frontline vol. 2 issue 2.

The SSP, Tommy Sheridan, democracy and women

Carolyn Leckie MSP gives her views of the crisis faced by the SSP and asks what lessons we can learn.

After the storm caused by Tommy Sheridan’s libel action against the News of the World, the SSP has begun a period of renewal. Tommy, running away from democracy and accountability, has set up an ironically named new organisation; ‘Solidarity’.

It was set up without any meaningful political discussion whatsoever and heralded in by Tommy’s mum singing “to dream the impossible dream”. The lyrics give away some clues about how Tommy, his family and his cult following regard him:

“And the world will be better for this
That one man, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star”

Fortunately, the constituency that still believes the myth of the persecuted Tommy has grown very small. And in truth, many who’ve promoted this myth know fine well it’s nonsense; and have cynically manipulated information and people for their own ends. Not only did they deny the truth told by 11 members of the SSP during the court case and the SSP’s history, they denied their own responsibility, support and rationale for Tommy Sheridan’s resignation in 2004. In the process they attempted to destroy the SSP.

The SSP is a success story across Europe and the world. Its constitution is progressive to the core: on democracy, plurality, accountability and equality. On the 9th November we held our Convener to account. Until then, in the main, the interests of the SSP and Tommy Sheridan were convergent. But on that day they diverged spectacularly, the trouble began, and the SSP came under enormous pressure to be ‘what it said it was on the tin.’

It wasn’t clear to everyone, but the man who’d been proclaimed as ‘our biggest asset’ had become our biggest liability. We treaded a thin political and ethical line: holding Tommy to account in the SSP’s political interest and still protecting his confidentiality as an individual. It was not our business to blast a hole through his marriage. Looking back, I’m sure many would now accept we paid too high a price for Tommy’s personal confidentiality. If we’d brought everything out in the open then, there would have been no vacuum to be filled by myths and this summer’s trauma may well have been avoided.

But right up to the court case, many didn’t see it coming. Almost immediately following Sheridan’s resignation, there was a campaign on to ‘rehabilitate’ him. It continued right up to the court case. I think this suggests far too much awe in the abilities of a ‘charismatic leader’, too much emphasis on an individual, a scarcity of confidence in the appeal of our politics and a fear of a genuinely empowered, democratic party of equals.


Sexism and misogyny, openly through the media and eventually during the court case itself, were used to fuel the myth of the persecuted Tommy. Optimum conditions had been created in the previous 20 months by an insidious underground campaign to trash the reputations of several SSP feminist women: Catriona Grant, Rosie Kane, Frances Curran and myself. We were a ‘coven’, a ‘cabal’ who had some SSP men in our ‘control’. As the SSP polarised, anyone not on Tommy’s side, by default became members of the ‘coven’. It became the biggest coven on record!

Tommy had to resign because he was intent on lying and denying his way through the allegations against him of visiting a swinger’s club, group sex, serial infidelity, hypocrisy etc., rather than dealing with the allegations honestly or by saying nothing. He was warned that his strategy would land him where he is; a figure of ridicule and the left’s Jeffrey Archer. He was also warned that his strategy would drag the SSP and its members into the court, way back in November 2004.

What we couldn’t have predicted was just how horrific the court case would be; just how gargantuan the lies would have to be; just how overt and brutal the exploitation of women would be in the process.

Back in November 2004, there was some discussion about his actual behaviour in attending these clubs. But his strategy of lying all the way to court was the reason for his forced resignation. I don’t think the activities themselves would have been an automatic resignation issue. They would definitely have been an education issue. ‘Cupids’ charges a membership fee for men but not for women. ‘Entertainment’ is laid on. Their website offers a maze of direct links to ‘escort’ services where women are advertised, in objectified and submissive poses and classified according to ethnic origin, for example. This kind of environment which involves prostitution and pornography is not simply one of personal preference, it is one which oppresses and coerces women. This kind of commercial sexual exploitation constitutes violence against women according to the Scottish Executive’s own definition. Tommy’s behaviour is not reconcilable with anything resembling socialist principles or aspirations. It was not acceptable behaviour for the Convener of the SSP.

Saying that was very difficult in the SSP and impossible for those cast as ‘witches’. Any ‘re-education’ would probably have been futile since Tommy hasn’t shown any ability to critically examine his actions. In fact, his behaviour has got worse, culminating in the ‘libel trial of the decade’.

Fortunately, Tommy’s offer to ‘disrobe’ in court, like Jeffrey Archer before him, wasn’t taken up. But he did reveal his sexism and misogyny in all its glory. He used his wife, as he’s done consistently, as a human shield; putting her in front of the cameras every morning, posing as the doting, dutiful wife, standing by her man. Most of his witnesses were men; totally signed up to whatever Tommy’s mystical honour code is. All of the women who told the truth in court and stood up to Tommy, were cast as liars, gold diggers, whores, unstable, mentally ill and, predictably, witches. The men were ‘intelligent’, ambitious and jealous. We were all part of a ‘plot’. The ‘evidence’ presented to prove this ‘plot’ was laughable. Indeed a photograph of me having the cheek to smile was the only ‘evidence’ he put to me as he cross examined me without looking at me.


None of the women who testified against Tommy deserved the humiliation and the stress he inflicted on them, whether it was Ann Colvin who was asked to describe the status of Tommy’s group sex friend’s penis, or Fiona McGuire, whose medical records were cited, or Helen Allison who alleged intimidation by a known gangster or Katrine Trolle, an SSP member who was forced to describe her and Tommy’s mutual activity, her sexual history and be denounced as a liar by the man we all know she had a relationship with. All in full view of the international media. No socialist should defend that behaviour, far less proclaim Tommy’s court victory as one to be celebrated by the working class, half of whom are women.

There have been no lengths some people have not been prepared to go, especially Tommy himself, to scapegoat others for his failure to take responsibility for his actions. It’s incredible just how deep the psychological need has been for many to blame anybody and everybody but Tommy. Even though it was 2 men, Alan McCombes and Keith Baldassara, who brought the issues that led to Tommy’s resignation to the party; the women got the ‘blame’. Tommy knew it would be easier to build a bandwagon by ruthlessly exploiting the sexism prevalent in society and inevitably in any organisation; even one that commits itself to abolishing that very sexism and achieving equality.

I have run out of language to describe my experience this last 2 years. The truly Orwellian situation we found ourselves in has probably taken years off our lives. But it’s also given us invaluable, practical insight into political questions that had been abstract previously. The people who’ve taken a consistent and principled position in this whole sorry saga, sometimes in a lonely minority, have been those who’ve been able to interpret the day to day events in our own party and relate them to our politics and follow that through by telling the truth in court when dragged there by lawyers and Sheriff Officers from both sides. Conversely and bizarrely, we’ve seen professed Trotskyists, clearly unable to relate theory to practice, recanting show trial style; denying their own previous written material and verbal contributions and finally rewriting history to save Tommy’s skin and attempt to embalm him forever as the “greatest post war socialist icon in Scotland” (Stevie Arnott).


Obviously our situation is trivial in comparison to Stalinism and the rise of other dictators throughout the world. But it’s been a salutary lesson on the psychology that enables it. Probably most people weren’t conscious of that whilst it was happening. Probably nobody would have believed that, with our worker’s wage policy for elected representatives and one of the most democratic and accountable constitutions that I’m aware of, and in 2006, in Scotland, we would have to deal with our own comic version of Uncle Joe!

Until this experience, I’d formed the impression that Stalin had risen and maintained power mainly through fear, ruthless repression and extermination of his enemies. But I now believe the most powerful tool he had was consent; consent of the willing and deluded followers of the cult of the personality.

So, there’s a big lesson learned: The worker’s wage sure ain’t enough to stop a potential Stalin in his political infancy.

So, what would it take? There’s been much discussion already in the SSP on this question, particularly in the United Left. The SSP isn’t the only party to get its fingers burnt. The PT in Brazil has been corrupted to a much higher degree by its dependence on Lula. There will probably always be, certainly at least until there have been generations living in advanced socialist conditions, personalities that thrive on adulation, fame, status and power. Money is not the primary motivating factor. For them, it’s a bonus. Therefore, constraints on income will not constrain that kind of personality.

The first key has to be identifying and understanding the risk in the first place. That will require a lot of dialogue and learning, now and on a continual basis, in the SSP, other left parties and beyond. For me, the most important check will be an independent thinking, empowered, educated, informed and confident membership. And, hopefully, a similarly empowered mass of people in wider society.

Party Culture

The SSP has wrestled with the top down culture and methods of some of its parent organisations, like Militant and the recognised need to embrace all experience, learn from broader struggle like the women’s movement, peace movement, international movements, our own youth, anarchism, feminism, popular education methods and put it all together to build a party equipped to win people to and keep them in a party struggling for socialism in the 21st century.

I think such a party needs to constantly struggle with itself to put its ideals into practice in its own organisation. It needs to avoid stagnation and creating power structures that have an interest in perpetuating themselves. It needs to recognise that the inequalities inherent in capitalism and patriarchy will replicate themselves in a socialist party. But it need not accept them.

Our own party is the only space in our lives in this world that we have any hope of ‘practising’ socialism. And by that I mean trying it out, acknowledging when it’s not working and being prepared to try and fix it. It means challenging patriarchy and achieving the understanding, consciousness and active support and participation of men to do that. Men aren’t necessarily conscious of the power they’re bestowed with or how they use it. From the day they’re born, they’re bombarded with messages of superiority. As a midwife, I lost count of how many times I witnessed ecstatic cries of “It’s a boy!”, followed by proclamations about how big these wee tiny babies’ willies were. (They never were!)


This challenge of putting our socialism into practice did manifest itself before November 2004. Like The RC in Italy, we’ve had a bit of a revolving door in membership. We inspire and attract people into the SSP but we find difficulty keeping them. Membership of the SSP has often meant too much responsibility and not enough recreation; too much to do and not enough time to just be and learn and absorb.

The operation of some platforms (particularly the SWP and the CWI) has distorted the political discourse and thereby the opportunities for political learning for the majority of the members. It hasn’t been enough fun! If you’re a woman with all the pressure that entails anyway and you’ve secured a babysitter for one night of the week, will it be an SSP event? Not on your life, judging by the participation of women at evening activities. We can’t just keep doing the same old things- it’s not working! The dead weight of the SWP and the CWI has been removed. We can and should seize this opportunity to build a culture and environment in the SSP so that people go to events and participate in activity because they’re excited by what’s going on; not because they want to avoid the guilt trip.

The party, undoubtedly, had a largely unpredicted difficulty adjusting to our fantastic electoral breakthrough in 2003. Maybe our electoral success outstripped the level of development the SSP was at. Issues about the relationship between the party and the parliament, political and organisational priorities, the role of elected representatives were never fully examined, despite the need being documented.

The Sunday after we were elected, Tommy wanted us to agree to elect (just the MSP’s) a Deputy leader in the parliament and a Whip! It was me, Rosie and Frances who resisted this. There were tensions before November 2004, conveniently attributed to ‘personality clashes’. But they were portentous. Conflict arose over the subordination of the parliament to the party and democratic accountability, collectivism versus individualism and how much emphasis and energy was placed on the work of the parliament in comparison to building the much-required deeper and broader roots in communities. We then had difficulty getting the whole group, especially Rosemary, to collectivise our resources and staffing. This was an obvious opportunity to put our socialism into practice. But it was resisted tenaciously. Eventually, following a conference motion, it was implemented.


The German Greens actually started out with even more constraints than the SSP on elected representatives. As well as financial mechanisms, they required their parliament members to rotate every half term. They also forbade parliament members from having party positions to prevent the parliamentary group gaining control of the party. I’m not sure about that one unless there was a really robust body holding the parliamentary group accountable to the party. If it weren’t for some SSP MSP’s also having party responsibilities then I do think there was greater potential for the parliamentary group becoming politically divergent. Despite the German Greens’ attempts, their parliamentary group acceded to power and their accountability mechanisms were dismantled.

I absolutely agree with rotation, probably after 2 terms to try and get a balance between experience and vitality, but I don’t think there’s a prescription with a guaranteed cure. That shouldn’t stop us striving for more and better ways to embed democracy, accountability and equality into every facet of our party and what we do.

Looking back, it’s been very, very hard. We did hold Tommy to account and the SSP won. There’s been a cost and casualties. Individuals and the party as a whole are still recovering. But there are already signs of renewal. People, previously put off joining the SSP are now joining because we stood up to Tommy, for women, for integrity and for the movement, above an individual. The experience for those who’ve stayed is priceless. Lots of people have flourished in the fight to defend the SSP. A well of creativity has been tapped and unleashed. This creativity gives us huge potential for a stronger, more dynamic, more progressive SSP if it’s welcomed and harnessed.

I believe we can have an SSP that truly is a party of equals, where no one, no matter who, is more equal than others.