SSP, SA Indies, Downham

Submitted by on 20 November, 2002 - 9:38
  • Two roads to nowhere
    Reports of tensions between the leadership of the Scottish Socialist Party (International Socialist Movement) and the Socialist Worker platform of the SSP have been circulating for some time. At an SWP aggregate in October a discussion was had about the political orientation of the SSP towards left-nationalism/ reformism. Peter Burton explains what he thinks is wrong with both the SSP leadership's and the SWP's approach and the general implications of these disputes for socialist strategy.
  • Where now for the Socialist Alliance? A one-day conference for independent members of the Socialist Alliance
  • Down in Downham

Two roads to nowhere

For years those on the far left outside the Socialist Workers Party and Militant (from where the SSP leadership come) have been able to agree with much of the criticism each of the two groups had about each other. It is a phenomenon that continues under the Socialist Alliance and SSP.

It is the case - as the SWP argue today that, although it is important to establish a pool of socialist MSPs within the Scottish parliament, there has been and still is an imbalance between this activity and work around, say, industrial issues. This is still true in spite of recent improvement: for example, the work around the Glasgow hospitals strike and recent meetings with firefighter reps. But there is still no organised, structured orientation towards workplaces.

It has been SSP policy to convene a rank and file shop stewards conference and produce regular SSP workplace bulletins since the 2001 AGM. Yet this remains a dead letter. It does not quite fit in with the International Socialist Movement view of the kind of party the SSP should be - attractive to left reformists and left nationalists and unattractive to those to the left of the ISM.

There is, just as tragically, almost a blanket ban on support for labour movement campaigns. Leading ISM comrades tried to block support for affiliation to the United Campaign for the Repeal of Anti-Trade Union Laws (Ucratul) at the 2000 and 2001 AGMs - a campaign whose ideas have led to rail union leaders in Aslef and the RMT calling for solidarity action between the two unions and more recently covert solidarity action with the firefighters. Thankfully conference recognised the sectarianism of this and passed the motion, but it remains a paper policy.

ISM comrades at a local level in Edinburgh have also argued against SSP affiliation to the UK campaign against sweatshop labour - No Sweat. Globalise Resistance, the Anti-Nazi League and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign have been other casualties.

The lack of support for such campaign has not just happened since the entry of the SWP, as implied by the SWP. For instance, there was no support as a party for the main campaign for solidarity with Kosovan Albanian workers during the Kosova war - Workers Aid for Kosova. In other words no campaign that does not originate from the SSP leadership and cannot be guaranteed to be controlled by the SSP/ISM leadership, has been supported. This is deeply sectarian and anti-working class.

One of the consequences of such control-freakery is that people have come into the SSP as a result of its public profile and campaigning work on SSP initiatives such as free school meals, only to find that the SSP just does not do very much as a party. There is the odd stall, the odd stunt and the odd demo, but if you want to be involved in anti-racist work, anti-capitalist work, solidarity with the Palestinians and so on, you have to go elsewhere. Many new recruits leave quite quickly.

In fact both of the big two groups continually identify the growth of their own platforms with the interests of the working class. This approach represents a sectarian attitude towards the rest of the left, labour movement campaigns and the labour movement generally and an ignorance of the fact that organisations are means towards the end of representing the working class effectively and not ends in themselves. If a campaign is inclusive, issue-centred and clearly in the interests of the working class, it should be supported, no matter where it comes from. Workers Aid was such a campaign, and Ucratul and No Sweat, are such campaigns. Active support for such campaigns is part of the vital process of creating a mass workers' party.

The question of the party press is another area that borders on the tragic-comic. It was noticeable at the large anti-war demo in Glasgow how few socialist papers were on display compared to the past (having filmed most of it, I can prove this). A more united left actually has less of a public profile in terms of its party press than the fragmented left of recent decades.

This is the product of SSP "guidelines" which instil the fear into SSP members that if they sell the paper of their choosing there will be some undefined negative consequence as payback. If Scottish Socialist Voice is out of date, it means then there is virtually no socialist literature being sold to the non-aligned people who come along. The paper ban represents a Stalinist conception of party organisation and is counterproductive in terms of trying to achieve greater left unity.

If the Voice became a substantially better paper than it is, many people in platforms would voluntarily want to sell it publicly. Nobody really wants to sell more than one paper. However, to become a better paper it would have to be opened up to debate and polemic and this means the current editorial board must think very differently from the way they do now. Why is there so much fear of dissenting voices and polemical articles? When will the SSP editorial board realise that controversy actually makes a paper more interesting and useful? And in any case within a real workers' party many papers would be seen as a strength, not a weakness.

The question SWP members have to ask is this: has the SWP-dominated Socialist Alliance fared any better for its mostly SWP politics and tactics? In contrast to one fairly poor paper - the SSV - the Socialist Alliance has no paper. Why? Because the central committee of the SWP does not want anything to compete with Socialist Worker. A Socialist Alliance paper would have to have non-SWP members on its editorial board and give space to non-SWP positions in the paper.
Hence no SA paper and an SA membership which is consequently disarmed and ill informed. Once again control-freakery remains the dominant trend.

The description of the Socialist Alliance as a "united front of a special type" as it has been called by the SWP is Orwellian-speak designed to rationalise a huge volte-face to the SWP membership and secure SWP dominance within all the organisations the far left is currently involved in. Seattle ain't got nothing to do with it.
This indicates that the SWP are still "party building" minus the shouting about it. The role of the Socialist Alliance, Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition, Globalise Resistance is to serve as transmission belts into the SWP. And as part of this strategy socialists of the wrong colour are kept off leading committees of the front campaigns so that the non-aligned individual coming along is faced with the stark choice of remaining non-aligned or joining the SWP. Hence the confinement of the alliance to electoral issues, the no-canvassing position during the general election and the made-up rules at the Globalise Resistance AGM to keep an Alliance for Workers' Liberty member off the leading steering committee.

If you want to get involved in non-electoral work, you have to go elsewhere to other organisations - which just happen to be controlled by… guess who? Yes, the SWP. This strategy prevents the evolution of the realigned revolutionary left into what could be the nucleus of a revolutionary party. It also gives credibility to the Militant argument that these campaigns are just fronts not worthy of support - something they, in turn, then extend to all campaigns.

In Scotland there has been no principled collective SWP opposition to the SSP's support for Scottish independence either. There is, at best, equivocation and sometimes outright support. Others privately disagree but do not want to make a fuss. This characterises a group which has been traditionally opportunistic. It is also wrong for the SWP to comply with Stalinist "guidelines" on what papers socialists sell.
The working class needs a left that is consistently democratic in its methods, honest about its past mistakes, non-sectarian towards single-issue campaigns and has an appropriate balance between the three sides of the class struggle: economic, political and ideological. It also needs educated, critically-minded individuals who are prepared to be non-conformist within the group if they think the leadership have got it wrong and are being inconsistent. It would be a healthy, necessary development if members of the ISM and SWP left those organisations while remaining active socialists. The big two have been contanimated by Stalinism beyond repair.

Where now for the Socialist Alliance?

A one-day conference for independent members of the Socialist Alliance. Join in the debate about the future direction of the Socialist Alliance in England. Issues to be discussed include:

  • Reports from SA branches across the country
  • Questions to the National Executive
  • Organising 'Indies' in the Socialist Alliance
  • SA: electoral alliance or new socialist party?
  • Motions for National Council and Conference

Saturday 30 November 2002, 12 noon to 5pm
Birmingham Council House Victoria Square, Birmingham
Registration on the door, £6 waged/£3 unwaged.

Down in Downham

The by-election campaign in Downham (Lewisham, south east London) ended with a disappointing result for the Socialist Alliance (SA) and a frightening result for the British National Party (BNP). The SA received 41 votes (1.5%). The BNP got 519 (20%) votes. The Liberals took the seat from Labour who came in second. The Tories were beaten in to fourth place by the BNP.

The SA campaign was a good one, with two leaflets going out to every household in the ward and some canvassing done. There is a case that we should have concentrated on canvassing instead of a second leaflet. However, the second leaflet was useful. It pointed out that only the SA had addressed the racism of the BNP, and centred on support for the firefighters. It clearly had an effect as both the Liberals and Labour issued leaflets shortly afterwards attacking the racism of the BNP.

Labour's leaflet also had a section titled "The Fatal Appeal of the Extreme Left", claiming all members of the SA had been expelled from the Labour Party (in fact none in the local area had). That presumably lost us some votes.

However, the brute fact is that the BNP has built a base in the area through consistent work, picking up on the disillusioned. The SA was always trying to make up ground. We need to recognise that consistent work in target areas is the way to establish the SA as an electoral force.

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