SCOTLAND: Putting socialism back on the agenda

Issue 

ALISTER BLACK is an assistant national secretary of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), which had six comrades elected to the Scottish parliament on May 1. Black visited Australia in May. He spoke to Green Left Weekly's JOHN PERCY.

What are the political priorities for the SSP following the success of the May 1 election? With six members of the Scottish parliament, a huge increase in the party's overall vote and many new members, it seems to be a whole new ball game.

In parliament, we'll be reflecting the struggles that are going on in the streets and the workplaces. The people the SSP has had elected to parliament are all very experienced activists, many of them trade unionists. They'll be raising the demands that they were elected on — opposition to poverty and inequality in Scotland, opposition to war, support for the trade union movement and so on.

Colin Fox will introduce bills to scrap prescription charges. Tommy Sheridan will reintroduce the free school meals bill, which was narrowly defeated in the last parliament. Rosie Kane will introduce a bill to oppose the development of the M74 motorway, which will go through a working-class area of Glasgow and cause air and noise pollution.

At the moment, there's a threat against the Fire Brigades Union. The British Labour government is threatening to force them to settle their pay dispute and, in effect, ban firefighters' right to strike. We'll be raising solidarity with the FBU in parliament.

The election campaign was a tremendous opportunity for us to build the party. There were so many enthusiastic new people, a lot of young people who had been involved in the anti-war movement came into the party. Trade unionists, people who had been involved in the left years ago have been revitalised by what the SSP has done.

We're going to be expanding our staff and opening public offices in every region of Scotland in which we got people elected. People can come in and get some help with their problems.

It's also an opportunity for us to look at our ideas of socialism and deepen our analysis of how we're going to get socialism in Scotland and internationally, and what role we can play in that. That's something that we're all very keen to do now that we have more resources.

Establishment politicians and newspaper commentators always say that socialism is a thing of the past. But when socialists have a big victory, like the SSP has, they froth at the mouth. I've noticed quite a few red-baiting attacks on your new parliamentarians.

That's right. We've gone from getting zero media coverage to being on the front pages of all the papers, almost every day since the election. There has been very puerile and sexist material about Rosie Kane and Carolyn Leckie in Rupert Murdoch's tabloid, the Sun. It was really disgraceful stuff.

The broadsheets have come out with what they'd like to think are intellectual attacks on us, and the Greens as well. They've said we're totalitarians, we're Stalinists (yet they call us Trotskyists at the same time), and that we want anarchy.

What the capitalist press has made clear is that they're going to be watching our every move, studying every single policy and statement that we put forward. They're going to be dissecting them, exposing them to a great deal of light.

That's not something we're afraid of. We're used to it, we're ready for it and we're not afraid to defend our ideas and our program. In fact, it's going to give us an opportunity to strengthen our ideas, to make sure we put forward a very coherent and consistent message. We're going to keep putting forward the socialist message.

What impact do you think the success of the SSP might have south of the border? Obviously, there's tremendous potential in England for building a stronger, united socialist party.

Many socialists from England and Wales have been in touch with the SSP since the election, to congratulate us and say they look to doing the same thing. One was an MP elected in Wales as an independent, on a program to the left of Labour's.

There were some successes in England in the council elections, which also took place on May 1. The Socialist Alliance had a councillor elected in Preston, Lancashire. The Socialist Party, which is the Committee for a Workers' International group in England, had a councillor elected in Coventry.

As far as the SSP is concerned, we welcome any steps forward for socialism and the election of any socialist in England and Wales. It shows the potential that exists.

Instead of standing several socialist candidates under different banners — Socialist Party, Socialist Labour Party, Socialist Alliance and so on — if all socialists came together and stood as an united party, putting forward a united program that takes up all the issues — opposition to war, privatisation, racism and so on — then I'm sure the gains that have already been achieved could be much greater.

It's not just that it "would be a nice thing to happen", it's also an urgent necessity. On May 1, while two socialist councillors were elected in England, 13 fascists from the British National Party were also elected to councils. Thirteen out of 21,000 councillors might not sound very significant, but it's the biggest fascist vote ever in a British election and that's very worrying.

On the left of the spectrum, the Green Party had something like 70 councillors elected. It doesn't have a socialist program, it has an anti-big business program. If socialists aren't careful, they'll lose ground to other alternatives.

The Socialist Alliance in England had a conference on May 10-11. What's your impression of progress being made there?

Essentially, the Socialist Alliance conference agreed to carry on as they have been doing for the last few years. That means, rather than campaigning consistently as an alliance — for example in the anti-war movement — most groups will continue to campaign under their own banners.

That's a problem, because it means the alliance doesn't build its profile as well as it could. The electorate won't get to know the alliance or what it stands for. Division is very off-putting for a lot of ordinary working-class people who are looking for an alternative. Instead, they find half a dozen different alternatives. It's confusing. It just makes the left seem weak and divided.

In Scotland, we found that coming together in one left-wing force, uniting probably 95% of the socialists in Scotland in one party for the first time since the days of the Communist Party, had an impact in itself. It encouraged confidence among working people to support us, to join our party and to vote for us. We became greater than the sum of our parts, and stronger as a result.

You're on the SSP's international committee. What are the prospects for socialist regroupment in Europe? With the greater weight and authority of the SSP on the left, what do you think you'll be able to do?

In recent years, the left in Europe has come together in different forums. Prime amongst those have been the half-yearly meetings of the European Anti-Capitalist Left, which brings together parties from quite different backgrounds.

There's parties like the SSP and the Red Green Alliance in Denmark, which themselves are parties of regroupment, bringing different left elements together. There's parties like Rifondazione (the Party of Communist Refoundation) in Italy, which is a long-established party with deep roots in the working class. And there's been parties from the Trotskyist left, like the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) in France and the Socialist Workers Party in Britain.

At those gatherings, we try to look at what we've got in common programmatically, what we can agree on and what kind of action can arise from our common views. The SSP hopes it can have an impact internationally, and certainly we've been contacted by comrades from around the world who are interested in what we've done.

Hopefully, our example will spur the creation of broad-based anti-capitalist parties throughout Europe, for example, to stand in the European election next year. Obviously, the circumstances and difficulties are different in each country. But we all face the same rotten capitalist system and its problems of corporate globalisation, imperialism and war.

There's the opportunity for more international cooperation. In the European Union member states, we're all facing the consequences of the introduction of the euro currency, cuts in public spending and the attacks on the trade unions. There are big struggles developing in France, Italy and Spain.

It's not just a case of the SSP teaching others. We've got a lot of things to learn from comrades in other places as well. For example, the SSP sent a delegation to the European Social Forum in Florence last year and found it very educational. It was very interesting to meet people involved in different struggles, from different backgrounds. There was a real competition of ideas which took place. There was a lot of debate and discussion, a lot of opportunities to meet socialists and campaigners, which otherwise we wouldn't have got. We learnt lessons from that, and hopefully we contributed something as well. We hope to take a big delegation to the social forum in Paris in November.

We've been involved in an international movement against the war in Iraq. The February 15 demonstrations, with more than a million people in London and 100,000 in Glasgow, were organised from the European Social Forum, where the idea for those demonstrations kicked off. That's a practical example of the kind of impact international cooperation can have on world events and mass movements.

What international solidarity campaigns is the SSP involved in?

The SSP has done a lot of work around Palestine, which was recognised before the election when the Muslim Council in Edinburgh recommended a vote for the SSP on the basis of our solidarity work with Palestine and our opposition to the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. We are building solidarity for socialists in Pakistan and Afghanistan. We've got good links with the comrades of the Labour Party Pakistan and the Afghan Workers Solidarity Campaign.

We do work with Colombian socialists and trade unionists, in particular with the Cali workers, who are in a big dispute at the moment and under threat from the government. As I speak, there's a Colombian comrade who's touring Scotland, sponsored by the Colombia Solidarity Campaign in which the SSP works.

Since I've been in Australia, I've been reading about what's been happening in Aceh. That's something which people in Britain aren't aware of. There are also the struggles that have been taking place in Venezuela and Argentina. With more resources provided by our Scottish MPs, hopefully we'll be able to give more resources to our international work.

Socialists in Australia have been inspired by what the SSP has able to do in Scotland. We've got quite a way to go to reach that, but do you have any hints for the Socialist Alliance here?

I'd like to congratulate the comrades in the Socialist Alliance. They have taken a very bold decision at the May 10-11 conference to begin to move towards more of a party formation.

We've been through a similar experience in Scotland. First, we had the Scottish Socialist Alliance and then we moved towards setting up the Scottish Socialist Party. Our experience in doing that was that it's a process. You can't just proclaim a party, in which everyone's united and thinking along the same lines. People come from different traditions, from different backgrounds and different experiences. And the reality is that there is often mistrust between groups and individuals.

We found that the process of working together on a day-to-day basis — in the campaigns, on the stalls and in the streets — brings people closer, knocks down a lot of the barriers and removes a lot of the suspicions. People find that they've got a lot more in common as socialists than they have that divides them.

I think there's every cause for optimism for the Socialist Alliance in Australia. I sincerely hope that in the near future you'll be able to emulate what we've done in Scotland, not just in terms of representation in parliament, but in having an impact on the struggles of working-class people. To put the ideas of socialism back on the agenda, to make them relevant again, to make socialism a real alternative, a credible alternative that the people are willing to trust and are willing to embrace.

From Green Left Weekly, June 4, 2003.

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