frontline 13

Strategy for the SSP

A year ago the SSP scored a remarkable electoral success. This article by Steve Arnott (Highlands and Islands SSP Organiser) and Duncan Rowan (North-East Scotland SSP Organiser) looks at the strategy of the party so far and asks what we need to do next. This is a revised form of a discussion paper originally presented for the SSP Executive.

Five years after the launch of the SSP we now have around 2000 subs paying members, 6 MSP's, the affiliation of a key trade union and a core support of around 6-7% in elections and opinion polls. For the first time in generations the potential exists to build a new mass party of the working class ideologically committed to socialism from the outset, and the SSP is poised to begin that process. We believe the SSP now requires a thoroughgoing discussion on the strategy and orientation for the next phase of building our party.

In order to begin that task we need to clearly examine the basis of our current position within society, and the means by which we achieved it.

May 1st

The parliamentary elections on May 1st represented a breakthrough for the party on a par with the election of Tommy Sheridan in 1999. It laid to rest the accusations that we were nothing more than a 'one man band' or a transitory protest vote and clearly showed that within Scotland there was a significant section of society prepared to vote for a radical socialist alternative.

However, in terms of a measure of our support within society we have to see that what the election represented was an electoral catching up with an already existing objective reality. The election result confirmed the averaged results of System Three opinion polls over the previous two years, namely that nationally we commanded the allegiance of around 6 -7% of the voting population.

During the four years since Tommy's election we have been able to consolidate a stable core vote within the left of society, and with a united party begin to the explore the possibilities that success raised. It can be argued that the position the party finds itself in at this point in time, in terms of activists, membership and wider support, represents a vindication of the ideas of 'left regroupment' which lead, in the first instance, to the creation of the Scottish Socialist Alliance, and then the SSP itself.

We have created a party that has united the overwhelming majority of organised socialists in Scotland - a combat party that is also committed to pursuing a serious electoral strategy.

We have also partially filled the vacuum left by the betrayal of New Labour, and provided an alternative for that section within society which would have always been prepared to vote for the left and socialists, but never previously had the opportunity.

Our support

Our current levels of support vary across the regions, with Glasgow being significantly ahead in terms of its development for historical reasons (poll tax/election of SML councillors/Tommy). But broadly speaking (and based on anecdotal evidence rather than hard empirical data) we can identify our supporters as being drawn from the most politically conscious elements within society, the working class and youth but also including important elements of the 'middle class'. These are the public sector trade unionists and 'professionals', teachers, social workers etc. We also have sections of the 'Old Labour' and left SNP voters.

This is the cross section we would have hoped to gain through pursuing a successful 'regroupment' strategy - by which we mean not just a political regroupment of the old left, but an accompanying political regroupment within wider society. In that sense, the successes we have had so far represent an absolute empirical proof that the strategy pursued by the SSP has been successful in achieving the goals we set to this point.

But we have to recognise that having largely achieved those goals, there is currently no evidence that we have started to expand our support within society beyond that core support of 6-7%. On the contrary, averaged polls since the election have shown us still roughly at the same level of support garnered on May 1st. We should also note that recruitment by and large has continued through this period as a steady trickle. There was no flood of new members into the party after the May 1st breakthrough as there was after Tommy's election.

Beyond regroupment

We are now in a situation where unless significant electoral gerrymandering takes place or we make serious political errors, we will most likely hold onto, or slightly improve our current position. Indeed with the proposed introduction of PR into local government for 2007 we could witness a similar breakthrough in terms of elected local councillors, another electoral realignment that reflects our wider support within society.

However merely holding onto our current position or seeing increases in our elected representatives due to technical changes in the electoral system is not the limit of our ambition. There could be a real danger that, unless we develop strategies and orientation appropriate to the next stage of building the SSP, we could actually stagnate, or be seen to be stagnating. At 7% support within the electorate, 4% or so in the population as a whole, we would eventually be seen by many as having reached our 'natural' limit, as nothing more than a left pressure/left minority party within society.

To move beyond the breakthrough of regroupment to the next stage of a stable 15% support in society will require much larger sections of the class to transfer their allegiance to socialism.

The question is therefore raised: where would these new forces come from and how do we orientate towards them?

Widening Our Support

One of key wider political trends of the past 20 years has been the slow, steady rise in abstentionism towards the established political process, especially amongst the more disadvantaged sections of the working class, and youth in general. At heart this has involved a conscious rejection of 'traditional' political parties/politics and record levels of distrust, disillusionment and antipathy towards politicians. This process has been paralleled by the rise in 'single issue' politics.

The source of these inter-linked trends lies in the collapse of social democracy and the ascendancy of neo-liberalism following the end of the post-war boom. Social democracy was unable to even defend the basic gains made by the class in the face of a capitalism struggling to maintain its levels of profit during the ongoing period of downturn. The lies, betrayals and failures of the social democratic parties over the past period have lead to a steady erosion of support, not only for them as organisations, but in any political process at all, amongst key sections of our class.

Whilst we continue to look towards winning sections of Labour and SNP voters over to our banner, it's that section of disenfranchised working class ex-voters, and youth who have never voted - those who formed the majority of the 50% who didn't vote on May 1st - who should be our main target in the next period.

In winning over these sections of our class lies the key to the next breakthrough of support for the SSP.

How? The problems.

Our success in regroupment has lead us to the point where we can start to seriously consider how we can begin to relate to this wider section of the working class. But paradoxically that success has also made the process somewhat more difficult.

Central amongst those difficulties is that, in the eyes of those workers and youth, who have turned away from traditional politics, we could be seen - and probably are seen, by some - as 'just another bunch of politicians'. It is a testament to the actions and attitudes of the active layer of the party, and particularly all our parliamentary comrades, that we have thus far minimised that danger by sticking to our principles even as we have started to professionalise our approach and apparatus. But even with the best intentions, a party with six MSP's has more difficulty in remaining being seen as anti-establishment than a party with one.

Our parliamentary representation, our ability to now put forward and fight for specific reforms also raises an associated problem. We have correctly decided to link our parliamentary work with that of the wider party, to 'bring the politics of the streets into the parliament' as witnessed with the nursery nurses and the Scrap the Council Tax Bill.

However, the key point is this. In mobilising forces to support bills or solidarity campaigns that, with the current balance of forces within the parliament, are probably not going to succeed, the question is then raised: what do we do when those bills are defeated?

If all we have to offer at that stage, is to blame the other parties (however justifiably), to call for more votes, for more MSP's next time, then we run the risk of appearing to fall into the camp of being 'just another bunch of politicians' who promise the earth, and can't deliver - even with the best of intentions.

We have to consider how to continue campaigns beyond that point, how to create other avenues for continuing struggles and achieving success. Finally, we need to address the way in which we have succeeded in gaining our current position. The strategies we used successfully during the course of regroupment may not be the most appropriate for bringing into the orbit of socialism this newer, less politicised layer.

In building the SSP we utilised a broad brush approach, involving ourselves as widely as possible in national campaigns - both those we initiated (free school meals, scrap the council tax) and those broad based campaigns/movements that arose independently (anti-capitalist, anti-war, anti-nuclear, asylum seekers, and strikes). These campaigns helped us reactivate and draw many existing socialists to our banner as well as some elements of those newly radicalised by the issues themselves.

However successful we were in adopting this approach, this has not shown itself as suited for reaching out beyond our current areas of support. Apart from during elections and those specific campaigns we launched, we have correctly operated a 'united front' strategy - seeking to build broad inclusive movements around single issues. However, in applying this method it can be argued that there are negatives as well as positives.

Firstly, we feed into the prevalent trend towards single-issue campaigns. For example, as the predominant force within the leadership of the anti-war movement we did our best to raise the class, anti-imperialist issues posed by the war, and certainly succeeded to some extent amongst the broad layer of anti-war activists and the movement. In a lot of cases the 'official' broad movement took up our formulations and slogans.

However, amongst the mass of people the position was not so clear. For many people on those demonstrations the movement resolved itself into a classic single-issue question, yes or no to war, and as with many other single issue campaigns once that question was resolved many felt that it was over and done with. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why we (and other socialist organisations across the UK and internationally) did not see an increase in membership and support commensurate with the levels of protest and of our involvement in the anti-war movement.

Secondly, despite our best efforts and partly because we are (rightly!) dealing with so many different issues even our own supporters sometimes see aspects of our work in single issue terms, rather than as different parts or expressions of the same problem - capitalism, with the one common solution. This is not to say - a la some parody of the old left - that we simply stick some anodyne phrase on at the end of every leaflet about the problem 'only being solved under socialism'. But we do need a more holistic approach and identity that constantly relates our reform programme to our wider vision of a socially transformed society.

Of course, all of these various issues and campaigns we have been involved in - asylum seekers, anti-imperialism, anti-war, trident etc - continue to be important and our involvement is on a principled basis. We need to realise though, that these are not necessarily the issues that are chiming with the very people we have to win over if we are to succeed in building a mass party. In making these points, however, it is important to understand that we are not proposing abandoning anything here, in terms of all the campaigning work the party does. What we are saying is we need to shift the orientation and emphasis of the party's work to take into account the bigger layers we must win in order to progress.

As a way of recruiting a core membership, in ones and two's and small groups, and attracting a politically conscious core support, the things we have done up to now have worked reasonably well. And we will continue to do them.

However, if we want to move beyond this stage and start to widen the base of our support to the less politically conscious sections of our class - those that have lost any faith in the possibility of change, suffered most from the betrayals of social democracy and who will ultimately benefit most from socialism - we must now begin to look towards incorporating different and bolder methods of work into our strategy.

How? Possible solutions

In turning towards this section of our class and youth, we already have an example to look to, albeit on a smaller scale - the work of Scottish Militant Labour (SML) in the late 80's and early 90's.

SML offered a series of radical campaigns, both in their demands and execution, which engaged with people on basic economic and class issues. It was through sustaining this radical edge that it saw the election of several councillors in Glasgow and some close results elsewhere. This initial success would eventually fade with the arrival of Blair and the imminent election of a Labour government after 18 years of Tory rule, but throughout its existence SML was seen as wholly different from other political parties.

Of course, it might be pointed out that the objective conditions for the meteoric impact of SML 1992-1994 were different then from now. Certainly the national question loomed larger and there was mass disillusionment with Labour following their municipal capitulation over the poll tax and their failure to secure an election victory in 1992. However, to pretend that objective conditions in Scotland at that time were not related to the subjective role played by SML and others in the building of a campaign of mass civil disobedience against the poll tax is to deny history.

Through sustained, intensive local activity within working class areas, in leading campaigns on both a local and national level, SML was able to win over significant sections of the class in terms of local support and in increased recruitment. Where it operated, SML was able to avoid the trap of appearing to be 'just another political party'. But even at the height of its success SML's reach and ability to operate was geographically confined to a few key areas, especially Glasgow. However the testament to the success of that particular organisation's approach during this period can be seen in the fact that a decade later Glasgow still represents the most developed area for the SSP, both in terms of support and membership.

We are not suggesting a nostalgic re-visitation of the past, but there are lessons to be learned from it that may be appropriate to the problem that now confronts us. By building and participating in both local and national campaigns based around economic and class interests, by lending them a cutting, community based edge - by being prepared to risk arrest, launching occupations, involving the disenfranchised in radical action etc, we can maintain our distinctiveness as a party from the other mainstream organisations.

It is our contention that prioritising campaigns that directly and economically impact upon these sections of our class who have been effectively abandoned by the 'mainstream' parties is the best way to win them to our side in the struggle for socialism - replenishing and developing the core support for the SSP within civil society.

With these campaigns we should be aware of the dual task they have to perform - not only to popularise and build support for the issue at stake, but also in a more explicit way to coherently explain our vision of socialism to a layer of people who do not come from a particularly political background.

Again, this does not mean that we should abandon or in any way dilute our commitment to the broad based campaigns we have been and are involved with. Leaving aside the principles behind our support for them, they are important points of orientation towards not only the politically active and conscious layers of our class and youth, but those who are moving in that direction. But like any other single-issue campaign their immediate relevance and levels of support will wax and wane over time, whilst the basic economic realities affecting our class are ever present. In looking to broaden our support into this section of society, these basic economic issues need to be systematically raised.

Similarly the current work within the Trade Unions should in no way be neglected, but rather expanded according to the lines laid out at the recent Trade Union Conference. However, the strategy outlined above will also draw in many rank and file trade unionists from local communities, providing an alternative route to engaging them with the work of the party.


It is now necessary to move beyond the tactics, strategy and orientation determined by the correct regroupment process of the past period, to begin gathering around the forces assembled thus far the new mass party of the working class.

The opportunity that now presents itself to the SSP is to apply SML's pioneering strategy once again, but this time with far greater numbers, resources, experience, geographic spread and influence, and on a far greater scale and higher level of development than would have ever been possible before.

We stand at a crossroads for the party, not for the first or last time. We can look to build on the breakthrough that regroupment has provided us, by seeking in a determined and considered way to expand the base of our support and membership - or we can rest on our laurels thus far.