In 2003, the Scottish Socialist Party achieved 6.7% of the vote across the whole country, amounting to 128026 votes in the regional lists. This allowed six members of the SSP to be returned to Holyrood, the Scottish parliament.
Even in 1999, before the Iraq war, the SSP received 46635 votes across Scotland, and 7.2% in Glasgow, where the 18581 votes for Tommy Sheridan was in the same ballpark as the 20239 votes for the highly mainstream Scottish Conservative Party. Indeed it was enough for Tommy Sheridan to be elected, the beginning of a successful 8 years in Parliament.
At its height, the SSP had 3000 members in a nation of just over 5 million; and the model of party that the SSP represented, and the nature of their political campaigning was regarded as inspirational across the left internationally.
However, it would be a mistake to see the Sheridan court cases as the only factor in the decline in the SSP; and indeed the political divisions and factionalism in the party shaped the outcome of the whole saga.
The argument pursued by the SSP today is that Tommy Sheridan’s decision to sue the News of the World for libel inevitably pulled comrades into the court case. However, this argument is entirely disingenuous.
In October 2004 the News of the World had published an article saying that their journalist, Anvar Khan, has attended a swingers club in Manchester with an unnamed MSP. On 9th November, the SSP executive committee discussed with Tommy Sheridan whether or not that MSP was him. At that meeting, Tommy Sheridan announced his intention to sue the News of the World for libel, and the party’s executive committee voted that should he pursue that course of action, then he should resign as party leader (Convenor).
This was a closed and private meeting of leading members of the SSP. It is not unusual in political parties, commercial organisations, or trade unions to have frank and confidential discussions about matters that are legally delicate. It is certainly not unusual in the labour movement for a decision to be taken that discussions of a sensitive matter should not be minuted, and should be treated as highly confidential.
At that stage, Sheridan’s decision to sue the News International corporation would not have involved any requirement for testimony from SSP members. Any libel case, however unwise it might have been, would have surrounded the testimony of Anvar Khan, which as we have seen in the perjury trial was weak and unconvincing. The SSP executive meeting only became evidentially relevant because confidentiality and basic discretion were not observed.
In fact, news of the meeting almost immediately leaked out to the press; and as Richard Seymour ably explains “Alan McCombes secretly went to the Sunday Herald with a ‘sworn affidavit’ three days after Sheridan was deposed as party convenor, stating that if Sheridan had not resigned they would have “put certain information into the public domain which would have forced him to resign”.”
What is more, the minute taker, Barbara Scott not only recorded that section of the meeting where ordinary prudence would normally have meant that no minute should be kept; but the minute that she alleges is a genuine record of the meeting was extraordinarily more detailed than SSP exec minutes normally were.
It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that factional opponents of Tommy Sheridan grasped with both hands the opportunity to use the News of the World story to undermine Sheridan. What they should have done instead was treat the question of whether or not Sheridan sued the NOTW as an entirely private matter for him.
At this stage Tommy’s decision to proceed with the libel action was far too pregnant with potential disaster, and he should have found another strategy for dealing with the NOTW story. I have always believed and argued that Sheridan’s decision to pursue the libel case was mistaken.
However the responsibility for dragging the SSP executive members into that court rests with those people who almost immediately broke the confidentiality of the meeting with rumours to the press, those who recorded and retained detailed minutes, and those who issued a signed affadavit making clear that a faction of the SSP had some dirt on Sherdan. These were the actions that made the 09/11/04 executive meeting evidentially relevant in the libel case.
Of course the actions of Alan McCombes were even more duplicitous than this, because he never revealed until the perjury trial that he was the one who had issued the affidavit to the Herald, even after the SSP membership had voted that the culprit should be expelled. Furthermore, he indulged in a grandstanding stunt of going to gaol rather than hand over minutes to the courts, which was presumably designed to increase his own standing in the party, on the supposed principle of keeping the internal affairs of the SSP private; whereas it was he himself who had already breached that confidentiality with the Sunday Herald; and it was his cabal who had leaked the significance of the meeting into the public domain in the first place.
The factional atmosphere in the SSP was already poisonous, as former Labour MEP, Hugh Kerr, testified:
Mr Kerr told the court that before 2003 that in general “harmony” had existed in the party, although there had been signs of division during the 50/50 debate (a successful proposal that half of all candidates in elections should be women) he claimed that some of the new intake of MSP’s were “more interested in power and money” than maintaining party unity and that this conflict had also spread to the staff of the party. When asked he named Frances Curran, Rosie Kane and Carolyn Leckie for this state of affairs and added that he had become isolated as he had been seen as too close to Mr Sheridan. The witness further stated that he had been “sent to Coventry” Mr Sheridan then asked the witness what the reason for this division inside the party was. Mr Kerr replied that people were “envious” of Mr Sheridan’s public profile and “jealous” of him. He added that Alan McCombes had told him that “Sheridan would be nothing without me” and there was a feeling amongst some other MSPs that Mr Sheridan was “getting too big for his boots” and had to be “taken down a peg or two.” Mr Kerr agreed that he had been involved in other political disputes but that the SSP was “remarkable for the level of intensity and hostility.” with “a lot of hate, visceral hate.”
The reference to money should perhaps be explained, as the SSP’s elected representatives famously only drew a fraction of their salary for personal use, the rest going to the SSP: but during the period 2003 to 2007 the SSP had a highly expanded number of activists on the payroll, and a culture of loose spending and patronage.
The nature of the swinging allegations also had political relevance, as Lynsey, the daughter of a former MSP, explains on the SSY blog:
The point was argued [at the 9th November meeting] that if Tommy would only be prepared to either put his hands up and admit the truth, or simply say ‘no comment’ and keep his private life out of the tabloids to the best of his ability, the public would probably forgive him for being a mad shagger — but they wouldn’t forgive him for being a sneaky wee lying toad.
Concerns were also raised about where the dividing line between a swingers’ club and a brothel actually falls — at Cupids, women don’t pay to get in while men do, and that is club policy for a reason. The website for Cupids was also only a few clicks away from websites where prostituted women were sold. The SSP was at this time still formulating its position on prostitution, so it was a sensitive subject. We have since adopted the position that prostitution is abuse, and that the perpetrators of that abuse (men who buy consent from vulnerable victims) should be punished.
Note the moralistic and puritan tone about Tommy being a “mad shagger” (an interestingly insensitive use of language about mental distress), and the conflation between women getting free entry to a club, with them being prostitutes, and a further implication that this is related to lack of genuine consent to sex; suggesting that some consensual sex is really rape.
Despite Lynsey in this article describing her political opponents as “mad” and “coffin dodgers”, she rather inconsistently states:
One of the few fundamental political differences underlying the split in the SSP is that we wanted to go beyond a vision of socialism that thought you can take the economy under workers’ control and that’ll be everything sorted. We recognised the importance of discrimination apart from just class, such as patriarchy, homophobia and racism. We saw the need to confront these actively, including inside our own party. The people who are now in Solidarity by and large reacted defensively to this challenge to the social privilege they held as old white guys. They didn’t like the idea of women and youth self organising (part of the reason they were so hostile to SSY). They saw feminism as a distraction from the class struggle rather than a crucial part of it.
One of the characteristic features of the SSP’s behaviour has been a bastardisation and instrumentalist misuse of feminism. So for example, when Tommy Sheridan described a “cabal of comrades” out to get him, this was misquoted as a “cabal of women”, and when Tommy said that some of his opponents were advocates of the “dark arts” (i.e. political spin), this was misquoted as accusing them of being witches.
Clearly for a section of the leadership of the SSP the objective had changed from being a broad progressive party rooted in the everyday experience of ordinary working people, towards instead becoming an island of enlightened practitioners of lifestyle politics. How superior they were to the common herd.
This explains the antagonism to Tommy Sheridan, whose value as an asset to the SSP was precisely his common touch, and his connection with the values of ordinary working class people, who were unversed in the linguistic codes and social niceties of the lifestyle politics that were coming to prevail in the SSP leadership cliques.
The Shakespearean aspect to this was that it was the demand of real life politics which had forged Tommy. Not only electoral politics, but the street and community politics from whence the SSP had arisen demanded the building of charismatic leadership. Tommy Sheridan was part of the SSP’s brand identity; and he was indispensible for their electoral success: and it was winning elections that paid the wages of the inner clique on the SSP’s payroll. The SSP now complains that Tommy thought he was bigger than the party, but the party had only become successful by building up Tommy the brand.
At the end of the libel trial in 2006 the wise move would have been to put the whole issue behind them and move on. Clearly there were deep personal antagonisms, but that harm could not be undone. What happened next was extraordinary. Barbara Scott, Rosie Kane and Carolyn Leckie took the disputed minute of the 9/11 meeting to the police, having thoughtfully tipped off the TV news cameras to be there; and George McNeilage, an SSP member in good standing, sold a tape purported to be a secret film of Sheridan, for personal gain of £200000 to the News of the World. At this stage there can be no doubt that the SSP were the driving force in ensuring that there would be a criminal investigation, leading to the gaoling of their former comrade. Had they not carried out this act of betrayal, there would have been no perjury trial. Their behaviour is frankly inexplicable by any standards of ordinary decency; and that is why they will find no catharsis in their court victory.
So how had the SSP become such a swamp? Specifically there was both a structural political problem internal to the SSP, and also a broader, more fundamental instability due to the fragility of the party’s social foundations.
To deal with the first issue. The core of the SSP had come from the Militant tendency who had mutated via a relatively successful transitional period as Scottish Militant Labour, who had won a number of council seats, into the Scottish Socialist Alliance, then into the SSP. The core of members who had made that journey were the International Socialist Movement (ISM), a so-called “platform” in the SSP.
However, the ISM never really theorised what they were doing, and the ISM itself ceased to function. This meant that the SSP was living off the accumulated political capital and experience of its long term members from the Militant, but had little mechanism within it for developing the political knowledge or experience of new members, or members outside the central belt. Rather than developing any coherent political project, the SSP became riddled with cliqueism, as was obvious from the submissions to the 2005 debate over the future direction of the party. The SSP defined itself as socialist, but lacked any credible strategy for achieving socialism in Scotland; what is more its very political heterogeneity could not survive a rigorous debate about such strategic thinking. Yet it did not have the reserves of political capital that the Labour Party and SNP could draw upon, which enables these mainstream parties to sustain themselves as stable mass social institutions
There was indeed a crisis of expectation, that with 6 MSPs the SSP seemed incapable of actually doing very much concrete to promote the interests of their voters; arguably Tommy Sheridan had been just as effective on his own between 1999 and 2003.
Lacking any practical, achievable aims that the party could work together on, the SSP came increasingly to emphasise their points of differentiation with the rest of the labour movement, hence the rise of lifestyle politics, and emphasis on identity. After all they were THE socialists, so it was necessary to stress how much more socialist they were than the left of Labour and SNP.
The broader weakness of the SSP was that it was built on sand. The rise of the SSP coincided with the triumph of Blairism in the Labour Party, which temporarily interrupted the Labour Party being able to play its traditional gatekeeper role of incorporating innovative radicalism back into the political mainstream.
Through their role in the poll tax, and their relatively successful electoral experience, the comrades from the Scottish Militant partially transcended some of the limitations of small group politics, which is what allowed Sheridan to be elected to parliament in 1999, and allowed the SSP to grow to take on some of the characteristics of a small mass party.
But this was a very unstable project, because the space for a left electoralist party only existed because Labour had abandoned that political constituency; and because the Labour Party membership had become a more inhospitable experience for social radicals. However, Labour still represented a viable potential government, and the SSP did not. Labour was still backed by the unions, and RMT notwithstanding, the SSP was not. The electoral boost in 2003 was conjunctural because the SSP already had a high electoral profile through Tommy, and anti-war sentiment could not find expression through a Labour vote; but those circumstances were not going to be repeated.
So the demise of the SSP has deeper roots that the Sheridan trial. The task of consolidating the gains of 2003 was beyond the SSP’s capabilities, and the factional tensions created by the resulting instability fed into the machinations and back-biting of the libel trial and subsequent perjury conviction.
The irony is that the biggest asset that the SSP had was Tommy Sheridan, and they have conspired to destroy him; in the process setting back the cause of the radical left in Scotland for a generation.