Scotland: SSP at the Crossroads

The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) was seen for a period as a success story for anyone looking for an alternative to Labour. Now it is in decline. It is paying the price for abandoning a genuine socialist programme, making concessions both to nationalism and reformism.

The SSP is the only left-wing political party that has had some electoral success in recent times. They have based their electoral victories mainly on campaigning and local issues. However, as past history has shown, this is not sufficient to build a real socialist organisation.

The SSP unfortunately abandoned the task of building of a Marxist organisation from its inception. This followed their perspective that New Labour had destroyed the links between the Labour Party and the working class, and therefore the SSP was going to become the new mass party, with the unions affiliating one after the other. On the electoral front they advanced from one MSP to six, and this would, they believed, continue. Then with an alliance with the Greens and SNP they would secure a referendum on Scottish independence. These were their perspectives.

Electoral binge

Their abandonment of revolutionary politics meant a sharp turn to electoral politics. For Marxists elections are a barometer or snapshot of the political situation but not a main platform. In a recent edition of the SSP weekly paper there is an article about the Dunfermline by-election, which states, "voters were determined to give New Labour a kick – and the main question in most people's minds was which was the best boot to use." (Scottish Socialist Voice, Friday, 17th February). This hides the role and significance of the SSP. What is the purpose of an organisation that claims to be the only real working class representative in Scotland if they are unable to rally behind them the thousands of working class people discontent with New Labour?

The problem is not that the by-election result was bad, or the earlier Coatbridge Council by-election was bad (around 30 votes in a solid working class area around Glasgow), but that their latest solution is to allow the SNP to use "their" votes to build an alliance.

"The SSP are set to avoid fielding first-past-the-post candidates at the next year's Holyrood elections", states the Herald. "Party chiefs have drawn up plans to focus exclusively on the regional vote offered to electors in Scottish parliament polls. They could also back SNP candidates as a way of helping defeat Labour MSPs in constituencies across Scotland" (Sunday Herald, 5th February).

This news is a reflection of weakness of the SSP and a further step down the road of Scottish nationalism. It looks as though the SSP's bad results are forcing some of their leading lights to start building bridges to Scottish nationalism preparing for a future jump into the SNP.

Over the last two years, the argument of the SSP for their weak performance was that by-elections traditionally have low turnouts and that elections to Westminster seats were not their natural terrain. To change from standing in every single seat in 2003 to a move to support the SNP and only field the list candidates, is a huge recognition that there is a crisis within the SSP.

Of course, after the Dunfermline by-election the press has savaged the SSP for its poor electoral performance. Colin Fox, National Convener and MSP, had to write a letter to the Scotsman (especially virulent in its attacks) saying that the party was not in decline, and quoted Keir Hardie that the Liberals did not give a damn about working people, and that they (the SSP) are on the way back. (The Scotsman, Friday, 17th February).

What about the programme?

 Even if the SSP had won every single seat in Holyrood, the point still remains that they have still abandoned a socialist programme or any clear perspective for nationalism. The SSP leaders will dismiss such criticism, arguing that socialism is in the name of the organisation. The reality is that they have watered down their programme to look more respectable.

If we look at their economic programme we find the following: "Renationalising an industry like North Sea Oil would be hugely expensive. Were we to do it without awarding compensation, we could face horrendous embargoes. But even if we did compensate, that one-off cost would be offset by future profits". And they add, "Plus, a 51% controlling share of all new oil fields and new taxation system to deliver greater revenue to the nation" (SSV, Friday, 17th February).

Whatever happened to the nationalisation of the major monopolies under workers' control? Now the model for the SSP has become “mixed economy” Norway, and not a socialist society. Socialism has become good for Sunday speeches and political youth schools, but not for the concrete everyday programme. This is the kiss of death for any organisation that claims to be fighting to change society. What they are now arguing is to manage society (a capitalist society in reality) in a nicer way. This is the old reformist argument of the 1960s, although then it was Sweden and Germany that were used as models.

The SSP is in a severe crisis. To deny this fact would be foolish. The first act of any good doctor is to find out the root cause of the problem, and not to deny it. The SSP has never aimed at being a real revolutionary alternative and that is their main problem. As long as they continue along this path they will face continual decline, which will only serve to demoralise good honest left-wingers. It is time to change course!

February 2006