides, then, are using every available means to win the members' support - without the slightest concern for working class principle. While comrade McCombes and the executive majority have made it clear from their use of the All-Members' Bulletin that the party resources at their command - including, I presume, Scottish Socialist Voice - will now be employed for factional purposes, they cannot hope to match Tommy when it comes to coverage in the mass media.

We can expect both sides to pull every trick to get a majority of delegates for the all-important conference. Neither side can afford to lose, since it is perfectly clear that the winner will take all. So look out for the fixing of membership figures, disbarments from branch meetings, suspensions of opponents, withdrawal of credentials, etc. And expect both sides to accuse the other of playing dirty. Quite possibly, a whole swathe of members will simply drop out.

However, the split may well happen before the conference, particularly if the Sheridan wing makes claims of wholesale gerrymandering. It seems highly unlikely that the current EC majority will be able to retain control by fair means - comrade Sheridan's advantage appears too great in terms of media prominence, and the tremendous boost from his court triumph.

And he will now push his own persona even more to the fore. A Sheridan-led SSP will be the definitive version of 'Tommy's party' - you ain't seen nothing yet. Accountability? Forget it. Comrade Sheridan has shown he can defeat all attempts to control him, using the classic methods of the populist. What is more, he now has cash - not a fortune, but enough to give him some leeway.

And he has the (admittedly small) forces of the Socialist Worker and Committee for a Workers' International platforms to act as his foot-soldiers. Both enthusiastically welcomed comrade Sheridan's victory, even though, in the case of the CWI, they had originally advised him against going to court.

The CWI statement claimed that its backing for comrade Sheridan "has nothing to do with a 'cult of personality', but a recognition of Tommy Sheridan's standing and support among wide sections of the working class in Scotland, not least because of his leading role in the mass anti-poll tax struggle." A case of protesting too much?

The Socialist Worker platform issued "heartfelt congratulations to Tommy, Gail and Gabrielle Sheridan" and called on "these News of the World witnesses to do the honourable thing and resign from the Scottish Socialist Party".

These two sects have been vying for the ear of comrade Sheridan with some success, it seems - at least according to comrade McCombes. The SW platform has great hopes of some kind of link-up with Respect, with Tommy as the Galloway figure, while the even smaller CWI is hoping to pull in more support in Scotland for the Socialist Party's Campaign for a New Workers' Party.

For comrade McCombes they are easy targets. In addition to comrade Sheridan himself, these "two London-controlled platforms" are singled out for much of the blame for the current debacle in his All-Members' Bulletin article. After all, "The break-up of the British state looks a more realistic prospect than at any time in the past 300 years" and here is Tommy linking up with groups that have no genuine belief in the SSP's 'independent socialist Scotland'.

Comrade McCombes has to play the independence card for all it is worth, but it is unlikely to save him. It is certainly possible to imagine a number of the former International Socialist Movement comrades like himself moving even further along the nationalist road. They would not be out of place in the Scottish National Party and - who knows? - perhaps Alex Salmond could do with a few talented recruits to counter his increasingly confident right wing.

As I say, the SSP's imminent demise is taking place in the most negative way imaginable, although I suspect there will be those who are quietly celebrating. Talk of the secret state having a hand in this whole affair is not to indulge in fantasy. Not in the sense of some MI5 agent lurking on the EC, but in the sense of the intelligence services feeding information to the tabloids. A few years back the SSP was threatening to win sufficient votes to cause New Labour real problems.

No longer. It is certainly possible that a populist party led by the Bonaparte, Tommy Sheridan, could make an impact. But it would be even less like the kind of party the working class needs than that led by the left nationalists.