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After the Scottish elections – what next for socialists?

Andrew Johnson, 16 May 2007

The recent elections to the Scottish Parliament have given a bloody nose to New Labour in Gordon Brown’s backyard and, with the Scottish National Party emerging as the largest party, there is the possibility of a constitutional crisis over the SNP’s plans for a referendum on independence. However, the Scottish left will not be in Holyrood to play a part in those debates, with the two rival factions of what used to be the Scottish Socialist Party failing to return any representatives.

The collapse in the left vote was striking. In 2003 the united SSP had polled 128,026 regional list votes (7.7% of the Scottish total) and returned six MSPs. This time around, Solidarity, the breakaway party set up by former leader and TV celebrity Tommy Sheridan after his libel trial victory last year, won only 31,066 while the rump SSP faired even worse with 12,731. Even taking the split into account and recognising that there is still a relatively substantial left constituency in Scotland, this represents a net loss of two-thirds of the socialist vote. No left candidates came close to being elected, with even Sheridan crashing to defeat in Glasgow despite his fame (or notoriety) and bookies offering 100-1 odds against him losing. Meanwhile, other candidates outside the main parties also performed poorly, with the Greens dropping from seven seats to two and only Margo McDonald left standing of the six independents.

This is a huge setback for a movement that had become a lodestar for socialists in Ireland, England, Australia and elsewhere. Many socialists outside Scotland had been impressed by the SSP’s electoral success, by the use it made of its parliamentary representation – its high-profile campaigns against warrant sales and in favour of free school meals were examples of the kind of practical agitation the SSP did well – and by its organisational model of the party of platforms. While the SSP’s line on the national question was of serious weight within Scotland, it was not that which attracted socialists outside Scotland – the electoral work, practicality and organisational model featured much more heavily. It is therefore important to examine the reasons for the left’s spectacular failure, and ask what the options are for a future recovery.

Reasons for the left’s collapse

There can be no doubt that the Sheridan libel trial and subsequent split had a depressing effect on the left vote. This shouldn’t be taken, however, as the electorate punishing the SSP for failing to support Sheridan. Certainly the rump SSP suffered from the loss of Sheridan, a media darling hardly off the airwaves, whose high profile Solidarity cashed in on (following an old SSP practice) by having Sheridan’s name beside the party on every ballot paper, even those for local council seats. But Sheridan’s failure indicates that the Sheridan brand itself is tarnished, and the main effect of the trial seems to have been to hold the Scottish left up to public ridicule, reducing a serious party to the level of a trouser-dropping farce. Sheridan then flouncing out of the SSP and running against his former comrades – on a more or less identical manifesto – hardly helped to restore a serious image.

There are further reasons, largely resulting from the split, for the left’s poor performance. The SSP had to run its election campaign on a shoestring budget of £30,000 – Solidarity appeared to have more money but not qualitatively so. Some SSP activists, disillusioned by the split but unwilling to join Solidarity, have simply dropped out. Further, in 2003 the SSP ran candidates in all but one of Scotland’s 73 first-past-the-post constituencies. This time around, due to budgetary concerns, the SSP ran only one constituency candidate and Solidarity none. The fact that in 2003 the SSP won all its seats on the regional lists is beside the point – running in the constituencies helped the party’s grassroots campaigning profile and boosted its list vote. Voters who plumped for the SNP at constituency level, in the absence of a left candidate, were less likely to vote left on the regional list.

But the main reason for the left’s failure is without doubt the resurgence of the SNP. It is important to remember that the big breakthroughs for the SSP, the Greens and the bloc of independent MSPs in 2003 occurred in the context of an extremely poor result for the SNP, under the lacklustre leadership of John Swinney, who had gone all out to present the Nationalists as a respectable government-in-waiting. Since the SNP had always drawn a lot of its support from being the natural home for an anti-Labour protest vote – especially in Labour’s corrupt rotten boroughs of west-central Scotland – the SSP could benefit from anti-Labour sentiment in the absence of a strong SNP challenge.

This situation was changed by the return from Westminster of Alex Salmond, a shrewd populist who had been expelled from the SNP back in 1982 for left-wing activism. Salmond’s dynamic style, mixed in with his eclectic combination of Scottish nationalism with roughly Old Labour social democracy, appealed much more to the protest voter, and a sense of momentum behind the SNP created more momentum. The SNP’s profiling of its opposition to the Iraq war and Trident, and its call for abolition of council tax, had rather more impact than the difference between the SSP/Solidarity line of socialist independence and the SNP’s vision of a Tartan Tiger much like Ireland or Norway. This put the squeeze on the 2003 SSP vote, most of which could probably be classed as Old Labour rather than Trotskyist in its politics. This squeeze would have been difficult to resist even in better circumstances. The combination of the SNP revival with the results of the Sheridan trial and split proved impossible to resist.

That said, although more political clarity from the left could not have prevented the squeeze, it couldn’t have done as much harm. The longstanding tendency of both left formations to drift towards a national-reformist Scottish road to socialism undoubtedly left it vulnerable to a much larger SNP with the wind in its sails and presenting itself as well to the left of New Labour. The SSP and Solidarity could not have held back the tide, but they could have tried to stand against it.

Solidarity after the defeat

So, what can the left take out of this disastrous outcome? First we can look at Solidarity. Although Solidarity members will be upset at Sheridan losing his seat, they will at least take some comfort from outpolling the rump SSP by some distance – indeed, leading SWP member Neil Davidson has claimed that the SWP’s splitting action has been vindicated by the election results. But this will be a false comfort. Solidarity’s perspective depended not only on the SSP being wiped out, but Sheridan keeping his seat as the figurehead for socialism in Holyrood. Then, the scenario went, a new movement could be built around Sheridan, with a substantial number of SSP members defecting to the more successful organisation and the remainder being completely marginalised.

This perspective has been comprehensively falsified by events. Not only by Sheridan’s electoral failure, but by the failure of Solidarity to attract the new elements they hoped would join the new party. The SWP in particular prophesied that there would be big numbers of people in the Muslim community and the social movements, who somehow had never been attracted to the SSP but who would flock to a new Tommy Sheridan party. Not so, Solidarity remains largely a coalition of the SWP, the CWI and Sheridan’s extended family and personal entourage.

And this coalition is inherently unstable. Not only because of Sheridan’s continuing legal problems – even if he avoids going to prison for perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, the temptation of a Galloway-style media career will be strong. Solidarity also has to deal with the fact that the SWP and CWI, who between them make up the bulk of the membership, agree on little and are extremely hostile to each other. The only glue holding them together is the micro-Bonaparte figure of Sheridan, and with Sheridan losing his Holyrood seat it isn’t clear that the components of Solidarity have any reason to stay together. Even had he been re-elected, the problems with that organisation simply will not go away – success at the polls for Sheridan could only have delayed to inevitable collapse.

The future of the SSP

The SSP, despite its terrible showing and despite the great demoralisation its members must be feeling, has more of a chance to ride out this situation in the long term. It has several advantages over Solidarity – it doesn’t have the barely concealed factional warfare, it came through the Sheridan libel case with its honour intact, and it managed to hold on to almost all of the cadre outside the already semi-detached SWP and CWI platforms. And, while Solidarity is dominated by the Sheridan personality cult, the SSP now has a number of prominent figures who may not have Sheridan’s instant recognisability, but are well respected in their own right and would make strong candidates in the future.

What will determine the SSP’s future is how the wide-ranging debate promised by the party leadership for the post-election period pans out. Some conclusions are already accepted by the SSP membership as a whole. There has been a healthy self-criticism about the party’s former reliance on the Sheridan cult, about the tendencies to bureaucracy that developed after the 2003 electoral breakthrough, and about the party’s former functioning at some levels as effectively a coalition of sects, not unlike the old Socialist Alliance in England and Wales. Interesting ideas have already been brought forward about transforming how the party can build in the future.

There are some dangers in the current situation. There is a danger that Sheridan’s egomania will be blamed for wrecking the party, without asking how the party was vulnerable to Sheridan’s antics in the first place. It’s worth remembering that as far back as 2003, and probably earlier, there was talk about splits in the party, and that had nothing to do with Sheridan’s sex life. At that time, the discussion was about the undisciplined and basically disloyal behaviour of the SWP, which points to another danger, of an anti-platform sentiment emerging as a reaction against the sectarianism of the SWP and CWI.

The main danger, however, is that the discussion might focus on organisational issues to the exclusion of politics. If the SSP is to come back, it will need a workable perspective, and will need to base that on a clarification of its politics. Above all, the question of whether it is a revolutionary or reformist party – bearing in mind that a revolutionary perspective doesn’t at all exclude fighting for reforms – cannot be avoided indefinitely. This is not simply a doctrinaire point, but has a direct bearing on the recent crisis. The more a party adopts reformist politics, or the longer it leaves the question of reform and revolution unresolved, the more trouble it will have exercising discipline over its parliamentary group. The split in the Workers Party in Ireland in 1992 is a good example of this problem.

Another issue that will have to be resolved is the question of the party of platforms model. One big problem with the old SSP was that the platforms, especially the SWP and CWI, functioned almost as private clubs within the party, with their own private publications and ideological positions and bearing primary loyalty to their parent organisations in England. This explains how the SWP and CWI were able to take virtually their entire membership out of the SSP with almost no discussion. It also explains why political debates in the SSP were rarely resolved one way or the other. The idea that factions and tendencies fight for majorities for their positions, that these positions are tested against each other in practice, and that the party strives for political unity, seems to have been forgotten to a large extent.

The SSP will also need to clarify its thinking on the national question. Without taking any definitive position, we can say that there is very little evidence that Scotland as a nation is suffering national oppression. There is a somewhat plausible argument about how breaking up the UK state could weaken the bourgeoisie, but little attention has been paid to the tendency of this process to divide the working class. With the possibility of SNP government leading to a constitutional crisis, this is an issue where socialists will need to be crystal clear.

When it comes to debating these issues, the SSP has the advantage over Solidarity of being a serious organisation of serious socialists, albeit that we think they have taken some wrong turnings, as opposed to an opportunistic alliance of two hardened sectarian groups with an egotistical chancer. It is to be hoped that the debate will be approached in a spirit of taking programmatic questions seriously. The answers the SSP comes up with will have a big bearing on whether the party can recover from its present situation, and what political role it can play in the working-class movement in the future.