Anatomy of Division

Gordon Morgan attempts to take a non-sectarian and dispassionate look at the various attempts – and failures – to find a way to avoid left parties standing against each other and asks what next?

Although they complain, both Labour and the SNP are fully committed to wielding the axe to public services. They are meekly implementing ConDem instituted austerity both in Holyrood and in Councils across Scotland. Unions such as the PCS have clearly made the case that no cuts are required. The so called fiscal crisis has been manufactured from thin air by those who caused the banking collapse. Tax the Rich, Make the Bankers Pay, Fight All Cuts – these slogans will increasingly resonate and gather support.

The Irish Elections show what can happen. The United Left Alliance gained five TDs, out of a total of 166. In Dublin they took three seats, the outgoing governing party Fianna Fail took one Dublin seat, previously it had 20. This should be the battleground at the Holyrood elections. A Scottish Left Alliance, if it existed,  could gain several seats in May, possibly more than the six gained in 2003. In each region only around five per cent of the vote is required for a seat.

However, yet again voters will be faced with several parties with little differences in policies. Because of divisions, there is little chance in most regions of reaching the five per cent threshold to return an MSP committed to fighting the cuts.

This was not inevitable. Numerous attempts have been made since 2007 to construct a Scottish left slate.  Depressingly, they mostly failed due to parties putting their own interests before class interests. The following is a personal but I hope accurate and informative account of these discussions.

In late 2006, there was a split in the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) which led to the majority of its members leaving. Most including the organised groupings the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the CWI (now Socialist Party Scotland) went on to form Solidarity. The background to the split, which I opposed, is another tale; however, at that time the SSP had six MSPs. It was impossible so soon after the split to then have an electoral pact for the 2007 elections. At the 2007 elections Solidarity, the SSP and the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) appeared as separate parties  in ballot papers in all eight regions. No MSPs were elected by any of the three parties. In Glasgow Solidarity got 4.1 per cent, the SSP 1.2 per cent and the SLP 1.3 per cent. Had there been some form of electoral pact an MSP would have been won in Glasgow.

In March 2008, informal discussions took place between Solidarity and members of the Green Party with a view to having a Red/Green slate for the Euro elections. This indirectly led to the Democratic Green Socialist formation. The Green members were also discussing with the SSP. Solidarity responded in April 2008 “at this moment in time, given the current state of affairs surrounding the court case, Solidarity could not enter into any formal coalition with the SSP”.

The unleashing of the economic crisis, forced a rethink of this position. In December 2008 Solidarity passed a motion from Tommy Sheridan which sought “to try and bring the left forces closer together to seek at least electoral agreements that would see the left vote maximised not diluted in the face of the free market main stream”.

In February 2009, an initiative from the RMT union led to the setting up of a No To the EU campaign to stand candidates in the European elections across the UK on an anti-privatisation/racism/war programme. Solidarity agreed to participate, along with the Communist Party of Britain (CPB) and other groups. Disappointingly, discussions between Bob Crow and Arthur Scargill came to nought and the SLP stood alone.

It was agreed that Scotland would select its own candidates and the SSP was asked to participate in the process. A motion supporting joining No to EU was discussed at the SSP conference at the end of March, but defeated. They decided to stand themselves. At the European elections in Scotland in June 2009, the SLP got two per cent and both the SSP and No to EU got 0.9 per cent. More significantly for the left at the time, the BNP took two Euro seats. This intensified discussions within Solidarity and other sections of the left on the need for left unity.

Against everybody’s wishes, Solidarity, the SSP and probably the SLP will be on most regional list ballots in the Holyrood election

In May 2009, the prospect of a Glasgow North East constituency by election was raised and the RMT wrote letters to Solidarity, the SSP and others seeking to discuss holding a joint hustings to agree a left candidate.  In mid June the SSP planned a Glasgow meeting to decide if they would stand themselves. I leafleted their meeting to “respectfully ask that SSP members delay a final decision on the issue, at least in the short term, until some form of left unity discussion can take place”. The SSP ignored this and decided on their own candidate. In July 2009 the SSP stated “The Scottish Socialist Party was founded on the principle of left unity in Scotland. We continue to have that as our goal. In 2006 a split from the SSP fractured that unity. Once all of the legal obstacles have been cleared from our path we intend to initiate a full, open and democratic discussion around left unity in Scotland and the role that the SSP can play in achieving it”.

Faced with this rejection and the lack of other significant independent forces, in October Solidarity selected its own candidate for the by election. At the election in November, the BNP came 4th with 4.9 per cent, Solidarity got 3.9 per cent, the SSP 0.7 per cent and the SLP 0.2 per cent. The Solidarity conference in November 2009 stated “With a general election only six months away we and the other left forces have to devise a method to prevent competing in the same seats for the same votes. Whether through electoral agreements or temporary alliances we owe it to the class we aim to represent to get our act together and offer a more united and therefore viable and potentially powerful electoral alternative”.

In January 2010 the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) was established to fight at the general election. Although not officially backed by any national union, senior RMT and PCS officials personally backed it. Bob Crow wrote to all groups in Scotland to participate in TUSC. As well as the SLP, the CPB refused to participate (they effectively were backing Labour). Colin Fox was spoken to during the first TUSC Scottish meeting and asked, if the SSP were not  joining TUSC, what constituencies they did plan to sand in? A similar question was put to the SLP. TUSC, with Solidarity’s backing, decided not to stand against either the SLP or the SSP. In the event in May there were only two constituencies in Scotland where more than one of TUSC/Solidarity, the SSP or the SLP stood. In eight constituencies only TUSC/Solidarity stood and in a further nine only the SSP stood.

In August 2010, Motherwell and Wishaw RMT called for trade unions, community groups, socialist organisations and parties to agree a common slate at the Scottish parliament elections. Both Solidarity and the SSP as well as representatives of the FBU, RMT and anti cuts bodies attended the initial two meetings of this body. A steering committee was set with representatives from each group. In November Respect also agreed to participate as it was considering standing in Scotland.

At the steering committee meeting on 27th November, the SSP announced that it had already decided to stand themselves, indeed had chosen their candidates in all eight regions. They then withdrew from the meeting. Over the next weeks it became clear that no new trade union or other forces were now backing the initiative and that Solidarity and Respect were the only parties involved. Under electoral law joint party lists are not permitted for the Scottish Elections, so discussions centred on the name. Respect only wished to stand in Glasgow. In the other seven regions of Scotland, Solidarity was the only party participating in the  RMT-initiated steering committee.

Respect confirmed it would stand on a platform of clear opposition to all cuts and clarified some other key policies.  On this basis Solidarity’s conference at 19th February 2011 agreed to not stand in Glasgow and, subject to further discussions (successfully concluded on 1 March), to support Galloway and Respect as part of a coalition against all cuts. Solidarity will stand itself in the other 7 regions. Unfortunately this means that against everybody’s wishes, Solidarity, the SSP and probably the SLP will in 2011 as in 2007 be on most regional list ballots in the Holyrood election.

There is an objective need for a united front to oppose the cuts, individually, as part of a campaign and within the electoral arena. To paraphrase Lenin this firm programmatic position requires extreme organisational flexibility on behalf of communists to become a reality. The electoral united front has largely failed for these Holyrood elections. United campaigns against all cuts can hopefully go on. Next year’s council elections give another opportunity to achieve an electoral front or alliance against the cuts which will be ongoing. They will be conducted under an almost identical election system to Ireland. The Irish United Left was only established in August 2010 and won seats in February 2011. It is an Electoral alliance between the Socialist Party, the People before Profit Alliance and the workers and Unemployed Action Group  and other groups all of which retain their own identity. All three above groups now have members of the Irish parliament having achieved first preference votes in Dublin of between 13 and 19 per cent – similar to the vote for the SSP in Glasgow in 2003.

With a year to go to the council elections, what obstacle other than entrenched left sectarianism can prevent the Scottish left agreeing a slate to contest and hopefully win many council seats across Scotland and thus more effectively oppose the cuts?