Review: SSP magazine Frontline discuss lessons of split
28 February 2007
Since the split in the Scottish Socialist Party following Tommy Sheridan’s libel trial against the News of the World, the dust has cleared slightly and, as the lurid tabloid headlines have receded, it has become easier to see the political issues at stake. Things will become clearer still after the Holyrood and local council elections in May, but we can attempt to make some preliminary conclusions.
Although Tommy Sheridan remains the best-known (or most notorious) politician in Scotland, the future for his breakaway group, the satirically named Solidarity, is bleak regardless of whether he can secure re-election. This unstable coalition of the SWP and CWI platforms, both of which are bitter rivals, together with Sheridan’s family and personal supporters, is held together purely by the cult of its charismatic leader and hostility to the SSP majority. Its implosion in the not too distant future is all but certain.
By contrast, the SSP majority is in relatively good spirits, having retained most of its cadre – except for the already semi-detached SWP and CWI platforms – and rid itself of the debilitating situation where Sheridan, after being relieved of the party leadership, spent most of his time undermining the existing leadership. It is also to the SSP’s credit that it has recognised that the fact of the split does not obviate the need for a discussion of the issues involved.
The trouble is that much of the commentary about the split, whether from the SSP itself or groups abroad who look to the SSP model (such as the Australian DSP or the Irish Socialist Network) has been relatively superficial in a political sense. Having drawn the conclusions that Sheridan is a scoundrel and his backers in the SWP and CWI are opportunistic sectarians, there is a tendency to leave the argument at that and allow the rottenness of the alternative to make the SSP look good by comparison. This, however, is only part of the picture. It isn’t enough to say that Sheridan’s ego trip came close to destroying the SSP – we must consider why the SSP was vulnerable to Sheridan’s antics in the first place.
It is therefore welcome that the latest issue of the SSP magazine Frontline carries a number of articles analysing the split and seeking to draw lessons from it. The four articles are however a mixed bag, and how successful they are in drawing lessons varies widely from one to the next.
Alan McCombes puts up an articulate defence of the SSP Executive’s handling of the Sheridan affair, although acknowledging that they should have been more open from the beginning. By seeking to protect Sheridan, the Executive indirectly encouraged his disastrous course. Carolyn Leckie details the blatant misogyny indulged in by the Sheridan camp, and the party’s over-reliance on its charismatic leader. Frances Curran provides a useful analysis of the sectarian methods of the SWP and CWI – though there isn’t anything there that would not be well known to people acquainted with these groups – and suggests that the SSP in future should develop more horizontal modes of functioning.
Most interesting is Gregor Gall’s contribution, which attempts to step back from the Sheridan case and put the SSP crisis into a broader context. Gregor begins with the proposition that the party’s electoral breakthrough of 2003, when it returned six MSPs, was in some ways premature for the party’s actual state of development (Frances also flags up this question). Electoral success demobilised an important section of the membership, who had exaggerated expectations of what representatives in Holyrood could achieve and thus were less inclined to activism at branch level. Important cadres became parliamentary aides without being replaced in the extra-parliamentary party. Finally, the party developed a much more formal bureaucratic structure, with some thirty paid full-time workers and a tendency, especially amongst the platforms, to focus on internal committees and positions.
Gregor also deal with the issue of the party’s over-reliance on Sheridan, dealing with how an irreplaceable asset in the party’s early development could become a liability, and could do so with most of the leadership implicated in the development of the Tommy cult. But again, this was not just a question of Tommy turning out to be a scoundrel: it also became a demobilising factor, as Gregor puts it, “many looked to Tommy to be their tribune rather than to become active themselves in ‘his’ army”. The concentration on the single public face also strengthened centralising and top-down models of organisation to the detriment of party democracy.
Put in a context of low class struggle and an apparently immovable New Labour government – unfavourable conditions for the SSP to go forward – these factors begin to explain why the party would be vulnerable to Sheridan’s antics. What could have been a countervailing force, as Gregor points out at length, would be a politically educated and aware cadre – as Gregor puts it, the need is for the SSP “to become a much more thinking party”, constantly looking for ways to raise the political consciousness of its members and supporters, and to develop structure and a culture that serve that end. This also affects how the SSP develops its programme – Gregor touches on the question of transitional politics but unfortunately does not go into detail on this point.
The main point on which I would take issue with the Frontline debate is not in terms of what is said – many of the points raised are unarguable in themselves – but in terms of what is not said. Probably there will be more detailed proposals raised in the comprehensive discussion about the party’s future that is mooted for later in the year, following the May elections. I therefore don’t want to make any dogmatic judgments, but to flag up two issues that the SSP would benefit from looking at seriously.
The first is the question of party democracy. There is a danger that a rejection of the hyper-centralist sectarian model of organisation favoured by the SWP and CWI will lead to a reactive fetishising of “horizontalism” or “pluralism”. In fact there was already some of this present in the SSP’s model of the “party of platforms”, the platform being the SSP’s fancy term for a permanent faction. Due to the peculiar development of the SSP, most party members were not platform members but most activists were. Therefore at activist level the party was often little more than a coalition of sects, much like the dear departed Socialist Alliance. There was never any serious push towards moving to a more cohesive party where the platforms would recede in importance or even cease to exist. Actually the processes detailed by Gregor Gall could be said to have strengthened the platforms.
What flowed from that was that political discussion was devalued. Votes at conference followed factional lines to a great extent, and even though debates took place, few political issues were ever resolved. The SWP and CWI platforms remained closed sects, which explains how they could take their members out of the SSP en masse without any serious discussion. It also led to a situation whereby the SWP hid its main selling point – its anti-nationalism – while the CWI was so secretive it was impossible to know what they were thinking. They retained their private politics, and in the SWP’s case a predilection for setting up fronts under SWP control and outside the purview of the SSP.
Discussion of party structures should not, therefore, be about “horizontal” and “pluralist” versus “monolithic” and “sectarian”, but should be geared towards producing a party that is much more cohesive and conscious of its politics.
That leads me to the second point, which is – what kind of politics? Partly due to its coalition structure, partly due to having a far-left leadership sitting on top of what might loosely be called an Old Labour membership, the SSP has had a tendency to fudge several important issues. There have been signs of a drift towards nationalism, which may be strengthened if an SNP victory in May leads to a constitutional crisis. The party has always refused to have a policy on Ireland, despite the relevance of Ireland to Scottish politics – perhaps shedding the CWI will loosen inhibitions on that point.
Most importantly, the SSP deliberately fudges the question of reformist versus revolutionary politics. That doesn’t make the SSP reformist, but it does mean the party could go either way, and political developments outside the party – the issue of independence, for example, is much more important than Tommy Sheridan’s sex life – have the potential to lead to further crises in the SSP. Taking firm positions now could help steel the party against the future; dodging them will lead to more splits in the long term.
If the SSP does follow up the May elections
with a wide-ranging discussion of the party’s strengths and weaknesses,
and ways in which it can go forward, it has the potential to not only raise
its members’ consciousness and strengthen its programmatic base, but to
educate a whole layer of Scotland’s working class in principled socialist
politics. How the discussion is handled, and what conclusions it reaches,
will have an important bearing on the SSP’s future prospects.