Scotland: Scottish Socialist Party conference

CWI argues for principled, socialist policies

300 delegates attended the 2006 Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) conference, which met in Dundee, last weekend. This was 120 fewer compared to the 2005 conference, which was held in the aftermath of the resignation of Tommy Sheridan as SSP national convenor.

The SSP’s electoral support has dipped significantly since then. Last year’s general election, in May, saw the party secure 1.9% of the national vote, a fall from the 3.1% achieved in 2001. Since then, a series of by-elections at both parliamentary and council level have confirmed this trend.

The most recent Dunfermline and West Fife by-election, which produced a humiliating defeat for New Labour, saw the SSP poll 1.5% – a slight fall even when compared to the disappointing 2005 general election.

There has also been a reduction in the number of activists involved in the party as the SSP has struggled to find a road out of these difficulties.

The CWI platform in the SSP – the International Socialists – consistently put forward a strategy that we believe could strengthen the SSP and help rebuild its support. 250,000 local government workers in Scotland are currently balloting for strike action over pensions and there is a growing revolt over the Blair government’s, and the Scottish Executive’s, pro-big business policies. Under these conditions, there exists real opportunities to rebuild the SSP. However this would require a new political course to be taken. The CWI have opposed, in the main, the political direction and approach of the SSP leadership, which has been primarily responsible for the setbacks the SSP has suffered.

People not profit

Late last year, the Scottish Socialist Party leadership proposed to launch a national ten-point campaign entitled, ‘People Not Profit’. The CWI welcomed and supported this initiative which, we argued, could help to popularise some of the SSP’s key policies. The 10-point programme included demands like, ‘End Low Pay’, ‘End privatisation’ and ‘opposition to the war in Iraq’.

However, we did not agree, as the SSP Executive Committee had initially proposed last year, that this campaign should, in the main, only be based on what the existing powers held by the Scottish parliament could deliver.

Speaking to the Glasgow Cathcart East motion on People Not Profit (PNP), during the SSP conference, Ronnie Stevenson, the Convenor of UNISON Social Work stewards in Glasgow City Council, said: “We came forward with this motion because we believe it will strengthen the cutting edge of the PNP campaign. It will allow the SSP to take up issues directly affecting working class communities in Scotland – regardless of whether they currently fall under the remit of the Scottish parliament.”

Seconding the motion, Brian Smith, also a UNISON steward in Glasgow, explained: “We don’t think that the demand for an £8 an hour minimum wage should just be restricted to public sector workers as the EC have proposed in their PNP draft. Low Pay is endemic across the private sector and the service industries, particularly amongst young workers. By calling for an £8 an hour across the board without exemptions we can campaign to reach out to all workers facing low pay.”

The SSP EC original proposals had also suggested that on privatisation only the call for the abolition of PFI and PPP schemes would be included.

The Cathcart motion sought to widen this out, to also call for the renationalisation, under democratic working class control, of all industries and services privatised by the Tories and New Labour. This would be linked to explaining the need to fight for the public ownership of the all major industries, as a part of a socialist planned economic alternative to free-market chaos.

Unfortunately, the EC, probably because they had realised they would be unable to carry the conference if they had held to their original draft, sought to confuse the conference by effectively denying that they had ever argued that the PNP campaign would be so restrictive. They said they had only brought to the conference a list of headline points that would form the basis of the PNP campaign – without any explanation of what each section would cover. However, the leaflets now produced for the campaign, which appeared on the day the conference began, have taken on board many of the Cathcart East proposals and, as a result, are much more effective, and will strengthen the impact of the People Not Profit campaign.

During the debate, a leading member of the Socialist Workers Platform of the SSP, Mike Gonzales, spoke to oppose the Cathcart motion because on the section on war and racism it read: “…Condemns the reactionary bombings in London and in other cities which have resulted in the deaths and injuries of ordinary working class people.” Mike Gonzales argued, “We cannot condemn these attacks while 500 people are still locked up in Guantanamo Bay”

Unfortunately, the SSP EC accepted an inclusion into the People Not Profit (PNP) campaign that will commit the SSP to now support, “an economic boycott of Israel.” Ray Gunnion, from Motherwell SSP branch, and a member of the CWI, opposed this. While defending the right of the Palestinians to an independent state, Ray argued for the need to build working class action and solidarity between workers and trade unionists in Scotland with Palestinian workers and youth, and with Jewish and Palestinians workers inside Israel, who face a neo-liberal onslaught against the rights and working conditions. A boycott, he argued, would be counter-productive, and carries the danger of allowing the reactionary Israeli political elite to whip up reactionary ideas among Jewish workers.

Election strategy

The EC put a motion to conference that would have seen the SSP withdraw from all constituencies for the 2007 Scottish parliament elections. Their motion argued that only in “exceptional circumstances” would the SSP contest ‘first-past-the post’ (FPTP) constituencies. Instead, the SSP would concentrate on the PR regional lists – which is where the six MSP’s the SSP currently hold were elected.

This proposal from the EC is, in reality, a reflection of the setbacks the party has faced. In 2003, the SSP stood in 70 of the 73 FPTP seats, as well as the lists. Some sections of the SSP have used the EC proposal to justify a call to back the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) in the constituencies, to maximise the “pro-independence vote” in 2007 (A call to vote SNP was not part of the EC motion).

The CWI, through an amendment from Dundee West, moved by Sinead Daly, sought to amend the EC motion. She argued that a wholesale retreat from first-past-the post seats would be seen as big setback and would further damage the SSP. She also called for the SSP to rule out calling for a vote for the SNP or any other of the big business parties in 2007.

Despite the interventions of Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes, leaders of the SSP – who argued that standing in FPTP seats could make the difference between winning 9 or 1 seat in 2007 – the EC was defeated by 140 votes to 132 and the Dundee West amendment was passed. The daily ‘Herald’ newspaper ran a headline following the conference: “Grassroots rebellion ensures socialists will fight key Holyrood seats.”


There was an important debate on pensions, which is now a key battleground for trade unionists in Scotland and throughout Britain. Ian Leech, a Glasgow UNISON steward, and CWI member, moved the motion from Pollok on pensions. He highlighted the ballot currently underway among local government workers in Scotland and applauded the role of the PCS (public sector union) leadership who won important concessions last year from the government, including defending existing members’ rights to retire at 60.

Gary Clark a delegate from the Communication Workers Union No 2 branch in Edinburgh, which is affiliated to the SSP, and also a member of the CWI, spoke in this debate. He condemned the actions of Royal Mail who took a 10 year "pension holiday" and, as a result, there is now a £4 billion black hole in the postal workers’ pension scheme. Now post office management want to force postal workers to retire at 65 not 60, as is currently the case. He also contrasted the inaction of the CWU leadership to that of the PCS. CWU leaders sat on their hands while CWU members were being intimidated and harassed by post office management. It was the magnificent movement of postal workers in Belfast that showed the way forward for the CWU (Belfast postal workers on unofficial strike).

There was criticism of the principled, fighting left leadership of the PCS from the SWP, during a motion from Dundee East that called for opposition to two-tier pension arrangements. A delegate from Fife, a PCS member, and a member of the SWP, criticised the PCS leadership for leaving new entrants into the civil service in the lurch by agreeing a deal with the government last year.

Janice Godrich, national President of PCS, and a member of the CWI, explained the real lessons of last year’s climb down by the government. “We were told last March by the government that a proposal to make our members work to 65 and tear up our existing pensions arrangements were non-negotiable. But it was the threat of millions of workers taking united strike action that forced them into a retreat. Much to the outrage of Digby-Jones, the CBI and the bosses. If we had rejected the deal we would have been seen by our members as betraying their interests. We will continue to fight to get the same deal for new entrants into the civil service.”

Janice pointed out that the delegate from the SWP platform, who had attacked the PCS leadership, had moved a motion critical of the PCS leadership at his PCS AGM in Fife. He did not get any support for his position.

The Pollok motion, and a good motion from the EC, from industrial organiser Richie Venton, was passed. Although the Dundee East motion was narrowly agreed, it is very vague and does not mention the concrete situation facing the PCS last year – it simply restates general opposition to two-tier pensions.

European left

There was an important debate on the European Left. The CWI motion welcomed the emergence of new left parties in Europe that could potentially play a role in turning the tide against the neo-liberal attacks on the working class.

Motions from the party leadership asked the SSP to join the GUE, and one from the SWP urged the SSP to join the European Left Party (ELP).

The GUE, an organisation of the “left” in the European parliament, includes such organisations as Sinn Fein, the PDS/Left Party in Germany and PRC (Party of Communist Refoundation) in Italy. Some of the same parties have formed the ELP.

CWI members pointed out that the PRC, in Italy, has agreed to take part in a re-run of the ‘Olive Tree’ coalition government of the 1990’s, if Silvio Berlusconi is defeated in the Italian elections. This would involve the PRC being in coalition with other pro-business parties – that, because they are committed to defending capitalism, would carry out attacks on Italian workers.

We also explained the role of the PDS/Left Party in Germany, which is in a local coalition government with the pro-market social democratic SPD in two regions, including Berlin. In Berlin, the PDS have been instrumental in carrying out privatisations, attacking trade unionists’ right to collective bargaining, and in implementing vicious attacks on jobs and services.

The CWI welcomed the election of 54 MP’s from the Left Party and a new party – the WASG (Electoral Alternative – Work and Social Justice) – in which the CWI in Germany work – in last year’s German general election.

However, our motion called on conference to support the decision of the new WASG party in Berlin to stand independently from the PDS in the Berlin elections, later this year. The decision of the WASG in Berlin, proposed by CWI members, among others, was overwhelming agreed by the Berlin WASG membership because of the need to build a principled left that would defend workers’ rights and oppose the neo-liberal agenda. The actions of the PDS/Left Party, in coalition with the SPD, can only undermine the task of building a mass-left alternative to capitalism and for socialism.

Fizz Garvie and Frances Curran MSP, who moved and summed up in favour of joining GUE, argued that a united left project was the over-riding necessity. Fizz Garvie said that anything that threatened an historic opportunity to unite the left in Germany, i.e. the merging of the PDS and the WASG, would be a big setback. Unfortunately, this put Fizz and others, in the same position as the leaders of the WASG and PDS, who hope to rush ahead with a merger without calling for the PDS to abandon its involvement in cuts coalitions.

The Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) wanted the SSP to join the European Left Party (ELP), so that, “We can influence these other left parties.” But it is clear that the SWP are not prepared to criticise the actions of the likes of the PDS in Germany, the PRC in Italy, or Sinn Fein in Ireland, which carried out PFI (privatisation) projects when Sinn Fein held ministerial positions in the Northern Ireland assembly, before it collapsed several years ago.

This approach has led the SWP to support an unprincipled merger of the PDS/Left Party and the WASG in Germany, while criticising the CWI for arguing for a strong left based on principled opposition to attacks on workers rights and privatisation.

The CWI motion called on the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) to take clear position in opposition to left parties participating in cuts coalitions at a local, regional or national level, and, therefore, proposed discussions on that basis before joining the European Left Party (ELP). An amendment that called for the SSP to work closely with the GUE, but not to join it, was only defeated by a small margin. There was no vote taken on the CWI motion, as a vote for the SSP to join the GUE and ELP was passed.

‘No socialism’ – say the SWP

The Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) also spoke against an amendment on climate change that would have committed the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) to call for a sustainable planned socialist economy to tackle the growing environmental crisis. One SWP member said: “If we accept this amendment we will be building a fence between us and others in the environmental movement.” The amendment was defeated. The SWP’s baleful role, which is not countered by the SSP leadership, is to actively oppose any moves to raise the case for socialism in any of the ‘movements’ they participate in. This includes the anti-war movement, the Respect coalition, environmental campaigns and the anti-globalisation movement. At the same time as arguing that advancing a socialist explanation on the environment would “build a fence around the SSP” – the SWP refuse to condemn reactionary acts like 9/11 or the bombings in London – which can only alienate the mass of the working class, including big sections of the Muslim community.

Unfortunately, the lack of confidence in advancing a clear, independent, socialist banner also applies to sections of the SSP leadership. On the ‘Independence Convention’ (IC) debate the SSP EC motion described the launch rally of the IC – made up of the SSP, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Greens – as “left-wing and internationalist”. CWI member Gary Clark, who attended the Independence Convention rally, said it was a meeting at which the St Andrews flag (Scotland’s national flag) was placed on every seat in the hall and where a majority of the audience were SNP members and supporters. There was no identifiable contingent of workers.

The EC motion described the independence movement in Scotland as being: “Concerned about global and local inequality of wealth.” A Dundee West motion pointed to the dangers of giving the SNP such left wing credentials: “The SNP use every opportunity to advocate their vision of a free market Scotland. That would emulate the so-called ‘Celtic Tiger’ of the Irish economy. We believe that the [SSP] EC motion in seeking to minimise the clear differences that exist between the SSP and the SNP can do real damage to the SSP and the socialist movement in Scotland. This could have the effect of further weakening our appeal to working class people in Scotland who have looked to the SSP as a refreshing alternative to the pro-capitalist political establishment, including the SNP.”

There was also a motion calling on the SSP to sponsor and build for the Annual James Connolly commemoration March in Edinburgh, which this year marks the 90th anniversary of Connolly’s death and the 1916 Easter Rising. Edinburgh-born James Connolly (1868-1916), was a leader of the Irish working class and a Marxist, and was executed by the British for his part in the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin.

The Connolly march is, however, an Irish republican event, and widely seen as a sectarian. It regularly involves Sinn Fein speakers.

Motherwell and Wishaw SSP branch amended the motion, moved and seconded by CWI members. It sought to remove references to sponsoring the demonstration and called instead for discussions, meetings and articles in the SSP’s paper to celebrate Connolly’s real legacy for the trade union, socialist and Marxist movement.

Had the motion been passed it would have damaged the SSP, aligning the party with the republican movement in Northern Ireland, which could have had a bad impact in parts of Scotland. The important intervention of one EC member, Richie Venton, who summed up in support of the amendment, helped to convince the conference to oppose the original motion but, even then, the amendment was only passed by 10 votes. This discussion underlined the position of a majority of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) leadership, none of whom were prepared to speak in the debate. Either because they thought it was of no consequence if the motion was passed, or, in reality, they took a sympathetic position to the republican motion.

These types of debates illustrate a glaring lack of political education, explanation and analysis from the SSP leadership, which is having an effect on the party as a whole.

There are big opportunities to build the SSP into a more powerful force for socialism but there is a question mark over whether, given their political outlook, the SSP leadership can take hold of that potential.

The CWI will continue to advance a clear, independent, class-based programme for the SSP, while linking it with the need to consistently raise a socialist alternative to capitalism. This has brought us into collision with the majority of the SSP leadership and also with groups like the SWP, who have shown they cannot provide answers for the socialist movement. We will work for the SSP to recover its lost support and to move forward in the run up to 2007 elections, when the SSP will defend its six MSP’s in the Scottish parliamentary elections.

Tommy Sheridan easily topped the poll for the election for national chairperson of the SSP.

CWI member, Sinead Daly, was elected to the SSP EC, gaining the fourth highest vote on the female list. This was a significant increase in the vote for the CWI, compared to last year, when Sinead was 8th on the list. Janice Godrich and Jim McFarlane were both elected to the National Trade Union Committee and Sinead Daly was also elected to International Committee. These results, alongside the number of delegates who have approached us for discussions, and commented on the clarity of our ideas since the conference, shows the consistent approach taken by the CWI is having an increasing impact on a layer of SSP members.

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March 2006