By James Doleman
You do not need to be a psephologist to realise that the Socialist Left* in Scotland did not, to say the least, have a triumphant 2011 Holyrood election campaign. The Scottish Socialist Party received only 8,272 votes (a 97% drop in their vote since 2003) Solidarity did little better. George Galloway gained nearly 7000 votes in Glasgow however this was less than half what he would have needed to secure a seat. Pride of place must however go to the Socialist Equality Party which on the West of Scotland list managed to secure a toal vote of zero with apparantly not even their own candidate deeming it worth a vote. Overall it was an abject performance but how do we explain it?
Colin Fox, Co-Convener of the SSP, has argued that the result “was inevitable when the fiasco of the Sheridan affair is added to the steamroller effect of the SNP surge.” This is a striking contrast to what was being argued before the beginning of the trial of Tommy Sheridan, when many confidently predicted that his conviction would lead to the “end of the nightmare” and a triumphant vindication of the leadership of the SSP. There is no doubt that the tawdry spectacle of socialists lining up in Glasgow High court to testify against their former friend and comrade turned the stomach of many potential left voters. However, many would argue that the problems with the SSP project long predated the Tommy Sheridan case. In my view Mike Gonzalez of the Socialist Workers Party was closer to the mark with his assessment that “a fragmented left has nothing to offer a working class whose concern is fighting the cuts and making the bankers pay for their own crisis.” There is certainly no argument over the “fragmentation” of the Scottish left. At present their are at least ten separate parties claiming to represent the Socialist tradition in Glasgow alone. Never has the “Life of Brian” comparison seemed more appropriate.
The aim of the SSP project was laudable, an attempt to unite the bickering factions of the left into one organisation was obviously a good thing to attempt. However the unity that appeared to have achieved the relative success of the SSP in 2003 was less than skin deep and, as testimony given at the Tommy Sheridan trial made clear, a vicious internal battle over jobs and positions began almost immediately after the swearing in of the six MSP’s. Looking back the 2003 success appears to have been caused less by the policies of the SSP as such but was more due to the prevailing anti-war mood and the personal popularity of Tommy Sheridan. If the SSP had used the election as a springboard to build a truly wide and inclusive party it may have been possible to make a permanent difference to Scottish Politics. Sadly this was not done and the party was collapsing into infighting and factionalism even before the allegations of sexual misconduct against Tommy Sheridan became public in November 2004.
The tragedy of this mess is that in many ways there has rarely been a time when a left critique of the prevailing politics of our era was more vital. Scotland is a relatively rich nation yet is still scarred by poverty and inequality. The Neo-Liberal consensus of free markets and trickle down economics has been on life support since the crash of 2008 and the Arab revolutions show that an popular alternative is not only possible but achievable
With the SNP victory in the elections the Scottish people face cuts in services and falls in real wages for the next four years. No independence referendum is going to change that. The Socialist left in my view faces two dangers. The first is to try and position itself as the “radical” wing of Nationalism, as some are already proposing. The other is a foredoomed attempt to recreate the failed electoral model of the SSP. There are things to build on, there were 500,000 people on the TUC march in London in March including a huge delegation of Trade Unionists from Scotland. There is also a planned co-ordinated strike on June 30th that could lead to over a a million workers downing tools against austerity. Inevitably there will also be countless local campaigns against the effects of specific cuts in leisure facilities, school closures and over pay. There is no short cut for the Socialist left to regain a measure of political influence except by throwing themselves into these struggles. It can be done, indeed it has to be done. However I would contend that to succeed again we will have to take the time to have a serious assessment of the mistakes of the past, if only to avoid repeating them.
*I am using the term “Socialist left” to describe left wing organisations to the left of the Labour Party. The alternatives would be “Hard-Left” or “Far-Left” both of which I think imply a value judgement.
About the author; James Doleman was a member of the SSP from 2001 to 2004 and reported on every day of the Tommy Sheridan trial. He is a member of the Scottish SWP but writes in a personal capacity.