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SSP poised for breakthrough

The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) could make a big breakthrough in May’s Scottish parliament elections. This, argues PHILIP STOTT, would mark a significant advance for socialist forces.

"OPPOSING George W Bush might be unpopular in the USA, but the latest System Three poll suggests there is potentially more to be gained than lost by being implacably anti-war", commented the Glasgow Herald in its editorial on March 7.

"That has to be the most likely explanation", it went on, "for the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) setting records in the new poll. For the first time it has reached double figures, securing the support of 10% of the electorate in the second, list vote for the Scottish parliament elections. That puts it on a par with the Conservatives. In Glasgow, the SSP heartland, the figure rises to 22%, just behind the Scottish National Party (SNP). Glasgow has been an entrenched Labour stronghold, but the party is only 8% ahead of the SSP in the city... The poll suggests the party would win ten seats in the May elections, though that is unlikely. Half this number would still be a remarkable achievement".

The Scottish elections on May 1 will be contested against the backdrop of the war on Iraq and its aftermath. Even before the first bombs began raining down on Baghdad, politics in Scotland was being shaped through its prism. The SNP, who originally said they would support war with a second UN resolution, rapidly hardened their position following the mass protests of February 15. Their leader, John Swinney, announced that even a new UN mandate, unless it was accompanied with clear evidence from weapons inspectors, would not be enough to win their backing. The Lib-Dems and a handful of Labour rebels, alongside the SNP, the SSP, the Greens and independents, backed an anti-war amendment from Labour’s John McAllion in the Scottish parliament on March 13. Only through a bloc of New Labour loyalists and Tories was a narrow majority for Blair’s position passed.

Before the war started 27% of people in Scotland said they opposed war under all circumstances. Only 15% believed a war was justified without UN backing. Even with shifts in the mood once the war started, the potential for a significant erosion in support for New Labour clearly exists. The growth in support for the SSP is taking place against the background of the general alienation by the working class towards the capitalist political establishment, the upturn in the class struggle as seen by the fire-fighters dispute, and the deepening economic downturn, with its particular impact on Scotland.

Character of the SSP

THE SSP WAS launched in 1998. The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), whose members in Scotland are part of the SSP, has from the mid-1990s supported and where possible participated in steps to build new mass parties of the working class following the wholesale transformation of parties like the Labour Party into capitalist parties. We supported the idea of launching the SSP, recognising the potential it could have in Scotland as at least a step towards a mass party in the future. Where we disagreed fundamentally with some comrades who then parted company with the CWI, however, was on the necessity of maintaining a Marxist organisation and the programme of the CWI while building the SSP.

This idea was rejected by Tommy Sheridan, the current SSP MSP, and others. It was enough, they argued, to build the SSP in a politically broad way, with a mix of revolutionary and non-revolutionary ideas, while at best maintaining a loose ‘Marxist think-tank’ within the party. These differences were not secondary but went to the core of what type of party and programme is needed to defeat capitalism and establish a socialist society. The history of the 20th century proves that without a mass party and an internationalist and revolutionary socialist programme it will not be possible to build and ensure the long-term victory of socialism.

The SSP is not a Marxist party. Increasingly its programme emphasises greater taxation on the rich and big business, for example, as the method through which wealth could be re-distributed, with public ownership of the economy and socialism seen as a ‘long-term’ aim. Marxists, while supporting increased taxation on big business, have always sought to explain the limitations of such an approach. The capitalists will seek to avoid paying an increased share of their wealth through taxation, resorting to tax avoidance or a ‘strike’ of capital, refusing to invest. What this then poses is the need to take over completely the wealth and the means to produce wealth, the major companies and banks that control the economy, under democratic working class control and management.

The SSP manifesto, in contrast, highlights the examples of Denmark and Norway – with "some of the most impressive public services in the world" – which, the manifesto argues, was a result of higher levels of top-rate taxation. Without explaining the limitations of the ‘Scandinavian model’ however – with public services under attack anyway from neo-liberal politicians across the region – this can foster illusions that on the basis of capitalism a more equitable form of society can be sustained. Marxists fight for every reform for the working class that can be won through struggle. At the same time we recognise that every reform wrestled from the ruling class under a crisis-ridden capitalism is of a temporary character and will be clawed back. It is essential to link the struggle for reforms to the need to end the rule of big business and capitalism.

Independence, the SNP & the SSP

THE MOST RECENT SSP conference, held this February, also saw a decisive shift in the approach of the party leadership on the national question, with the embracing of a two-stages approach. First an independent Scotland that would stand up to a hostile capitalist world: "We repudiate the fictional claim that in the new globalised economy an independent Scotland would be powerless to tax the rich and wipe out poverty". And then, "Our long-term goal is to create an independent Scottish socialist republic". (Quotes from the SSP election manifesto.) This two-stage idea was spelt out further in a resolution from Tay Coast SSP branch, supported by the party leadership, which argued for "Scottish independence [to be] a key strategic objective of the SSP" as "independence will provide the Scottish people with the democratic machinery to support their struggle for socialism".

Socialists support independence but would warn that, unless Scotland breaks with capitalism and links up on a socialist basis with other countries and workers internationally, it would not be possible to end poverty, low pay and the crisis in the NHS. On the basis of capitalist independence the banks, financiers and big business would still, as they do now under devolution, control the economic levers of power.

The CWI argues for an independent socialist Scotland which would link up in a socialist confederation with England, Wales and Ireland as part of a socialist Europe. At the same time, we oppose any attempts to divide the working class on national lines. Working-class unity on an all-Britain basis can play a vital role in undermining support for nationalism as well as increasing the power and cohesion of the working class movement.

The consequences of the SSP’s approach could be far-reaching. There will be great pressure on the SSP MSPs to support the SNP in the new parliament particularly if, as is possible, the SNP could form an administration with support from other parties.

If the SSP sees an independent Scotland as the first stage of a two-stage strategy then why not back the SNP as the quickest way of achieving that goal? That could prove fatal for the SSP, which would be tainted with the pro-big business policies of the nationalists in the same way other left parties in Europe have been tainted by propping up pro-capitalist administrations (the PDS in Germany, the Swedish Left Party, the Danish Red-Green Alliance etc). A class policy of political independence from the bourgeois parties, while supporting measures that advance the interests of the working class and socialism, is essential if the SSP is not to throw away the opportunity that could be won on May 1.

The SSP could make a big breakthrough in May, which would mark a significant advance for socialist forces. This would only be the start however. It then becomes a question of what the party and especially its leadership does with such a position. History is littered with the remains of political parties that had significant influence, including even mass support among the working class, but with a wrong policy were ruined.

CWI members in Scotland were founding members of the SSP. We will fight to build the influence of the party at the elections and beyond. At the same time we will continue to advance our Marxist and internationalist programme which we believe can strengthen the SSP and play an invaluable role in the working class movement in Scotland.

To keep up to date on developments in Scotland subscribe to International Socialist, the monthly paper of the Scottish section of the CWI.

Five issues for £3-50; 12 issues for £6-50. Write to: CWI, PO Box 6773, Dundee, DD1 1YL. Cheques payable to International Socialist.


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