frontline 16.

Platforms and Party Democracy and Efficacy

Gregor Gall is Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Hertfordshire. He is also an active member of Edinburgh North and Leith SSP and recently left the Socialist Workers' Platform after 15 years of membership.

The right to form and operate platforms within the SSP has been a key construct in the creation of a significant new socialist force in Scotland. Such a right has led to the unity of virtually all the significant sections of the far-left in Scotland into one socialist organisation, and has aggregated together the activists of these previous organisations into one sizeable, single activist milieu. Seven years on from the creation of the SSP, it is now a good time to review and critique the contributions of the platforms to the SSP.

As someone who has recently left the Socialist Worker Platform after fifteen years in it and its predecessor but who has not joined any other platform, I am not of an anti-platform disposition. Neither am I agnostic nor ambiguous about the existence and role of platforms. I believe that in the current era of the SSP, platforms can play a very important role in a number of regards but I am far from convinced that this potential is anywhere near being realised. Consequently, I welcome the initiative of Frontline to bring together a range of contributions from different viewpoints on platforms within the SSP and the nascent discussions within the ISM on the idea of a wider Marxist platform in the SSP.

In this article, I want to examine the role of platforms within the SSP in regard of two broad conceptual categories, namely, party democracy and party efficacy, i.e., party effectiveness and efficiency. These two categories should dovetail into each other, whereby a democratic SSP is also an effective and efficient SSP by virtue of having wide-ranging debate with significant membership participation which they leads to effective prosecution of these agreed party objectives, i.e. successful and extensive campaigns and mobilisations.

This examination is based on recognition of several phenomena. First, the vast majority of members are not members of platforms but the majority of activists (on a definition of what are party cadre comprising party workers, national office bearers, National Councils delegates and branch officers) are platform members or are in the close orbit of platforms. Second, there is a marked diversity in terms of the platforms by size, resources, internal political and ideological homogeneity, underlying purposes, being part of international tendencies and external orientations. Third, the entry of a number of platforms into the SSA/SSP has been as much about not wanting to be left out in the cold as it has been about wanting to be part of a new socialist project. Fourth, the degrees of political and practical commitment of the different platforms to the SSP varies – not so much in that some are about to or might leave but that the SSP is one of a number of arenas they operate in, as opposed to being the centre and cornerstone of their activities.

More Than the Sum of the Parts?

Rather than examining what individual platforms do, such as (in their own terms) attempting to be ‘the Marxist pole of attraction’ within the SSP, win the SSP to Marxist ideas, turn the SSP into a revolutionary party, a republican party, an independence party and so on, it is more useful to examine what they contribute to the SSP. Put another way, do they add value, and if so, what sort and how much? Given that the rationale for any platform is an ideological distinctiveness, it is best to begin by assessing what they contribute to the ‘ideas’ factory’ within the SSP, be this of theoretical, political practice or policy developments. And here, we need to be careful to distinguish between the contributions of individuals members of platforms and the platforms themselves, with the key criteria being whether the individuals were operating as platform members and where the ideas developed from (e.g. as a result of internal platform discussion or not).

In ideological terms, the SSP was created on the basis of a transitional method (but not programme) and in the context of an era when socialist ideas were on the defensive necessitating a project of propaganda and agitation rather than mass work. Therefore, the first question to ask is whether the platforms have contributed to the development and refinement of these ideas and consequent political practice (or have they shown the party the errors of these in a constructive way if they believe these to be wrong or misguided)? The gaping ideological hole in the SSP concerns the need to conceptualise in an explicit and detailed way how a transitional method can be (successfully) put into operation in Scotland and where the SSP now has significant parliamentary representation. What exists at the moment is that there is an implicit and all too often undiscussed and un/subconscious belief that the SSP is actually doing this, i.e. operating on the basis of a transitional method. The case for this is not proven, and, thus, there is also no discussion of the potential limitations and pitfalls of such a strategy. Foremost amongst these are becoming, in effect, merely a left-wing social democratic party, of developing parliamentary cretinism and of creating an obstacle via reformist consciousness to revolutionary consciousness. Related to this ideological hole is another issue: is the characterisation of the current epoch still correct? This should guide the SSP’s aims and expectations in its work. On both counts, the platforms themselves have contributed relatively little. To the extent that very limited moves have been made by anyone to address these two central tasks within the SSP (i.e. the question of independence and the independence convention, and a range of social reforms using Parliament and extra-Parliamentary campaigning), some platforms have supported these moves when it came to formal endorsement while others have opposed them or been critical of them. There is almost no evidence then of platforms filling the ideological vacuum or helping refine existing trajectories. Indeed, some platforms are quintessentially incapable of helping carry out these tasks because they are so fixed in thought and worldviews as a result of being appendages of UK-wide or international tendencies. This leads them to be unable to productively even adapt their political perspectives to the specific political situation in Scotland.

Another urgent need of the SSP concerns policy work, both in terms of new policy and filling out existing policy. The SSP cannot rely on the shibboleths of ‘one solution: revolution’ or ‘nationalise the commanding heights of the economy’ as recourses to tackling a host of issues. The SSP need to develop its own ‘third way’ on this, where it can specify a role for communities and their representatives, professional expertise, cooperatives, pressure groups and NGOs. Again, the contribution of the platforms has, at best, been negligible here.

Platform Versus Platform?

So what has the contribution of the platforms been and what, if anything, do they do best? All far-left organisations operate on the basis of what can be termed ‘political brand differentiation’ where they must necessarily seek to distinguish themselves from other far-left organisation, in order to provide the ideological rationale for their existence. This is not to decry differences, and sharp differences at that, but it is to recognise the nature of the dynamics of platforms. The nature of the SSP arguably accentuates this tendency even more on three counts.

The first concerns the SSP being a broad, pluralist party where platforms compete for influence within it and do so in the context of a plethora of other platforms. Secondly, because each of the platforms are relatively small and resource poor (including those of UK-wide organisations), they engage in activities within the formal structures of the SSP that involve product differentiation and grandstanding as opposed to policy work. Platforms believe this is where they can make their mark. Thirdly, the platforms shy away from having defined views on many areas and issues, instead choosing to concentrate on what they see as their key ideological issues. So, they are essentially disinterested in investing time and energy concerning issues of party structure and process concerning democracy, education and membership participation. In essence, we have a healthy abundance of sectarian activity from the platforms within the SSP. The exception is probably the ISM because of its state of what can most easily be called disintegration, fluidity and re-alignment by comparison to the other platforms.

What the platforms then do best is to counter-pose themselves to each other at annual conferences, national councils, the annual Socialism event and so on, and with the outcome that more heat than light is shed on the matters at hand. It will sound to some a heresy to state this, but why spend more time establishing policy on distant and far-away conflicts which the SSP can do relatively little to influence when with more time spent on closer to home issues, the SSP could make more of an impact? This is not an argument for junking international work and internationalism (anti-war, anti-imperialism etc) and denying the link between international and domestic politics. Rather, it is a tactical question of working out where the SSP can most effectively deploy its meagre resources.

Therefore, it is difficult to find evidence of genuine, constructive and forward moving inter-platform debate, for reasons outlined above. But it is also because there is relatively little in the way of intra-platform debate, excepting the case of the ISM and even here this is not always deliberate, structured or fruitful. Nonetheless, part of this overall trajectory of evident platform inadequacy is also the result of the founders of the SSP knowing that they wanted to avoid the old ways of the far left vis-à-vis internal party democracy but not laying out a purpose and basis on which the platforms should operate: rights come with responsibilities. Of course, this does not meaning asking the platforms to sign up to tight statement of principles but to consider the project of the SSP as genuinely greater than themselves.

Turning to the efficacy of the SSP, what activist resources do the platforms contribute? Certainly, they are mainstays of the milieu that carries out the day-to-day campaigning over a range of issues, but many operate with as much if not more regard to other campaigns, whether their own or outside the SSP. Whilst the SSP should not adopt a sectarian attitude of only working in campaigns it established or dominates, it is tantalising to wonder how much more forceful the SSP might be as a campaigning organisation if all its platform members made the SSP the absolute centre of their activities.

Hope For and Against Platforms

This litany of criticisms would be enough for some to justify throwing ‘the baby out with the bath water’. This would be an erroneous conclusion for a number of reasons. Envisaging platforms as they are and have been is to have a poverty of imagination as to how they could be in the future and about new platforms that might emerge. The rationale for having platforms concerns

  1. the low level of socialist consciousness amongst SSP members,
  2. the poor state of SSP educational activities, and
  3. the low level of activity of the majority of SSP members.

At the moment and amongst non-cadre milieus that are within, sympathetic and attracted to the SSP, there is a vagueness and uncertainty about what ‘socialism’ is. Simply put, there is an uneven level of understanding and consciousness, requiring the help of Marxist ideas to provide ballast and direction. But, of course, Marxism per se is necessary without being sufficient for amongst the ‘57-varieties’, there are the ‘good’, ‘bad’ and ‘ugly’. Much depends on how sensible and practical minded the different schools of Marxism are. There is a sense that many of the platforms are too fixed and inflexible to be able to play this kind of role, unless members can somehow pick up an amalgam of the generic and basic bits of Marxism from the platforms.

This leads me to envisage a platform which is broader than the current platforms, not just in terms of what it formally stands for and whose its members are, but also in terms of what is does and how it practically operates. To avoid the risk of becoming just a talking shop where membership has no significant commitment (political, financial, activity) attached to it, it must first of all delineate itself – not in terms of other platforms – but in terms of what is and is not Marxist. This in itself is not such a simple task, but it needs to be done in a way that is attractive to non-platform members and those interested in Marxism.

Such a platform must then go on to work out how it should operate. I would favour;

  1. agreeing and setting broad objectives for the SSP to attain, to which the platform’s progress in securing these is regularly reviewed,
  2. providing a forum to generate responses to new challenges that the SSP faces, particularly where the SSP has no policy or very little policy,
  3. organising educational day schools on key issues in Marxism, aspects of Marxist history, Marxist analyses of various issues, as well as seminars on techniques of writing, public speaking and campaigning, and
  4. creating a space for intellectual ‘blue-sky thinking’
.

Looked at another way round, it is hard to find arenas within the SSP where ideas can be discussed and developed and which can bring together a range of relatively like-minded opinion and highly-informed individuals where the purpose of the gathering is not tied into the much more instrumental and narrower concerns of branch meetings, regional councils, national councils, and annual conferences. A single annual Socialism event cannot suffice here, which is often scarred by inter-platform bun fights. There is a need for such an arena that does not always have a set of specific practical outcomes. For example, a set of day schools over a series of months on the transitional method may facilitate filling the theoretical gap that I believe exists. Asking the counter-factual, ‘What would the SSP look like without platforms?’ should lead to a conclusion that without platforms per se in the SSP, the SSP could become an impoverished party where individuals are without anchors, ballast and worldviews. In branches, individuals might become overcome by campaign-itis, fatalism and passivity. The SSP might lose its sense of direction, and be buffeted about in consecutive political maelstroms.

Conclusion

The most important challenge for Marxists within the SSP is to reconcile the existence of the right to form and operate platforms with the creation of platforms (or an important single platform), which can realise the potential outlined above. Whether or not platforms will always exist and be needed in the SSP should be contingent and conditional upon them playing a productive (or at least not unproductive role), the state of the health of Marxist ideas inside the SSP, the development of non-platform activists and the desirability of maintaining such a single but heterogeneous socialist force as at present. But it should also not be forgotten the root of many of the SSP’s current internal challenges go way beyond the mere existence and operation of platforms.

Gregor Gall is author of the forthcoming 'The Political Economy of Scotland: Red Scotland? Radical Scotland?' (University of Wales Press, summer 2005).

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