BY SARAH PEART
GLASGOW The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) is averaging 9% support in the latest opinion polls for elections to the Scottish parliament, which puts it on par with the Conservative Party. The SSP is looking to increase its parliamentary representation from one MP to at least seven in next year's elections.
Founded in 1999, the SSP is composed of socialist activists from many different left-wing traditions. Activists from the Marxist Scottish Militant Labour (SML) group played a key role in the formation of the SSP and its predecessor, the Scottish Socialist Alliance (SSA).
Other smaller Marxist groups also joined the SSP at its inception, including the Republican Communist Network and the Scottish Republican Socialist Movement. Last year, the membership of the British Socialist Workers Party in Scotland joined the SSP. There are also many activists in the SSP who come from no particular left-wing tradition.
The SSP "is a broad party in the sense that it is open to anyone who wants to challenge the system we live under and wants to replace capitalism with socialism", Alan McCombes, a member of SSP national executive and the coordinator for the party's 2003 election campaign, told Green Left Weekly. "Within a party like that you inevitably have different ideas about what socialism is and about how socialism will be achieved.
"In the SSP there are revolutionary socialists and non-revolutionary socialists working together. Those who are non-revolutionary aren't necessarily consciously anti-Marxist. Rather they are more open to how things may proceed in the future. It remains enough that they support the idea of socialism."
McCombes explained that at the moment the SSP is led by avowed revolutionary socialists. "Not necessarily numerically dominant, but politically dominant, they set the tone. In the SSP this strand are well represented and have assumed the leadership of the party."
The question of how the revolutionary socialists in the SSP relate to those in the party who do not share this perspective remains an important one. "The opinion that we can or should turn these people into Bolsheviks overnight is, firstly, not necessary and, secondly, would be counter-productive", said McCombes.
He believes that it will be the political battles around campaign perspectives and tactics that will shape political development of the SSP. "This is how the party will evolve and achieve political clarification, not so much by abstract debate and discussions."
The SSP's predecessor organisation, the SSA, was formed in 1996. It started as a federation of different left organisations and some individuals. The SSA came together to mobilise around particular campaigns and to participate in parliamentary and municipal elections. The different left groups still functioned publicly and concentrated primarily on recruiting and building their own organisations.
After the experience of the general elections in 1997 a discussion began within the SSA about its future. "There remained a big contradiction between building our own organisation and building the profile of the SSA", said McCombes. The SML decided that it wanted to "focus more single-mindedly on building the broader forces of socialism".
Transforming the alliance
"We believed the best way to do that was to transform the SSA into a more cohesive party with a clear public profile, resources, full-time staff, headquarters, and a party newspaper.
"After a lengthy and sometimes bitter debate within [the SML], we agreed to transfer most of the resources of the old Scottish Militant Labour organisation, including money, full time staff, equipment, headquarters and the Scottish Socialist Voice over to the new Scottish Socialist Party."
The different groups involved in the SSP are able to organise as "platforms", or organised tendencies, within the party. Presently, the SSP has five platforms representing different socialist trends.
"The SSP is more cohesive and has more unity of purpose than the SSA had", McCombes argued. "But it was important that we didn't impose uniformity on the party, we needed to allow organisations with different opinions to exist and to organise".
However, according to McCombes, the vast majority of new members attracted to the SSP are not members of any platform. "Non-platform members probably outnumber platform members by 10 to one, although platform members make a disproportionately bigger contribution in terms of activity and finances."
McCombes was unsure what future role the different organised tendencies would play in the SSP. "Maybe they will be permanent groupings, maybe they will become less necessary, maybe more episodic. The key thing is that we don't want a rigid party that imposes uniformity by expulsion and other disciplinary mechanisms."
In the monthly opinion polls of voting intentions for the Scottish parliament, the SSP has advanced from 2% in 1999 to 8% in the months of July, August and September this year. The latest poll, in October shows a further increase in support for the SSP to 9%. A disproportionally higher support exists for the SSP among the unskilled and semi-skilled workers, and among lone parents. The strongest support comes from younger sections of the population.
McCombes emphasises that there is a gender gap in support for the SSP, with the latest poll showing twice as many men as women supporting the party: 12% versus 6%. "This is something that we have to address. We need to increase our support among women. There is a contradiction because women are very receptive to our political campaigns. They are more strongly anti-war, and some of our specific campaigns on free school meals, for example, or radical changes to the local tax system would tend to benefit women more.
Closing the gender gap
"We also have a 50:50 policy of equal representation for women and men in winnable seats. But it may be that we need to give a higher public profile to women leaders of the party, to break down any perception that the SSP is a male-dominated party."
McCombes outlined the key campaign perspectives the SSP has adopted for the May 2003 election. He believes the SSP needs to raise the broader vision for a socialist society and to elaborate a program that is specifically geared towards the Scottish parliament.
"The Scottish parliament itself has limited powers it doesn't have control over the income tax system or defence and its powers of public ownership remain quite limited. But despite these limitations, [SSP MP] Tommy [Sheridan] has made effective use of the parliament to push radical policies. For example, he succeeded in abolishing warrant sales the notorious debt recovery system used in Scotland to terrorise and humiliate the poor.
"We also built a powerful campaign in support of Tommy's bill to provide free school meals to every school pupil in Scotland and almost succeeded in getting that through parliament.
"In the upcoming elections we will be pushing policies such as replacing the unfair local tax system with a new redistributive tax which would shift the burden from the poor to the rich. Other policies include abolishing household water charges, clearing the private profiteers out of the public sectors, and bringing in a £7 an hour minimum wage for all Scottish public sector workers. We need lots of practical, clear policies that we can mobilise around and that we can win.
"The other obvious major issue that will undoubtedly shape the elections in Scotland and politics around the world will be the pending war on Iraq. The SSP has and will continue to present ourselves as the uncompromising anti-war party in Scotland and make this a central issue in the elections."
Pressures of parliament
With a group of MPs the increased pressure on the SSP to conform and become part of the mainstream will be far greater. "In a sense we have become part of the mainstream. But in another sense we're not. Our aim is radically different to the other parties. They just want to get elected and believe that parliament is the be-all and end-all of politics. We don't see the struggle for socialism like that. Even non-Marxists within the SSP see the process of building socialism as one of mass social participation. Our MPs are just an adjunct to that process.
"Up until now we have only had Tommy, a very tried and tested campaigner who has always put principles first. In the near future we will have a bigger group of MPs who will not all have the same track record not as tried and tested and not as well known outside their local areas.
"However, SSP MPs are there to fight for the policies decided democratically by the party as a whole. We plan to establish a parliamentary committee with representatives of the executive working with our MPs on a daily basis.
"It is the democratic structures of the party the annual conference, the national council, which includes representatives of all 70 party branches and meets quarterly, and the executive which will continue to take the key political decisions with the comrades who are implementing these decisions in parliament."
McCombes recognises the key role the SSP can play in building a socialist left internationally. Currently the SSP is involved in preliminary discussions with other left parties across Europe to stand on a common platform in the European parliamentary elections.
McCombes also argues for the need to begin a discussion around a new international association of socialist parties. "Internationalism is important. Organisations like the SSP need to link up with other socialists, in Australia for example. In the future, we'd like to explore the possibility of a broad international [association] that is able to accommodate different currents as well as people from no particular left tradition who are prepared to go beyond the ideas of capitalism."
From Green Left Weekly, October 30, 2002.
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