Scottish Socialist Party in deep crisis

The Scottish Socialist Party, once heralded by many on the left as the most successful socialist experiment in recent times, is in the process of tearing itself apart after sacking its founder and leader Tommy Sheridan as the party’s convener. Officially he is now simply a “backbencher”.

The Scottish Socialist Party, once heralded by many on the left as the most successful socialist experiment in recent times, is in the process of tearing itself apart after sacking its founder and leader Tommy Sheridan as the party’s convener. Officially he is now simply a “backbencher”.

Sheridan was recently dumped as leader by a 19 – 0 vote by the party’s executive committee apparently over his mishandling of allegations about sexual infidelity with a party member that were to be published in the News of the World. Sheridan strongly denied any wrong doing, but went to the press saying he was resigning for personal reasons – to spend more time with his family.

In fact Sheridan, far from voluntarily handing in his resignation, was forced out, with some suggesting that his failure to resign would mean that the executive would put information into the public domain to force his hand.

“Nobody knows what exactly Sheridan has done that so outraged the moral commissars of the SSP – but it clearly has nothing to do with politics. The result has been that most predictable of outcomes – a party collapsing in bitterness and rancour”, stated the Sunday Herald.

The party executive refused to back Sheridan and sacked him instead. In fact, when Sheridan stated he was going to sue the newspapers over the allegations, Caroline Leckie, a SSP MSP, said: “There is no official backing behind any legal challenge.”

Alan McCombes, the SSP’s policy coordinator and one-time close friend of Sheridan’s, said: “The executive committee does not want to go down a road where we are helping Tommy Sheridan build a tower of lies.” Earlier he had said that Sheridan had behaved honestly and honourably “in his own terms”.

The row has thrown the party into turmoil and split the SSP group in parliament, with different contenders throwing their hat into the ring for the leadership. Character assassination and back-stabbing is now on the order of the day as different groups and interests jockey for the leadership.

At a disastrous SSP press conference, the attempt to present a united front ended in a complete farce as the SSP MSPs jumped through hoops to avoid supporting Sheridan. When he entered the room, his fellow MSP, Colin Fox, announced: “The late Tommy Sheridan”!

To prove that everything was “normal”, the SSP executive issued a statement saying, “The executive completely dismisses the rumours that have circulated in the press that Tommy’s resignation was provoked by a leadership challenge, a factional power struggle or any other form of political internal infighting.”

However, this statement fools nobody. A few hours earlier Sheridan on BBC Scotland had said: “We have the same intrigue and black arts going on as in other parties now... Maybe there are some people who want to undermine me.” This is clearly a convoluted way of saying that the higher levels of the party are in turmoil. Different cliques are using “black arts” to further their interests at the expense of Sheridan and his supporters.

Established some five years ago out of the remnants of the old Militant Tendency and other groups, the SSP had managed to win six seats in the Scottish parliament and hoped to replace the Labour Party as the main workers’ party in Scotland. This was facilitated by PR voting introduced for the Scottish Parliament. The SSP attracted a layer of people disillusioned with Blairism and even managed to secure the affiliation of the rail union RMT in Scotland. Many on the non-Labour left, including all the sectarian groups, saw the SSP as the real way forward for the “realignment” of the left. Now they are holding their heads in their hands in despair.

However, the party became increasingly opportunist in its policies and moved in a distinctly nationalist direction. Its leaders began to call for Scottish independence, aping the SNP, as “a step forward”. In a completely reformist fashion, favourable comparisons were being drawn with Norway and Sweden as a model for small nations.

The leadership of the SSP were desperate to find a short cut to success, even to the extent of jumping into bed with the Scottish nationalists and watering down their ideas to achieve respectability.

Tommy Sheridan was central to the initial success of the party. He was prominent in the struggle against the Poll Tax and went to prison for his convictions. He won a council seat from his prison cell and was keen to project his image in the press. With the impasse of Militant Labour, Sheridan and the rest of the group broke with the Militant in England and Wales and launched their own broad-based party, the SSP. Ironically it was the leaders of Militant in London who originally promoted the nationalist line. The present crisis of the SSP has its roots in this false perspective.

The SSP has been trying to pull together a coalition of different factions drawn from environmentalists, feminists and anti-war activists. The only way to hold this coalition together was by promising ongoing successes. However, after the euro elections, things have not been too bright. The party now finds itself in debt to the tune of £200,000. Apparently Sheridan was forced to take out a personal loan of £39,000 to prop up the finances. Things have begun to pull apart, which is reflected by this crisis at the top of the party. The rivalry between the MSPs has certainly added to this intrigue and crisis. Some regard Sheridan’s leadership as a block to their own personal ambitions. No longer prepared to co-exist in Sheridan’s shadow, the petty jealousies and resentments have coalesced in this decision to oust him. They all want to be big fish in a small pool.

The real danger now for the SSP, having ditched Sheridan, the most well-known political figure in Scotland, is that they will sink into rancour and obscurity. This was only a matter of time. The SSP’s courting of the Scottish nationalists and their shift to reformist politics, would sooner or later end in tears. According to John Curtice of Strathclyde University, the SSP needs only to lose 1% of its vote at the next election to lose all its MSPs, except ironically Tommy Sheridan.

Whatever Sheridan’s plans and eventual political evolution, the party he helped to found is heading for the rocks. As with Humpty Dumpty, whoever wins the leadership, they will not succeed in putting things together again. The SSP is well on the way to oblivion.

The honest rank and file members who thought they were building a genuine socialist alternative must be asking themselves where they go from here. Already a resolution has been passed by an Edinburgh branch of the SSP protesting at the way in which the executive have handled the issue and calling for a vote of no confidence in the leadership.

The genuine socialists in the SSP have to come out firmly against the roots of this problem, which arose from the reformist and nationalist orientation of the party. If these comrades want to save the party from total oblivion the only way is by the adoption of the fundamental ideas of Marxism.

These latest developments confirm what the Marxists of the Socialist Appeal have said all along. See our Open Letter to SSP Comrades for a more in depth analysis.

November 25, 2004