frontline vol. 2 issue 2.

Party crisis in retrospect and context

Gregor Gall is an author, academic and SSP activist who has written extensively on the development of the party. In this article he looks at the context of this summers crisis in the party.

It is widely recognised across the political spectrum that the SSP has recently gone through not only its worst crisis since its creation in 1998 but one that also has lasted nearly two years so far, severely debilitating the party as an active, campaigning organization in that period. The crisis began with the publication of allegations about Tommy Sheridan’s conduct in his private life and it remains to be seen whether closure on the crisis will be achieved by a) the splitting of the SSP through the result of certain members leaving to form Solidarity: Scotland’s socialist movement, and b) the outcome of the SSP national conference at the beginning of October 2006.

This conference, the 2007 national conference, was brought forward from March 2007 as a political compromise between the different groupings in order to try to provide a means to resolve the crisis. That specific purpose was then superseded by events, namely, the splitting/establishment of Solidarity, but the more general purpose of dealing with key internal issues as well as the vital task of re-orientating the SSP back towards being an outward, campaigning organization remains.

And with the Scottish Parliamentary and council elections now not far off, the only rational course of action for the SSP to take after its national conference is to put every member and supporter’s shoulder to the wheel of reconnecting with its previous support base and sinking deeper and wider roots through endless campaigning and activity. There will be plenty time for further introspection if the SSP loses all or a significant number of its MSPs. While there are problems associated with the influence of the SSP’s parliamentary presence on the party (see below), I would venture that these are not insuperable if the correct action is taken to ameliorate them, and that the damage done to the party by suffering such heavy losses would further compound the problems the SSP is currently experiencing. Indeed, some of the present problems can be resolved by the renewal and reinvigoration of the party through mass, campaigning work and the retention of a parliamentary presence.

In this article, I want to examine neither the contours of the extended crisis itself nor the direct chain of events that led to this crisis. Rather, I want to examine the context of the crisis, by which I mean both the external and internal political environment in which the SSP found itself in. My rationale for doing this is two-fold. First, to examine why the SSP was so susceptible to this crisis which incapacitated it. (The extent and nature of the incapacitation will be discussed below.) Second, to try to see the ‘wood’ and not the ‘trees’ in terms of the how the party got itself into this baleful position. Here, the details and chain of events themselves are not the key issues but rather what they represented and signaled is. The reason for not covering or commenting on the voluminous detail of the crisis is again two-fold. So much has already been written about this inside and outside the SSP, that there is little new to add. Hopefully, this article will provide a basis for greater self understanding of the SSP amongst SSP members as well as its supporters outside Scotland.

Six Elected

Let’s begin with a simple, controversial but fairly widely held hypothesis: the problems that the SSP currently faces are derived from a single point in time, namely, Thursday, the first of May 2003. Taking this as a starting point can be used to help dissect some of the salient issues in order to arrive at some sensible conclusions.

The Scottish Socialist Voice humorously greeted the outcome of the 1 May 2003 with the headline of ‘The Joy of Six’. The erosion of the joy of six can be taken to have concerned the impact of the centre of gravity in the party moving towards parliament in terms of political strategy, personnel and finance. An influence of parliament on any (but particularly a small) political party is inevitable if such political parties are capable of gaining representation. With the opportunity of using parliament as a platform must come the recognition of three issues. First, that a party with a substantial parliamentary presence is liable to enhanced public and media scrutiny. Second, that to operate in parliament (and to use parliament) necessitates taking one’s parliamentary responsibilities seriously and this requires considerable resourcing, otherwise the party could be heavily and publicly berated. Third, the mechanics and dynamics of having six MSPs, along with the enhanced expectations of voters and supporters, are significantly different compared to those of having just one MSP. Given these points, the question becomes what kind of influence would the parliament have on the SSP? And here, it was up to the SSP to determine this itself but it proved to be found wanting so that the influence parliament had has not been an unproblematic one. There are three relevant areas.


The first concerns membership demobilisation. This has comprised many members who helped get the six MSPs elected sitting back and watching the MSPs do ‘their’ work, with the MSPs feeling obliged to try to step in to fill the extra-parliamentary void these members created. For example, in my branch, attendance at meetings around May 2003 was between 20-25 out of some 90 members. Thereafter, there were between 5-15 members in attendance. On top of this branch activity increasingly became confined to just having branch meetings. But the problem also stems from many SSP members not being mobilized in the first place (in my branch, the 60-odd members).

I would suggest that this demobilisation for the first group resulted from the lack of an understanding amongst members about the necessary inter-relationship of party and parliament. Here, I specifically mean that the need for party members to recognize their role to campaign outside parliament on parliamentary bills that they decided/agreed to instruct their MSPs to act on. For the second group, the issue of a lack of understanding of the party/parliament inter-relationship was present as part of a wider malaise of not seeing the imperative to move from being inactive to active party members. The consequence of all this was that the party became unbalanced, not because parliament necessarily and inevitably distorts but because the step-change in the parliamentary wing of the party required a step-change in the extra-parliamentary wing of the party which was not forthcoming.

The second concerns cadre displacement and development. This has concerned the party’s inability to replenish the ranks of extra-parliamentary activists who became employed by Parliament (aides/case workers) or regional organizers as a result of the growth in the party and the size of its finances. Growth has to be consciously and correctly managed in order for it not to become dysfunctional for the integrity and cohesion of the organisation. The most important aspect here is that the vacuum left by those who moved ‘up’ to become party or parliamentary workers was not filled by the next underneath level moving up. These workers now left their previous workplaces and/or became concerned with a specific job focus even if they remained active in their branches. At the same time, there was an unmet need to expand the size of the cadre because of its own membership growth and the expectations of its supporters. This should have become a task for the party nationally. And this belies the difficulties the party faces in understanding how cadre are developed and what role it can play in doing this.

Party Democracy

The third concerns internal party life. As the SSP grew and became more formalised, structured and bureaucratised (a term I do not use in a pejorative way), the internal life of branches, committees and national councils became an increasingly important terrain of struggle and activity. This was necessary as a way of sustaining internal party democracy and developing party policy where there existed a plurality of opinion, networks and platforms. But, in hindsight, it appears this arena became disproportionately important and developed its own dynamic at several distances removed from the external activity of the party. Alongside this, the SSP became more centralised because it had just short of thirty staff fully employed in the business of politics.

The conclusion of this discussion must be that many but not all the SSP current problems are associated with parliament. Rather, some are to do with party development, its multi-tendency nature and the level of consciousness of the majority of members. In these, the SSP has acquired the benefits of not being a far-left sect which is monolithic and undemocratic but it has not gained the tightness, coordination and higher level of consciousness, commitment and participation that these organizations also have.


So focusing on the impact of 1 May 2003 can only take us so far. Let’s look at another hypothesis: the SSP ‘put too many of its eggs in one basket’, whereby the modus operandi was of concentrating at a national level on pretty much just one individual. Here the SSP must take the responsibility for riding not just the upswing of Tommy Sheridan but also having to ride the downswing of Tommy Sheridan. The tireless, high-profile and effective work of Tommy Sheridan, particularly between 1999 and 2003, as well as the conducive context of rising social struggles (the invasion of Iraq, the growth of the anti-globalisation movement, and the firefighters’ and nursery nurses’ strikes) gave the SSP a good platform in which to ground its propagandising into agitation. As significantly, the membership put its shoulder to the wheel to capitalise on this so that there was an army on the ground behind the general. This was a key part of the explanation for the success of 1 May 2003. But something else was also going on here.

Scottish Militant Labour and the Scottish Socialist Alliance as the forerunners of the SSP had both successfully used Tommy Sheridan as their public face and communicator. Come the creation of the SSP, there was a political imperative to continue to do so for Tommy Sheridan was, to quote one former-SSP member, ‘the goose that laid the golden eggs’. Given that Tommy Sheridan was based in Glasgow and that the SSP was strongest there, this trajectory was deepened by his successful election to the Scottish parliament in 1999 as a Glasgow list MSP. This was undoubtedly a required breakthrough, as was Tommy’s previous election to Glasgow council in 1992, for capturing public office provides a platform from which to address people that is not available without it. But the way this was done and the way this happened comes at a price. The price was that the SSP was so flush with success that it ignored or downplayed the need to develop other public leadership or public senior cadre personnel. Although it is incorrect to state that the whole SSP is culpable in this, many leading members must be held to be more responsible than others for this.

There is also another important aspect to this strategy of ‘milking’ Tommy. While Tommy’s appeal was undoubted and effective, and although there were activists behind him, his appeal was of a certain type. In this, many looked to Tommy to be their tribune rather to become active themselves in ‘his’ army. Underlying this is also a particular conceptualization of how people are recruited to socialist organizations, and which is common to most far left organisations. Moreover, the left is not very good at producing more than one public face per organisation (e.g. George Galloway/Respect, Tony Benn/Labour left, Paul Foot/SWP, Derek Hatton/Militant, Jimmy Reid/Communist Party).


Alongside, this the SSP, despite being pluralist and open, experienced a centralising tendency because of the use of Tommy. It was not just that the SSP deployed Tommy. The almost necessary result of this was that Tommy, as part of a troika that effectively ran the SSP, shaped and deployed the SSP in his mould, politically and operationally speaking. It would be wrong to see this assessment as being against leadership per se or one particular leader/leadership group. The type of society we live in, the way the media operates and the levels of consciousness amongst potential supporters as well as amongst members all necessitate that socialist organisations have identifiable leaders and, often, single leaders. The issue then becomes in these periods how these leaders are not just held to account (after acting in a certain way) but how they also can be subject to the democratic will (not just before they act in a certain way but receiving instruction to act in a certain way). The overall lesson here is that relying on one leader in the way the SSP did was always likely to be a double-edged sword.

Objective Conditions

Marxists are fond of talking of the ‘objective conditions’. For the SSP, the objective conditions since 2003 have not been particularly favourable. Widespread anger has been evident and rising on an array of issues but it is usually expressionless as it has no critical mass and, where it finds expression, this has been pretty ineffectual like one-off demonstrations. Blair is detested but still in office. The NHS is still being privatized. British troops are still in Iraq. And so on and so on. In other words, there are no political movements like those that we have seen in some continental European countries like France, Italy or Greece to not only give expression but also resolve in some way the grievances people have. People feel ‘disenfranchised’ and ‘disempowered’ to use the vogue terms. Those movements that do exist have not been in the ascendancy (e.g. anti-globalization, anti-war) since late 2003 or are not actually movements (e.g. anti-poverty). The trade union movement has still not made the much sought after breakthrough, and union membership and strike levels continue to languish at low levels. The SSP is far too small and unrooted to lead what does exist or give ballast and direction to what might exist (quite apart from only operating in Scotland).

That is not to say that the SSP cannot benefit from throwing all its energies in to others’ campaigns or working on its own campaigns like free school meals. Indeed, in these circumstances, this makes such an outward mass turn all the more vital. But, overall, what this means is that in the current circumstances - the current circumstances of class struggle and the balance of class forces, the SSP may be coming up against the limits of its possible growth and influence. In a situation where the SSP is unlikely to keep growing (by various measures of membership and embedded-ness), it is either likely to stagnate or fall back. (In this regard, it is not just the SSP that is affected in this way for Respect seems to be stagnating and falling back too in terms of it membership and organization as opposed to its numbers of elected public positions.)


Much of what has been said so far has a bearing on the party’s demonstrative need to become a much more thinking party. This entails strategy, foresight and forward-planning done not just by the few but by many. So let’s hope, or rather ensure, that the errors made over the move from one to six MSPs are not repeated over the move from two to more councillors and let’s take heed from Respect’s difficulties here. Too much of the party’s thinking has come from too few individuals in the top echelon of the party, and is derived from an underlying political modus operandi of deference and unanimity that has characterized far-left organisations. This limits variety of thought and participation. Of course, this should not be taken to decry the process and individuals which plotted the rise of the SSA and SSP. Rather, it should be taken to mean their creations have outgrown in size and evolutionary nature the loins and parameters they came from.

I would suggest that we, therefore, have to be much more thinking and conscious about the inner-party culture than we have and we should be more thinking about that which we should have or need. The SSP can have the most democratic structures and processes of any socialist party in Britain (which I believe it does) but that is, unfortunately, not synonymous with the outcome intended by the thinking behind the structures and processes. Take, for example, the issue of accountability, not of leaders, but of active members. These (active) members participate in making decision but are unaccountable as to whether they have carried out or worked on the many decisions that required activity by them. Here, who should be held to account (individual active members, branch officers, branch delegates) and by whom (regional organisers, regional committees, national council, national executive)?

Take another issue concerning thinking: what shapes and conditions the structures and processes as well as what comes out of them is an inner party culture which facilitates criticism, dissent and plurality of thought but only in certain ways and only up to certain points. In the debate on the People Not Profit programme at the National Councils leading up to and including the March 2006 National Conference, the ingrained strategic thinking underlying this was never explained, much less discussed in these national forums. Ironically, it took amendments from the CWI at the national conference to touch on these issues. The thinking is, in fact, about a transitional mechanism of a Trotskyist hue. Amendments to the People Not Profit programme were of the order of adding this or that demand, not about how these could or should be operationalised and what role they should play in developing consciousness and fighting capacity. Yet this transitional mechanism and the kind of party the SSP is - neither purely reformist nor purely revolutionary - need discussion amongst the whole membership to be revalidated, fined tuned or revised. So criticism is within certain parameters and certain bounds. I’m not suggesting that the central tenets of the SSP should be up for discussion at every national conference but that after eight years of existence, these should be revalidated or reappraised amongst all members so that we all have an advanced understanding of the inter-relationship between our watchwords struggle/solidarity/socialism and socialism/independence/internationalism.


The final issue that I’d like to draw brief attention to flows from the above and is about members’ different levels of commitment to and participation in the party. Here it is not just about the extent of time and financial commitment, crucial though these are. It’s also about the nature of the commitment. The questions I want to pose but not answer are: 1) Given that the SSP is not the party of revolutionary, politically monolithic hyper-activists (à la Militant and the SWP), what levels of higher and greater commitment and participation can be realistically expected from the vast majority of members?, 2) Does the low level of activism and commitment of the majority of members necessarily flow from the SSP not being a party of revolutionary politically monolithic hyper-activists?, 3) What are the means by which to generate levels of higher and greater commitment and participation from the vast majority of members?, and 4) If the answers to these questions are not encouraging, does this mean that the SSP has to accept that there are limits on its ability to act in the present period?

It may seem that I have drifted a long way from the crisis around Tommy Sheridan that has engulfed the SSP. I have, for this has been necessary to understand how the inherent and temporal weaknesses of the SSP have been cruelly exposed over the last two years. This takes nothing away from the undoubted success of the SSP but it is to say that every facet of strength or success also has its mirror image of weakness and failure staring back because nothing is simply black or white.

Gregor Gall is Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Hertfordshire and lives in Edinburgh. He is author of the forthcoming books, Tommy Sheridan - a political biography and The Scottish Socialist Party - the rise and fall of a new political force? Both will be published by the University of Wales Press in autumn 2007.