The Socialist Left and the Scottish Election

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.

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  1. banniai1 says:

    Funny I was sure many in the hierarchy of SNP were socialists indeed the very fabric of the SNP is socialist, all the lefties do is fragment votes therefore leaving an opening for labour to take the result from the SNP. The recent election results showed that the people of Scotland are at last seeing the ‘socialist’ left wing for what they really are.
    As for Galloway what a dashed cheek he decides to return to Scotland from his seat in London then has the audacity to expect peopleto vote for him. No I think I prefer the party that is Scottish first and always.

  2. Nic Dear says:

    “left wing organisations to the left of the Labour Party.”

    That would include every political party apart from the Tories then….

  3. James says:

    I did think about the description “socialist left” carefully, if anyone has a better one I am open to suggestions

  4. Can you put up the exact number of votes cast for Solidarity?

  5. Concerned by more infighting says:

    Sheridan took the NOTW to court & cited his comrades hoping they’d lie for him. He’s probably ruined the Scottish left for a generation by his selfish actions. End of.

  6. James says:

    Was on the region of 6000 odd ( if you exclude Galloway’s vote in Glasgow)

    1. So perhaps ‘Solidarity did little better’ should say Solidarity did far worse? If people want to be taken seriously then perhaps they should start by getting their facts right about figures, quoting the SSP number and Galloway’s pseudo Labour vote but neglecting to mention Solidarity’s is a bit obvious. I have to say that this blatant piece of anti-SSP tripe is the worst thing I’ve ever read on Bella and I hope it doesn’t post such guff again. Critique aye, blawbags naw.

  7. James says:

    You sort of prove my point George. Until the left can break out of the sectarian mindset you so brilliantly articulate why should anyone ever listen to us?

  8. Alan G says:

    By “the region of 6000” do you mean 2,837?

    This is the second article (the first being Weekly Worker) which have used the BBC table to claim SEP got 0 votes, when no other source including the council which counted the votes claim they were standing.

  9. Observer says:

    ”No independence referendum is going to change that. ”

    Not immediately no. However, it is already looking as if David Cameron’s Tories are going to hand over a lot more powers to the Scottish government, which will mean that the cuts are going to be a lot less drastic than under a Labour government, which was the only alternative to an SNP one.

    In the long run having our own government is the only way of ensuring that Scotland decides its own priorities, which going by the past won’t be Thatcherite ones.

    Sorry, but this isn’t the 1980s any more & strike action in Scotland to defend public services isn’t going to be that popular – not when the government being struck against is an anti-Tory one.

    Perhaps one reason why the ”socialist” left (not the mainstream left) are unsuccessful is because they show a tendency to live in the past, as well as their Monty Python tribute act.

  10. bellacaledonia says:

    Just sose you know…this site is moderated – we will publish comments or articles we completely disagree with but will not publish really foul language and bile.

  11. Steven H says:

    Scotland already has two major left wing parties (three, if you include the Greens). It does not need another, pushing the centre of Scotland’s political gravity yet further to the statist left.

    The SSP’s demise was because the SNP recovered from its weakness in 2003, and its charismatic leader was revealed to be a meretricious, hypocrtical liar. If you base your strategy on the personal qualities of your leader, don’t be surpised if you eventually get sunk by the same leader. Put another way, if you live by the sword, expect to die by it.

  12. Alan McCombes says:

    From the second sentence, this blog by James Dolemen falsifies the facts – “The Scottish Socialist Party received only 8,272 votes (a 97% drop in their vote since 2003) Solidarity did little better.” In fact, Solidarity did worse, with fewer than 3000 votes. I’m not even going to try and work out what this represented as a percentage of their vote (around a 1000 per cent fall, I’d guess).

    More seriously is the assertion by long-standing member SWP member James Doleman that the SSP failed to build on its election success in 2003 because “a vicious internal battle over jobs and positions began almost immediately after the swearing in of the six MSP’s.”

    That is simply not true. I was there, at the heart of the SSP, and at the time Tommy Sheridan’s closest political collaborator. A vicous internal battle DID begin in the SSP after 2003 – but it was nothing to do with jobs and positions. It was over independence, and was triggered by a document that I wrote in the summer of 2003 calling for the SSP to be involved in the creation of a broad indepndence convention.

    All hell broke lose, as the SWP and CWI factions (who later became the mainstay of Solidarity) went to war against the SSP leadership, accusing Tommy Sheridan, myself, the other SSP MSPs and the SSP executive of succumbing to nationalism. It was a battle that raged on for a year and more, and was still continuing right up until October 2004 when the CWI group called for a boycott of the Scottish republican event at Calton Hill that the SSP initiated. Documents galore were produced, and frenzied debates took place on the issue from muid 2003 to late 2004.

    That was the only serious divide within the SSP until October 2004. That”s a fact. Unlike James Doleman, who was on the other side of the world of the time, I was there.

    Alan McCombes

  13. James says:

    Hello Alan and thanks for the reply. I was there too and and saw what happened (I only left in March 2004). There are also modern inventions such as the telephone and the internet that allow one to stay in touch with events even from the antipodes.

    I would respectfully suggest that to say the only debate in the SSP between 2003 and 2004 was independence is frankly laughable. May I refer you to the link from Gordon Morgan’s testimony at the Sheridan trial that I quoted above http://sheridantrial.blogspot.com/2010/12/gordon-morgan.html

    That is not even touching on the frenzied constitutional debates over full-timers having votes on the exec or the continuing squabbles over 50-50 or even the nasty battle over Hugh Kerr.

    The argument that all was sweetness and light in the SSP until the nasty SWP showed up is really rather worn out Alan.

    all the best

    James

  14. Alan McCombes says:

    These debates you refer to on 50-50 and on the composition of the SSP executive were prior to 2003.

    As I said, after 2003 the SSP was absolutely engulfed in a debate over independence. That dominated everything. I was at the centre of the SSP at the time and working daily with Tommy Sheridan (as was Keith Baldassara, George McNeillage etc etc) and I can assure you that Gordon Morgan’s testimony was false.

  15. James says:

    So there was no vicious fight over Hugh Kerr and his role in 2003 Alan? Rosie Kane, Carolyn Leckie and Barbara Scott agreed at the trial there was. I also recall a national meeting in Edinburgh where Frances Curran laid into Tommy Sheridan over that issue, but perhaps I just imagined it.

    The other problem with your account is that the SWP have a formal position of supporting Scottish Independence and have had since 2001. So again I fail to recall this fight you speak of.

  16. Facts says:

    James, if you can’t even get easily obtainable facts right in a simple article, and embarrass yourself with such clumsy bias, why should anyone give any credence to your muddled analysis?

  17. Alan McCombes says:

    No there wasn’t. In 2004, around the time you were headed off to NZ, there was a contest for the nomination for the top of the SSP list for the European Parliament elections (in June 2004).

    Frances, Rosie and Carolyn decided to support Felicity Garvie rather than Hugh Kerr, as did the vast majority of the SSP membership. That was the fall-out. Hugh never forgave them.

    On the SWP and Scottish independence, give us a break. I was involved in the discussions with the SWP leadership (from London) over their joining the SSP. They said they wouldn’t oppose Scottish independence, though they “did not see it as a proiority”.

    But in 2003, they wrote document after document attacking the SSP leaderhi p(including Tommy Sheridan) over our support for independence. I debated with Neil Davidson of the SWP in a number of heated debates on the issue (at Socialism 2003, for example). Mike Gonzales and other SWP members wrote documents attacking the SSP leadership over its support for independence.

    So please, Frank, don’t rewrite your own faction’s history as you’ve tried to rewrite the history of the SSP.

  18. James says:

    Let us be charitable Alan and accept different people see events in a different way. Well before I left I was aware of a growing split in the organisation, not the tensions between the different platforms but between 5 MSPs and Tommy Sheridan. If I could see that from my outside vantage point there is, with respect, no way you could not have noticed it.

    However may I add, my view of what I see as the mistakes of the SSP makes up only a part of my piece above. I think we have to all have a serious look at the events of the last years, reflect on them, then discuss the way forward. As I said above, the very public squabbling only the Socialist Left has played a big part in getting us into this mess in the first place.

    Best Regards

    James

  19. Mo'man says:

    I’m going to take the sting out of this SWP-Militant bickerfest for a second, and offer an independent view.
    As the writer notes, Scotland, and indeed the world, needs a vibrant, attacking Socialist organisation in this time of strife, and if the people leading the three main socialist parties (SSP, Solidarity and the SLP) can’t come to some arrangement in time for the next Holyrood election, those left-wing votes will again be counted on someone’s fingers, while the SNP again romp home without doing too much, even with that independence vote going against them, as it is surely will.
    I think the unity shown in Ireland by three left-wing parties can show the way forward, while in Portugal and Greece the left is forging greater ties, in the face of massive cuts. Further afield, in New Zealand, where the ruling National Party is hitting workers, the new left-wing, pro-Maori, Mana Party is bringing left-wing stalwarts together and making some headway in the opinion polls.
    Ironically, in 2003, it was the left in Scotland that was the standard bearer for Socialists around then world, now, it’s a joke.
    The time for bickering is over.

  20. bellacaledonia says:

    James – without wanting to get involved in the whole ins and outs of the SSP between 2003-2007 you cant seriously claim that the SWP faction within the SSP supported independence – unless by support you mean the way a noose supports a hanged man.

    The SWP were an anti-Independence wrecking ball inside the SSP. And thats being incredibly charitable to them.

    Kevin W

  21. James says:

    Hello Kevin

    The SWP does support independence, has since 2001 when we joined the SSP. The argument I recall was about putting independence in the constitution of the party which we opposed and conference (2004?) agreed.

  22. Alastair Alton says:

    Seems strange that James Doleman should cite – as evidence of anything – the testimony of a Sheridan supporter at the lying politician’s trial.
    We should reject any part of Sheridan’s phoney narrative.
    I should add that I find it ludicrous that Bella Caledonia suggests Mr Doleman is writing in a “personal” capacity. This piece is completely biased towards the Sheridan mythmakers’ version of events. His remark about Solidarity doing “little better” than the SSP is deceitful.

  23. David MacGille-Mhuire says:

    Interesting visual aid reflective of the article and sectarian rammy ensuing from it: A distinctly factional Trotskyite falling out on both sides selective vis a vis recollections of the specific and broader historical record – specific being the internal, factional struggles within Trotskyitism a la Militant Tendency re-branded and the fag-end of the SWP in their mutual, Johnny-come-lately involvement in the anti-imperialist, anti-colonial struggle in Scotland, Ireland and Wales as well as England going back to the early foundations of socialism in these isles and which was predicated on genuine internationalism based on addressing concrete, local, historical struggles.

    Pace John MacLean as the Bolshevik commissar in Scotland as well as Dundonian Connelly’s republican and socialist and anti-imperialist stance in Ireland which led to his assassination by a British firing squad and others of stature since them – all ignored in this squabbling of unprincipled opportunists who have the barest concrete relevance to unfolding events in Scotland.

    Intriguing also.

  24. Dougie Strang says:

    As someone who hoped for a Green Party-SNP coalition, I was disappointed that the Greens did so badly in the election. I suspect there’s much soul-searching and debate going on within the party, but I hope they never descend to the level of in-fighting as illustrated in the comments above, and I hope too that they don’t end up being infiltrated by those who seem hell-bent on pushing their control agenda wherever they can find a space. The Greens, it would seem, are now the only serious and coherent party representing a radical left of mainstream view. May they flourish.

  25. bellacaledonia says:

    Hi Alastair

    James’s article was definitely written in a personal capacity as it doesnt reflect either Bella Caledonia editors’ viewpoints. While I respect James’s right to air his opinions on the socialist left with hindsight perhaps it shouldnt have been published on Bella Caledonia.

    Since its inception Bella Caledonia has tried not to be a vehicle for airing internal organisational differences on the left. Our primary remit was to create a space for constructively exploring progressive, radical and cultural ideas from an independence-minded perspective.

    Myself and Mike don’t censor each other’s choice of articles. We dont have editorial meetings where we go through each article and vote on its inclusion. Its much looser than that.

    We have our different opinions. Personally I wouldnt have touched this article with a barge pole, but that’s because I come from a different political background from Mike – I was involved in the SSP for a number of years – and know that this is only one side of a complicated story. This isnt the vehicle for going through the minutae.

    However, should any member of SSP or Solidarity want to use Bella to explore progressive ideas rather than navel gaze about the organisational structures of the left, or rake over the embers of the Tommy Sheridan trials, then feel free to get in touch.

    But as far as this article goes I’m going to put my tin hat on and close off Comments.

    Kevin W.

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