“Bad result in those elections a week ago? Nothing to do with us, guv. It’s all the fault of that bloke over there. You know the one I mean - the one with the dodgy sun tan. Real chancer, that geezer. Gets people like us a bad name.”
That pretty much sums up the statement from the Executive Committee of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), now posted on the SSP website, which purports to be an explanation of the party’s disastrous performance in the Scottish Parliament elections.
The statement amounts to 64 paragraphs. 27 of those paragraphs concern Tommy Sheridan. And despite running to some 2,250 words, terms such as “class”, “working class” and “trade unions” are entirely absent from the statement. (“Workers” get mentioned just once, as in: “Within the parliament, the SSP has provided a voice for workers in struggle.”)
Much, if not everything, that the statement has to say about Sheridan is true (and pretty boring – it’s all been said so often before). And Sheridan’s decision to split from the SSP, backed up by the SWP and the Scottish version of the Socialist Party in England, certainly counts as a significant factor in explaining the demise of the SSP vote.
But trying to pin the blame for the SSP’s electoral debacle on Sheridan only begs more basic questions – such as why the SSP made him into such a cult figure in the first place, and why the SSP had entered a trajectory of electoral decline even before Sheridan set up shop as “Solidarity”.
Blaming Sheridan also allows the Executive Committee statement to sidestep the most fundamental question of all: was there anything in the politics of the SSP itself, and anything in the way it has behaved politically in recent years, which explain why voters deserted it en masse in the elections of 3rd May?
The Executive Committee statement does not directly address those questions. At the same time, however, the contents of the statement embody precisely the politics which resulted in the collapse of the SSP vote.
The Labour Party is mentioned three times in the statement – twice in passing, and once in the statement: “Last Thursday marked the end of Labour’s monolithic stranglehold over Scottish politics at national and local level.”
Labour’s monolithic stranglehold over Scottish politics? But for the last eight years – ever since the Scottish Parliament was first established – Labour has been in a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. A coalition government is hardly a manifestation of political monolithism.
Nor, in Scotland as in the rest of the country, is the Labour Party internally monolithic. There is a left wing in the Party. Not a strong one – but it’s there. And even substantial layers of the party who could not be counted as part of the Left are hostile to Blair and his ‘project’ for transforming the party into an SDP Mark II.
Although the Labour Party vote went down in last week’s elections, it did not do so to the extent prophesised (by, amongst others, the SSP). Confronted with the prospect of an SNP government at Holyrood, there was clear swing back to Labour in the week preceding the elections. Hostility towards the SNP runs deep among many traditional Labour voters – and rightly so.
Throughout its history the SSP has engaged in the fantasy that the Labour Party is already dead and buried. The long moribund “Make the Break” campaign in trade unions (which never really got off the ground in the first place) was a manifestation of that delusion.
So too has been the consistent failure of the SSP to relate to political developments within the Labour Party – the John McDonnell for Leader campaign being only the most recent example.
By failing to address the significance of the late (and limited) swing back to Labour, and by ignoring the (critical) support for Labour to be found amongst a broad layer of union activists in Scotland (and not just in Scotland), the Executive Committee statement is a continuation of the SSP tradition of pretending that the Labour Party is something that can simply be ignored.
The three (passing) references to the Labour Party in the Executive Committee statement outnumber by three the number of occasions on which the statement refers to trade unions. Again, this is simply a case of the statement continuing the SSP’s tradition of failing to organise seriously in the trade unions.
How justified such a charge is can be confirmed by logging on to the trade union page of the SSP website. It contains material relating to the civil servants dispute (of 2004!), the nursery nurses dispute (also of 2004), and articles concerning RMT and CWU affiliations to the SSP (variously dating from 2003 and 2004). But the RMT and CWU branches which affiliated to the SSP have now disaffiliated!
While the Executive Committee statement has nothing to say about the Labour Party and the trade unions, it has rather a lot to say about the SNP.
What is the significance of the SNP emerging, by a single seat, as the largest party in the Scottish Parliament? Answer: “It is likely to open up a new turbulent phase in Scottish politics, a time of strife, which could accelerate the ultimate break-up of the United Kingdom and pave the way for the resurgence of socialism.”
(After Salmond – McCombes!)
If, as the statement argues, the victory of the SNP will open up “a new turbulent phase in Scottish politics” and “pave the way for the resurgence of socialism”, one wonders why SSP members were not calling for support for the SNP in the elections themselves. The truth is: a lot of them were!
The SSP had no formal position on which party voters should support in the first-past-the-post constituency elections (which were not being contested by the SSP). But anyone acquainted with informal discussions within the SSP will know that a fair share of SSP members were calling for an SNP vote in the individual constituencies.
Even worse, SSP members (not simply supporters – but actual members) were casting votes for Alex Salmond to become First Minister (or, at least, they thought they were).
According to a supplement to the Executive Committee statement: “The SSP can report numerous examples of voters, including even party members, marking their ‘X’ against Alex Salmond, then scrolling down the regional list to vote SSP. All of these votes would have been discounted.”
(In the regional list elections, the SNP stood under the name “Alex Salmond for First Minister (SNP)”, in order to secure first place on the alphabetically listed ballot paper, and also to cash in on Salmond’s personal popularity ratings.)
The Executive Committee highlights these “numerous examples” purely to demonstrate how confused voters were when casting their votes (as indeed they were). The fact that SSP members were voting “Alex Salmond for First Minister” does not seem to have struck the Executive Committee as anything worthy of comment or, still less so, political disapproval!
The positive spin which the Executive Committee statement places upon the SNP’s ‘victory’ (insofar as winning the votes of 16% of the electorate deserves to be called a victory) is nothing but a continuation of the SSP’s long-standing ambiguous attitude towards the SNP.
The pages of the SSP’s newspaper regularly attack the SNP as a big business party. At the same time, in the eyes of the SSP, the SNP has one big redeeming feature: it supports independence for Scotland.
If (as is the case) official SSP policy is to back an independent capitalist Scotland as a step forward compared with a non-independent capitalist Scotland, if (as is the case) official SSP policy is to work with the SNP in the “Independence Convention”, if (as is the case) official SSP policy is to work with SNP members in the “Independence First” campaign – then it can hardly come as a surprise when SSP voters (and members) ending up voting (or trying to vote) for the SNP in parliamentary elections.
(And the Executive Committee statement certainly did not find it surprising.)
The attitude towards the SNP displayed by the SSP in general, and by the Executive Committee statement in particular, flows out of a more fundamental problem.
For class-struggle socialists the basic divide in society is the class divide. There are other forms of oppression apart from class oppression. But class oppression and class struggle are fundamental because the working-class alone has the power to overthrow capitalism and the various forms of oppression inherent within it.
In Scotland, however, it would appear, at least in the pages of the SSP’s newspaper, that the basic dividing line is between supporters and opponents of independence. The corollary of such an approach is that the SNP is really ‘on our side’ (because it is pro-independence), whereas the Labour Party (despite its ongoing, albeit weakened, basis in the unions) is ‘on their side’ (because it does not support independence).
This attitude of seeing the fault line in Scottish society as being between unionism and independence is particularly apparent in the Executive Committee statement.
Thus, for example, the statement refers to Scotland being “polarised” during the elections “into two camps: pro- and anti-union”, to the SNP “(being) up against the much larger bloc of unionist MSPs” and to a minority SNP government being “obstructed by the three unionists parties.”
(For the Executive Committee to attempt to explain away the party’s electoral performance by referring to Scotland “polarising” around the issue of independence is a trifle hypocritical. The SSP itself was to the fore in treating the elections as a referendum on the Union: “Next year (2007) is the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Union which set the imperial ball rolling. It provides a key opportunity at the Holyrood poll to begin the process of its liquidation. Now there’s an anti-imperialist act to get excited about!”)
The Executive Committee statement goes even further. It welcomes the minority status of the SNP government as a factor which could add momentum to the surge for independence:
“Paradoxically, a minority SNP government could potentially create a more favourable climate for a future surge towards independence. A stable SNP-led coalition would involve backdoor deals, horse-trading and shoddy compromises with the Lib Dems, allowing Labour the opportunity to recapture some ground.”
“In contrast, a minority SNP government could allow Salmond to portray the SNP as a party which is trying to introduce radical changes but is being blocked and obstructed at every turn by the three unionist parties.”
No mention in the statement of a weak SNP government as one being less capable of imposing pro-capitalist policies. No mention in the statement of organising in the unions to defeat and bring down an SNP government at the first opportunity. Instead, there is idle speculation about how much a minority SNP government could advance the cause of independence.
The worst aspect of the Executive Committee statement is not its refusal to analyse the faults within the SSP which resulted in the collapse of its vote a week ago. The statement reaches a nadir in its smug self-satisfaction that history is going the SSP’s way, and it is only a matter of time before history again catches up with the SSP (or vice versa).
Tommy Sheridan is to blame for the electoral debacle? But “two or three years down the road the events of the past year will have begun to fade into the mists of history. With the removal of Tommy Sheridan from Holyrood, the ‘Solidarity’ bubble will burst. This will be a massive step forward for the left, allowing Scottish socialism to be rebuilt under the clean banner of the SSP.”
The SNP has won the elections? But this will lead to a “new turbulent phase in Scottish politics”, which “could pave the way for the resurgence of socialism.”
What form an SNP government will take is unclear? But “either way, the sands of Scottish politics are shifting. The socialist left may have been marginalized for the time being, but this can change rapidly and dramatically in the future.”
There’s a lot of confusion around? But “as sure as the sun rises in the morning, the socialist left will be back with a vengeance in the future. And whatever the arithmetical breakdown last Thursday, the only socialist party with the capacity of coming back from this defeat is the SSP.”
The idiot optimism of such claims will be familiar to anyone who had the misfortune to be a member of the Labour Party Young Socialists at the time of its control by the then “Militant” tendency.
Of course, there have been some changes since then: the SNP now plays the role previously reserved for a Tribunite Labour government, the SSP stands in for the “Marxist voice of Labour and Youth” (the old “Militant” trademark), and independence for Scotland has been substituted for the Alternative Economic Strategy (which would fail to meet the demands of the masses, and thereby drive them into the arms of Ted Grant, who died last year).
The Executive Committee statement is neither an analysis of what wrong nor a document which offers any meaningful perspectives for the future. If the SSP is to survive, then it will certainly not be on the basis of evasions and a collapse into old-style “Militant” reliance on the Iron Laws of Historic Inevitability.