Scottish Socialist Party Conference Report
THE FIRST Annual Conference of the new Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) was held on 21 February. This followed from the decision of the Special Conference of the old Scottish Socialist Alliance (SSA), held last September, to ratify the leadership’s call for a change from a united front Alliance to a Party. This was opposed at the time by two affiliated tendencies – ourselves, the Red Republicans, and also the Campaign for a Federal Republic (CFR).
Therefore, it is worthwhile, in the light of our criticisms then, to examine the current trajectory of the SSP. The first thing that needs to be said is that the relaunch has been followed by an influx of new members. The Conference had about 150 present, which, despite the foul weather outside, is more than a 50% increase on September! This reflects a growth both in the number of branches and in the membership of already existing branches, also highlighted in a number of high profile recruits, such as the actor Peter Mullen.
A feature retained from the Alliance was the conduct of the conference. Once again, the debates on the day were fraternal and the sessions well chaired by Tommy Sheridan. Minority motions were allowed from branches, including one only initially backed by a single Socialist Outlook supporter in Kelvin SSP, Campbell MacGregor! Nevertheless, this led to a useful debate on the possible direction of the SSP.
The dogs that didn’t bark!
It is quite clear what is going on here. The CWI have the forces on the ground to get their favoured policy passed (although there may indeed be differences within their ranks, as a gap grows between their more Labour-accommodationist and their formally more revolutionary wings). However, the SSP leadership has Allan Green (ex-Socialist Movement) and MEP Hugh Kerr (Independent Labour Network) in it, both avowedly pro-EU. These members are central to the CWI’s overtures to possible future defectors from Labour, seen by them as valuable in gaining electoral credibility. Differences amongst the leadership can be acknowledged in day schools and publications, but must be restricted as much as possible in front of the wider membership. This has become even more evident now that we are a "united" Party, with elections as top priority, rather than an Alliance. Therefore, instead of open debate, deals are cobbled up at office bearer and National Council level - an indicator of a leadership emerging above the membership.
The emergence of a "parliamentary party"?
Therefore, the National Council has to be remoulded as a `Parliamentary Party’ above the ordinary membership, mirroring the path followed by the Labour Party. Allan Green has been the most persistent in this. In the original paper sent out to branches with the "Amendments to Interim Constitution", it was proposed that the National Council should include "elected persons". If this new addition was allowed, it would mean that our National Council could be swamped overnight by a batch of Old Labour defectors, worried about their future council or parliamentary prospects under New Labour’s control freaks. It’s not that we shouldn’t welcome people breaking from Labour into the SSP, but, given the extremely unsavoury and anti-working-class actions any still remaining Labour representative has had to agree to, there should be no such automatic entry to the leading body of the SSP. A requirement to attend such meetings, to participate in debates and to seek guidance from elected delegates should indeed be encouraged, but certainly not National Council voting rights (unless they are also elected delegates enjoying the full confidence of the members).
The Red Republicans raised this spectre at the Edinburgh SSP branch meeting to discuss motions prior to the Conference. Here, even leading lights of the CWI appeared not to have fully appreciated the consequences of such a constitutional amendment. Anyhow, this proposal was quietly dropped when the final version of the proposals for "Amendments to Interim Constitution" was produced on the day!
It is in this context that the motion from the "Kelvin 1" was also revealing. This motion challenged the attempt by the SSP leadership to "impose" Hugh Kerr as Number One on the SSP list for the European elections, instead of having him chosen on the same basis as any other candidate. The parallel with New Labour’s imposed candidates was so evident that an embarrassed Phil Stott (SSP Northern Area Organiser and CWI) had to say that this was only a recommendation, and that Hugh would also be subject to the same normal democratic nomination procedures as other candidates! However, doubts were now raised and nearly 30 votes were given to the "Kelvin 1" motion!
Attempts to marginalise the left
Once again, the real reason behind curtailing tendency rights appears to be to build up a united leadership level and marginalise other tendencies – reducing them to the role of left opposition at Conferences. Old Labour Party habits die hard! When it was pointed out that other substantial socialist organisations, like the Socialist Workers Party, were hardly likely to answer the SSP’s call to join, if they weren’t entitled to representation at National Council, Allan said that in such a case he would advocate a Special Conference to change the rules! So, no guaranteed representational rights for tendencies which have committed themselves to the unity project from the beginning (Red Republicans and CFR), but sweeping offers for an organisation Allan is pretty sure won’t join!
This proved to be the closest debate of the day. The Edinburgh motion was only lost by 48 to 49. To his credit, Hugh Kerr supported the motion. So too did many CWI supporters, despite the obvious decision of their full-timers (including Colin Fox, who had earlier joined the unanimous vote in Edinburgh for the emotion) to oppose this. However, a number of issues highlighted growing divisions in CWI ranks, showing increased concern about the political accommodation being made to the openly reformist wing of the party.
The issue of Ireland highlights the SSP leadership’s weaknesses ...
The Conference gave a classic illustration of this when leading CWI members opposed the Edinburgh minority motion (initiated by the Red Republicans) calling for "the withdrawal of Scotland from NATO". When longstanding anti-nuclear campaigner Les Robertson of Dumbarton SSP pointed out that this had been previous SSA policy, Tommy appeared a little sheepish!
However, the likely reason for CWI "oversight" on this matter was that they were mesmerised by the other half of the Edinburgh motion, which was "for the recall of all Scottish regiments stationed overseas, including in Northern Ireland". The CWI are notoriously coy on Ireland, whilst their sister organisation there, the Socialist Party (SP), supported the British-state-promoted Labour Coalition in last year’s Northern Irish Forum elections and the CWI has given a platform to the PUP, the political organisation fronting the UVF, a Loyalist death squad.
One reason for the urgency of this suggested addition to the Programme, under the "Internationalism" section, is the proposal for the SSP to stand in joint European slate for the Euro-elections. How can you stand on such a joint slate, and not oppose your country’s military occupation of a fraternal organisation’s country?! Allan Green stepped in to suggest that the SSP hadn’t enough time to make a decision on an issue which new members might not understand. Yet, there didn’t seem to be any such problem with accepting a completely new (but, as it turned out, not clearly worded) programmatic amendment on genetic engineering, first seen on the day of the Conference! Funnily enough, there had been a June SSA day school and November Special Conference on Ireland in 1997. Certainly the Policy Statement which was passed then left a lot to be desired, but it did "support a complete demilitarisation of the North of Ireland" – something which can hardly be achieved with a continued Scottish regimental presence!
In contrast, the same SSA Policy Statement had deleted an earlier draft’s reference to links with the Socialist Party in Ireland. Yet the SSP Executive’s motion at the Conference recommended "support for parties and workers’ lists who are standing in the European elections in June ... such as the RC in Italy, the United Left in Spain, the LO/LCR in France, the workers’ lists in Belgium, the SP in Ireland and the left lists in England and Wales". Conspicuously, the CWI-affiliated SP in Ireland is the only exclusive Party in the list.
There was no prior policy basis for recommending a joint slate with the Socialist Party in Ireland, yet the Edinburgh motion for "the recall of Scottish regiments" was based on previous widely debated policy. Policies shouldn’t be trimmed to what is fully acceptable to the most recent recruit. Furthermore, if all the CWI comrades had voted to honour the elementary democratic demand in the Edinburgh motion (even more important for a nation trying to achieve its own self-determination), it is highly unlikely there would be much opposition. After all, Ron Brown, who can be said to represent the Old Labour tradition, was keen to support the demand. The motion received a respectable 37 votes.
... and so does the issue of the monarchy!
Other aspects of the SSP
The CFR went for a second bite at the cherry, repeating their September Conference call for the SSP to adopt support for a Federal Republic of Britain. This provoked some debate, the most revealing of which came from Bill Bonnar. The Communist Party of Scotland (CPS), to which Bill also belongs, was the first socialist organisation to adopt Scottish independence. Yet, the CPS has a very gradualist, stageist way of going about this. For example, no sooner had the CPS announced its Scottish independence policy, than it recommended votes for New Labour at the last General Election, to enable devolution to be achieved as a first step. Bill made it clear in the debate that, although he recommended sticking to the `independent socialist Scotland’ position, he had some sympathy with Mary Ward’s federal republicanism. Bill’s old CPGB training can help him spot yet another stage, if conditions become more auspicious!
Keith Baldasara’s (Treasurer, and CWI) financial appeal made a few people, unused to the evangelical traditions of Militant, feel uncomfortable. Yet, the £14,000 pledged for the Election Campaign was impressive. A similar evangelical tone was adopted by Richie Venton (Area Organiser for the West, CWI) in his appeal to get out and campaign, along with a definite hint of hellfire and damnation, if anyone failed "to see the light"! But an overall good-natured and optimistic Conference was well finished off by a hearty rendering of The Internationale.
Where is the SSP heading?
Although the declaration of a Party (primarily for electoral reasons) has reinforced the classic social democratic division between leadership and members (and even raised the first hints of a "Parliamentary Party"), the SSP still remains relatively open, with official recognition of organised tendencies. With a growing membership, both the leadership and the opposition gained a considerable increase in support, shown in the voting patterns at the Conference. The Red Republicans and the CFR produced a joint bulletin for the Conference, covering the SSP constitutional and policy proposals we agreed on, leaving both organisations free to put in their own material on issues where there was no agreement.
The CWI – caught on the horns of a dilemma
This article first appeared in the February/March 1999 issue of Red Republican, the bulletin of the Red Republicans in the Scottish Socialist Party.