Scottish Socialist Party – impressive advances for the left


Dear comrades
As usual I enjoyed reading the latest FRFI (173). The articles on the rise of racism and the response of the left were particularly interesting, and bear some parallels to experiences here in Australia over the last seven years or so. The far right as both a ‘stalking horse’ for, and a by-product of, government racism, is a concept that many don’t see. A number of Marxist groups in Australia fell into the trap of campaigning against small (and very marginal) groups of neo-Nazis when the One Nation right-populist/racist party was just beginning its three year ascendancy; following that, parts of the left and the vast majority of the (small-L) liberal swamp focused all their fire on One Nation’s crude racism, and meanwhile serious opposition to the government’s racist policies towards asylum seekers only really got going in the last three years or so. Serious campaigning for the poor who are being fooled by racist politics is weaker still, even though we are making a start.

But one article irritated me: Michael MacGregor’s coverage of the Scottish elections.

The SSP has made impressive advances, and many in Australia have taken a keen interest in its left regroupment strategy, and are interested as to how it has built up such a large base of support (far ahead of any other socialist group in the UK – or Australia – for a long time). So to hear criticisms of the SSP – where it is fudging the politics, failing to mobilise, etc, is welcome because it is important to have a balanced perspective on something you are considering (in some degree) as a model to emulate.

Unfortunately, MacGregor’s piece was long on condemnation and short on evidence. The offences of the SSP he cites don’t stack up to his final conclusion that the SSP is ‘now completely committed to a parliamentary strategy’ and their ‘anti-imperialist principles are to be sloughed off whenever it is an electoral necessity’ and ‘refusal to take up the challenge to Labour’.

The two main offences which MacGregor cites are Tommy Sheridan calling Labour voters to give their second vote to the SSP and failing to stand against one Labour MP (who was anti-war).

If Sheridan only called for Labour voters to preference the SSP, then he would be just hanging onto Labour’s coat-tails. But from other reading I’m fairly sure that the main thrust of the SSP’s campaign was aimed against Labour and especially the war on Iraq. Getting second votes was vital for the SSP to get more seats. More seats gives them more credibility as a voice for socialism, however you judge their flaws. Maybe Sheridan made a wrong call, but this mistake hardly adds up to ‘endorsement’ of Labour.

On the second point, it would seem fairly understandable to allow an anti-war Labour MP to run (instead of handing the seat to a Tory or SNP possibly?). I’m not saying I support the move; my general instinct would be to run a candidate against Labour, regardless. But explaining why this branch’s move was so wrong in a constructive manner would probably be more educational for the readers than simply canning them.

The amount of space MacGregor gave to positively presenting the SSP results is pretty tiny – just the first paragraph. Perhaps the majorityof FRFI readers already know that information, perhaps FRFI just wants to present another side which won’t have been heard already. But in the small amount of information given, we can glean that the SSP is in some fashion attacking Labour – even in pure parliamentary terms, the SSP won six seats while Labour lost six.

If Michael MacGregor wants to join the dots together for his readers in this way, he needs to present more evidence. Perhaps in future, FRFI could devote more attention to this?

In solidarity
Ben Courtice

SSP covers up for Labour imperialism

Ben Courtice raises some important points. Essentially, he is arguing that our criticism of the Scottish Socialist Party’s opportunism in relation to electoral gains is not convincing. The article, Courtice believes, is ‘long on condemnation and short on evidence’. He can forgive the SSP’s ‘mistakes’ and ‘understandable’ tactical moves in relation to the British Labour Party because it won them more seats in the Scottish Parliament and this ‘gives them more credibility as a voice for socialism’. The SSP has, after all, built up a base of support (in Scotland), which puts it ‘far ahead of any other socialist group in the UK – or Australia – for a long time’. Without substantial evidence to the contrary, Courtice is arguing that ends justify means.

We have to be concrete. We are living in an imperialist country, where the British Labour government has played a central role, in its nearly six years of office, in three barbaric, one-sided imperialist wars: Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq. That is why anti-imperialist politics must be the starting point for any socialist or progressive movement in the present period.

In Britain this means breaking completely with the racist, imperialist British Labour Party. It means building a new movement that fights for the real interests of the working class in this country, while giving unequivocal support to the working class and oppressed peoples fighting imperialism throughout the world. So how do socialists build this new movement? Courtice avoids this critical question.

If this point is accepted then MacGregor’s criticism of the SSP’s failure to campaign on a principled basis for a ‘no’ vote for the Labour imperialists must surely carry a great deal more weight than Courtice is prepared to give it. Sheridan, the leader of the SSP, had actually said: ‘I would appeal to Labour voters: even if you want to vote for your local MSP, give us your second vote, as a second vote for Labour would be wasted’ (FRFI 173). How does this help to build a socialist movement? He doesn’t tell voters that any vote for Labour would be supporting imperialist barbarity – only that a ‘second vote’ for Labour ‘would be wasted’.

Courtice’s argument against our position is not only politically weak but also false. He says that from MacGregor’s article ‘we can glean that the SSP is in some fashion attacking Labour – even in pure parliamentary terms, the SSP won six seats while Labour lost six.’ This is false because all six of the SSP seats came from the regional lists on the second vote. The Labour Party only ‘lost’ seats in the constituency vote, where its share of MSPs fell by six. It actually gained one seat in the regional lists so that its loss overall was, in fact, five seats – not six as reported in FRFI 173. The SSP seats, if anything, could be said to have come from Scottish Nationalists, whose share of regional MSPs fell from 23 to 15. So in no way could the outcome of the election be seen as the SSP ‘attacking Labour’. At no stage did the SSP threaten or challenge Labour even in ‘pure parliamentary terms’, as Courtice states.

Can we accept with Courtice that it was politically ‘understandable’ for the SSP not to run in the Dundee constituency to give the sitting anti-war Labour MSP, John McAllion, a clear run for the seat? In a period when the warmongering of the Labour party is clear to ever-wider sections of the population, there is nothing ‘understandable’ about refusing to challenge Labour. This is a matter of fundamental principle. Socialists cannot on the one hand reject the Labour Party as a racist and imperialist party and on the other hand actively endorse one of its representatives at election times, even if that representative claims to take an anti-war stance. A principled anti-war stance today would require that any member of the Labour Party leave it and start the long and difficult process of building a socialist movement in this country. The SSP failed to argue this and this tells us something about its political character.

‘Vote SSP when you can, Labour when you must’ sums up its political intervention. Such a policy undermines the building of a new political movement to challenge imperialism in such a critical historical period and is politically significant in terms of the SSP’s relationship to the Labour left. The SSP is an electoral regroupment of the Labour left. This relationship is both an endorsement of Labour and also of the bourgeois parliament as a legitimate forum for building a socialist movement.

We do not oppose socialists entering parliament in certain periods and using it as a platform to spread more widely principled socialist ideas. Indeed the ‘minimum programme’ of the SSP – abolition of Council Tax, free school meals, a £7.32 minimum wage, a job creating maximum 35-hour week in the public sector, an end to privatisation, and opposition to war for oil – could be used towards such an end, but only in the context of building a principled anti-imperialist working class movement outside parliament. Real struggles to defend the living standards of those under attack will not come through parliament but through the class struggle. Real struggles against war and imperialism have to take place outside parliament on the streets, in communities and workplaces, schools and colleges.

Courtice argues that the SSP’s aim was to get elected to the Scottish parliament as ‘more seats gives them more credibility as a voice for socialism’. We would ask: credibility with whom? Certainly not the working class – less than half the population voted for the Scottish Parliament, with the vast majority of non-voters coming from the poorer sections of the working class. They recognise what it is and who it represents: the privileged sections of the working class and the middle class.

It is possible to have a movement rooted in the working class, which provides school meals, and serious opposition to imperialism as the history of the Black Panther movement in the United States demonstrates. The Black Panthers were able to provide breakfast clubs to thousands and wage a relentless struggle against the US imperialist war on the Vietnamese people. The Black Panther Party was clear in its electoral interventions in that they demonstrated how bourgeois parliament could not defend working class rights. This was based on a principled position of understanding the nature of imperialism and how it created poverty and attacked living standards both in the oppressed nations and in the imperialist countries themselves. These issues are not mutually exclusive but entirely linked and interdependent.

We are not prepared to give the SSP the benefit of the doubt in this regard given its previous history. Anti-imperialism has always been an Achilles heel for this party. Its appalling history in relation to Ireland cannot be simply forgotten. The Irish peace process has stalled the struggle for self-determination. This has allowed the SSP to gloss over the split within sections of the Scottish working class. The Orange (Loyalist) section of the Scottish working class has long played a reactionary role in defending the racism and sectarianism of British imperialism. We should not be surprised at this – the key current within the SSP, the Militant Tendency, owes its political formation not only to the Labour Party but also to the supremacist Loyalist tradition itself. Militant was centrally involved in condemning and undermining the Irish struggle and went as far as to call the Republican Movement ‘sectarian’ and even ‘fascist’ at the height of the Irish struggle. This political legacy continues in the modern era. At its ‘Socialism 2000’ event in Glasgow the SSP invited the Ulster Volunteer Force’s reputed ‘commander in chief’ Billy Hutchison to speak from the platform. The Socialist Workers Party is also a current within the SSP. Like Militant, the SWP supported the Labour government’s deployment of troops to the North of Ireland in 1969. Both these political trends openly condemned the Irish people’s struggle at the height of Britain’s war in Ireland. This history makes it all the more necessary for the SSP to have an uncompromising position against Labour imperialism.

Paul Mallon

FRFI 174 August / September 2003


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