frontline 7

SSP ready to shock the establishment

With one year until the Scottish Parliament elections in May 2003, the Scottish Socialist Party faces it's biggest challenge yet. The party has come a long way since Tommy Sheridan held his arm aloft in a republican protest against the oath of allegiance to the Queen as the new MSP's were sworn in.

At this stage before the last Scottish Parliament elections in 1999 we didn't actually have a party. The SSP was launched just six months before these elections.

In the four years since it's launch the party has grown in credibility and support. Socialist ideas are being taken up as a very credible alternative to capitalist globalisation. The SSP polled 2% at the last Scottish Parliament elections - but for the last year has shown up consistently on 6% in the second ballot.

The party itself has been transformed. Launched with a handful of branches, mainly in the central belt, it can now boast 70 branches throughout the country. SSP members are just as likely to be fighting GM crop trials in the Highlands, or organising anti-cuts campaigns in the Borders as protesting outside Glasgow City Council.

With 6% of the vote we could win a group of four or five MSP's in the Scottish Parliament. This would represent a decisive breakthrough. Overnight, the 'one man band' syndrome, which is played up by our political opponents would evaporate. The SSP would have burst through the credibility barrier.

Even the figure of 6% may eventually prove an underestimate. As a general rule, opinion polls overestimate support for the big parties and underestimate support for the smaller, less well-known parties.

In the French Presidential elections, the combined hard left vote reached 11% - an increase of 1.4 million votes, against the background of a huge slump in the overall turnout.

Although the socialist left vote was overshadowed by the publicity surrounding Le Pen,s breakthrough, it nonetheless came as a surprise to the pollsters and even to the left parties themselves.

In France the vote was shared by three Trotskyist organisations (i.e. Marxist groups who are anti-Stalinist). Almost the entire vote went to two groups, Lutte Ouvriere (LO) and the Ligue Communiste Revolutionaire (LCR). . The need for a new party in France to unify the left and present a united challenge is obvious, as is the constituency for such a new party.

Could that vote for the socialist left in France be replicated in Scotland? In one sense, we are in an advantageous position. The SSP has managed to unite 95% of the left into a single party.

In the early 90's Scottish Militant Labour (SML) had considerable success in local council elections mainly in Glasgow. This was a direct result of campaigns launched at a local level. Battles against the poll tax, against privatisation of water, against local cuts and closures cuts over a number of years had helped politicise whole areas of Glasgow.

The origins of the SSP can be traced back to this period of struggle. If the SSP is to develop into a mass party, the key to that development is to build influence and support at a grassroots level. This is the central issue facing the SSP and it's branches in the next twelve months.

In a number of European countries, notably France the far right has cashed in on disillusionment with the mainstream parties. In some localised pockets of England, the BNP has begun to fill that role. Their breakthrough in Burnley will encourage the fascists to extend their electoral challenge, including in the Scottish Parliament elections, where the PR system makes it easier for small parties to break through.

But in Scotland, the success of the SSP combined with the strong local campaigning record of the socialist left over a decade or more has helped block the path of the far right. In contrast to many other parts of Europe, political protest in Scotland has been channelled to the left rather than to the right.

As the mainstream parties converge on the centre ground, traditional loyalties have begun to break down. In one poll, those describing themselves as having low or no party identification rose from 46% in 1987 to 62% by last year.

In the trade unions, there are the first stirrings of a break with Labour. Meanwhile, sections of the old middle class Tory vote in Scotland has shifted to Labour and the SNP. At the same time, a sizeable number of ex-Labour and ex-SNP voters have transferred their allegiance to the SSP.

Closely following in New Labour's footsteps, the SNP is on a relentless march to the right. The recent resignation from the party of Dorothy Grace Elder, a Glasgow MSP has been portrayed as the product of personality clashes.

But underlying these personality clashes is a boiling tension between a section of SNP activists on the ground in the central belt and the SNP leadership in Holyrood.

During the late 1980s and the early to mid 1990s, the SNP was able to eat into Labour's heartlands by presenting itself in these areas as a socialist party standing in the traditions of Red Clydeside.

But increasingly, the vision offered by the SNP leadership is of a semi-independent Scotland which is a safe haven for capitalist global investment, and whose economy is controlled by European bankers. Following Gordon Brown's budget pledge to impose a paltry tax increase on North Sea oil profits, the SNP linked up with the oil companies, the Tories and the Lib Dems to oppose the measure.

This move to the right in policy is being accompanied by a purge of left wing MSP's. Margo McDonald and Lloyd Quinan who are prominent opponents of the leadership have so far failed to be selected for the 2003 elections.

These changes have implications for socialists and republicans inside the party. There is a dwindling layer of working class activists within the SNP who were recruited in the 1990's during the poll tax campaign. They have stuck with the party despite discontent at the direction the party has taken under Swinney. Many of them could be won over to the SSP.

Yet despite its shift to the right and its lacklustre leadership, the SNP could end up in a pivotal position after 2003. At this stage, combined support for the three pro-independence parties - the SNP, the SSP and the Greens - is running at around 40 per cent in the polls. That could easily be transformed into an outright majority by the time of the 2003 elections, posing the prospect of a dramatic constitutional crisis.

Big international issues could have a bearing on the next Scottish elections. There has been speculation that the referendum on the Euro will be called on the same day as the Scottish ballot.

If that case, the SNP campaign would revolve around the slogan Independence in Europe, which would have the effect of heightening the national question issue of independence.

Frontline believes that the SSP should campaign for a No Vote, putting firmly on the agenda our call for an independent socialist Scotland which would stand up to the institutions of global capitalism.

Some SSP members argue for a boycott in the Euro referendum. Even from a tactical point of view this would be a serious mistake. On the one hand we would be trying to maximise our support at the polling stations and on the other calling on people not to vote.

Events in Europe over the past few months have tarnished the attraction of the Euro for some people on the progressive left. Until now, Europe has been seen as more left wing than the US-UK axis. But if the right win the looming parliamentary elections in France and Germany, all of the major European countries will be governed by parties at least as right wing as New Labour. And with the rise of the fascist right in countries like France, Germany, Holland and Italy, the idea that Europe is a beacon of social progress is already becoming less compelling.

The elections could also be conducted against the background of a war on Iraq. There is speculation that an all-out war could be launched either this autumn, or, more likely, next spring.

According to the New York Times, this could involve between 70,000-250,000 troops. In other words, this would not be a repeat of the war in Afghanistan, the Balkans War or the original Gulf War, which were all conducted largely from the air.

In recent months the SSP has established itself as Scotland's anti-war party. The SNP is likely to prevaricate for fear of losing support among its more right wing voters. The party leadership talks about supporting an attack on Iraq, providing it is carried out under the banner of the United Nations.

The Lib Dems may take a similar position, while the Tories and Labour will back Bush to the hilt, no matter what action he takes. Our anti-war stance will attract ferocious criticism from Labour and newspapers like the Daily record. But we will gain wider support, especially among young people, for a clear and principled position of total opposition to Bush and Blair.

In the meantime, the SSP has to direct most of its energy towards fighting on bread and butter issues that affect the lives of the working class. Immediately on the horizon is the Free School Meals Bill, which has gathered remarkably broad support from a range of organisations ranging from the STUC to the British Medical Association.

Our proposals to scrap the Council Tax in favour of a new redistributive local tax 'the Scottish Service Tax' should also feature prominently in the campaigning activity of the SSP in the run-up to 2003.

By combining that broad socialist, internationalist and anti-imperialist vision with a preparedness to get our hands dirty by fighting on local issues in local communities, the SSP can go from strength to strength over the next year and perhaps shock the establishment.