Unity Offers No Way Forward

Responding to Gordon Morgan’s article in the last issue, Bill Bonnar looks at the potential for realignment of Scotland’s left parties and dismisses it as a distraction from building a left movement

Gordon Morgan’s appeal for Left unity ahead of the Scottish parliamentary elections and beyond (SLR issue 63) while certainly well-meaning fails to address key issues which must be the foundation stone of any future unity. Before starting this article I was determined not to mention the Tommy Sheridan case and its impact on the Left but instead will limit myself to one basic comment. History now appears to be in the process of being re-written with the SSP cast in the role as villain. Nothing could be further from the truth. The SSP were not the villains of this sorry saga: they were the victims. Responsibility for what happen and for the damage done to the Scottish Left lies entirely with the reckless and self-centred actions of one individual. The SSP’s conflict with Tommy Sheridan was not about his personal life. Opinions on this within the SSP varied from finding his behaviour unacceptable for a leader of a socialist party and an elected politician to viewing it as an essentially private matter. Instead it centred on the fact that Tommy Sheridan wanted the party to sign up to version of events which he knew were false, we knew were false and almost everyone else knew were false. He then wanted leading members of the party to be prepared to perjure themselves in court on his behalf. This on the basis of an action which he took against the News of the World in spite of considerable advice to the contrary and which proved to be extremely misguided.

When the party refused, Tommy organised a split involving a group of people whose main political platform was personal loyalty to the former leader in alliance with two opposition factions (the SWP and the CWI) and formed Solidarity. The SWP, in particular followed Tommy Sheridan not because they particularly supported him but because they felt they could dominate the new party in a way that they failed to do in the SSP. All this because the party took a principled position that it was not prepared to lie to its own members and supporters and to the general public. This is what happened and no amount of spin can alter this basic truth.

Now onto left unity. The SSP was formed as a party of left unity. It remains so today. Its aim then and now has been the creation of a broad based party of the left around the twin aims of socialism and independence. However, experience shows that unity cannot be simply parachuted in or come about through quick fixes. Such unity rarely lasts and tends to fall apart at the first sign of pressure. Unity has to be built on solid foundations. Experience in the SSP showed that it was difficult to maintain any kind of unity with factions who were diametrically opposed to key aspects of policy and who viewed their participation in the SSP in purely tactical terms. For unity to work there must be unity of purpose, broad agreement on the basics and mutual respect. Anything short of this is a recipe for disunity and disaster and simply won’t work.

Our aim is to build a vibrant and united movement for socialism.This rather than the false unity of the past is our priority

Let me give a small example. I chair meetings of the SSP’s International Committee. Before the split this committee barely functioned because there was so little agreement among its members on which international causes to support so it ended up doing next to nothing. Since the split the Committee has organised SSP delegations to Cuba, Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque Country. It has received delegations from Pakistan and the Basque Country and organised events around Ireland, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Peru, Palestine and Cuba while building up solid links with other Left organisations around the world. It could only do this because everyone involved was basically united around what we wanted to do.

In his article Gordon Morgan suggests some kind of rapprochement with between the SSP and Solidarity. While never wanting to say never and recognising that there are many good socialists within Solidarity, let me throw a couple of spanners in the works. If the SSP were to pursue such a rapprochement; who exactly in Solidarity or Respect or TUSC or N2EU or whatever it calls itself these days would we be dealing with? Would it be the Tommy Sheridan Support Group or the SWP or the new breakaway from the SWP or the CWI? We know who we are but who are Solidarity? Just as importantly (and this is my last reference to Tommy Sheridan), before, during and after both trials the SSP was described by people in and around Solidarity as ‘unfit for purpose’ and even ‘a cancer on the working class movement’. At the same time those people who were dragged through the courts and gave evidence against Tommy Sheridan were variously described as ‘scabs’, ‘scum’, ‘class traitors’, ‘agents of the state’ and ‘hirelings of the Murdoch press’. This directed at well respected socialists who have given and continue to give a lifetime of service to the movement. Is this still the view of Solidarity? If not, then they should issue an immediate and unconditional public apology and accept that they were wrong to slander the SSP and its members in this way. If it is still their view then why on earth would they want to work with such people?

Gordon’s vision of left unity could not be shakier or less ambitious. For him it is about stitching together the little fragments of the Left in a kind of short term fix. Why bother? All we would have are little fragments of the Left stitched together. In the meantime Scottish society moves on. We are living through a period of what Naomi Klein called ‘Disaster Capitalism’ where the ruling class is waging an all-out war against the working class on a scale which we haven’t seen for generations. At the same time, significant numbers are being mobilised into action to defend working class interests and fight for an alternative. Evidence of this can be seen in the re-emergence of a radical students movement, the trade union led campaign against the cuts and in a myriad of localised protests such as the occupation of the Hetherington Building at Glasgow University.

A whole new generation is emerging through these struggles. The opportunity for rebuilding the left in Scotland by actively bringing this new generation to socialism has rarely been greater. This should be our priority and this is certainly the case with the SSP. I have been around Left politics long enough not to view things through rose coloured spectacles as I am sure is the case with most of the readers of SLR. Yet the fact remains is that the SSP is re-emerging from the crisis that was inflicted on it. The party has never been more united in its objectives; a unity in part forged by the experiences of recent years. Recruitment is at its highest level since the crisis first broke and overwhelmingly consists of young people for whom even the first Tommy Sheridan trial is distant history. The party is rebuilding its branch and membership base and has the most dynamic socialist youth wing seen in Scotland for a generation. No one else on the Left in Scotland can make this claim. While the fractious mix of small left factions in and around Solidarity constantly try to get the better of each other, the SSP simply gets on with things. Why would anyone think that being involved with all that represents an attractive proposition?

A key part of the thinking behind the original launch of the SSP was that there existed in Scotland a significant minority of people who considered themselves to be on the left. This constituency needed a political vehicle which did not exist through the other parties. The SSP set out to be that vehicle and in showed its potential by gaining six MSPs. That potential constituency is still there even if it has been let down by recent events. All the SSP’s objectives revolve around becoming that vehicle once more.

There is no great mystery to building an effective socialist movement. It’s about developing Left policies and turning them into what Gramsci called ‘the common sense ideas of the age’. Its about developing a vision of what a future socialist society would look like and popularising that vision. Its about getting the basics right in terms of organisation, membership, branches, finance and media profile. It’s about having an inclusive and democratic structure and not one dominated by celebrity leaders. It is also about recognising that unlike the parties of capitalism who are primarily located in an electoral process; we are not. A party of the left must be located in the struggles of working people, be that in the workplace, local community or around specific issues. If we are successful there the electoral work will tend to take care of itself. It is not rocket science. This has always been the case throughout the entire history of the left in Britain and is the case currently in Europe where a number of left parties have risen to prominence in recent years.

This remains the focus for the SSP. Our aim is to build a vibrant and united movement for socialism in Scotland and engage with that whole new generation which is emerging into struggle. This rather than the false unity of the past is our priority.