[Marxism] SSP report

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Apr 27 21:36:54 MDT 2004


The Scottish Socialist Party Continues to Amaze: A Report  on the 2004 
Annual Conference in Edinburgh

By Ernest Tate and Jess MacKenzie

The sixth annual conference of the Scottish Socialist Party - with about 
500 delegates in attendance -- took place in Edinburgh, March 
27-28th.   The main discussions were about preparing the party for the 
June, 2004, European elections and a campaign against the proposed E.U 
constitution, anti-racism work, an initiative to organize a Scottish 
Independence Convention, and the constructing of a secular education 
system.  A major report on trade-union work was presented  about the 
growing revolt in union ranks against New Labour. There were was also 
discussion about developing the party's position on Northern Ireland, but 
none of the motions on this issue achieved the support of the conference to 
pass.

  We won't report on everything that happened - that would require a book 
-- but we will point to what we think were the  highlights, to try to 
provide a glimpse of what went on there .   For example, there was a very 
long and stimulating discussion about  "tolerance" zones for prostitution 
in urban areas, an issued raised by a Scottish National Party's private 
member's Bill scheduled to be debated soon in Parliament;  the Party's MSPs 
will be expected to take a position on this issue. Due to the complexity of 
the issue, the whole matter was referred to the Woman's Network in the 
Party who will organize a special Party conference to continue the discussion.

Some Party campaigns had a minimum of discussion: for example, its anti-war 
work around the occupation of Iraq; its anti-racist work and its activity 
defending asylum seekers.  Probably its most important campaign is its 
struggle to force the New Labour-Liberal Democratic government to abandon 
the regressive council tax.  The party has received some press coverage of 
its protest demonstrations outside municipal halls all around Scotland, 
which culminated in a mass mobilization outside Holyrood, Edinburgh, on 
April 24th.  Many commentators in the media were of the opinion that the 
government would have to change the legislation soon because there has been 
such a ground-swell of opposition to it among ordinary people.  Tony Blair 
has indicated he will change the legislation for England, which will make 
the position of New Labour in Scotland untenable.  There was also little 
discussion of the Party's campaign for free school meals; the Party played 
a very important role in getting reduced costs for school meals established 
in Glasgow and other areas.

We attended our first annual Convention two years ago, just as the Party 
was gearing up to increase its representation in the 2002 elections.  We 
were looking forward to getting first hand information on how well the 
party had done since then.  It has been amazingly successful for a small 
relatively new organization, a little over five years old. It has 3500 
members, up over 500 since the last conference. The SSP is a 
"multi-tendency" party, comprised of most of the left groups in Scotland, 
most of who organize themselves around their specific viewpoints which 
constitute "platforms."  During the event, the "platforms" organized 
meetings in the evenings which were open to all delegates.

The SSP is for "red-blooded socialism, rooted in the working class," stated 
Catriona Grant, who chaired the first day's sessions. It calls for an 
independent socialist Scotland.  It's a combat socialist party, committed 
to the overturn of capitalism. Popular support has increased - in some 
industrial areas they are only a percentage point or so behind that of the 
official opposition, the Scottish National Party(SNP).  It has elected five 
new members in addition to re-electing Tommy Sheridan, the national leader, 
along with two municipal councillors.

The Party has added to these successes in the union movement with its "Make 
the Break" campaign, which it launched in 1999, a political struggle inside 
the unions to challenge union financial support for Tony Blair's New 
Labour.  Richie Venton, the Party's Industrial organizer told the 
delegates,   "a rolling thunder of discontent is growing in the unions.  We 
are no longer swimming against the stream, and the RMT has added huge 
authority to our arguments."

"At this stage", he said, "among the mass of trade unionists, the 
predominant trend is towards straight-forward disaffiliation from New 
Labour.  They are more decisive and clear-cut than many of the more active 
core of the unions.  This is especially prevalent in unions which have been 
in sharp conflict with the government, like the FBU.  Whilst a hugely 
positive step forward, disaffiliation from Labour, if left in isolation, 
could leave the unions in political limbo; would probably often mean the 
tops of the union carry on unofficial collaboration with New Labour and 
could reinforce a certain anti-political party strain within trade union 
ranks - born of the vile experiences at the hand of New Labour."  Working 
class conditions continue to deteriorate in Scotland.  Many delegates 
referred to new data which showed average longevity of the population in 
some areas has fallen to below 63
years, lower than Russia.

Venton cautioned against expecting mass over-night affiliation to the 
SSP.  It's not an immediate prospect, he said, "but that must in no way act 
as a recipe for passivity
we help shape the future, not just speculate."

The Rail, Maritime and Transport union in Scotland have affiliated 
8000  members, an action that led  Blair's New Labour to expel the entire 
RMT. (This union is famous for being the first, over one hundred years ago, 
to move behind the Labour Party when it was founded.)  In February, in 
defiance of their National leadership, 4000 postal workers in Edinburgh, 
Fife, Central Scotland and the Borders affiliated, and later this year, the 
Fire Brigades Union(FBU), which is still battling to get a contract, will 
debate its affiliations.  All these unions are helping finance the SSP's 
campaign in the European elections.

Tommy Sheridan opened the conference by paying tribute to the work of the 
party since the previous conference and warmly welcomed the new delegates 
from the RMT, and CWU and he urged SSP members in the Firefighter's and 
public service unions to step up their drive to "make the break" with New 
Labour.

A special delegation of striking nursery-nurses (day-care workers) was 
given a rousing welcome, backed up by a financial collection from the 
delegates as the hat was passed around.  In appreciation, the nursery 
workers, organized and staffed a crèche for the event.

It is worth digressing slightly here to tell you about our first hand 
experienced of how the party "walks the talk" when it comes to trade union 
struggles.  One day, we participated in a mobilization of over a thousand 
nursery workers - all women -- in front of Glasgow City Hall in support of 
a motion moved in the Council that day by the new SSP councilor, Keith 
Baldarassa.  These women - among the poorest paid in Scotland -- had been 
on strike for five weeks for a national agreement, in defiance of New 
Labour, the first national strike by a union in Scotland since the Miner's 
strike in the eighties.  The SSP moved quickly to support the strike and 
has continuously raised motions and questions in Parliament about the 
callous attitude of New Labour towards these low-paid workers. Over a 
couple of hours, we helped the SSP give out copies of its Union 
Bulletins.  Most of the women we talked to were very positive about the 
party and especially appreciated the work of Tommy Sheridan and SSP - MSP, 
Carolyn Leckie for their support in Parliament and in the media.

On Saturday, Alan McCombes introduced the Party's "Draft Manifesto for the 
European Elections." This was a big issue before the delegates. There was 
lots of discussion on the floor and in the corridors about the implications 
of electing even one member in the proportional representation system and 
who would be on the Party's slate. Scotland has eight seats in 
Brussels.  Everyone recognizes that having only one representatives in 
Brussels would make it easier for the Party to deepen its connections with 
other anti-capitalist forces on the European continent and to help it to 
organize resistance to the European multi-national corporation's drive to 
force down working peoples' living standards in order to make themselves 
"more competitive" with other imperialist world powers.

McCombes compared the energetic and vibrant SSP conference to that of the 
Charles Kennedy's Liberal-Democrats meeting in Dundee that was taking place 
that week. Even though there was little - if any -- coverage of the SSP 
event by the big TV media, television news showed a very low turn out for 
the Liberal-Democrat affair, which was regarded by reporters as one of the 
most boring on record.  McCombes had some fun with the "Lib-dems".  No 
wonder they are confused and their leader "likes a bevy", he 
said.  (Newspapers were full of reports of how leading Liberal-Democrats 
were warning Kennedy about his long absences and poor performance due to 
booze.)  To maintain their position in the governing coalition, Kennedy 
had, to the consternation of his members, abandoned the party's position of 
opposition to GM crops in Scotland while still opposing GM crops south of 
the border and gave his support to maintaining the council tax in Scotland 
while opposing it in Westminster.  McCombs speculated there was a 
possibility the SSP could bypass the crisis- ridden Liberal-Democrats in 
the European election contest.

  "The SSP rejects the Union Jack -flag-waving anti-Europeanism of the 
xenophobic right.  Socialism has always been an international philosophy", 
states the draft manifesto.   In today's world, "international socialism 
can no longer be derided as a utopian fantasy.  The starry eyed dreamers of 
the 21st century are those who hide behind national walls and live in 
permanent quarantine from the rest of the world."  Our aim, "is to build 
socialism from below - a socialism based on decentralization, diversity and 
voluntary cooperation between nations", pointing out that "there is nothing 
intrinsically internationalist about a United Europe or internationalist 
about the United Kingdom." The philosophy underlying the E.U. is right 
wing, the manifesto says.

The SSP, in contrast to the SNP, which is the official opposition in 
Scotland, is opposed to Britain adopting the euro as its currency.  It 
says, "Scotland would effectively become an economic prisoner, held under 
house arrest by the bankers of Frankfurt.."  It "means submitting to yet 
another 'one-size-fits-all' monetary regime".

Such SNP policies have shaken the confidence of many of its members. Some 
have joined, or are in the process of joining the SSP.  It also has been in 
crises and as a result of its failures in the last election when it lost 
eight seats.  Under pressure  from the SSP, they recently  abandoned their 
support for the Council tax, (a form of poll tax), an issue which is front 
and centre of the SSP's everyday activity.  According to The Times of 
London, a recent report to the SNP's executive revealed membership has 
dropped two-thirds in the past year, to 6000, the lowest in a generation. 
At the convention, Tommy Sheridan welcomed a new group of four ex-SNP 
members into the party, one of whom came as an observer but left as an SSP 
member. One was a member of the SNP's trade union group and another, a 
former SNP-MSP, who the delegates voted onto the SSP's slate of candidates 
for the European elections.

The SSP's position on independence was the subject of  three motions. The 
Party has been in discussion over the past period with other 
pro-independence forces in Scotland about organizing an Independence 
Convention. The SNP and the Green Party have now signed on, Alan McCombes 
told the delegates, and it will be launched  later this year.

The issue of Scottish independence was debated fully at the previous 
convention we attended at which time the party's position was 
overwhelmingly reaffirmed.  But the matter was raised again for this 
convention.

There was some resentment among the delegates to this kind of guerilla war 
that does not offer anything new in the way of argument.  This found 
expression in a motion from the Scottish Republican Platform that called 
for the Party to incorporate its position on independence into the Party's 
constitution.  "The SSP was founded as a pro-independence party.  The 
democratic demand for Scottish independence is a 'triple pillar' of SSP 
policy," it said, pointing out that "for a small but vociferous  minority 
of SSP activists, this remains a matter to be continually challenged
" The 
delegates rejected this idea however, recognizing that it would be wrong to 
seek an organizational solution to the confusion about this question in 
some of the left groups - mainly those with their bases in London.

One group, the "Committee for a Workers' International", commonly known in 
Britain as the "Militant tendency", distributed an open letter from their 
London leadership to the conference,  denouncing the Party's position on 
the national question, warning the delegates of a "shift towards 
opportunism" when the Scottish Socialist Voice, the Party's weekly paper, 
in the spirit of open and democratic discussion, allowed ex-SNP members to 
express their opinions, which were mainly left critiicisms of the SNP.

A motion influenced by the International Socialists "platform" took a 
similar position on the national question.  It supported "the right of 
Scottish people to self-determination", however, it believed the Party's 
position on independence "should be based on whether the goal of 
Independence and the means of achieving it, will strengthen or weaken the 
political, ideological and industrial position of the working class - not 
only in Scotland, but in the U.K. and internationally."  What's common to 
the position of all these groups, it seemed to us, is that they wish to 
place constraints on the Scottish working-class' democratic demands, asking 
it to wait until such time as there is a rise in the class struggle in 
England and  Europe.  This motion was defeated.

A major issue in Scottish society is the question of religious 
anti-catholic sectarianism which finds its expression in many forms, and 
which can be seen often, for example, in the eruption of violence and 
rioting by hooligans during soccer matches between the Rangers and Celtic 
teams.  Discussion took place around three motions and their respective 
amendments, which dealt with the difficult issues of building a secular 
educational system, and the issue of religious schools. The recent 
reactionary actions of the French government in banning Muslim women for 
the wearing of the head-scarves in schools, and the confusion in the French 
left on this issue, was mentioned several times.

Everyone recognized that even though the Scottish government maintains 
there is "public" or secular system in place, it is in all reality a system 
dominated by Protestantism, the main religion in Scotland.  The discussion 
was impassioned, at times, but open and comradely.

A motion was finally adopted which stated: "religion is a private, not a 
state matter.  The state shall not restrict an individual's right to 
freedom of conscience, of worship or of religious observance.  The Church 
and state are totally separate entities.  The state shall not fund or 
subsidize any religious institutions or organizations; the state shall not 
sponsor any act of religious  worship or observance."

An amendment was also accepted that called for the Party to launch a 
national debate in the next year on the building of a secular educational 
system that would involve parents and pupils, and all communities and 
teachers.

Two Kurdish asylum-seekers, Serder Bazini and Fariborz Gravindi, who had 
just come off a hunger strike to protest being deported, were introduced 
from the platform.  They looked extremely weak and emaciated and had come 
to the conference with their supporters to thank the party for its work on 
their behalf.  They received a standing ovation and Serder moved a motion 
of solidarity with Kurdistan.  It passed overwhelmingly.

The party leadership recognizes the limit to what can be discussed in two 
days.  Yet it was remarkable how democratic the event was, but the pressure 
to keep to the agenda, meant there was insufficient time for reflection to 
allow people to change their minds, allowing delegates to leave with the 
same opinions they came with.

  It was a conference for the branches, however, not just in words, but in 
actual practice.  And it seemed very democratic to us. The movers of 
motions were given time to introduce them, as were the 
seconders.  Amendments were also introduced and seconded.  After debate, 
both the movers of the motion and the amendments were given time to sum 
up.  And while this was going on, the delegates were voting by secret 
ballot to elect their leadership. There was no organizational wrangling. 
The SSP leaders, who often introduced the major reports, played very little 
role from the floor.

This was a sharp contrast to our experience in the labour movement in 
Canada.  We've been to many union and NDP meetings over the years and often 
- quite often -- even after having spoken from the platform, the leaders 
will eat up the delegate's time at the floor mikes. Rank and file delegates 
have been pushed aside so an MP can speak.  In addition, often the agenda 
is taken up with videos and special events and special invited speakers, 
the mayor or some provincial leaders, who use up a lot time of the 
convention with the willing cooperation of the organizers, who say they are 
making the event "entertaining".  There was none of that there.  It was 
also interesting to see the role played by the newly affiliated union 
delegates.  We had expected to see them sitting on the sidelines, watching, 
voyeur like, as the various "platforms" engaged in debate. We've seen that 
happen in some meetings in Canada. But no, these workers seemed very 
experienced politically and were fully engaged in what was going on, many 
of them making passionate interventions, frequently effecting policy in a 
serious way, probably the result of their long struggle in the 
unions.  This was clearly their Party.

The Scottish Socialist Party was born in the last decade of the last 
century when many ideologues of the ruling classes said the struggle for 
socialism had come to an end.  We are still early in the new century and 
the SSP gives us a glimpse of how it is possible for socialists in an 
advanced capitalist country to organize themselves in a new and democratic 
way. We have heard there are similar formations developing in other 
countries, and this is truly inspiring.  Of course, it would be absurd to 
think we can mechanically reproduce in Canada what the Scottish socialists 
have achieved, but we can certainly learn a lot from their experience. It 
might be a good idea if, in the spirit of internationalism, more people 
visited Scotland to see the SSP.  The European elections might be a good 
time and perhaps we can look to attending their next conference.



Louis Proyect
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