Edinburgh’s Augustine United Church is a pretty cold place when the wind is howling, as it was when the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) held its annual conference there on October 25.
But all feelings of chill disappeared when the 200-plus SSP members got down to tackling the challenges of an inspiring new period in Scottish politics.
The period is marked by unprecedented popular engagement in activism and debate over Scotland’s future. This phase was triggered by the referendum on Scottish independence, won by the No vote by 55% to 45% for the Yes side.
Yet the most striking outcome of that win for the British establishment has been that the “victorious” Scottish Labour Party, the main party driving the “Better Together” anti-independence campaign, is now in crisis.
Meanwhile, the “defeated” pro-independence parties ― the Scottish National Party (SNP, governing in Scotland), the Greens and the SSP ― have all experienced extraordinary growth.
To date, 60,000 people have joined the SNP post-referendum, nearly quadrupling its membership to 82,000 and overtaking the Liberal Democrats to become the third largest party across Britain. Meanwhile, while 5000 have joined the Greens and 2500 the SSP.
For Scottish Labour, the “fruits of victory” include: the October 24 resignation of leader Johann Lamont after Scottish Labour’s general secretary was sacked by British Labour HQ without consultation; rising factional struggle over the party’s subordination to British Labour; and the growing refusal of trade unionists who voted Yes to pay into union political funds that channel money to Labour.
If Labour voters who backed independence ― up to 40% of its supporters in the 2011 Scottish election ― don’t return to the fold for next year's British general elections, Labour's hopes of defeating the Conservative Party will be severely reduced.
British Labour depends on its bloc of Scottish seats, presently 40 out of Scotland’s total of 59, to offset the Conservatives’ advantage in the rest of Britain.
The chances of Labour voters who backed independence staying away from Labour next year will depend critically on creating a pro-independence electoral alliance attractive to those working-class voters who would rather die than vote SNP.
How such an alliance should be formed, and how it should operate, has already become a hot issue in the pro-independence camp. One candidate for SNP deputy leader, Stewart Hosie, has proposed running SNP-Yes Alliance candidates for next year's elections.
The issue of how best to give political expression to independence sentiment was probably the big discussion point at the SSP conference. This was combined with debate over how left and socialist politics could be strengthened within the broader pro-independence camp.
This discussion was a reflection of SSP members’ own intense engagement with the independence campaign. They were active in the broad pro-independence Yes Scotland platform, the Radical Independence Campaign that grouped together non-affiliated left activists as well as Greens and SSPers, and the inspirational Women for Independence movement.
During the SSP’s campaign, the party organised nearly 100 meetings across Scotland. It sold out of its pamphlets outlining the socialist case for independence and for a Scottish republic cutting all ties with the British monarchy.
In opening the conference, national co-chair Bill Bonnar said “Scotland’s party of socialism” had had “a transformational role in the campaign” and “had been itself transformed by the campaign”.
Bonnar’s point was that the Yes vote would never have reached 45% if it had not been for the hundreds of meetings and intensive door-knocking of working-class neighbourhoods by progressive supporters of independence.
The point was repeated at a special guest panel comprising RIC co-convener Jonathan Shafi, Scottish Green Party co-convener and Edinburgh councillor Maggie Chapman and Labour for Independence co-convener Alan Grogan.
The independence campaign also allowed the SSP to finally put behind it the black years of unjustified discredit and loss of influence ― including of parliamentary presence ― arising from the 2004-2011 legal case of former SSP member of the Scottish parliament Tommy Sheridan.
The case arose from the refusal of other SSP leaders to support Sheridan in his libel case against former Rupert Murdoch tabloid News of the World, which had claimed that Sheridan visited sex clubs.
Sheridan had confessed to SSP leaders that he visited sex clubs, but wanted them to lie and cover up for him. After first winning the case against the News of the World, Sheridan was later found guilty of perjury. He served one year of a three-year sentence before being released in 2012.
The strong presence of newer, often younger, members in the conference confirmed that claims by political rivals of SSP “irrelevance” were wishful thinking. Certainly Labour for Independence’s Alan Grogan did not think that: to cheers and applause he announced his decision to resign from Labour and join the SSP.
Election strategy debate
There was debate over the SSP’s orientation to next year's British general elections and the 2016 elections for the Scottish parliament. The debate emerged over proposals from the Cumbernauld and Kilsyth and Mid and East Fife branches.
The Cumbernauld and Kilsyth resolution committed “all bodies of the party to constructively engage in debates around (1) standing ‘independence’ candidates in the 2015 General Elections, (2) turning the 2016 Scottish parliamentary elections into the ‘independence’ elections, (3) seeking to ensure socialist representation in 2016, (4) how to continue building the independence movement at local and national level, and (5) work with other political and cultural groups … to maintain the momentum towards independence and continue the debate on how to achieve it”.
The resolutions drew forth amendments that reflected different takes on the potentially contradictory goals of uniting pro-independence forces, strengthening the left and progressive pole within the independence camp, and strengthening the SSP and support for socialism.
For example, Glasgow Central branch wanted the SSP to be more pro-active in orienting to “any discussions with progressive organisations aimed at forming an electoral alliance” for the 2016 Scottish elections.
Its amendment was aimed at ensuring that the SSP is “on the front foot” in engaging with initiatives like RIC’s November 22 post-referendum conference. This has already sold out with 3000 bookings, three times the number at its two previous conferences.
This amendment passed, with some opposition that seemed to reflect concern about the SSP engaging in broader left alliances before its large number of new members had sufficiently understood what the SSP itself is about.
An amendment from Renfrewshire branch proposed “turning the 2016 Scottish parliamentary elections into the ‘independence’ elections” be replaced by “seeking to ensure socialist representation in 2015 and 2016”.
One speaker claimed the SNP and Greens were certain to reject any call for a broader pro-independence alliance in the British general elections.
SSP national co-convener Colin Fox pointed out in reply that not only was the formation of such an alliance an issue in the SNP itself, it was important for the SSP to pursue ― and be seen to pursue ― a proposal that is in the best interest of the whole independence movement.
As for a separate SSP campaign next year, pickings would be very thin in a first-past-the-post election that, in the absence of a broader independence alliance, was bound to turn into a “tribal contest” of Labour versus SNP.
The Renfrewshire amendment failed by 52 to 71. This result seemed to indicate that a sizeable proportion of the party remains concerned about the possible dilution of the SSP’s own political profile.
The rest of the conference resolutions covered two broad areas: rebuilding the SSP so as to make the most of its new membership ― the biggest influx into an Anglo-Celtic far left party in living memory ― and policy stances on pressing issues of the day.
The need for the SSP to address fracking produced resolutions from Dundee and Cumbernauld and Kilsyth branches proposing a near-unconditional ban.
One speaker wondered whether fracking could not be made technically safe, while Fox said that if a ban on fracking was added to the SSP’s opposition to nuclear energy, coal and gas, it became all the more urgent for the party to develop a credible energy policy. The ban on fracking was adopted.
Debate over a “citizen’s income” against poverty, which has engaged many European left parties, emerged when Renfrewshire branch moved that it be supported and campaigned for. An amendment from Dundee that would have deferred adoption until development of a detailed policy was defeated.
Measures to strengthen the SSP and its work included the re-establishing its women’s network and measures to facilitate the involvement of new members in regular local branch life, based on fortnightly local meetings.
The proposal of Ayrshire branch to “create ‘virtual’ branches under the leadership of experienced comrades who will maintain contact and promote activity through social media” stirred lively discussion.
The aim of the proposal was to overcome the dispersion of members in rural areas, especially the Highlands and islands, where it is near impossible to bring people together for face-to-face meetings. An amendment from Lothians branch to delete the “virtual” branches proposal was overwhelmingly lost.
The conference closed by electing Colin Fox and Sandra Webster as national joint spokespersons, Bill Bonnar and Frances Curran as national co-chairs and Ken Ferguson as the editor of Scottish Socialist Voice. A 14-member gender-balanced executive committee was also voted in.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly's European correspondent. He attended the SSP conference as a representative of the Australian Socialist Alliance. A more detailed account of the conference is available at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]