Another view on the SSP crisis

Submitted by AWL on 15 June, 2006 - 11:55

By Stan Crooke.

The crisis is the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) continues.

Its origins date back to a meeting of the SSP Executive Committee held on 9th November 2004, which voted unanimously to ask Tommy Sheridan to stand down as SSP convenor.

"It is believed" – to use the same expression as everyone else – that the Executive Committee was unhappy about how Sheridan intended responding to allegations about his private life which the News of the World was about to publish.

The following day Sheridan resigned as SSP convenor, citing family commitments (his wife was pregnant) as the reason. The following Sunday the News of the World published a series of allegations about Sheridan’s private life ("My Kinky 4-In-A-Bed Orgy with Tommy – Party Boss Lusted After Married Lover in PVC Bondage Gear").

Sheridan announced his intention of suing the News of the World for libel. The SSP, however, refused to back his legal challenge, on the grounds that his personal life was a matter for him alone.

In late November the SSP National Council met and voted to approve the stance taken by the Executive Committee earlier that month.

Both Sheridan and SSP National Policy Co-ordinator Alan McCombes stressed that Sheridan’s departure from the convenor’s position was not the product of an internal coup d’etat in the SSP.

After the 9th November Executive Committee meeting McCombes said: "I would like to take this opportunity to nail the idea that somehow a coup d'etat took place by other people on the Executive. It was a unanimous decision, including Tommy, to accept his resignation for very many factors, most of which we have seen in the last week or so."

After the National Council meeting held later the same month Sheridan said: "… I would like to take this opportunity to confirm that my resignation as party convenor has nothing at all to do with internal power struggles. There is not and never have been any internal squabbles or backbiting about a leadership challenge. We are a party of principle and action."

For a time, at least in public, the events of late 2004 seemed to fade into the background. But, ticking away in the background, like a bomb waiting to go off, was Sheridan’s legal action against the News of the World. That bomb has now exploded.

In preparation for the libel action, due to begin next month, the News of the World demanded the minutes of the Executive Committee meeting of 9th November 2004. The contents of those minutes have never been divulged to the SSP’s own members. Sheridan himself has never been provided with a copy.

Last month the Court of Session instructed Alan McCombes to hand over the minutes of the meeting. He refused to do so. On 26th May McCombes was jailed for twelve days, in order that he could "consider his position".

The following day McCombes issued a statement casting his action as a matter of principle: "To comply with the demand to hand over the documents would endanger the right of free debate inside political parties and mean that our rights of free association would be threatened."

The same day court officials turned up at the SSP’s offices in Glasgow and spent three hours searching for the elusive minutes. Court officials also searched McCombes’ home in Edinburgh.

A day later an emergency meeting of the SSP’s National Council voted in favour of handing the minutes over to the courts, responding to an appeal from Sheridan that this was the appropriate course of action.

Sheridan’s arrival at the meeting had been greeted with a standing ovation. He circulated an open letter calling for the minutes of the Executive Committee meeting to be handed over to the courts.

The letter made a nod in the direction of Alan McCombes’ "courage and determination to resist the undemocratic power of unelected judges." But the same letter also spoke of a "cabal of members" who were leading the party into "serious decay".

McCombes "and a core group of seven or eight other leading comrades" had "misled the party into their current quandary". The strategy of this core group was "alien to the socialist and trade union movement and more akin to the dark days of Stalinism."

Sheridan himself, according to the letter, had been "accused of heinous crimes in a co-ordinated fashion by a group of comrades so blinded by their personal hatred and spite towards me that they have failed to see the enormous damage being done to the party." One female MSP, claimed Sheridan, had accused him of "being involved in woman-trafficking, eastern European women to be precise."

The SSP, warned the letter, was in danger of becoming a "gender-obsessed discussion group", rather than a "class-based political party."

The National Council meeting voted down a motion to "support the stance of Alan McCombes in keeping these minutes (of 9th November) confidential." It voted in favour of a motion applauding the role played by Sheridan in building the SSP, stressed his importance for next year’s 2007 Scottish parliamentary elections, and backed his right to take legal action against the News of the World.

It also passed a motion demanding the immediate resignation of those senior party members who been involved in handing over to the Sunday Herald 18 months earlier a sworn affidavit which gave a detailed account of the 9th November meeting.

(That morning the Sunday Herald had publicized, for the first time, its possession of such an affidavit: "The Sunday Herald was given a full account of the meeting 18 months ago by a top SSP official in a bid to counter claims from Sheridan’s supporters that he had been forced to resign as leader by jealous rivals.")

In line with the decisions of the National Council, the minutes of the 9th November meeting were handed over to the Court of Session. McCombes was released from prison, having been fined for his refusal to hand over the minutes of the 9th November meeting, and with the costs of the preceding weekend’s searches added to the SSP’s legal bill.

The minutes of the meeting are now in the possession of the "News of the World", after the Court of Session ruled that the newspaper should have access to them in order to prepare its defence against Sheridan’s libel action.

Later the same week a "source close to (George) Galloway" told the Scotland on Sunday newspaper: "Our position is that if Tommy wants to join us, then it would be advantageous for both of us. Tommy knows that full well. I don’t think there is an SSP without Tommy. Tommy is the SSP. He is just as important to it as George is to Respect. The party isn’t viable without him."

The same day Galloway himself and SSP MSP Rosie Kane were interviewed on BBC Scotland.

According to Galloway, the SSP had turned against Sheridan "in a peculiar spasm of Trotskyite Calvinism." Sheridan was the only political leader the SSP had who "has the respect and affection of the public. If Rosie Kane was the leader of a political party in Scotland, nobody would vote for it." Without Sheridan as its leader, the SSP would "spiral away to nothing."

Kane told Galloway to "butt out". He was based in London. He did not know anything about Scottish politics. He did not support independence for Scotland. And if he wanted to have a say in the internal affairs of the SSP, then he could join it and give half his salary to the party.

The next issue of the SSP’s Scottish Socialist Voice denounced Galloway in similar terms.

It reminded its readers of an earlier outburst by Galloway in which he had denounced the leadership of the SSP as "Trotskyite apparatchiks". Galloway was a "London-based MP." He was "out of touch with Scottish politics." He did not support independence for Scotland. He was guilty of "pompous arrogance". He should "halt his imperial march on Scotland from London."

Galloway should "join the SSP, where he would have to donate half his wages to the party, or shut up."

In mid-June Sheridan issued a new open letter to the SSP membership, following the one first circulated at the SSP National Council meeting at the end of May.

Sheridan described himself as "fighting the most powerful and reactionary representative of the boss class on the planet" (i.e. the News of the World). The leadership of the SSP was "responsible for the crisis our party is in now." The rank and file of the SSP had not had the chance to "bring the leadership of our party to account."

It was time for "a complete democratic renewal of our structures, our apparatus and our leadership." There should be a "specially convened conference in September", at which "all of us on the Executive Committee and all national office bearers must subject ourselves to re-election." The SSP had been "derailed and diverted from the class war, and those responsible must be held to account for their actions."

Two days later the creation of a "SSP United Left" was announced, describing itself as "a substantial group of SSP activists from across Scotland and across the party, who have a number of concerns with the current direction of our party."

They were particularly concerned that "individuals, branches and even regions are susceptible to external interpretations of the SSP’s internal politics", and equally concerned by "a growing culture of indifference, even hostility, to our commitment to gender equality."

The "United Left" proclaimed the need for "our elected representatives to be wholly accountable to the party, putting the collective interests of the party before individual concerns." It declared its commitment to building the SSP as "a broad outward-looking socialist party", in which "democratic decisions are made by active participants", and in which the "hard-won, ground-breaking policy of 50:50", concerning gender equality at all levels of the party, would be maintained.

It also promised to "promote socialist education within the network itself and in the SSP, using progressive and inclusive educational techniques, to encourage critical thought and thinkers throughout the party."

McCombes himself is not amongst the first list of signatories to the "United Left" statement to be circulated. The list does, however, include a number of leading SSPers allied with McCombes against Sheridan, including Frances Curran, Catriona Grant, Rosie Kane, and Carolyn Leckie.

So much for the bare facts of how the SSP has got to where it is now. But what does it mean politically?

(Insofar as the question can be answered at all, when there are still so many unanswered questions about the Executive Committee meeting of November 2004 and the subsequent chain of events which it unleashed.)

On one level, Sheridan’s open letters and the "United Left" platform conceal, rather than clarify, the differences between the two factions.

(Admittedly, Sheridan’s supporters have not formally declared themselves a faction. But why should they? Their calculation must be that, following their success at the last National Council meeting, they will sweep the board in the event of a special conference in September and take control of the SSP.)

When the "United Left", for example, calls for "our elected representatives to be wholly accountable to the party, putting the collective interests of the party before individual concerns", what it really means is: Tommy Sheridan should drop his libel suit against the News of the World.

Similarly, when the "United Left" advocates that "democratic decisions (be) made by active participants", and promises to "promote socialist education (in order) to encourage critical thought and thinkers throughout the party", what it really means is: Sheridan is attempting to mobilize the least active and least politically aware members of the SSP in order to oust the current Executive Committee.

And when the "United Left" expresses concern that the membership is "susceptible to external interpretations of the SSP’s internal politics", what it really means is: members should believe what they read in the Scottish Socialist Voice (controlled by McCombe’s supporters) not what is broadcast in the media (in which Sheridan enjoys a higher profile).

But there are certainly clear differences between the two factions in relation to the question of women’s representation and gender equality in the SSP. The reference in the "United Left" statement to "a growing culture of indifference, even hostility, to our commitment to gender equality" is a direct counter to Sheridan’s warning of the SSP degenerating into a "gender-obsessed discussion group".

In general, though, there are no sharp political divisions between the two factions. On the contrary, the two factions share not just a common political heritage (with leading figures in both camps having a shared history in the now defunct "Militant" tendency) but also a common political orientation and project in the here and now.

Sheridan has certainly been the high-profile ‘public face’ of the SSP. But McCombes has always been the in-house guru, providing the theoretical rationalizations for the SSP’s political evolution. The division between McCombes and Sheridan in the SSP has always simply been one of a division of labour: McCombes wrote, Sheridan spoke.

In his most recent open letter Sheridan denounced those responsible for "derailing and diverting (the SSP) from the class war." But this is the same Sheridan who wholeheartedly champions the populist Scottish Independence Convention, first proposed by McCombes, in which the SSP has linked up with the SNP and the Scottish Greens to campaign for an independent (capitalist) Scotland.

(Moreover, if the SSP has been "derailed and diverted" from the class war, then why did no-one point this out at the SSP’s national conference, held a mere three months ago? And why did Sheridan not give any specific examples in his open letters?)

The attitude of the two factions to Galloway and ‘Respect’, whilst hardly the most significant political criterion, is a further indication of how much they have in common.

Sheridan, who is being courted by Galloway and by the SWP within the SSP, has not responded to Galloway’s attacks on the SSP. The McCombes faction has condemned his attacks. But mainly on that basis that Galloway is based in London, not in Scotland. It has not attacked the politics represented by Galloway.

On the contrary, the Scottish Socialist Voice editorial which criticized Galloway’s statements also stressed that the SSP had welcomed Galloway’s victory in Bethnal Green and Bow in the General Election, that the SSP was supportive of Respect, and that it had congratulated Respect on its recent successes in the council elections in England.

A split in a socialist organization can be a positive development. It can clarify the political differences. It can put the political differences to the test as new organizations emerge out of the split. It can release and turn outwards the energies spent on internal faction fighting.

But there is nothing positive about the split towards which the SSP is heading.

In general, there are no sharp political differences between the two factions. No political clarity is being generated by the burgeoning civil war in the SSP. Open rational debate is being sacrificed on the altar of demagogy. A split would be likely to drive many members of the SSP – especially its younger members, whose sole experience of socialist politics has been the SSP – out of active socialist politics.

Having said that, while a split is not inevitable, it is certainly the most logical outcome of the current situation. And the terrain which it will leave behind will be one even less favourable to socialists committed to independent working class politics rather than to an independent Scotland.

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