frontline 17.

The SSP's General Election Warning

Andrew Grey from Kelvin branch of the Scottish Socialist Party analyses the May 2005 General Election result and the lessons for the SSP.

What is the significance of the SSP's poor showing in the 2005 general election? As Chou En Lai might have remarked, it's too early to say. This article is an initial response to the results, intended to address some of the issues that have been raised in the immediate aftermath of the poll, and an attempt to consider it in the context of the ongoing discussion about the future direction of the party. I hope it will stimulate some debate.

Our performance in the general election has been variously described as “disappointing”, “a setback”, “a disaster”, even “catastrophic”. Certainly it was not our finest hour. A total of 43,514 votes (1.9%) was well down from our 2001 total of 72,518 (3.1%). A comparison with the Holyrood elections of 2003, is even more sobering; in that poll we received 117,709 (6.2%) in the first preference vote, and 132,138 (6.9%) in the list vote. Even at the European Parliament elections last year we managed 61,356 (5.2%), which at the time was considered a poor performance.

Looking at the figures in more detail provides little comfort - the results were consistently bad across the whole country. The only cause for optimism was an increase in our vote in Shetland, along with Glasgow South West one of only two seats in which we saved our deposit. In Glasgow generally, which we have always considered our heartland, the slump in our support was perhaps most marked. In 2001 we received 17,033 votes across the 10 Glasgow constituencies, in 2003 the figure was 29,704 (31,216 in the list vote), but this year only 8,752 voters in the seven new Glasgow seats cast their ballots for the SSP – little more than half the 2001 figure, and less than a third of the 2003 tally. It is difficult to compare results on a constituency level, due to the boundary changes, but one typical example is Glasgow North. This seat takes in much of Kelvin and Maryhill, areas where we have done very well in the past, and we had a strong candidate and ran a good campaign. Nevertheless, we were unable to buck the national trend, sliding from a 2003 share of 15% to 3.8%.

On the face of it, voters have deserted the SSP in droves, nearly 90,000 of them disappearing in the last two years. Although the SSP is not primarily an electorally driven party, there is no doubt that the votes we receive in national polls are a valid indicator of how deeply our ideas are resonating within the working class. The decline in our vote represents a real setback for our project of transforming society. If this result was repeated in 2007 we would be lucky to end up with any elected representatives at all. We have a responsibility to think about the reasons for this, and to formulate a response that can put the SSP back on track.


It is undoubtedly true that some of the decline can be attributed to external factors outwith the party’s control. Westminster elections are contested on a national agenda that is very difficult for us to influence. With no chance of winning any seats it was hard for us to convince those outside our core support that a vote for the SSP would have any practical significance. We were marginalised in the media – what little coverage we did receive was almost uniformly hostile. Our vote was squeezed by an upsurge in support for the Liberal Democrats, who were able to a capitalise on disillusionment with Labour by opportunistically positioning themselves as a left alternative on issues such as Iraq, pensions and tax.

On the other hand it can also be argued that, for an uncompromisingly socialist party like the SSP, the electoral terrain in 2005 was much more promising than it had been in 2001. Labour's record in government in that period, both in Westminster and Holyrood, had surely done much to dispel any lingering illusions that there might have been a socially progressive agenda lurking beneath the Blairite façade. There was evidence that our policies had the potential to connect with the concerns and priorities of the electorate - a couple of weeks before the election, a BBC Scotland poll showed a large majority of respondents supporting redistribution of wealth and more public spending, and expressing a willingness to pay more tax to enable that to happen. Our record in campaigning, both inside and outside parliament, and our practical solidarity with workers in struggle like the nursery nurses, fire-fighters and civil servants should have stood us in good stead. We had made progress in winning significant support in the trade union movement, particularly with the affiliation of the RMT, but also in the FBU, PCS and CWU. We might reasonably have expected to at least equal our performance in 2001, and indeed in the run up to May 5th there were few voices in the party predicting calamity.


There is a danger in attaching too much importance to objective factors that seem to influence the fortunes of the party. It risks obscuring the role that the party's subjective response to the conditions that it faces plays in shaping those conditions, leading to either demoralisation and despondency in the face of unpromising reality, or, equally unhelpfully, to a search for a sympathetic milieu that the party can take refuge in while we wait for the world to become more receptive to our ideas.

This latter tendency can be seen to some extent in the post-election discussion of the party position on Iraq:

“... one of the key lessons from this General Election ... is the centrality of the question of the Iraq war ... The reason why George Galloway beat Oona King in a so-called safe Labour seat and why the Respect coalition did so well in Birmingham and elsewhere was because they mobilised the anti-war movement to punish Labour ... It simply wasn’t good enough for the SSP to be verbally against this war, we also should have tapped into that reservoir of discontent with Labour by seriously mobilising the anti-war movement in Scotland to vote for us”. (1)

Gill Hubbard, of the Socialist Worker platform, in a letter to the Scottish Socialist Voice after the election, articulates an idea that had also been advanced ahead of the poll; that the SSP did not orientate itself with sufficient vigour towards those elements of society that had been radicalised by opposition to the war in Iraq, and consequently missed out on the wave of popular support that swept George Galloway to victory in East London. In particular, it is said, there was a failure to engage with young voters and the Muslim community, constituencies that are already to some degree alienated from the mainstream political process and are thus more open to an alternative political programme. This is on some levels an attractive argument. One of the high points of an otherwise gloomy election night was the sight of Galloway being carried shoulder-high by a crowd of jubilant supporters. However, it is demonstrably false to say that the SSP did not make the war a central plank of our election campaign. Point number one of the “Twenty reasons to vote SSP” in the manifesto was “For troops out of Iraq”. Anti-war stories featured prominently in the Voice in the run-up to polling day, tens of thousands of anti-war leaflets were handed out on street activities, and speakers at dozens of public meetings hammered home the troops out message. Scottish Socialist Youth was particularly active in this regard. It is also misleading to draw a sharp distinction between the SSP and the “anti-war movement”, since the party, through the Scottish Campaign for Justice not War, has played a central role in organising popular opposition to the “war on terror” since before the first bombs fell on Afghanistan.

What if we had placed even more emphasis on the war, to the exclusion of other issues? Would our vote have improved dramatically? In the only constituency in Scotland not contested by the SSP, East Kilbride, we stepped aside for an anti-war candidate, Rose Gentle. After a vigorous campaign, aided by local SSP comrades and many other supporters from around the country, Rose gathered 1,513 votes (3.2%), a very creditable return, but hardly a massive improvement on results elsewhere, and a slight decline in percentage terms from the 2001 SSP vote in the old East Kilbride seat.

It would be churlish in the extreme to deny that Galloway's victory in Bethnal Green & Bow, and the significant votes attracted by Respect candidates in certain other areas, was an advance for the left in England. That should not blind us to the fact that much work lies ahead for our comrades in Respect to transform what is essentially a single-issue repository for protest votes into a party capable of leading a sustained campaign for socialist politics. A full analysis of Respect is outwith the scope of this article, but I do not believe that it offers a model for the development of the SSP. In many ways the SSP is far in advance of Respect, and the problems that we are facing now will inevitable dog Respect at some point in the future. That is not to say that we have nothing to learn from Respect; in particular their success in winning the support of predominantly young members of the Muslim community puts the SSP's record in this regard to shame. What is needed is more cross-border dialogue, and I look forward to this developing in the months to come.


Failing to capture the anti-war vote is not the only criticism that has been levelled against the SSP's election campaign. It has been argued that even more serious errors were made in our approach to the national question: “The Party’s vision of an independent, socialist Scotland is fast becoming a pipe dream. There is no doubting that the vast majority of Party members are in support but the Party, with the exception of certain individuals, are not campaigning for it ... Independence is not a priority for many of our candidates in this election even though it will feature prominently in the SSP’s Westminster manifesto. The Voice, for all its many qualities, gives only token support for independence. If you don’t campaign for something, if you don’t argue the case passionately, then you are as well giving up the pretence ... if we are serious about an independent, socialist Scotland then we have to discuss how we are going to bring it about and that means campaigning for, working for, arguing for independence and socialism – and we’ll take whichever comes first while struggling for both”. (2)

Gerry Cairns, writing in the last edition of Frontline, argues the case for a greater emphasis on independence in the party's campaigning. In the aftermath of the election, his words take on a prophetic ring. With opinion polls taken during the election campaign showing support for independence running between 29% and 46% could we have done more to tap into this sentiment? In particular should we have followed up the success of the Calton Hill event with more high-profile work on this issue, to carve out a distinctive position for the SSP and make point two of our “Twenty reasons ...” list (“For real independence”) more concrete in the eyes of the voters?

It had been proposed that our participation in an Independence Convention would be a mechanism for putting some red water between ourselves and the SNP, and attracting left-leaning elements of their support towards us. In practice though this has not worked out; to some extent we have been victims of our own success in occupying ground to the left of the SNP, who have consequently adopted an even more hostile attitude towards both the SSP and the whole idea of the Convention.

It is indeed possible that we missed a trick here. The SNP's poor performance, though partially masked by localised success in Dundee East and Na h-Eileanan an lar, suggests that the haemorrhage of support that they have experienced in recent years is continuing, and that they would be vulnerable to a sustained attack upon their left flank. I think that we should try to exploit this weakness, though – and here I differ from Gerry – I would add that we should keep the perspective that the struggle for independence is a tactic in, and subordinate to, the struggle for socialism.

The main point in relation to both anti-war work and the national question, and also other issues such as environmentalism, is that while we should of course engage with such movements, we must resist any temptation to turn to a more populist style of politics that downplays our socialist agenda in the name of broadening our appeal. While this may pay short-term dividends in terms of a morale-boosting increase in our audience, in the long term it would surely undermine the progress that the SSP has made in the last 5 years towards building a united socialist party.


What then of factors internal to the SSP? To what extent did they contribute to our disappointing result?

The most obvious question to consider is that of the events surrounding the resignation of Tommy Sheridan as national convenor at the end of last year. Anecdotal evidence has been cited, in informal discussions in meetings and on the internet, to the effect that people in the street were decrying the SSP as a crowd of traitors who had betrayed Tommy to the gutter press. This sentiment also featured in some of the hostile media coverage that our campaign received. Less emotively, it has also been suggested that the loss of Tommy as a high-profile spokesperson resulted in a crippling decline in the amount of media interest in the party. There is also the question of how far the whole episode contributed to a sense of exhaustion and demoralisation among our active members, undermining the party’s ability to mount an effective campaign. It is impossible to quantify all this, and probably a waste of energy to try. For what it is worth, my personal experience in Glasgow suggested that, for the man or woman on the Partick omnibus, the whole affair had been an eight-day wonder that had not significantly altered their perception of the SSP, or the likelihood of them giving us their support. The charge that the party’s activist base was jaded and disorientated perhaps has more substance, but again my impression from working on the campaign was that this effect had largely worn off in the weeks after conference.

A few voices have called for the return of Tommy as national convenor. Comforting though this might be, it would make very little sense. If we do accept that the party was damaged by Tommy’s resignation, then it was because we had allowed a situation to develop where the party’s public image had become too closely identified with one person. To put ourselves back into that predicament would be to offer a hostage to fortune. We should be moving in exactly the opposite direction, towards a position where public appreciation of the SSP is based upon our politics, and on day-to-day interaction with SSP members in workplaces and communities.

Other criticisms of the campaign have focussed on a perceived lack of professionalism in our organisation. People have pointed to tardiness in selecting candidates, problems with the production and distribution of propaganda and shortcomings in our press strategy. There are proposals that we should set up a national election campaign team, and talk of targeting key seats where we would concentrate on building an effective electoral machine ahead of 2007. These are all good points. It is important though not to become mesmerised by electoral politics to the extent that other aspects of our work are downgraded. It is doubly important that we do not become so concerned with organisational solutions that we pay insufficient attention to what are, at root, political problems.


For if there is one thing that we should take from this election then I believe it is this: the result has merely brought into sharp focus processes that have been evident in one form or another for at least the past eighteen months. It is becoming clearer that the party, as it stands today, is not suited for the task that it has set itself, that is to build a mass campaigning socialist party. That is not to say that the SSP is “broken”, or that it has deviated from some “correct” line into error, but rather to recognise that the party must constantly be in a state of political development as it encounters new stages in its growth.

For me, the central issue that must be addressed was identified by Gregor Gall in his article in the last issue of Frontline:

“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”. (3)

The problem that exists is that, outside of a limited core of experienced comrades, party members are not adequately equipped ideologically to successfully utilise the party's programme, a programme that is still essentially the product of, for want of a better phrase, the party leadership. This has opened up a crucial gap between how the mass of the membership view the role of the party, and who its audience should be, and who the programme is actually aimed at. Viewed through the prism of the transitional method our manifesto for 2005 made perfect sense; however if it is viewed as the programme of a parliamentary reformist party – which the SSP, at least publicly, has come more to resemble since 2003 - then it seems more like an exercise in utopian idealism that has little to offer workers engaged in the reality of everyday struggle. This I think was our downfall in 2005, more than internal strife, more than poor organisation and more than hostile objective conditions. We have been presenting ourselves as if we are already a mass party on the verge of delivering real advances for the working class; as a result we appear out of touch with reality and increasingly irrelevant to the lives of our potential supporters. It's no wonder that they didn't vote for us.

How to solve this problem must be a central theme in discussion of the future course of the party, and the role of Marxists, and a Marxist platform, in shaping this. “Education” has been our mantra for some time now; we need to start putting some flesh on the bones of this idea if the SSP is to recover from its present malaise.

I have perhaps painted an overly gloomy picture of our current state, but, as I stated at the start of this article, my intention has been to inspire debate and discussion, and I am looking forward to comrades correcting my mistakes. As any good psychotherapist will tell you, the Chinese word for “crisis” also means “opportunity”. If the party can develop as a result of lessons learned in this period, then maybe May 2005 won't have been such a catastrophe after all.


  1. SSV 220, 17/5/05, p5
  2. Frontline 16, 03/05, p13
  3. Frontline 16, 03/05, p18