Scottish Socialists make big gains in first year
By Pamela Currie and Lisa Young
GLASGOW — The phenomenal rise of the Scottish Socialist Party since its launch in October 1998 is an inspiration to socialists. A working example of socialist unity in action, the party now boasts nearly 2000 members, a member of the Scottish parliament, more than 40 branches and a growing base among the Scottish working class.
The SSP was born as a result of several years of cooperation by the left in Scotland, notably as the Scottish Socialist Alliance between 1996 and 1998.
This can be traced earlier still in campaigns such as the Defiance Alliance, an umbrella of groups opposed to the Conservatives' draconian Criminal Justice Act in the early '90s.
The most crucial factor in the success of the SSP however, has been the ability of the participants to overcome their differences and go beyond the "umbrella" structure, deepening political unity. The SSP program is not a document that tries to please everyone at the risk of pleasing no-one.
The manifesto put forward for the Scottish elections, to a body which does not have control over vital areas such as foreign policy, the economy, defence or welfare, was a radical program for socialist change. On Scotland's oil industry, at present owned almost in its entirety by US multinationals the SSP demands that it be taken into democratic public ownership and the proceeds used for the benefit of all.
The program on which the SSP stood at these elections by no means represents any illusions in the powers of either the Scottish or any other parliament: the demands put forward in even this limited program would throw the ruling class into a crisis.
The SSP has grown through taking these ideas and this program boldly into working-class areas. Following the launch of the SSP, rallies were held in the major cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee, attracting hundreds.
The launch, together with high-profile recruits such as the actor Peter Mullan, gained the party much-needed publicity at the end of 1998. By February the party had 12 branches established in the west of Scotland alone.
Activity at this time concentrated on a drive to sign up those who were already members of Scottish Militant Labour or the SSA, while local meetings continued to attract a fresh layer of recruits.
February's founding conference attracted upwards of 200 party members, many of them new. The conference discussed policies, adopting the election manifesto. Important focus was given to the election campaign; £14,000 was raised in the hall as members contributed to help build the party's election campaign.
The public meetings and activities pushed on as the elections drew nearer, reaching into areas which hadn't seen socialist activity for a generation.
In Dumfries, where there had been no socialist organisation in living memory, 50 attended a public meeting. In the seaside town of Ayr, 130 came, while in Kilmarnock, one member was joined by 50 newcomers at another public meeting. It was in the newest areas, such as the rural south of Scotland and the highlands and islands in the north, that the party achieved the most spectacular response, winning new members in areas where there had previously been nothing to join.
Across Scotland, thousands attended public meetings, attracted by the ideas that the party was putting across, and inspired by the unity it represented.
The party's biggest growth came in the days and weeks prior to Tommy Sheridan's election to the Scottish parliament, hundreds of calls and letters flooding into the party's Glasgow office. The election material, including a four-minute TV broadcast, stirred huge interest: in one 24- hour period, more than 500 people phoned up to join.
Sheridan's election represented a huge breakthrough in credibility for a party not yet a year old. It lifted the party's identity onto a far higher stage and provided a beacon to working-class people throughout the country.
Outside Glasgow, the party's identity had been in danger of becoming submerged in a long list of "Scottish" and "Socialists" facing voters. Miners' leader Arthur Scargill's party, the Socialist Labour Party, took a greater number of votes than the SSP in several ex-mining areas in the central belt. Scargill, who broke with the Labour Party in 1995, had refused to work with the SSP, standing candidates in opposition to it.
Following the SSP's success in May, this problem became marginal. In the European elections the following month, the SSP received up to four times the vote of the SLP in some of Scotland's 73 parliamentary constituencies, defeating it in every one.
A huge task faced the SSP membership in the months following the elections: too many would-be members to be seen! Activity focused on getting to those who had expressed an interest, the branches growing as a result.
By the end of the summer, there were more than 40 branches, 25 of these in the west of Scotland, nine in the east, four in the north-east and five in the highlands.
A further test came in the form of the Hamilton South by-election in September 1999. Caused by the departure of Labour minister George Robertson to become secretary-general of NATO, this represented a key battleground for the nationalists, who had their first electoral breakthrough in the same seat in 1967.
Entering the campaign in Hamilton with virtually nothing in the area, the SSP left with 10% of the vote, shaking the political establishment by forcing the Conservatives into fourth place and the Liberal Democrats, a coalition partner in the Scottish Executive, into sixth.
The campaign led to branches being set up in the towns of Hamilton and Blantyre, with more than 100 people interested in joining.
The Hamilton vote has had national consequences. It has forced the Scottish establishment, including the mainstream media, to take notice.
The SSP has forced its way into the media's polls, demanding recognition for socialist ideas in Scotland. Over 5% nationally say they would definitely vote for the SSP, enough to give the party another MSP.
The SSP, despite its success in the field, is not just an electoral party. Its members are involved in working-class struggles the length and breadth of Scotland, in communities, workplaces and colleges.
The party is unique in Scotland in having an older members' section, the Grey Panthers, who have taken to the streets in protest against miserly pension rises and fuel costs. A surprising number of pensioners have signed up to the SSP, breaking with years of Labour traditions.
Large numbers of young people have also joined, campaigning in particular for a change in the drugs laws. The SSP has societies in a range of universities and colleges, and is the only party to have consistently called for a return to pre-Thatcher student grants as well as the abolition of Labour's tuition fees.
A recent campaign has been in support of Tommy Sheridan's private member's bill to outlaw warrant sales, a barbaric means of debt collection that dates from the Middle Ages. The bill has widespread support among working-class people, who have seen the sales used to humiliate families unable to pay rent or bills; it was widely used against those unable or unwilling to pay the hated poll tax.
SSP activists are also involved in the trade union movement. In the big public services union UNISON, SSP members are spearheading the campaign for a socialist general secretary, and the SSP is the main left force in the EIS, the teachers' union. Shop stewards from the rail workers' union have joined, along with leaders of the postal workers' union in Edinburgh, one of the most militant in the country.
In addition to the meetings and public activities, the party produces a fortnightly 12-page paper, Scottish Socialist Voice, with a readership of 3000. Tommy Sheridan has had a weekly column since May in the Daily Record, a Labour-supporting tabloid. The Record has an estimated readership of 2 million, from a total Scottish population of 5.1 million — one of the highest readership rates in the Western world.
The recent Socialism 2000 event organised by the SSP, with debates on socialism and nationalism, Northern Ireland, drugs and the environment, attracted an audience of more than 500. Events such as this show the appeal the SSP has; with growing discontent over Labour's attacks from London and the impotence of the Scottish parliament, a united left party seems unstoppable.