The Scottish Socialist Party: A New Socialist Party

On 6 May 1999 Tommy Sheridan, head of the SSP list in Glasgow, was elected as a Member of the first Scottish Parliament for three centuries. This electoral break-through put the SSP, created only a few months earlier, at the forefront of the political scene. But the roots of the new party are much deeper.

Francis Curran and Murray Smith, International co-ordinators of the SSP explored what happened in an article for Inprecor, French language magazine of the Fourth International. Below we print a edited version which first appeared in the June 2000 edition of Socialist Outlook.

By introducing the poll tax in 1989, Margaret Thatcher made a double error. Until then she had attacked the workers’ movement sector by sector, choosing her terrain, beating, one after another, steel workers, print workers, left wing councils and, as her pièce de resistance, the miners. But then she tried to impose a new local tax which hit everybody and made the most impoverished pay the same as the rich. This provoked a mass movement which smashed the poll tax and contributed powerfully to her downfall. Her second error was to first introduce this tax in Scotland, a part of Britain where her government had never commanded a majority and where the workers’ movement had strong traditions of struggle.

This is not the place to repeat the history of the mass mobilisations which defeated the poll tax, the sole victory of the British workers’ movement in a period of heavy defeats. But this was crucial in the genesis of the SSP.

In Scotland the anti-poll tax movement rapidly achieved great breadth. The Scottish section of Militant, which later became the main component of the SSP, played the leading role, defending the strategy of refusing to pay the poll tax combined with mass mobilisations and direct action.

A wide network of local committees developed, federated at a national level, with Militant’s Tommy Sheridan as the main spokesperson. But, while Militant played a dominant role, this struggle also saw real unity, bringing together far left militants, Trotskyist and libertarians, alongside Labour party members, trade unionists, Communist party members, Nationalists and many coming into political activity for the first time. It forged collaboration between forces from diverse backgrounds and began to change ways of behaving and thinking.

Scottish Militant Labour Leaves the Labour Party.

Following this campaign and the normalisation of the Labour Party under the iron hand of Neil Kinnock, Scottish Militant left the Labour Party in 1992 (a year before comrades in England) to create an independent organisation: Scottish Militant Labour.

Profiting from the authority gained in the campaign against the Poll Tax, especially in working class areas of Glasgow, SML scored the first electoral success of the far left in Scotland, securing the election of several municipal and regional councillors in Glasgow. The most spectacular success was Tommy Sheridan’s election to Glasgow city council when serving a six month jail sentence for trying to stop a warrant sale of a poll tax non-payer- the medieval seizure of furniture of so called debtors .

In 1992 Thatcher’s successor John Major had won the General Election. In Scotland his victory created double disappointment. We were condemned to five more years of Tory by the Tories and Labour’s defeat, set back the perspective of establishing an autonomous Scottish Parliament. This strengthened nationalist consciousness linked to social demands.

The lurch to the right of the LP, begun under Kinnock, continued under the brief reign of John Smith, who died in 1994, and was extended under Tony Blair. The Scottish National Party, a bourgeois nationalist party with a petit-bourgeois leadership and a popular base, was trying, with some success, to develop a left wing profile to attract the votes of disappointed Labour voters.

On the Left the idea was growing that it was necessary to try to create a socialist alternative to Blair’s New Labour. The potential was demonstrated anew by the success of Tommy Sheridan in the European elections in 1994, where he scored 7.5 percent in the whole of Glasgow.

It would have been very easy for SML to fall into self-proclaimed triumphalism. But the organisation understood that it couldn’t form an alternative by itself; it was necessary to work to try to create a united, pluralist anti-capitalist force.

Struggles and Debates on the Left

In the early 1990s Socialist Forums began as annual meetings organised jointly by the Socialist Movement (SSM, left Labour), the Liberation current (SNP left) and the Communist Party of Scotland (one of the fragments born out of the explosion of the CPGB). In 1994, for the first time, representatives of SML participated. Subsequently they accepted an offer to jointly organise the 1995 forum. Alan McCombes, in the name of SML, publicly launched the idea of an electoral bloc, a Socialist Alliance, to contest the first elections for the Scottish Parliament, a perspective which was gaining credence given the universally expected victory of the LP in the next legislative elections.

The following year were marked by new struggles: the strike at Timex in Dundee, the campaign against water privatisation. In 1994-95 the campaign against the Criminal Justice Act was characterised by mass, illegal demonstrations. Although the law was adopted it has never been used against militant ecologist advocates of direct action, as was expected.

In a campaign against the building of a motorway in south Glasgow, militants of traditional left encountered radical ecologist militants, some of whom subsequently became part of the Socialist Alliance and then the SSP.

A Lost Opportunity

The idea of a Socialist Alliance was making some headway, though with reservations in the SSM where a section of its supporters remained in the Labour Party and even more so in the Liberation current, which was entirely integrated into the SNP. Things accelerated, however, thanks to the intervention of Arthur Scargill who left the LP and in November 1995 announced his intention to launch a new party.

This interested a number of political forces in Scotland, just like in England and could have been the opportunity to create a new, pluralist socialist party. Unfortunately Scargill’s ultra-centralist, authoritarian, even Stalinist conceptions – wasted this potential, with the result that his party, the Socialist Labour Party, is today reduced to a shadow of itself. It is only today, five years later, that one can begin to see in London the outline of a new English radical left.

In Scotland discussions between Scargill and the organisations from the Forum foundered on two points. He rejected pluralism, the entry into the new party of organised political currents (he especially wanted to bar the Militant and SWP). Scargill refused to contemplate an autonomous section of the party in Scotland.

By his inflexible attitude Scargill made, unwittingly, his sole contribution to the emergence of a new political force. The notion that he was going, no matter what, to launch his own party, including in Scotland accelerated the launch of the Scottish Socialist Alliance in February 1996.

The Scottish Socialist Alliance

What did this new SSA represent at the moment of its birth? SML joined, as an organised current. The Socialist Movement also joined, some members remaining in the LP. Liberation didn’t join as a current though many left-wing militants from the SNP joined either then or later. The CPS also didn’t join, though a number of its members and officials did so, including its General Secretary Bill Bonnar.

There were also several small far left groups as well as independents from a wide range of social movements such as Rosie Kane, the leading figure in the radical ecologist movement. Making the link between ecology and the anti-capitalist struggle, one of the slogans of the Alliance, and then of the SSP was ‘If you want to be Green, you have to be Red’.
In the two and half years of its existence the SSA had between 400 and 500 members. It was essentially limited to the cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee, with a rather weak structure.

The weight of SML was overwhelming compared to other forces. To create a climate of trust it had been decided that no current should have more than 40 percent of leadership positions. An indication of the road covered in two years is that no-one felt it necessary to maintain this rule at the launch of the SSP.

The Alliance had considerable impact both in struggles, notably defence of public services, and on the electoral terrain. It organised support for Liverpool dockers and in November-December 1996 played an important role in building support for the Glaciers strike, the first factory occupation in Scotland for ten years. This fight was successful, causing the General Secretary of the STUC to claim that it was ‘the most significant victory for the trade union movement since the occupation of UCS in 1972’. Some of the leaders of the occupation joined the SSA.

In the British Parliamentary elections in May 1997 the SSA it stood in 16 seats, including all those in Glasgow. In an election marked by a Labour landslide, the SSA gained a respectable score and established credibility for the future.
This marked a turning point in Scottish political life, not just because of the defeat of the Tories but also because devolution would lead to the creation of an autonomous Parliament in Scotland.

Political life in Scotland became more and more national, distinct from that in England. A referendum in September 1997 broadly approved the autonomy project proposed by Blair, opening the way to the creation of a Scottish Parliament.

The SSA had taken an decision which positioned it well in this new political framework: in favour of an independent socialist Scotland. This became its identity card and later that of the SSP. Scottish nationalism is only marginally characterised by a crude anti-English sentiment. It is rather more the expression of the profoundly democratic aspirations of the Scottish people to control their own destiny. Historically this aspiration has always been championed more by the left and the workers’ movement than by the right and today support for independence is stronger among the working class and youth. It is, therefore, natural to fuse this democratic aspiration with the aspiration for social transformation. In this fusion is found the key to every project for emancipation in Scotland.

A New Party

The SSP was launched in September 1998. SML transferred its apparatus and offices to the new party. Its journal Scottish Socialist Voice became that of the SSP.

The creation of the party built on the experience of the SSA but was also a break – it was a qualitative step. The party was to bring together much more important forces than those of the Alliance, to become a real political alternative to New Labour and the Nationalists.

In the discussions before the launch of the SSP the question had been posed: where will the forces for a new party come? Did they really exist? The proof of the pudding was in the eating, the only way of seeing if these forces existed was to create the party.

The party was a success. Immediately it had a qualitatively different impact than the Alliance; at a mass level the launch of a party was understood as proof of seriousness.

Those who look to us demand, and demand forcefully, that the SSP ‘must not be a party like the others’. The SSP draws a line between ourselves and the world of scandals and bribery. Our candidates stand as workers’ representatives who will live on workers’ wages. Tommy Sheridan only takes half his salary, giving the rest to the party and various organisations.

Our profile is important: we proclaim our socialism and put forward proposals which meet the needs of the majority in the here and now. It is crucial to be involved in struggles, small and large, and not simply disappear when there are no elections.
We reject leftist platitudes that ‘elections aren’t our terrain, our terrain is struggles’. On a historical scale it is true that important questions will not be decided by mass action not elections. But today elections are an excellent way of carrying out political activity, making our ideas known on a mass scale.

There is no contradiction with struggles - elections and struggles complement each other.

Electoral Break-through

The new party began to attract an influx of new supporters and to create new branches beyond the geographical base of the SSA. The first electoral test was in a European by-election in north-east Scotland. In unfavourable territory, covering the cities of Dundee and Aberdeen but also some of the richest agricultural land in Europe, the SSP obtained 2,500 votes, more than 2 percent. It was a modest result but sufficient to establish credibility.

After the first SSP conference in February 1999, energies were focused on the preparation of the first Scottish legislative elections in May 1999, which coincided with local elections. The electoral campaign merged with the work of building the SSP. The party increased from 600-800 members in February to pass 1,000 in April.

We presented lists in each of the eight regions of the country, including in those where the party didn’t exist. That allowed the running of a national campaign and gave every elector in Scotland the chance to vote SSP.

This was the first election to introduce proportional representation, even partially. 56 members of the new Scottish Parliament were elected under proportional representation at a regional level and 73 in first past the post constituencies.
The SSP stood in 18 constituencies, making an agreement with the SWP who stood in 4.

At a national level the SSP won 2 per cent of the votes (46,000) and its score of 7.5 per cent in Glasgow allowed the election of Tommy Sheridan.

But the celebrations in Glasgow were tempered by bad news. Scargill’s party gained 55,000 votes, beating the SSP in every region apart from Glasgow and the West. SSP members were incredulous. The SLP was very weak in Scotland and had been quasi-invisible during the campaign. Confusion of names, the fame of Scargill?

Happily speculation didn’t last long. The European elections in June provided a bigger test. The SSP rose to 4 per cent, beating the SLP, whose vote fell to 0.95 per cent, in every constituency. Thanks, to a large measure, to the election of Tommy Sheridan the SSP had established itself as the socialist alternative to the left of Labour.

The subsequent year has been crucial for consolidating the SSP. Its second conference in February 2000 reflected the growth of the party and a strengthening of its political cohesion. Apart from the ex-SML, which has become the International Socialist Movement, the main organised political force is the Communist Republican Network, a far left current. But the majority of new members have no other affiliation than the SSP. At the moment there is no organised current that one could call reformist.

Electoral successes continue, with 10 per cent in the Hamilton by-election in September 1999 and 4 per cent in Ayr in March 2000. The latest opinion polls give us 5 per cent of votes nationally, 13 per cent in Glasgow and 11 per cent in the Central region, which would give us 3 deputies in the Scottish Parliament.
Tommy Sheridan writes a weekly column in the Daily Record, the main daily paper in Scotland with a readership of 2 million (out of a population of 5 million).

With 2000 members and more than 50 branches across the country, and its electoral audience, the SSP has enormous responsibilities. We have the opportunity to build a party which can present itself as a credible alternative to Labour and the Nationalists. Only the SWP and the remnants of the SLP and CP remain outside.

We address ourselves to those who still vote, reluctantly, for the LP, those who don’t vote and those who support the SNP. The later is ahead of Labour in the polls and split between the need to be seen as to the left of Labour and as a viable manager of the interests of big capital in an independent Scotland.

A Party With A Project For Society

The SSP has established our image as a party which daily fights to defend the working class. We are, above all, for a rupture with capitalism, for socialism. There is no place today for yet another party which accepts capitalism as a barrier that cannot be passed.

We struggle against neoliberal policies but without sowing the illusion that the LP could return to a Keynesian golden age and restore the Welfare State. While we fight on concrete issues alongside workers who remain in this party, we call on them to join us in building the socialist alternative. We also fight for the trade unions to break their political and financial links with Labour - links which are more and more being called into question anyway.

But we must be more than ‘the party of opposition’. We are opposed to privatisations, against handouts for the bosses, against flexibility and deregulation. We defend public services and the rights and gains of workers. But every serious political force must present itself through a positive project.

We work to define what socialism today could be after the double setback of Stalinism and Social Democracy, how it is possible to break with capitalism in the epoch of globalisation. We are preparing a book, due out in November in which we will present our critique of capitalism and our thoughts on Socialism for the 21st Century, seeking to strip bare the mechanisms of capital and show the possibility of a society based on the satisfaction of human needs. The publication of this book will give the opportunity to open a far ranging debate.

We also try to put forward solutions to concrete problems. One of the central questions among youth is drugs. We propose the legalisation of cannabis and decriminalisation of other drugs. Our policy was presented in a book by our spokesperson on this issue, Drugs and the Party Line by Kevin Williamson.

We have put forward a proposal for a Scottish Service Tax - a system of local taxes, based on strongly progressive measures which would lead to a significant redistribution from rich to poor. It would also give the local councils extra revenue, giving them a margin for manoeuvre in relation to central government, allowing them to carry out policies in the interests of the population.

Tommy Sheridan's Bill in the Scottish Parliament to 'Abolish Poindings and Warrant Sales' was carried at its first by a massive majority of 79 to 15 with 30 abstentions. This was despite desperate opposition from the Labour-Lib Democratic executive, which has now been left in tatters after a full-scale Labour back-bench rebellion – a massive victory for the SSP even though the bill still has two stages to go through.

The SSP tries to act within the concrete conditions of Scotland but we do not neglect the international dimension. We see the SSP as part of the recomposition of the workers’ movement internationally. We therefore see it as very important to reinforce links between the new anti-capitalist formations which are being created, especially in Europe. It is in that spirit that we participated at the meeting of a number of these formations in Lisbon last March and look forward to strengthening this type of collaboration.

Articles of interest:

For a New Workers Party by Murray Smith

For an International Socialist Alliance

European Conference of the anti-capitalist left.