frontline vol. 2 issue 4.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Gregor Gall, Professor of Industrial Relations, University of Hertfordshire, and an active member of Edinburgh North SSP gives a personal view of the lessons of the last year for the SSP. Following Gregor’s article is a response from SSP national secretary Pam Currie.

The perspective of ‘being prepared for the worst, hoping for something a bit better’ for the 3 May 2007 was cruelly shattered by the late afternoon of the following day, confirming that the best opportunity in a generation for a credible and sizeable left of labour socialist project in Scotland was just about to finally disappear down the vortex of the plughole. The sense of loss is so abjectly stark that, in terms of the task of now rebuilding, it might have been better not to have had the high of 2003 because what the SSP used to be, compared to what it now is, will haunt us for a long time to come in the minds of the public.

The wipe out on 3 May was predictable: predictable by the polls, the unspoken feeling inside those that remained active and from the poor turnout from ‘ordinary’ members for election activity. But the most sensible opinion never expected the SSP would be beaten not just by Solidarity in all the regions, but by the BNP in all regions and by the SLP in nearly all regions. From achieving, 6.7% (128,026 votes) of the list vote and 6.2% (118,764 votes) of the constituency vote in 2003, the SSP flatlined at 0.66% in 2007 where it stood in the list vote. The SSP got 12,572 votes (and Solidarity 31,047 or 1.62%). The total number of votes the SSP gained across Scotland in 2007 was less than it got in the Lothians alone in 2003 (where the SSP won an MSP by less than 100 votes) and shockingly just 10% of what it got in 2003. This takes the left unity project embodied in the SSP and its predecessor, the SSA, back ten years at least in electoral and public credibility terms. And the staggeringly poor performance of the SSP must indicate that the SSP took far more of the hit for allegedly ‘doing Tommy in’ than Solidarity did for splitting the left.

We can ruminate on what was and was not under our control and influence. On the one hand, there were a number of external aspects, where the conditions in the approach to May 2007 were poorer than those in the approach to May 2003. So in 2003, the SSP was able to be part of and benefit from the vibrant and rising anti-war and anti-globalisation movements as well as key prolonged industrial disputes like those of the firefighters and the beginning of that by the nursery nurses. This time round the anti-war and anti-globalisation movements were shadows of their former selves, having lost battles and suffering from a lack of purpose and direction, while the major industrial disputes like those over pensions and job losses in the civil service were not of the same sustained, more salient for Scottish politics nature as the firefighters’ and the nursery nurses’ disputes had been. The independence ‘movement’ is not one that exists as such and was unable to make major headway because of the de facto ownership of independence by the SNP in the run up to May 2007.

On the other hand, we then had our own internal aspects which piled on the pressure further. Even before 9 November 2004, we had problems due to the relative demobilisation of members after gaining six MSPs and the poor European election result. The impact of the resignation of Sheridan as national convenor and the 2005 election result merely increased this. But the court case and the split were gargantuan blows to the SSP’s credibility, standing and coherence. In essence, what has happened was that the 2007 election was the catch up of the real standing of the SSP in the public’s mind just as the overall political situation just as 2003 was the electoral catch up of the risen standing of the SSP and the overall political situation. So this time round, any agreement on SSP policies was torpedoed by the lack of credibility of the SSP as a political party.

It is the last wretched refuge of the vanquished to proclaim, as Solidarity and its SWP and CWI affiliates did, that it is now the biggest force on the left in. Being the biggest electoral force amongst the two components of the pre-2006 SSP which fought on almost identical political platforms and together got only 34% of the SSP’s votes in 2003 is no victory whatsoever. The only way you can see that being the biggest on the left and getting 24% of what the SSP got in 2003 as some kind of victory is if you are of a sectarian mentality which thinks that a setback of ten years or a generation is just one of those things that can be brushed off with the sterile and trite proclamation: ‘We will rebuild’. This reeks of political irresponsibility and political immaturity. Now socialists in Scotland are on a par with socialists in England and Wales – a cataclysmic levelling down!

The Crying Game: The Crying Shame

The single worst aspect of the 3 May result is that socialists in Scotland are now in no significant position to influence the nature of new political landscape in Scotland and Britain. Without the SSP leadership debacle, the court case and the split and their attendant effects, it might have been possible to return a couple of MSPs as was the case with the Greens. In other words, the opportunities of greater political space for the left over the next few years will remain as just remote and rhetorical opportunities and not actualities. The likelihood is that a socialist voice in Parliament would have been able to attack the SNP more effectively on its pro-business policies as well as given sustenance to extra-Parliamentary struggles directed towards Holyrood or Westminster. The same basic point is true with regard to colouring the progressive anti-Labour mood as Brown becomes PM and as the faltering trajectory towards independence moves up a gear.

Where Now?

There is one obvious route forward for the left in Scotland: based on inbred sectarianism and ultra-left super-optimistic perspectives (which were only temporally and marginally dented by the experience of the SSP prior to 2006), it would be for the SSP and Solidarity to try to slog it out until only one is left standing. This could take an unspecified length of time as both have enough activists to maintain themselves as barebones organisations for sometime to come. Both would seek to prove they were the best by growing out of the wreckage, but it is seriously doubtful whether this is possible for either or at all (even in their own terms). Major turning points along the way for each would surely be the reporting of the police perjury investigation (thought to be late summer/early autumn 2007), any subsequent perjury trial, and the News of the World appeal (originally scheduled to start 4 December 2007).

This is the obvious route but it is also the wrong route. There is no room for two serious socialist parties in Scotland. Here, the SLP is put aside in this equation as a basket case with no tangible membership base. Sheridan claimed that in the run up to its launch that Solidarity would gain the votes of those who do not vote to justify the existence of two socialist parties in Scotland (Herald 2 September 2006). This was and is patent non-sense for those disillusioned with electoral politics did not make a return to the ballot box in May 2007 – the overall turnout was only just up to 51.7% in the constituency vote and 52.4% on the list vote from both being 49.4% in 2003 - and they have always been the hardest to mobilise in these terms.

A divided far left is a non-sense: it weakens the left and helps the neo-liberals. Most importantly, a divided left cannot grow substantially from where we are now because the far left (SSP and Solidarity) lack credibility. Regaining credibility with sympathetic milieus is the most urgent task and that requires that there is a united left. People at large are just not interested in a divided left; they despise a disunited left. So, the need for a united far left is now more pressing than ever. None of the twists and turns of the last two and a half years negate or o