SSP: personality cult or class-struggle party?

Submitted by cathy n on 12 July, 2006 - 2:49

The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty spoke to Andy McPake, an activist in the Scottish Socialist Youth and a supporter of the SSP-United Left about the current crisis in the Scottish Socialist Party. This is an unedited version of the interview. An abridged version appeared in the print version of Solidarity 3/96.

1. Tommy Sheridan's libel case against the News Of The World has now started. In court leading SSPers such as Allison Kane and Alan McCombes have testified that Tommy Sheridan admitted to them some of the personal things over which he is now suing the News Of The World. Tommy Sheridan's supporters say that all SSPers should back him against the News Of The World come what may, as a matter of class solidarity. What do you think of this argument?

I believe it is a false argument, and a dangerous one.

It is a false argument as it is clear that the libel action of one man does not bear significance to the wider collective of the international working class.

In all of it’s material the SSP points out that Scotland is one of the most class divided societies in Europe; Edinburgh’s banks are bursting with wealth, yet over a third of Scottish children grow up in poverty.

If a group of workers win a strike that will have some knock on affect on the pay and conditions of the wider working class. But this isn’t a strike, or a demonstration. What will be achieved for the millions of poor in Scotland if Tommy wins his case?

This is also a dangerous argument. This case is about an individual, Tommy Sheridan. To pin the hopes and interests of the entire working class on one person is the behaviour of a Stalinist, not a class conscious Socialist.

It also suggests that we should sign a blank cheque of support to an individual for no greater reason than they are a ‘big name’. That’s what RESPECT have done with Galloway and it’s what some in the SSP want us to do with Tommy.

The struggle for Socialism is one based on collective action, not the great leader or the cult of the personality.

Unconditional and unthinking support for Tommy could lead the SSP down the latter road.

It is also important to note, that Alison and Alan, as well as Cllr Keith Baldassara, have given evidence under the strongest protest.

Every SSP witness was only in Court because Tommy and SWP voted to abandon the defiance strategy. The cannot accuse us of not showing 'class solidarity' when it was they that voted to comply with the courts.

2. How do you think Tommy Sheridan, as a responsible SSP leader, should have dealt with the News Of The World's stories about his personal life?

Solidarity has so far made it clear that Tommy Sheridan asked to resign due to difference in how he was willing to handle allegations surrounding his private life.

This is correct. It is my understanding that the Executive offered Tommy three options as to how he was to handle these. All of these, in my opinion, would have been characteristic of a responsible Party Convener.

The first option was simply not to comment. Had Tommy done this he would still be Convener and the News of the World story would be yesterday’s chip paper.

The second was to apologise for anything truthful that emerged and deny anything that was false. The third was to accept anything truthful that emerged saying that as an adult he could do what, and deny anything false.

Tommy accepted none of these options. He stated to the Executive that he would deny whatever came out, true or false, and that he expected the party to support this course of action.

Tommy was subject to the right of recall by the SSP EC, which unanimously endorsed its decision at two subsequent meetings, a total of 3 unanimous EC meetings.

This decision was then ratified by the National Council of the SSP at which Tommy Sheridan issued a public statement that the decision was correct and was not part of any faction fight.

Asking the Party to lie for him was a step too far and Tommy was asked to resign. There was no coup, no conspiracy, and no cabal. Simply a party forced into a difficult position by the recklessness of one man.

3. The SSP will have an emergency conference on 7-8 October. The first day is set to discuss nothing but the Sheridan libel case, but also to do all the elections. This creates the risk of a split in the SSP based solely round the libel case, with no explicit political debate on underlying issues. How do you assess this risk, and how can it be combated?

It is no great secret that the internal atmosphere has deteriorated within recent months.

The National Council meeting of the 28th of May was characterised by calls for "purge upon a cancer" within the party, a mob mentality, and a display of sycophantic behaviour that even led an SWP member to argue that Tommy should receive ten minutes to speak whilst everyone else got three.

For some in the SSP all comrades are equal but comrade Sheridan is more equal than others.

Even the SWP’s allies, the CWI, have admitted that at that National Council that the SWP "took part in organised heckling of speakers".

In this environment it is not absurd to suggest that a split could happen. However, it is by no means imminent; both sides appear to be fighting for control rather than separation from one another.

The only action that can be taken by grassroots members to avoid a split is to recapture the best of the party when it first emerged; the party that dared to be different. We were a direct action based force with a pluralistic mentality, determined not to make the same mistakes as the old ‘British’ left. We must fight to regain that spirit.

4. George Galloway has been pushing for Tommy Sheridan to split from the SSP and link up with Galloway and Respect for over a year now. Sheridan's conspicuous failure now to rebuff Galloway's approaches suggests that Galloway may finally get what he wants. How do you assess this prospect? What attitude do you think the SSP should take to the politics represented by Galloway, with his line that he "could not live on three workers' wages", his friendship with Saddam Hussein's deputy Tariq Aziz, his admission that his campaigns have been funded by the Emirates and the Saudis, etc?

The SSP has been too soft on Galloway. He is an egomaniac who opposes the Women’s right to choose. Most of SSY is openly critical of George Galloway.

However, that may be a matter of having your cake and eating it. If you want a United SSP, some might argue, you can’t risk upsetting the SWP by using the Scottish Socialist Voice to perform a proper deconstruction of Galloway’s populist politics. I’m not sure to what extent I agree with this.
Splitting the ‘left’ vote would be regrettable but given that most of the left-wing vote in Scotland is pro-independence they would be unlikely to achieve anything. George Galloway, despite being Scottish, has no kind of base up here.

5. If the SSP is in danger of splitting - and it seems to be - there must be more politics underlying it than just the tactics of how to respond to the News Of The World. What do you think the current divide in the SSP represents in basic political terms?

The divide is not between those who are pro or anti Tommy. The ongoing debate is not about personality politics. The debate is between left and right.

Naturally we in the SSP United Left (UL) see ourselves as being the left. However, we do not do this subjectively. Instead this is based on our objective analysis of the situation.

Whilst this is a two-sided debate – so far – I am not going to follow the move of Tommy Sheridan and say that you are with us or against us. Some people may not have decided what type of party they want. I respect that. Autonomy and freedom of thought are under attack in our party and I would leave the UL if it joined in this attack.

The debate is about the type of party we want. The 'SSP majority’ are united in the cult of personality. They favour a party in which standing ovations are given and questions are not asked. They may not want the SSP to be ‘RESPECT Scotland’, but they certainly would like it to become much more similar to that organisation. This could only be a step backwards.

They want a party based on media personalities, little accountability, no direct action, and no self-organisation of oppressed groups. This group can, fairly, be called the right of the party.

The SWP have long opposed direct action claiming it is elitist. Lynn Sheridan (yes, a relation) and Rosemary Byrne MSP condemned the direction action at the Parliament last year saying that we should respect Parliament.

The role of Parliament is one of the major political issues on which there is clear ground separating the two sides. Those in the SSP-UL believe that we are in Parliament to expose it for the decadent, and class exploiting institution that it is.

That means we don’t mind getting chucked out the chamber once in a while. It is clear that the right of the party would not share this view.

Tommy’s attacks upon both the SSY and the Women’s network make clear what his supporters think of the self-organisation of oppressed groups. This has been a controversial issue in the party and one on which the SSP United Left and the ‘SSP Majority’ clearly do not agree.
More alarming is Tommy’s advocating mandatory sentencing for knife carrying. This would effectively mean bringing in stop and search in every working class community in Scotland. It is a populist policy totally devoid of a class analysis of society.

Finally it is no great secret that gender politics is a BIG part of this. Those around Sheridan have described female MSPs as ‘witches’.

Scottish society is very left wing economically, but socially one of the most conservative in Western Europe. Accordingly there are prominent members of our party who totally reject feminism, decry anyone attempting to introduce a gender analysis as "the gender police", and are overtly sexist.

6. Two of the bigger minorities in the SSP, long opposed to Sheridan, have rallied to him in this crisis - the Socialist Worker tendency and the CWI tendency linked to the Socialist Party in England and Wales. What do you make of their arguments?

I am glad that you point out that they have long opposed Tommy, because you wouldn’t get that impression from them.

It is opportunism plain and simple.

Despite having gone to the bourgeois press as little as five years ago denouncing Tommy as a Stalinist, the CWI now claim that they have always been political allies.

Oceania is at war with East Asia; Oceania has always been at war with East Asia?

For the SWP on the other hand this incident has coincided nicely with the rightward turn in their politics since the launch of RESPECT.

When I first joined the party the SWP would denounce you as a ‘reformist’ if you campaigned for the Free School Meals bill and not on Palestine or something. Now their members dismiss all mentions of Socialist Feminism, or criticisms of RESPECT, as "ultra-left".

The SWP spent years in the minority in the SSP, yet their rights were always respected. If anything we were too laid back and sometimes let them away with breaking party rules.
However, the first time they got a majority at the N.C they voted that a debate on their motion should not even take place. They took our freedom of speech away from us. That tells you a lot about their organisation and the type of party they want.

7. Whatever you think of Sheridan's behaviour, that the SSP stands at risk of a split with little or no explicit political debate, and with capitalist press sensationalism playing a big role in swaying attitudes inside the SSP, suggests problems in the way the SSP has been built, and calls for some self-criticism from the people who have done the central organising and writing for the SSP since its foundation. How far do you think the new United Left tendency in the SSP goes towards recognising the problems and pointing towards a new way of organising in future?

The SSP United Left is trying to bring a new approach to Left wing politics in Scotland. On the one hand our some of our membership list reads like an honours role of those who created the party, and lead the successful community campaigns that gave the SSP credibility amongst working class people in Scotland.

At the other end are people like myself. People for whom the SSP was the first left organisation they ever joined, and want to defend it. The UL does not alone consist of "the people who have done the central organising and writing for the SSP" but actually is a hugely diverse list of the most active members the SSP has recruited since it’s foundation.

The SSP grew at a spectacular rate when it was first launched in Scotland. But we failed many activists by our not having a co-ordinated strategy of politicising party members beyond the most basic level.

If the SSP got one thing wrong that was it. Failing to do is almost certainly responsible for the rightward drift in some member’s politics.

But it is those in the SSP United Left who are seeking to change this. I myself drafted a motion setting out a new strategy for party education for last year’s Conference – whilst Andrew Gray pointed this difficulty out in Frontline more than a year before the UL was launched.

So yes we are self-critical, we, as Socialists should, evaluate and respond to the objective situation. I don’t think that Tommy Sheridan and those in the ‘SSP Majority’ could say this of themselves.

In addition to this Jack Ferguson (SSY Organiser) and I wish to see our Party’s Programme make more explicit mention of direct democracy. We need to make it clear that no matter how many positive reforms the SSP could win in the Scottish Parliament, only the Scottish working-class will be able to rid the Country of capitalism. Right now we don’t make that clear enough.

You have to remember that the left in Scotland has, since 1998, gone from having about 400 people to having 4,000. Most of us are new, and all of us are still learning. But the UL is the organisation asking the right questions.

This rate of growth would also suggest that whilst the SSP may have gotten a few things wrong, it got most things right.

Whilst the consciousness of people in our own organisation could be higher, that of the wider working class in Scotland is amongst the highest in Europe. Compare the debate on asylum in England and the debate in Scotland for example. It is clear that the SSP has pushed the debate leftwards.

When we evaluate ourselves we must remember what we got right as well as what we got wrong.

8. You are active in the Scottish Socialist Youth, the relatively recently-formed youth organisation linked to the SSP. What can you tell us about the strength and the activities of the SSY, and its attitude to the current SSP crisis?

The SSY is a rapidly growing organisation, which has gone from something of an add-on to being the Party’s great hope.

Where the SSP failed to raise member’s consciousness, and hold open and inclusive meetings, SSY has had a lot of success. Anyone attending an SSY National Event will be immediately struck that there are more female, black, and gay people there than at any SSP event. We are an organisation that is inclusive and dynamic.

Our central campaign is for an £8 an hour minimum wage. We use this campaign to draw attention to the exploitation of labour in society. The generation growing up in today’s world has not been exposed to Trade Unions or class struggle. So we are trying to stir things up between Scotland’s employees and Scotland’s employers.

We do this by handing out workers rights card in workplaces, and are planning a direct action that targets shit employers. The SSY is making an effort to gain the interest of young people in Scotland not by preaching Socialism AT them but by practising it WITH them.

We have people coming to us asking for help in disputes with their boss. For young people in Scotland there is almost nowhere else to go. Without out our intervention, and the worker’s right’s cards, these workers wouldn’t even be challenging their bosses for their rights.

This is campaign that shows you don’t always have to approach people as Muslims or Scots, but you approach them as workers. SSY is an organisation with high level of class-consciousness.

In addition to this we run campaigns against abstinence education in schools, and direct actions against army recruitment centres.

However, as most of our leading members have joined the UL the SSY has come under attack from the right of the Party. The CWI used their statement to explicitly attack us, and Tommy’s letter contains a smear against the organisation that we have now challenged him on.

That said the SSY has no official stance towards this situation. I would also oppose taking an official stance unless we absolutely had to.

Unfortunately that is looking increasingly likely.

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