frontline 19.

Foxing New Labour - An interview with Colin Fox MSP

This years SSP conference will mark a year since Lothians MSP Colin Fox became the national convener of the SSP. It has been a challenging year for the party. Frontline editor Alister Black spoke to Colin Fox about his first year in the job and his views on the future of the party.

Colin, we have just had the vote on your prescription charges bill. How would you assess the progress of the bill and what has it meant for the party?

The bill is the product of three years work. We had the executive rumbled, they announced quite serious concessions to the bill at 11 o’ clock in the morning for a bill that was being debated that afternoon. They were scared of a backbench revolt, because we won the argument over prescription charges hands down. The executive was forced to announce concessions and will probably have to come back to this, because their proposals were a complete dogs dinner.

Before the debate 92% got their prescription free. 97.7% will now pay nothing when it comes to prescription charges.

The party came out of it very well. It did the party the world of good.

Then we had the council tax bill, the minister says “this is the most unpopular tax proposal we have ever discussed, because 5 parties are against it”, meanwhile in the real world 77% are in favour of scrapping the council tax. That is the dichotomy we face all the time.

The SSP in the last few months has made important progress. Least of all in the parliament despite raising issues like rendition flights, asylum and all the issues around poverty. But the party has also been recruiting. 120-130 people have joined the party recently. John McAllion is one of them. There are lots of positive things.

The SSP has been through the worst year in its history and is back out the other side. That is why we have adopted Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Move On Up’ as our theme tune in the Dunfermline By-Election. Move on up with the Scottish Socialist Party.

The big challenge for the party is to establish itself as the standard bearer of certain political ideas. Principally to establish that Labour doesn’t give a damn about working people.

To do that, what future campaigning and policy initiatives do you think the party should take up?

One thing I didn’t touch on was the Stock Transfer of council housing in Edinburgh. We would have to be honest and say that Edinburgh Against Stock Transfer was completely overwhelmed by the massive resources the council brought to bear. We have been attacked by Sheila Gilmour, Malcolm Chisholm and others from Labour for the part we played in the No Campaign. There were bigger factors than just the SSP, but we were the only party who took up the No campaign. That’s something else that has been good for the SSP. It typifies the kind of campaigning we need to take up.

The party parliamentary committee met recently, and the bills we have put down have reached the end of their shelf life. We need to bring up some fresh issues, put down markers to say what kind of party we are. It is about public ownership, pensions, working conditions, union rights. Sometimes we are almost disparaging, calling them ‘bread and butter issues’. But we are the only party who will take up these kinds of questions. The others don’t raise them.

The SSP emerged for a reason, because there was a huge empty space on the left. The Labour Party had moved right. The SNP never tried to fill that space, if anything they have moved closer to Labour in the last four years. That whole territory to the left of Labour has sat there and it is to our great fortune that in the last year when we have had our difficulties no one has been able to fill that space. Not Respect, not the Greens, not the SNP. It’s where we came from, where we are, where there remains a huge reservoir to tap into.

So issues like Stock Transfer, conditions at work, pensions, and the crisis in the health service. The health figures printed in the Scotsman threw that into sharp relief. These are the things we are looking to take up. There is a really important campaign that Carolyn Leckie is involved in Lanarkshire where they are closing one accident emergency out of three. It’s a Dutch auction. They are trying to play off one campaign against another. These issues are not going away and we need to keep taking them up.

Scotland is one of the sickest countries in Europe. Health and poverty are huge issues. That is maybe the most important political questions in Scotland today. Some areas in Scotland have lower male mortality rates than sub-Saharan Africa. What kind of policies can the SSP raise on these issues.?

Well one issue that has come up has been the question of DLA – Disability Living Allowance. Thatcher forced people off unemployment benefit, fiddled the figures and people ended up on DLA. I learned all about that preparing the Prescription Charges Bill. They are trying to cut that and force people into jobs, regardless of how appropriate that is for them personally.

The Labour Party is a sophisticated beast; I saw that in the Lothian’s. We see that in the campaigns to save hospitals around Scotland. What’s great about these campaigns is that they represent a big outpouring of popular discontent, but Labour takes control of the campaigns. They control the health board that is making the cuts but also control the campaigns to save the hospitals. The Labour Party channel discontent and makes it safe.

Labour is voting for the cuts, but it is a Labour MP who is in charge of the campaign to save the hospital. It’s like a one party state. Labour make the attacks and lead the campaign against the attacks. It’s very difficult to oppose that without jarring with the campaign and being seen as just party political and partisan.

It is a challenge for the SSP, to have comrades who can take up these campaigns skilfully. The SSP has to get involved, appropriately and diplomatically, with these campaigns. Not like the SNP who just come in and say ‘this is what the SNP would do’. I never make that mistake; it was what we were taught in the Militant. If you are a shop steward you get the respect of your membership first, you don’t go in on the first day and say “right lets call the general strike”. So in these campaigns you need to work hard, sometimes keep schtum. That is a microcosm of the biggest challenge for the SSP in the next period. One thing I’ve learned is that politics isn’t about numbers. It’s about talent, skill, ability. One person can change the world; equally you could have ten thousand people and be totally useless as a party.

For us the SSP given the difficulties and internal problems we have had, we are fortunate to have come out of the other end, as we have been out for months now, in the condition we are in. We may have lost the confidence of some of our supporters. But no one else has really gained their confidence. We have a chance to gain their confidence back again. And I think we will get it.

How would you assess your first year as national convener? Are there any specific lessons you have learned in that period?

Well firstly it was not something I wanted remember. Neither Alan nor me wanted to be in that position. It was forced on us. Inevitably life would be easier for me if I weren’t the convener. My life has changed; I haven’t had a Sunday to myself for a year. I know that I have had a lot to learn in the job.

You could say that in the last year I haven’t driven things ahead, but my priority has been to build unity in the party, build bridges, repair relationships. That was my primary concern.

But I see the conveners’ job as every day thinking “well what would the party say about this?” People might say that is lack of confidence, but it is a democratic position. I stood for election and will stand again at conference.

I find speaking in the parliament more difficult than when speaking in a meeting with comrades and friends. The parliament are a real pack of wolves. It is only in the last few weeks I have felt more happy with my speaking efforts in the parliament. Round about prescription charges, council tax, the war and rendition flights.

I look back on the year and think the party is in a better state this year than it was last year and I have played my part in that. I have taken on a whole lot of things I didnae do before I was convener. I keep thinking how easy my life was before! Probably a bit of a delusion but I used to concentrate on the Lothian’s.

I still feel personally responsible for the party in the East of Scotland because all the other MSP’s are in the West. So I have been going to Aberdeen, Inverness, Orkney, the Borders, and Fife.

Looking at the last year, it has been a huge responsibility but I have enjoyed it enormously. I still walk down the street to the parliament thinking “I’m an MSP, I’m the national convener of the SSP, how did that happen?”

I think the party still has a way to go to recover, sure. But if you are asking me the 64 thousand dollar question, “can the party retain its 6 MSP’s next year?” well, I pause for breath and say we actually have a real chance. Some in the party might think it is too difficult and I understand that. But it’s not about time it’s about political events. But I think in the last year we have been tempered in the fire. It has been brutally obvious what is ranged against us. There has been some brutal stuff that went on. People both inside and outside have really tried to destroy the SSP in the last year. That was a real wake up for a party that was fresh, new, naïve but there are worse things than being naïve.

One of the things that have changed in the last year has been the attitude of the press to the party, what have you learned from that?

Looking at things that are going to be important issues in the year to come, there is the so-called ‘Cameron effect’. Early to say, some might say he is a one hit wonder, but he has made an impact so far. What would be the consequences of a Tory revival down south? It accelerates the question of independence in Scotland. The fact is that the Scottish Parliament is there as a consequence of the ‘democratic deficit’ so-called when Scotland voted Labour and the Tories were in government. Independence as an issue has been more or less parked as an issue in the last year. Notwithstanding the work we have been involved in with the independence convention. All credit to Alan McCoombes for driving the Independence Convention, when the SNP were lacklustre and the Greens were disinterested. The issue of independence goes hand in hand with the revival of the Tories.

As to the press, actually me and Carolyn and Rosie were having a blether about Cameron when he was in Dunfermline. The Tories can do no wrong as far as the press are concerned now. They have been boosting the new boy. They say, “Blair’s a washout, we are bored with Labour and at last the Tories have got a leader who doesn’t look like Dracula. Let’s give Cameron some headwind.” Previously labour supporting papers are boosting him.

It illustrates the nature of the beast; I don’t think the SSP were sufficiently aware of it before. It’s like they use Chantelle from Big Brother, or the Arctic Monkeys or whatever. The press think they can boost them up today and bring them down tomorrow. Now the SSP is at that stage where the press think they can bring us down. Their attitude is “absolutely no coverage whatever”.

Look at the council tax debate yesterday. The Herald, a left-liberal paper. They had a story on Borders council putting through an inflation busting council tax rise, but not a word of the fact that the Scottish Parliament were debating our Abolition of the Council Tax bill. The coverage was terrible, non-existent.

My experience of the press is that it looks as if it is open, democratic, and pluralistic but actually there are 5 or 6 people who go to the weekly meetings with the Scottish Executive. There was one this morning on local authority pensions I was at. They all go to that and feed from the Scottish Executive. Paul Sinclair, recently the political editor of the Daily Record now working for Gordon Brown and Lindsay McGarvie the political editor of the Sunday Mail similarly working for Labour. These two were up for the Dunfermline West by-election candidacy. Peter McMahon who used to work for Labour is now the political editor of the Scotsman.

Clearly some editorial decisions were taken, the SSP new boys in town, a fresh story…Rosie Kane, Colin Fox, Carolyn Leckie. They gave us a headwind. Now they think they can snuff us out. That is the nature of the beast. It is important that party members understand that.

Like this question of Gordon Brown and the Union Jack flag. A dead story really. The Sunday Times phone me up and say if someone put down a motion in the parliament calling for a ‘post-apartheid’ flag for an independent Scotland, would I support it? I say well, sure I’m open minded about it. Then the story appears that I want to scrap the saltire.

The SSP came out of the SSA, Scottish Militant Labour and other socialists. All these years on from the creation of the SSP, how would you see the role of Marxism in the party today?

I’ve heard people say “the SSP is a Marxist party.” I don’t think it is. The old definition was a broad socialist party with Marxists represented in its leadership. Probably over-represented in its leadership compared to its base, for historical reasons.

I think we need to be a broad socialist party that everyone can join. That for me is the way we become a mass party. That for me is the single most important thing I want to try and achieve. There is a potential mass base for a socialist party out there. There is support for reform. Campaigning on the NHS, poverty, war etc. But this is a counter reformist period. That is our great advantage that we stand against that.

I think that if we try to close doors to that, well I would put it as strongly as saying I’m not interested in a party like that. It would be a big mistake to “go narrow”. The SSP has been the most enjoyable time in my political life. I think of the SSP as my party in the way I never thought of the Labour Party.

The work we were doing in the Militant was important, good and I’m proud of what we achieved but we were working in the Labour party and then setting up a Marxist party. That is not what is called for in this historical time

I consider myself a Marxist. Do I consider myself a Trotskyist? Yes, in that it comes from a critique of Stalinism, which is not gone but is far from being the force on the planet or in Scotland that it once was.

When you start defining ‘what kind of Marxist are you’ then we are back to the days of meeting round small tables like this.

I think the role of Marxism in the party is to be the party’s weathervane. When it comes to the big issues whether the social issues or Iraq, that is our compass. When issues like Iraq come up, then you can go back to first principles, an understanding of imperialism, neo-liberalism, balance of class forces, nature of militarism.

However I think what we have to be careful of in the party is that not everyone has that background. Of the 3000 members how many are Marxists? Three hundred? I’m not sure, if you add together all the platforms and individuals. So most aren’t. They are not hostile to Marxism; most probably don’t know much about it. It’s not a contest between the Marxists and the rest, you know.

My attitude is not that we have a duty to promote it. But our primary task is to build the SSP as a broad party. The platforms need balance.

I don’t think the comrades in the SW platform have reached the equilibrium. I say this comradely that they still put the platform ahead of the wider party. And ironically where any platform does that they do their platform’s interests more harm than good.

You have been down at different events in England, Respect conference, the RMT conference. You probably have quite a good insight on the lie of the land down there. How do you see things developing in England and Wales?

How many years has it been our attitude that it is our role to be a good example, to encourage the left to unite together? I’m not just saying that the SSP is a model without being unaware of the differences, the existence of the BNP for one example.

I think Respect has made some incredible headway that we haven’t made, for example in the Muslim community. I lived in the East End of London for ten years. I know Newham, Tower Hamlets, Hackney really well. I think it’s incredible how much progress Respect have made with the Bangladeshi, Asian community that were like a limpet to Labour. I remember when General Zia died; the Militant had big meetings with socialists like Farooq from Pakistan speaking. And it was a brilliant meeting, but when the mullahs stood up at the back 95% of the meeting went with them. The community figures stood with Labour. Respect has broken that completely.

When I was speaking in London at Respect conference, Respect was talking, pre-Big Brother, about taking the majority on Tower Hamlets council. They have 3 councillors already, with two being defectors from Labour and the Liberals. If they can do that it will be incredible.

The other thing that strikes me is that out with the Muslim community there is not much more than the Socialist Alliance had, maybe less. The comrades in the SWP are still the heart of Respect but they are riding two horses at once. There was only, I think, two or three of the SWP national leadership at the Respect conference. I think the SWP is ambivalent about Respect. They are not going to pile everyone in there in the way that Scottish Militant Labour did with the SSP. That is a problem for Respect.

Paradoxically I went to the RMT conference on working class representation. The Socialist Party were there calling for a campaign for a new workers party. They had a big turnout. The meeting was packed out, maybe 300 there in the Friends Meeting House.

There were a lot of speeches with people telling Bob Crow to call a general strike, to lead a new party and they would tell him how to do it and so on. There was too much cheap point scoring. My impression is that the RMT are reluctant to take it further, that was my impression anyway.

Final question Colin, Any plans to go on Big Brother?

Ehm, no! I don’t really understand why George did it. I’ll ask him next time I phone him. I think he made a mistake, but hell I dressed up as Robin Hood. Not much dignity in politics sometimes. P