Breakaway deeply divided from birth

Peter Manson reports on the uneasy alliances within Tommy Sheridan's new party Solidarity

After the November 4 launch conference of Solidarity, the breakaway from the Scottish Socialist Party led by Tommy Sheridan, the relative strength of the contending forces - both between the SSP and Solidarity, and within Solidarity itself - have become a little clearer.

As the Weekly Worker has said all along, an alliance between the Socialist Workers Party and the Committee for a Workers' International cannot last long. And already in the build-up to the Solidarity conference the lines of demarcation were there for all to see. As we predicted, the SWP wants to pull comrade Sheridan's new grouping into the Respect milieu, while the CWI hopes to strengthen the hand of their comrades in the Socialist Party in England and Wales by persuading Solidarity to sign up to the SP's Campaign for a New Workers' Party.

Neither the SWP nor CWI is prepared to work as a minority for very long in any organisation they feel they 'ought' to control. So, for example, the SP walked out of the Socialist Alliance when the SWP took it over. Both groups were involved in the discussions that led to comrade Sheridan changing his mind about fighting to win back control of the SSP - the searing split over Tommy's defamation case was the excuse they had been looking for and they encouraged him to lead his unprincipled break.

In other words, there is another split waiting to happen - although not just yet. The SWP actually pulled back from pushing the Respect model for the new formation too hard once it realised it could not win. The narrow 119-111 vote in favour of the name 'Solidarity - Scotland's Socialist Movement', as opposed to the simple 'Solidarity', conceals the fact that there would have been a large majority against a Scottish version of Respect if that had been put to the vote.

True, the debate before the vote was taken centred on the choice between the Respect model and an SSP mark two. But many of the 111 who voted for 'Solidarity' were dead against the SWP's scheme - many comrades think the actual name chosen is cumbersome and impractical: they know that in reality the subsidiary title will be dropped for most purposes. The CWI claimed it was a matter of principle that 'socialist' should feature in the name, but it is noticeable that even Philip Stott, in his November 7 report of the conference, uses the shorter version of the name several times.

The SWP comrades had originally proposed 'Solidarity for Peace and Justice', but when it became clear that nobody apart from themselves would support this, they settled on the single-word compromise. The SWP also dropped its constitutional amendments which aimed to water down Solidarity's formal commitment to socialism and would have made it more like Respect - a cross-class 'coalition', which is supposed to unite the "secular socialists" with the "muslim activists" - and act as a pole of attraction for pacifists, environmentalists, etc, too.

But there were divisions in the SWP over the new course: Pat Smith, for example, is said to be "unhappy" with the idea that Solidarity should be explicitly non-socialist and not a few SWPers were secretly satisfied with the outcome of the conference. Chris Bambery, who was in Glasgow for the occasion, had his work cut out to keep his troops in order, but, as all the SWP's concrete constitutional proposals for the Respect model had been withdrawn, 'party discipline' was maintained and all members pushed the Respect line in the debate over the name.

The SWP's Iain Ferguson describes the conference in this way: "A lively debate took place in the discussion on the constitution. This was between those who favour a party model not dissimilar to the SSP and those (including members of the SWP) who feel that a coalition model, similar to Respect, would be a more effective way of engaging both with the muslim community and with those involved in other campaigns" (Socialist Worker November 11). In fact only the SWP argued for the Respect model - there was no "including" about it.

For its part, the CWI noted disapprovingly that the SWP "essentially called for an electoral coalition rather than a campaigning socialist party". Strange how things can change, isn't it? - south of the border the CWI abandoned the Socialist Alliance precisely because it alleged the SWP wanted to turn the SA into a party rather than a mere "electoral coalition".

Meanwhile, Solidarity's newly elected national treasurer, Gordon Morgan, has attempted to bridge the chasm that divides the SWP from the CWI. Comrade Morgan - formerly a leading light in Alan Thornett's International Socialist Group, who, along with the rest of the ISG in Scotland, broke from the group when it sided with the SSP leadership rather than Sheridan - has penned an article for the forthcoming Scottish Left Review.

According to comrade Morgan, from the beginning Solidarity "has viewed itself as being a unifier of many movements". This is made clear, he says, in the aims set out in the constitution: "Solidarity will be a political party which will be a coalition of groups, parties, organisations, trade unions and individuals." The constitution goes on to specify that Solidarity will be, in Morgan's words, "a campaigning movement; a democratic movement; a workers' movement; an anti-war movement; a grassroots movement; an environmentalist movement; a young people's movement; an internationalist movement; a socialist movement".

For comrade Morgan it is all a question of how a socialist party "relates to broader movements". Either it "exists independent of the movements, but swims within them" or else it is a "movement of movements - not separate from the movements, but acting as a vehicle for them for certain purposes, such as elections". This second model achieved "its highest expression" with Rifondazione Comunista.

In this way comrade Morgan caricatures, on the one hand, the CWI's broad, economistic version of a national-reformist socialist party and, on the other, the SWP's explicitly non-socialist Respect alternative. For him they are "partially different conceptions" and "The agreed constitution embodies both forms - both party and coalition of movements." So everybody is happy then.

The reality is that the CWI has won the first round. While it is much smaller than the SWP (although it has agreed a constitutional clause which lays down a minimum of 40 members for recognised platforms), it had an easy job arguing against the SWP line - especially since comrade Sheridan himself was also opposed to it.

So does that mean that the SWP is on the point of splitting from Solidarity? Some comrades seem to have taken seriously the unattributed claim published in The Sunday Times that, "if Sheridan is charged with perjury after claims by the News of the World that he lied in court, Respect will stand against him" (October 15). And George Galloway was the best placed candidate to stand against Tommy, the "source" concluded.

I was unable to elicit either a confirmation or denial of this from comrade Galloway's Westminster office, but I have to say this bears all the hallmarks of George's adviser, Ron McKay, who is not averse to speculating out loud to representatives of the press over a pint or three. Galloway in fact had dinner with Sheridan in September after the Stop the War Coalition demonstration in Manchester.

The idea that the SWP would deliberately place itself in the wilderness in Scotland (who else would join a Scottish Respect in opposition to both the SSP and Solidarity?) is highly improbable. That is not to say that the SWP is over the moon following the Solidarity conference, but it will surely wait for a more opportune moment to set up a formation over which it can exercise hegemony rather than be seen to stab Tommy in the back if he is once again hauled before the courts.

What proportion of the SSP's membership has Solidarity been able to win? Around a third, it seems. Its launch conference was open to all members, but only around 250 turned up. By contrast the SSP claimed 210 delegates at its own conference last month. According to Hugh Kerr, who is now back at work in his old job in comrade Sheridan's office at the Scottish parliament - Solidarity has 600 members, while the SSP retains about 1,000.

Mind you, comrade Kerr told me the SSP never did have the 3,000 it once claimed. The number of paid up members was always well under 2,000, but the SSP would feed the press inflated figures. Having switched to Solidarity, obviously comrade Kerr would not indulge in this reprehensible practice now, would he?

Whatever the truth about numbers, it is clear that comrade Sheridan's split has not so far met with the success he had hoped for. It has just started to register in the opinion polls - at 1% - while the SSP has climbed back up to 4%-5% recently. However, Solidarity partisans are taking comfort from the fact that a more detailed poll shows the two parties running neck and neck in Glasgow at 4%.

Unfortunately, however, any party must pick up around 6%-7% to win a single MSP in the May 2007 Holyrood elections. In 2003 the SSP proportion of the vote was twice the current combined support for the two rivals in Glasgow, enabling it to win two seats.

But Solidarity has one thing that the SSP lacks - and that is comrade Sheridan himself. Tommy is easily the most recognised politician in Scotland - over 90% know who he is. That is why the ballot papers will once more feature his name alongside that of his new party. In truth Solidarity has no alternative but to continue and further build the Sheridan personality cult.

And there is another carry-over from the SSP: its dire petty nationalism. Like its parent party, the Solidarity offspring is committed to an "independent socialist Scotland" - in fact any old independence will do. Like most of the SSP leadership, if not most members, many Solidarity comrades are looking forward to voting for the Scottish National Party in Scotland's "independence elections" next May.