Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Love in a Cold Climate re-draft.

I've also finished redrafting this piece for next month's Red Pepper. As a break I'd thought I'd post it here. I've still got to cut another 150 words at least, sigh. There'll be a piece with it written by someone else on the history behind it - which is why I don't have to cover it here.

SSP MSPs in happier timesAt the beginning of September two rallies took place in Glasgow. One for the renewal of the Scottish Socialist Party and one for Tommy Sheridan's breakaway grouping 'Solidarity'.

Both well attended with around 350 at the SSP meeting and 500 at Solidarity's. It’s quite possible that many of those attending Sheridan’s rally had come for the show, (reports say less than half joined the new group) and when Tommy spoke he got a standing ovation from around 2/3 of the room – the remainder clapped, but stayed seated, indicating interest rather than deep commitment.

Although both meetings had negative aspects neither were characterised by them. There were some personal remarks made about Sheridan at the SSP meeting and there were some very aggressive and silly remarks made at the Solidarity event - but on the whole both camps put forward an outward looking agenda.

Some people have claimed there are no political differences between the two camps. This is entirely wrong. There are differences - all within the spectrum of left ideas.

For the SSP Scottish independence is clearly a very important policy to speakers at the event and a high profile in the paper. At the Solidarity event there was no talk of Scottish independence at all, although it is mentioned in its initial document.

Both meetings talked about the war and advertised the lobby of the Labour Party conference. But for SWP speakers at the Solidarity event the anti-war movement was the "mother ship" to which we should all return, and every political point was related in some way to the war. For the SSP the war was an important issue among many, not the single defining feature of the political landscape.

Another key difference was structures. Solidarity is intent on reproducing the old structures of the left, it just has to be 'bigger' and it’s leaders ‘better’. A large part of the SSP rally was a discussion of ideas, new techniques, participatory democracy and accountability. There was some talk of abolishing the convenorship post altogether and introducing a more collective, consensus model.

One instructive example was that of Bolivia, which was raised at both meetings. The SSP discussed lessons to be learned from the movements, how they organise, how radicals relate to the community, how they keep their leaders accountable, Sheridan was very impressed by the size of the vote Morales got.

The SSP are immersed in a wide ranging and open debate, including in their paper, not excluding a critical examination of the “cultural baggage” inherited from the far left, this is extremely interesting. Sadly Solidarity have the opinion that they are right about everything, one speaker, Jim Walls, even going so far as to say (of SSP members who would not join Solidarity) "you are either part of the problem or part of the solution... there are no shades of grey.”

Thankfully many speakers at the Solidarity rally were far more open minded and called for a less sectarian approach. Mike Gonzalez made a measured, intelligent speech and Gary Fraser argued "our fight is not with the United Left but with the war mongers" warning that infighting on the left would serve no one's purpose.


Many of those attending Sheridan's meeting had never been members of the SSP and included activists from G8 Alternatives. It also had a wider geographical spread - whilst many of the SSP attendees were from the Glasgow area. It was also interesting to note there were very few young people at the Solidarity meeting whilst the SSP had lots of youngsters, including as key speakers.

SWP members at the Solidarity event spoke time and again about there being no entry requirements for the party except a willingness to take on the powers that be. Tommy Sheridan was also very specific about wanting to appeal to both the 3% that are socialists and the 53% that would see a Solidarity government elected in Scotland. In other words Solidarity must be open to those who do not self-identify as socialist, perhaps on a similar model to Respect.
Both meetings made a valiant effort to avoid attacks on the other camp and concentrate on their own future - this was really excellent. There were some moments at both meetings where this theme slipped a bit but I suppose in the context it would be too much to hope for that sniping could be avoided entirely.

The confidence of both meetings was obvious. Both groups are recruiting, both have capable and committed socialists and both have ideas for the future.

When you're only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nailStyle and feel

When Tommy Sheridan spoke it was a raging, shouted torrent. Colin Fox spoke well and reflectively without bombast or hyperbole.

Whilst the SSP meeting had a tone of "let's use this as an opportunity" to think creatively, Solidarity was about demonstrations, filling in your standing order form (five or six times we were badgered about this), giving donations, sit where you're told and lots of speakers using the word "enthusiasm".

Solidarity was also a touch goon-ish. The chair began by telling us that anyone who heckled would be thrown out of the meeting and someone called out "but we can have a debate can't we" where upon a steward descended on him and stood right over him *for the next three hours*. Where is Walter Wolfgang where you need him?

That said perhaps the end song of each rally says something about the way the two meetings compared. The SSP ended with the Internationale with everyone fist held high whilst Solidarity ended with Tommy's mother saying she'd made a promise to his gran and singing "Dream the Impossible Dream" really, really badly.

Should we mourn the split?

The circumstances that led to the split could have been avoided, no question – but there is no prospect what so ever of the two groups coming back into one united socialist organisation. The split had to happen to allow socialists to get on with the real business in hand – which has already begun with the SSP back up to 6% in the polls (according to the Herald).

I spoke to a number of SSP and Solidarity supporters who admitted their union branch, refugee campaign etc had important players from both factions. Whatever happens party wise these activists have to work together. Both socialist organisations have good, class struggle cadre. Allowing the political problems of the two groups to spill into trade unions and campaigns would be appalling. Working relations should be established as soon as possible – although this could well require a monumental effort from the anti-sectarians in both camps.

Speakers at both meetings that advised against seeing the other camp as the enemy, like Mike Gonzalez and John MacAllion, are to be commended, those who seek to deepen the rift with point scoring and an attempt to gate keep who is and is not allowed to be an active socialist should be reasoned with - whether they are in Scotland or simply commentating from abroad.


Anonymous said...

The statement about the chair saying people would be thrown out and a bouncer standing next to them is just not true. Also the Solidarity meeting clearly stated and voted for OMOV and bottom up democracy as a principle, I heard no mention of adopting old structures - were you there? Solidarity will have branch and regional autonomy, most of us who left the SSP did so because of the lack of democracy in the party. All of the SSPs structures became centralised and although they are very good at talking about new ways of working, it was only ever lip service.

Jim Jay said...

No, hold on. It is true. I was there. It happened. Mild goonery not the Olypiad stadium or anything.

In what way is OMOV not an old way of doing things? In what ways were participatory democracy discussed? Or the lessons of latin america (apart from being impressed by the class traitor morales' vote)?

My point was only that it was going to organise on conventional principles that other parties organise on. Whilst the SSP are having interesting dissussions about structures and democracy.

Obviously solidarity people didn't say "we'll adopt old structures" they just did it without thinking about it.

You're point about the ssp paying lip service to things maybe right - i don't know - i wanted to be pretty clear this was a report on the meetings not the entire history of the scottish left.

I actually think it's probably more complex than you are saying - but the central point that i do not want to get lost is that both sides have real socialists who are involved in real struggles - if either group start treating the other as the enemy rather than working together against the common enemy (despite being in seperate politcal organisations) then I think that would be quite wrong.