The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) has been rocked by the release of an open letter by Tommy Sheridan to SSP members which accuses "an unsavoury cabal of comrades at the core of the leadership who are more interested in pursuing personal vendettas, through vile lies and slander, than conducting the class struggle." This letter has been widely covered by the press in Scotland.
Tommy Sheridan’s stance comes 18 months after he resigned as the SSP’s national convenor following a meeting of the party’s Executive Committee (EC) on 9 November 2004.
That meeting discussed issues relating to Tommy Sheridan’s private life that, it was thought, might appear in the News of the World the following Sunday. The EC voted to call on him to resign as SSP convenor because they opposed Tommy Sheridan’s proposals on how to deal with these allegations.
Following the publication of a story relating to his private life Sheridan took out a libel case against the News of the World which is due to be heard in July.
The International Socialists in Scotland, who were founding members of the SSP, opposed the action taken by the SSP EC in November 2004. We argued then and since that, in seeking to take hasty and unnecessary action against Tommy Sheridan, they had buckled under the pressure of the right-wing tabloid press over potential publicity that they thought would damage the SSP.
In taking these measures they were seen to have removed someone who was – and still is – widely recognised as the most popular figure in the socialist movement in Scotland.
Tommy Sheridan had been a central leader of the mass anti-poll tax movement in Scotland and throughout Britain in the early late 1980s and early 1990s when he was a member of Militant and the CWI.
He was elected from his prison cell, when he was jailed for his anti-poll tax activities, to Glasgow council in 1992 and then elected to the Scottish parliament in 1999 as the first SSP MSP.
Despite the important and ongoing political differences we have with Tommy Sheridan, who broke with the CWI in 2001, we nevertheless recognised that he had the authority of big sections of the working class in Scotland. His removal as SSP convenor is linked to a marked decline in the SSP’s electoral support over the last 18 months. It has also left a bitter legacy inside the SSP over the actions of the EC which have now erupted in the form of the open letter and were evident at the recent SSP National Council.
The catalyst for this was the Court of Sessions’ demand, on behalf of the News of the World, to see the minutes and all related documents of the EC meeting of 9 November 2004. It is thought that detailed information of a personal nature relating to Tommy Sheridan was kept as a formal minute of that EC meeting.
The International Socialists and many SSP members have condemned such practices which are completely outside the traditions of the socialist and working-class movement. We passed motions to the SSP National Council condemning these actions.
Furthermore, SSP officials have confirmed to the press that a minute of that meeting existed months ago. Alongside the public refusal of fellow MSPs and leading party members to back the libel action, confirmed by a recent EC motion that was made public, this gave the News of the World the green light to ask to see the documents.
On 28 May, the day of the SSP NC, the Sunday Herald ran a story claiming that they had a signed legal document from a "leading SSP official" given to then in November 2004 which, they claim, details the issues discussed at the 9 November meeting and the reasons for the action taken against Tommy Sheridan.
It is these shocking actions that have led many SSP members to draw the conclusion that there has been a deliberate and conscious attempt by a section of the SSP leadership to keep documented records containing potentially damaging information, whether accurate or not, about Tommy Sheridan.
The main motivation for this seems to have been to keep material that would help justify their actions in calling for Tommy Sheridan’s resignation in November 2004.
Alan McCombes jailed
However, when the courts asked to see the minute of 9 November the SSP EC refused to simply immediately hand them over. Alan McCombes, one of those cited to appear in court with the documents, said the party had the right to private meetings which the courts and the News of the World had no right to see.
He said he had the only copy of the minute and in refusing to comply with the courts he was jailed for 12 days on Friday 26 May. This scandalous penalty was followed by costs being awarded against the SSP which is likely to cost the party at least £25,000.
The court also gave instructions for the SSP offices to be searched. SSP members from the Glasgow Cardonald branch who had passed a motion calling on any minutes to be destroyed have been instructed to appear in court.
We condemn the unacceptable action of the court and as the Dundee West motion (drawn up by CWI members) to the SSP NC points out: "This NC rejects the idea that the capitalist press and courts have any right to see the internal discussions of the socialist and working class movement."
Nevertheless, it was clear that the court had effectively unlimited powers to fine the SSP and bankrupt it as well as imposing a jail sentence of up to a year on Alan McCombes for contempt of court.
Under these circumstances, what was only ever a short-term tactic could not be continued and at the SSP NC the meeting voted to oppose the EC strategy of continued defiance and effectively release the minutes to the court. This was supported by Tommy Sheridan.
The main issue, however, as the Dundee West motion pointed out was: "If normal minutes (ie a concise record of the meeting and its decisions) in the keeping of our movement are kept there would be no need to risk SSP members being sanctioned by the courts for refusing to hand them over."
The minutes have been handed to the court and Alan McCombes has been released. Despite his personally courageous stand, Alan McCombes has since claimed that NC members who voted to oppose the EC strategy had caved into pressure from the courts.
This is completely wrong and frankly irresponsible; it may also be an attempt to deflect attention from the increasing questioning among SSP members about why such personal minutes were ever kept in the first place.
In a further defeat for the leadership the SSP NC voted to support Tommy Sheridan’s libel case. And there is now a real possibility that leading SSP members may be called by the News of the World to give evidence about the 9 November meeting in a bid to undermine the libel action.
This is a critical time for the SSP. So damaging and potentially fatal for the SSP are these developments that only an immediate end to the unacceptable manoeuvres and personal methods that have been evident recently and the re-establishment of the SSP on a principled basis can allow the SSP to recover.
That also means urgently turning the SSP outwards to fighting on the burning issues facing the working class and young people, alongside advancing a programme that can face up to the challenges of building a mass working-class and socialist alternative in Scotland.