The Scottish Socialist Party: the biggest small party

By Richie Venton

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July 26, 2008 -- What a phenomenal result in the July 24 Glasgow East by-election on two parallel levels: the earth-shattering defeat of the Labour Party in Red Clydesider John Wheatley’s seat, Labour’s third-safest seat in Scotland, held by them since 1922; and the tremendous achievement for the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) in winning fifth place, the highest position for any of the smaller parties, despite all the apparently insurmountable obstacles we faced.

If we compare the votes with those of the 2005 Westminster election in the identical Glasgow East seat, Labour has gone into freefall from 18,775 to 10,912; the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) rocketed from 5268 to 11,277 -- in a turnout down from 48.2% in 2005 to 42.1% this time.

Thousands of Labour voters simply stayed at home in disgust with its record on food and fuel prices; failure to tackle poverty and inequality; assaults on the sick and disabled, and its wholesale neglect of the working class. Others did a straight swap to the SNP, as punishment for New Labour in an area where they have been treated to decades of contempt, as Labour stepped on people’s heads en route to grossly overpaid political careers.

The disgust at Labour politicians, and indeed politicians in the mainstream parties in general, was palpable on the streets, people spitting out angry words about them, responding warmly to the SSP’s policy of ``A workers’ MP on a worker’s wage''.

Class differentials

There seems to have been a significant class differential in the turnout, with higher voting in the more affluent parts, such as Garrowhill, parts of Baillieston, Mt Vernon – which would be to the SNP’s advantage, because its candidate John Mason has been councillor for Garrowhill/Baillieston since 1998. The most deprived districts had generally far lower turnouts, to Labour’s further disadvantage.

Video from Glasgow East by-election

The squeeze between the two political juggernauts that we predicted, whilst agreeing we should stand an SSP candidate, took place with a vice-like vengeance. For example, 85% of those who voted went to either the SNP or Labour. In 2005 the equivalent figure was 77%.

My first impression of the voting figures is that the SNP upsurge was also substantially boosted by defection to them from both the Liberal Democrats (who plummeted from 3665 votes three years ago to 915) and even some Tories (who fell from 2135 to 1639). In both cases, defecting voters judged that the best way to boot Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown and New Labour was to vote SNP.

This is an unqualified catastrophe for Labour and Brown. Labour activists were devastated, with talk of the need for a ``lurch to the left'' among a couple of the most unlikely Labour hacks I spoke to at the count.

The national question

There was not widespread, overt, explicit talk on the streets of this being a vote on independence. But it clearly is a clash of contrasting opinions on the Westminster Labour government compared to the Holyrood [Scottish] SNP government – and is a massive impetus towards independence … which will be exponentially added to when Labour’s thrashing in Glasgow East adds to the Labour crisis and therefore increases the likelihood of a Cameron government in Westminster.

All of which positions the Scottish Socialist Party well over the next couple of years, with our pro-independence but unashamedly socialist vision for Scotland, in contrast to the pro-big business agenda of the SNP.

The SNP is riding high in the opinion polls right now, and will be an even more rampant force in the aftermath of Glasgow East, but the contradictions in their all-things-to-all-classes approach are beginning to be revealed to more far-sighted sections of the working class. The SNP faces strikes by Scottish civil servants against their imposition of a 2% pay ceiling; anger from council workers facing cuts where the SNP is in control or coalition, and growing questions over why the SNP dumped its previous commitment to bus re-regulation in the wake of SNP party funding by multimillionaire bus tycoon Brian Souter.

SSP: the biggest small party

Given the monumental squeeze on all the smaller parties – and even the Lib Dems – the Scottish Socialist Party scored a fantastic achievement, winning fifth place with 555 votes – ahead of the Solidarity [the group led by Tommy Sheridan which split away from the SSP] vote of 512, and with a crushing lead over the Greens (despite them having two members of the Scottish Parliament), whichcould only muster 232 votes.

Of course we need a sense of proportion. Our 555 votes compares to 1096 in the 2005 general election, before the split in the SSP. But what is quite remarkable is that the combined left vote held up so well (1067 – almost literally identical to that of 2005). And in fact the combined share of the vote rose from 3.5% in 2005 to a combined 4.1% this time!

Given the far tighter squeeze in the focused intensity of this by-election, the prevailing objective conditions that nurtured that dog fight between SNP and Labour, and the serious, deep damage done to the credibility of the left through the split, it is remarkable that this was achieved, that the left vote held up so well.

This also serves to underline the destructive, wreckless consequences for the socialist left caused by the small minority, led by Tommy Sheridan, who split off from the SSP two years ago. If they had instead accepted the decisions of the majority of members in the SSP and kept a united party intact, the combined vote of 1067 would have put us in fourth place, above the Lib Dems – and that is taking no account of the huge additional vote a single, united SSP would have won.

In the tragic circumstances of a divided left, which the SSP was founded precisely to overcome in 1998, there is a profound significance in the relative votes of the SSP and Solidarity. Obviously we can’t compare figures with 2005 on this as we had one party then. The nearest comparator is the 2007 Scottish election results for Baillieston (which makes up roughly two-thirds of Glasgow East) and Shettleston (the other third).

A mere 12 months ago Solidarity got five times and over four times the SSP vote in these two seats respectively. In Glasgow East, the SSP got 53% of the total left vote!

Solidarity boasted about their 5:1 vote advantage in the by-election campaign, including at press conferences. Tommy Sheridan contacted journalists declaring the SSP was “as dead as a Dodo”, repeating the 5:1 differential of last year to try and convince people there was only one party of the left – his.

Solidarity will have got a very substantial family and friends vote for their candidate, and some votes from the family and friends of the child killed by an airgun in Easterhouse.

On top of that they crudely attempted to confuse people into thinking Tommy Sheridan was the candidate, with their one and only leaflet taking the format of a message from him, and the party name on the ballot forms being ``Solidarity – Tommy Sheridan'' … not even the softer option of ``co-convener Tommy Sheridan'' which they could have legally used.

Given all this, it is a signpost to the future when the SSP not only closed down the 5:1 differential but actually won the biggest vote for a left party in horrendously difficult circumstances.

For the broad mass the headline is ``Labour’s slaughter, the SNP’s victory''. But for an astute and observant minority, the SSP/Solidarity result helps explode Solidarity’s false claims to be Scotland’s foremost socialist party.

A conscious socialist vote

Considering the weight of the aforementioned squeeze on us, every vote for the SSP was an extremely conscious vote for socialism, for the rich traditions of Glasgow’s east end, in the full knowledge we were not going to win, but that our undiluted socialist message deserved support. A very courageous, conscious, socialist vote.

Some parties and journalists are trotting out claims that the good SSP vote was due to confusion over the two Currans – Frances for the SSP, Margaret for Labour. That is arrogant, patronising nonsense. Labour put out tens of thousands of leaflets explaining which Curran to vote for. So did we, with the theme that ``there’s only one socialist Curran in this election – Frances Curran''. We spelt out the two opposing worlds these two candidates represented.

The visibility, colour, dynamism and élan of the SSP’s campaign on the streets left nobody in any doubt about what or who they were voting for. We never held back on our socialist message, in leaflets, a newspaper delivered to 45,000 homes, giant banners, through street meetings, and in media appearances. The quality of our campaign – which started out with literally no money or material exactly three weeks before polling day at the meeting of members where we selected Frances Curran as our candidate – was praised by the Greens, SNP, Lib Dems and letter writers to the Herald.

We shouldn’t exaggerate what this result for the SSP signifies, given the very modest votes involved at this stage. But we have to feel vastly proud and confident that the SSP is pivotal to the medium-term unification and growth of a united socialist party in Scotland. It is a time to be proud of the principled socialism the SSP stands for; a time to join us and give renewed impetus to the rehabilitation of the socialist traditions of Red Clydeside in one of its historic strongholds.

[From the Scottish Socialist Party.]