Scottish Politics has changed for ever
By Allan McCombes
Alan McCombes is a member of SSP National Executive and was the coordinator for the party's 2003 election campaign. He is a member of the Editorial Board of Links.
For the complacent ruling establishment, the spectacular rise of a new left opposition in Holyrood came like a snowstorm in the Sahara.
Right up until literally the midnight hour, the SSP, the Greens and the independents had been ignored, or at best patronised, by the mainstream media.
Nothing prepared the political commentators for the shock of witnessing the big four parties lose one and a quarter million votes across the two ballots; or for the lurch to the left across Scotland and the election of seventeen radical anti-establishment MSPs.
The centre right continues to rule Scotland through the Lib-Lab coalition. But the political centre of gravity in Scotland has shifted decisively to the left.
There is now a clear red gulf separating Holyrood from Westminster. Scotland has become the political Achilles heel of the UK capitalist state.
In the days following election, the silence of the media turned into a cacophony of rage—most of it directed against the SSP.
The Scotsman group of newspapers in particular has run almost daily frenzied attacks on the Scottish Socialist Party, reminiscent of the media of vilification in the 1980s of Liverpool Council, the Greater London Council, Militant, the Bennite left, the National Union of Miners and anyone else prepared to stand against the tide of Thatcherism at that stage.
The swing to the SSP has been one of the largest national swings achieved by any party in Europe in recent history.
Our vote surpassed even the vote for James Maxton's Independent Labour Party in 1935, which until last week had been the biggest ever socialist vote to the left of Labour in any component part of the UK.
That was in the depths of a terrible depression that left millions on the edge of starvation. It was in a period in which fascism was on the rise, having conquered power in Germany and Italy, and in which the Soviet Union still commanded mass political support across the globe.
In contrast, last week's election was fought under what should have been favourable conditions for the centre and right.
Official unemployment in Scotland is at an all-time low. Spending on public services is at an all time high. And although the Iraq war was damaging for Labour, it could have been far more damaging. Nonetheless a huge swathe of the electorate decided to strike a decisive blow, not just at New Labour, but against the entire political system.
The result illustrates that there is no automatic relationship between the state of the economy and the growth of the left. If anything, the economic progress of the past decade has exposed more nakedly the hideous inequalities and injustices in society.
At the same time, international events—especially the invasion of Iraq—have forced people to think about politics and power as never before.
For the Lib-Lab alliance, 2003 is probably as good as it gets. Events over the next few years may well result in Labour politicians looking back nostalgically on the first four or five years of the Scottish Parliament as a golden age of tranquillity.
Whatever happens, this coalition will be a ramshackle structure. Assuming that an agreement can be reached as a result of both parties junking elements of their manifestos, the new majority will command an overall majority of just five.
If anything, the SNP faces an even more stark and immediate crisis. Most pundits expected a slump in Labour support. But the hundreds of thousands of votes lost by the SNP came as even more of a shock.
Some commentators have claimed that the decline in the SNP's vote marks a turn away from independence.
Writing in the Scotsman (Saturday, May 10), Wendy Alexander gloated over the defeat of the SNP and concluded that the election demonstrated that the people of Scotland have abandoned any aspiration towards independence.
This is reminiscent of former Scottish Labour leader George Robertson's insistence that devolution would "kill separatism stone dead".
In fact, Labour and the Tories struck it lucky. If the war on Iraq had escalated and dragged on through the course of the election, it is likely the SNP would have ended up the biggest single party.
The SNP also suffered as a result of its own timid and contradictory campaign, which tried to please everyone right across the political and social spectrum. Its attempts to court big business and the media were doomed to failure. During the devolution referendum of 1997, big business, with a few isolated exceptions, opposed tooth and nail even Labour's timid constitutional proposals.
It is unthinkable that Scotland's corporate elite would entertain the idea of the break-up of the United Kingdom, with all the political, economic and social upheaval that would entail.
But by flirting with big business, by toning down its opposition to privatisation, by failing to talk about redistribution of wealth, by ceasing its criticism of the government on the war, and by diluting even its core pro-independence message, the SNP ceded a whole chunk of its support to more radical left-wing parties and candidates.
Paradoxically, the SNP vote has shrunk, but the pro-independence vote has grown—and there are now at least seven more pro-independence MSPs than there were in the last parliament.
Our central slogan of an independent socialist Scotland was absolutely critical to our success. Those in favour of independence are, as a general rule, the same section of the population who are most open to left-wing socialist ideas: young people, low-paid workers, people who were opposed to the war, people who want a fairer society.
In contrast, it is the older, more conservative sections of the working class and middle class who tend to be more unionist.
Our intransigent anti-war stance was also a vital ingredient in our breakthrough. The two parties seen as the most consistent and principled anti-war parties, the SSP and the Greens, were the two parties which made the most spectacular advances in this election.
Also central to our success were the core pledges to scrap the Council Tax, reintroduce the free school meals bill, oppose privatisation and legislate for a £7.32 minimum wage and a 35-hour working week in the public sector. These pledges were clear, they were radical, they were popular, and they were credible.
By campaigning on these simple, achievable demands, we undoubtedly convinced tens of thousands of people to vote for us who would not necessarily agree with our stance against the war or in favour of an independent socialist republic.
The strong support for the Greens—who have had a lower public profile than the SSP over the past four years—showed the strength of feeling on the environment among a big section especially of younger voters.
Some of these voters would never dream of voting socialist. Many of them would have backed the Liberal Democrats in the first ballot. But for others, voting Green is a statement of opposition to capitalism, and at least a first step in the direction of socialism.
Our manifesto, which included extensive sections on the environment and public transport, would have been attractive to many of the younger Green voters. But the strength of our environment policies did not necessarily come through in our mass-produced literature, our broadcasts or our media coverage. In future elections, we should consider pushing the green dimension of socialism more forcefully.
In the meantime, our MSPs will attempt to collaborate with the Green group of MSPs and independents on a range of issues.
The Scottish Socialist Party is unique among Scottish political parties in the sense that our party is more than just an electoral machine. We are striving to liberate Scotland from capitalism as our contribution to the struggle for a new society internationally. We aim to transform society from below by building a conscious mass movement for socialism involving hundreds of thousands.
In the short existence of the SSP we have fought four national election campaigns. But we have also have participated in, initiated and led extra-parliamentary campaigns on a vast range of issues—against three wars, against racism, against warrant sales, against privatisation, against low pay, against GM crops, in favour of free school meals, in favour of wealth redistribution, in favour of women's rights and gay rights, in support of striking workers and in solidarity with oppressed peoples internationally.
We have led strikes, demonstrations and occupations. Many of our members have been arrested in the course of these actions.
We produce a newspaper which is read every week by thousands. We have developed political education in the branches and regions.
Whatever else happens, it is vital that the party is not allowed to become downgraded to the role of a support act for our MSPs or other elected representatives. Exactly the opposite: one of the central tasks of our MSPs is to build the party in the regions.
Nonetheless, we must not underestimate the importance of our parliamentary work in politicising hundreds of thousands in the coming four years.
Writing in the Scotsman (Saturday, May 10), liberal left columnist Joyce McMillan—who is by no means sympathetic to the SSP—said of the oath of allegiance protests: "… Wednesday's events have got some of Scotland's missing under-35 voters talking about the parliament, and identifying with some of those in it, for the first time in its short history".
Much of the media focus on the new group of Scottish Socialist MSPs has been trivial and downright sexist. But the other side of this publicity is that the SSP has now arrived as a fully fledged party, with the one-man-band syndrome well and truly laid to rest.
The public role of Tommy Sheridan has been and will continue to be vital to the success of the SSP. But that weight of responsibility now also falls on the shoulders of our other five MSPs, whose every statement and gesture will be criticised, scrutinised and analysed, especially in the coming weeks.
In the longer term, what is more important than how our MSPs dress, or what they say, or how they behave is whether, collectively, they can bring about real changes to people's lives.
Tommy's victory over the Scottish Executive on warrant sales and his success in forcing free meals onto the centre stage of the Scottish Parliament boosted the credibility of the SSP immeasurably. No longer could the SSP be dismissed as a bunch of starry-eyed dreamers out of touch with the real world.
We have sweated blood and tears to achieve this breakthrough. But the tasks we face in the coming years are even more awesome.
The past four years have seen a remarkable turnaround for socialism in Scotland. In 1998, immediately prior to the launch of the SSP, we openly acknowledged that there was, at that time, a startling contradiction between the potential support for socialism in Scotland and the fact that, on the ground, the active forces of socialism were weaker than at any time in the twentieth century.
In the four years since the launch of the SSP, that gulf between potential and reality has been bridged.
From being weak and scattered, the movement for socialism in Scotland is now strong and united. It has vast influence and deep roots in hundreds of communities.
This turnaround has been made possible partly by external changes, including the rise of the anti-globalisation movement internationally, the rise of militarism and imperialism following September 11, the exposure of the New Labour project in power in Westminster and Holyrood, and the failure of the SNP to offer any serious resistance to New Labour.
But the rise of Scottish socialism has also been a product of the role of the party itself: our strategy of unifying the left, our tactics in the Scottish Parliament, our role in the trade unions, our dynamism in the communities, our political program, including our preparedness to face up to the national question, the calibre of our political propaganda, the quality and ability of our members in the regions and branches to argue the case for a socialist Scotland.
We have to recognise especially the role played by Tommy Sheridan, who was identified in several polls during the election as by far the most respected and impressive politician in Scotland.
At certain stages in history, mass leaders who can inspire hundreds of thousands are necessary in any political movement. In the future we can be confident that others, including the newly elected Scottish Socialist MSPs, will also play such a role.
However, we cannot assume that the momentum we have built so far will automatically be sustained.
In Italy, Refondazione Comunista has forged a mass party over the past twelve years. Although the SSP does not yet have the roots, the trade union links, or the depth of experience of RC, we have rapidly established a similar electoral influence proportionally to the population.
However, even RC has not managed to develop beyond that five to six per cent barrier in elections.
It also suffered a serious split in its parliamentary group in the late 1990s, when a section of the leadership broke away to the right.
Nonetheless, RC has retained a powerful position and appears poised to play a colossal role in Italian politics over the course of the next decade.
More negative experiences on the European left have included that of then Workers Party in the Republic of Ireland in the 1980s and early 1990s, and of the United Left in Spain in the mid-to-late 1990s.
The Workers Party never achieved the same level of support that the SSP has now built. But at its peak in the 1980s, it did succeed in getting seven TDs (MPs) into the Irish Parliament, the Dail.
But by 1992, the party split asunder, with six of the seven TDs leaving to launch a more right-wing breakaway, the Democratic Left.
In Spain, the United Left formed in 1986, achieved dozens of members of parliament, nine European mps, and thousands of local councillors during its first decade. But it too came through a series of political crises and saw its support fall from a peak of thirteen per cent to five per cent by 2000.
The root cause of both of these failures was political rather than organisational. In particular, the search for political shortcuts by entering coalitions proved seriously damaging.
In the coming few years, it is necessary that we examine meticulously the experience of the left internationally and ensure that we can learn from the successes and the failures of other parties who have been where we are now.
We also need to consider deepening our ideology. Not only in Scotland but internationally, the socialist left has to conduct serious academic research into the workings of modern capitalism and the development of an alternative socialist system.
We need to carry out the same rigorous research to develop our alternative to capitalism as we have done at a more basic level to develop our alternative to the council tax.
Until now developing the detail of a socialist alternative to capitalism may have appeared abstract and running ahead of events. When the SSP had one MSP and two per cent of the vote, no-one was losing any sleep over our longer term goal of establishing a Scottish socialist republic.
But now, with six MSPs and six per cent of the vote, elements within the ruling establishment have consciously decided that they must devote resources to stopping the socialist bandwagon in its tracks.
In a private conversation, one senior editorial executive in the Scotsman—and the author of one of the most virulent McCarthyite attacks on the SSP—told me: "What I'm sure you understand is that you're no longer a fringe party. You've become a threat to the state."
Leaving aside the infantile personal attacks on our MSPs in some of the tabloids, the most ferocious onslaught we have come under is from pseudo-intellectual writers with some knowledge of Marxism and socialism.
The debate has moved way beyond the immediate core policies of the SSP. Political commentators have compared Tommy Sheridan with Mussolini. They have attempted to tar the SSP with the brush of Stalinism. Without understanding the irony, they also repeatedly use the label Trotskyite to describe the SSP.
They warn that any further advance of the SSP will lead to a collapse in the Scottish economy.
The SSP—the most open, tolerant and democratic political party in Scotland—is portrayed as a sinister conspiracy run by a hard core of fanatical extremists.
All of that is just a taste of what lies in store. In future elections, instead of being ignored, we will be subjected to a monsoon of vilification and scaremongering.
That means equipping our party politically and organisationally to engage in what will become permanent ideological warfare. It means developing our media operation, backing up our short-term policies and our long-term vision with meticulous research, and galvanising the confidence of our membership to defend our ideas against all comers.
We now stand on the threshold of a decisive period in history. Last week's breakthrough is likely to accelerate the drive towards a socialist Scotland.
Even before the results were announced, during the four weeks of the election campaign itself, literally thousands of people made contact with the SSP for more information. If we had failed to make a breakthrough, many would have lost interest. But this victory opens up a superb opportunity for us to move towards a genuine mass party in the next few years.
In the past, the socialist left in the UK was generally isolated from the mass of the population. Even in the heyday of the old Communist Party, when it had more than 50,000 members across Britain, it was unable to build a bridge from the activists to the general population.
Similarly, the new anti-Stalinist revolutionary organisations that began to grow in the 1960s and 1970s failed to make any electoral impact and remained marginalised among the broad mass of the population.
The SSP has begun to smash down the barriers. It is always necessary to retain a sense of balance. We are still a young party challenging centuries of tradition and prejudice. Despite our breakthrough, we have at our disposal a bare fraction of the resources of the mainstream parties. But we have morale on our side. We know where we are trying to go, even though we have not yet worked out all the details of how we get there.
We have a long road to travel. But at least we have begun the journey.