frontline vol. 2 issue 2.


Frances Curran is one of the founding members of the Scottish Socialist Party and has a lifetime of political experience. She is currently an MSP for the West of Scotland region. In this article she looks at the issues of democracy, organisation and accountability within the party in the context of the recent crisis.

Tommy Sheridan’s recent split from the SSP has caused much debate in Scotland and internationally on the left. Although portrayed in the media, and by some of the left press, as little more than a storm in a three in a bed sex romp, the truth goes to much deeper political processes which were in existence within the SSP.

Learning the lessons of the past, especially from left wing and revolutionary organisations, the SSP from it’s inception was intended to be a grassroots bottom-up party. The structures and democracy of the party are some of the most democratic of any left organisation. The minutes of Executives, National Councils (where all branches are represented) and the parliamentary group are circulated. All elections are conducted through single transferable vote in an attempt to prevent the domination of one political group and to ensure minority representation - from the Executive to the conference delegates and the selection of parliamentary candidates. The SSP allows platforms to operate within the party and even gives each platform automatic representation to the executive and a resolution on the annual conference agenda.

It does not surprise me for one minute that both the CWI and the SWP platforms, both of whom opposed the SSP ‘model’ of regroupment, have now left the party. Both these platforms have been highly organised. So why have they left the SSP? It would be crass opportunism for either of these platforms to claim that they have left the SSP on a politically principled basis to join Tommy Sheridan’s as yet politically and programmatically undefined new “movement” Solidarity.


There is a particular comic irony for me in watching the antics of the CWI platform. When we launched the SSP, the CWI leadership in London spent over a year demanding that we answer the question “what will be the character of this new SSP, reform or revolution”? Thousands of words were written in numerous documents back and forth on this question.

The CWI aren’t half slipping. With no political analysis never mind a programmatic critique of “Solidarity” and only a “Tommy Sheridan is our leader” defence, they abruptly, within the space of a few weeks, halt a political strategy which they have been pursuing for 8 years. It is absolutely breathtaking.

Since its inception the SSP has had within it the trends of the culture of the ‘old politics’ which many brought from the left organisations we had come from. The essence of which is that you must start with the correct programme and political analysis of capitalist society, written and developed by the expert ‘Marxists’ and then proceed to win over everyone inside and outside the SSP to that text. The SSP given it’s diversity attracted a section of people, especially younger people who were coming into politics with a new culture borrowed from the social movements. This includes radical education methods and a belief that effective organisation depends on a grassroots leadership of the party where everyone has a voice and that participation in the movement and in discussion is the best way to develop independent critical thinking activists. It also puts much more emphasis on the collective working of the party and less on the role of individual leaders of the party.

Far from there being a rejection of political discussion in the SSP there is a huge enthusiasm for political ideas accompanied by a healthy challenge to the historically accepted wisdom of the left and a questioning and testing out of these ideas to find those which assist in the struggle for socialism today.

I think it is a really interesting and revealing question, as to why the self proclaimed ‘revolutionary Marxists’ of the CWI and SWP, together with a handful of other individuals who prominently proclaim to be Marxists, cannot work within the open, pluralist and democratic SSP.


In an article titled ‘The Crisis in the Scottish Socialist Party’(1) written in July, just prior to Tommy Sheridan‘s court case, two prominent SWP platform members make the charge against the SSP of sectarianism. Mike Gonzalez and Iain Ferguson asserted that the leadership of the SSP “ whether through pessimism or sectarianism have argued for an emphasis on purely, party initiated, party controlled campaigns.” they give very little evidence for this alleged sectarianism, the main example is given of the G8 protests in Scotland last year.

This is a really good example of the methods and the culture which is the modus operandi of many so called “revolutionary Marxist” groups and their pre conceived ideas of how they orientate to the social movements. There was a huge opportunity in the run up to the G8 protests to see the development of a genuine grassroots social movement in Scotland.

I personally was heavily involved in these preparations from the beginning. Initially the SWP took the initiative under the banner of the long defunct Globalise Resistance (Scotland) to call a meeting and try to engage a wide range of groups and individuals who would be interested in organising against the G8.

There was interest and a few people came along to meetings from the Green party and environmental movement as well as other anti globalisation organisations. The name was put forward by the SWP of G8 Alternatives. No doubt to emphasise diversity.

Before there was any real meaningful engagement with interested groups and individuals the infrastructure of the opposition to the G8 was decided - there would be a demonstration at Gleneagles on the first day of the summit called by G8 Alternatives and the initial plan was for a 3 day alternative summit in a venue nearby. The Green party and environmental movement, were not convinced at the outset of these proposals and whether this was the best option for protest, they agreed with the demonstration but not necessarily with the already preconceived ideas for the alternative summit.

Wearing various hats, Globalise Resistance, Glasgow Welcomes Refugees, Stop the War Coalition Edinburgh, Unison, the TGWU etc., the SWP mobilised for the G8 Alternative meetings. Not only was the alternative summit imposed on the group, the space was booked, the structure decided and speakers booked without any reference to anyone. This need to dominate the space by one group, this fear of allowing a much more organic grass roots development is the hallmark of the SWP. The cover for this hierarchical method of organising is “we need action” things have got to get done.

From the outset I was concerned about the domination of the SWP and the perceived domination of the SSP, and the impact that this would have on this opportunity to see a real grassroots social movement emerge in Scotland. The green and environmental movement activists who began by participating had the same fears, so too did the activists who came along from the autonomous/anarchist part of the movement.

Here the process is as important as the outcome. What were we trying to achieve? To develop a grass roots anti capitalist coalition which after the G8 protest could maybe move on to other issues in challenging the neo-liberal agenda in Scotland or was it just about getting a good turn out for a demonstration and a summit.

There was much suspicion and mistrust, therefore in order to build a viable broad based anti capitalist coalition suspicion needed to be overcome and trust built. At the time I sent an e-mail to all of the G8 Alternatives participants raising the following points: “When we began discussing setting up an umbrella organisation to bring together those groups and individuals who intended to protest at the G8 summit in Gleneagles, the most important point for me and many others was the need to have diversity and the need to find the best methods of working together…When you have so many diverse groups working together at this stage of the proceedings process can be more important than outcome”.

In the end neither the green/environmental movement, the anti nuclear/peace movement or the autonomous/anarchist groups participated in any real sense in G8 Alternatives although they did participate in the demonstration. All did their own thing in the week the G8 came to Scotland and the potential was lost. G8 Alternatives ended as it had begun as little more that an SWP front.

Anyone who raised alternative options about how to engage with people when the G8 came to Scotland was attacked. The SSP did participate in the protests against the G8, especially Scottish Socialist Youth members. Donnie Nicholson the SSY organiser was arrested and charged with riot for organising an illegal demonstration in Edinburgh. But in SWP speak if you didn’t participate in activity through their front organisations and in the events organised by them then that means you didn’t participate!


The problem is that the SWP platform members don’t get it, the fact that every time a space is created for a broad movement to develop the real sectarians cannot wait to dominate the space with their ideas, their strategies and their analysis. The green shoots of autonomous organisation have now on several occasions been trampled underfoot by the SWP. The CWI has had the exact same approach but fewer forces with which to dominate. Dialogue is not an option as these “revolutionary Marxists” have nothing to learn from what they would characterise as less conscious and less politically developed formations.

The attitude of the SWP is summed up in SWP notes carried in their internal bulletin in January 2006, (2) for RESPECT substitute SSP, “Thus in Britain SWP members have to engage in 3 concentric circles of activity - building the mass united fronts that constitute the movements, (above all the Stop the War Coalition), building Respect as the broad political alternative that has emerged from these movements and building the SWP as the kernel of organised revolutionary militants that can drive these larger formations forward.”

Here exposed in their own words is the orientation of the SWP, to get in the driving seat, to build the movements on their terms and under their instruction.

How do they work when they are not in the driving seat? They can’t, they have no ability to engage, to hold back and to have the patience to allow a completely organic grassroots process to take place, they MUST dominate the space. It is a method that they attempted and failed with inside the SSP.

In the statement of support for Solidarity the SWP in Scotland make the point that this new movement for socialism will engage with broad social movements, the implication being that the SSP does not work in and with broad social movements. An assertion which is simply not true.

Again their January 2006 discussion bulletin (3) gives us insight to this doublespeak. “revolutionary Marxist organisations have a special responsibility in promoting the process of left realignment, their political clarity and organisational cohesion should allow them to play a strategic role in the development of new parties of the radical left.”

For strategic role read, dominate and set the agenda in new parties of the left. The SSP is not an empty shell, nor is it a political front organisation, it has a real membership, real structures and real political debate. The SWP came into the SSP in 2001, two years after the party was launched, they have attempted to get into the driving seat and dominate the political agenda of the SSP, usually linked to whatever political turn has been taken in London by their central committee, the SSP is open and democratic it has never bureaucratically stifled debate, the SWP and CWI for that matter are free to argue their political case and analysis. On the big issues such as Scottish Independence and on the strategic issues around how best to participate in the anti war movement. Often neither platform win support for their approach or ideas and their response is usually to go outside the SSP and do what they planned anyway -usually to set up some front activity, where they escape the inconvienience of having to argue the case or justify their activity to other activists in the SSP or those working with the SSP.


The campaign group in support of the Free School Meals Bill meets fortnightly and involves, the Child Poverty Action Group, the Poverty Alliance, One Plus which represents lone parents, Oxfam and a number of other voluntary sector organisations, it’s also supported by nutritionists and academics, teachers, head teachers and trade unions. The same was the case for the Abolish Prescription Charges Bill and Abolish the Council Tax Bill - broad coalition working.

At community level SSP branches work week in and week out with campaign groups to save hospitals, stop school closures, restore cancelled bus services, we work with tenants groups and local unions to stop the sell off of council housing and much more.

We work closely with the peace campaigners at Faslane and are an integral part of the emerging movement to stop new Trident submarines on the Clyde. Our members at local level chair the community groups opposing the M74 motorway extension.

All of this activity which is real live engagement with working class struggles poses a number of questions which the SSP needs to look at. In particular when communities move into this type of struggle, how do they win, what does it take to get a victory and can we link up and generalise these struggles, sharing experience and developing the fight against the neo liberal agenda which communities feel the brunt of, can they organise effectively and reach more general conclusions about why they are under attack. This is the remit of a separate article.

To the charge of sectarianism the SSP is not guilty.


There has been no political justification for the split from the SSP of Tommy Sheridan, the SWP and the much smaller CWI group. In fact only 8 weeks ago all three were declaring their intention to reselect the party executive and replace the existing leadership at the special party conference called for October. They would have had the democratic right to take that action if they could persuade a majority of the delegates. So what happened?

All three have one thing in common they do not like the collective accountability exerted within the democratic party of the SSP. All three would prefer a broader less open, less democratic formation, without real grassroots functioning structures, which can hold individuals and political groups to account. Grassroots leadership, bottom up democracy and democratic accountability over public representatives are the hallmarks of the SSP. Tommy Sheridan placed his own personal reputation before the interests of the party and was held to account. What is now clear is that Tommy Sheridan is only interested in Tommy Sheridan. Holding people accountable for their actions has recently caused us some problems, but this is also a party which has just had a baptism of fire on this issue and has learned the lesson well.

The SSP has been damaged by this debacle, but it is still intact and considering the press coverage has surprisingly held steady in the opinion polls at 6%. Party members are more determined than ever to embed the new culture, participatory democracy, radical education methods and direct accountability of public figures at a grass roots level.

This will not be the last crisis faced by the SSP on the road to a mass party for socialism. Developing an independent and critical thinking membership with roots in working class communities will be our anchor for the storms ahead. P