General election 2019: Exeunt Scottish Socialist Party, stage left

In a previous article Mike Picken put forward an analysis of the General Election of 12 December in Scotland.  In this article, he examines the positions of Scotland’s largest left-wing organisation on the choices in that election.

Against the background of a generally more left and environmentally aware electorate in Scotland than the rest of Britain left wingers in Scotland have hoped that they could look to the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) for a clear policy of how to respond to the issues in the forthcoming General Election.  Sadly, this is not to be found.

The SSP was a massively positive development, formed over 20 years ago and for a period united much of the radical and Marxist left in Scotland.  The SSP won significant electoral support under PR with six Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) in the 2003 general election and over 10% of the vote in Glasgow.  However, the split in the SSP over a decade ago around the role of Tommy Sheridan and his foolish and self-indulgent court cases led to a significant crisis and major loss of membership and electoral support. 


The SSP has attempted to rebuild itself in recent years and had risen to over 400 members, which although well down on its 3,000 members in its early period still makes it a significant force on the Scottish left. Many members are serious activists in trade unions and campaigns across Scotland.  The alternatives promoted by Sheridan and his erstwhile supporters, including the split-ridden sects like the CWI and SWP [1], number only a few dozens; while the left wing ‘Campaign for Socialism’ in the Labour Party, with barely a few hundred supporters, is largely inactive, never meets and increasingly relies on the tiny pro-Brexit Communist Party of Britain and the Morning Star newspaper as its political prop.  In the Scottish Labour Party, there is no comparison with the thousands of Labour-supporting activists mobilised through Momentum in England. 

In the aftermath of the 2014 referendum where the SSP campaigned vigorously for independence in working class communities, over 1,000 people requested to join the Party but were not consolidated into membership.  Instead the Party leadership has moved in an increasingly propagandistic direction, with street stalls petitioning for a £10 per hour minimum wage being at the centre of recent activities rather than developing a broader strategy for independence and socialism.  The Party leadership increasingly see their role as ‘battening down the hatches’, keeping the membership active through street stalls, criticising the SNP and Labour for their inadequacies, and waiting for another independence referendum or a strike wave.  The Party has only made a belated turn towards environmental issues and largely focuses on economic (‘class’) demands such as a £10 per hour minimum wage.

The leadership of the SSP put a 1700-word statement on the General Election to its conference of individual members in Edinburgh at the start of November.  This was carried by about two to one by the less than 100 members attending, the conference having been postponed at the last minute due to the desire to be present at a massive pro-independence rally in Glasgow addressed by Nicola Sturgeon as leader of the SNP.  The statement, which has not been published at all on the Party’s website, sets out the SSP leadership’s position on Brexit.  In summary this is: despite the SSP supporting Remain as the ‘lesser evil’ against xenophobia in the 2016 referendum, the narrow 52/48 result should be accepted as a ‘legitimate democratic outcome’

The SSP therefore consciously puts itself in the same position on EU membership as the Brexit Party and Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party (as the Tories are styled in Scotland) in supporting Britain’s immediate exit from the EU with no caveats or conditions, or even recognition that Scotland didn’t vote for Brexit!  The SSP leadership statement opposes Labour and the SNP’s support for a second referendum on the terms of EU membership and quotes approvingly from supporters of the ‘Lexit’ position on the British left, who fail to recognise Brexit as an overwhelmingly right-wing project.


In relation to the General Election, the leadership of the SSP recommended to the November conference not standing any SSP candidates.  The election on 12 December is seen as ‘a Brexit election’ in which ‘class politics’ would not be able to get a voice. Brexit is seen by the leadership of the SSP as: ‘an issue upon which the SSP has nothing sufficiently unique to campaign on’. 

This pathetic statement fails to recognise that Brexit itself is a key class issue, with the Tories trying to force through an abrupt rupture with the EU, if necessary on a catastrophic ‘No Deal’ basis, replace the EU relationship with a free trade deal and economic alignment with Trump’s America, introduce reactionary controls on immigration, and with the further prospect of dismantling any limited protection of welfare, labour and environmental rights [See Allan Armstrong’s article on SR for a more detailed analysis of Brexit, Independence and Scotland].

The argument for not standing SSP candidates also relates to the relative weakness of the Party financially and organisationally.  But the leadership statement goes further politically, in declining to give any advice on whether the SSP should endorse any candidates in the 59 Scottish parliamentary constituencies on 12 December.  The main campaigning priority of the SSP over the last couple of years has been to petition for an immediate £10 per hour minimum wage.  Such a policy is actually at the centre of the Labour Party’s manifesto. The SSP statement concentrates its main fire on the Labour Party however.  SSP leadership figures claimed to the Conference that ‘Corbynism’ and Labour are ‘dead’, despite the most radical Labour manifesto for decades.  This has been followed up by anarticle entitled ‘Labour isn’t working – let’s get Independence done!’ by Colin Fox, national spokesperson of the SSP, in Scottish Socialist Voice and sent to all SSP members in which Fox focuses his and the SSP’s criticism on the Labour Party in this election [2]. 

The SSP conference statement also makes clear that support for any Scottish Labour Party candidate should not be countenanced, stating: “as a guide for members we have previously ruled out formally recommending a vote for any unionist candidate, even if they are on the Left”.

Instead it is proposed that support can only be given to candidates who support an “Independent Socialist Scotland”.  Due to the flight of independence supporters from the Scottish Labour Party, in practice this limits potential SSP support to only a couple of SNP candidates, such as Chris Stephens, the outgoing SNP MP for Glasgow South, who is explicitly a socialist and independence supporter but has a close fight with Scottish Labour to retain his seat.

In the vast majority of Scottish parliamentary constituencies, the SSP leadership is therefore completely silent on who members should consider voting for, or on what principles they should base their choice.  A clarification given at the conference about the ridiculous abstentionist nature of this position was that individual branches of the SSP can, if they wish, decide whether they choose to endorse candidates – though this is nowhere expressed in the 1,700 words of the approved national abstentionist position.

This abstentionist position has confined the SSP to the sidelines in the General Election.  It is unlikely to be able to benefit from the leftward shift represented by the Labour Party manifesto, the growth of support for independence and the political turmoil that will undoubtedly follow the general election on December 12 in Scotland. Even in the context where a speedy second independence referendum is the prize that Nicola Sturgeon is able to take home for support for support for a minority Labour government, the SSP will not be seen to have contributed much to getting to that place.  

Instead there will be more focus by the Scottish left on the need for the Radical Independence Campaign, which played a key role in mobilising for yes across working class communities last time round, to come centre stage and make an even greater success next time round.  Sadly, but not unexpectedly, there is not a mention of this important campaign in the latest ‘Election’ issue of the SSP’s Scottish Socialist Voice.   

The opportunity opened by the hosting of COP26 in November 2020 also places a huge responsibility on the Scottish left to turn significantly towards the climate change and ecological movements and build a massive presence during COP26 in Glasgow, working with ecosocialist and anticapitalist activists across Scotland and Europe and beyond.

The SSP is not yet completely irrelevant, but in deciding to stand outside this General Election it has taken a significant step backward.  This has disheartened some SSP activists but the battle remains to continue to build a united left force in Scotland over the coming period. 

9 December 2019


[1] The CWI is the Committee for a Workers International which was originally established by the British Militant Tendency in the 1970s but has had major splits several times since, including the loss of most of its Scottish members within the SSP; most recently it went through a further international split where the minority rump in England appears to have expelled the majority – the remnants of the Militant tendency are to be found all over the Scottish left including within the SSP, but the only organisations are the grandly titled ‘Socialist Party Scotland’ (SPS) and ‘Revolution’ groups.  The SWP is the British Socialist Workers Party which has also undergone a series of schisms over the last 8 years primarily over its response to rape allegations; the losses also included the majority of Scottish members.  Both the CWI and SWP have been strong supporters of Brexit, the Tory-led exit of the UK from the EU, though they claim to support a left wing ‘Lexit’ without immigration controls that is not on offer from the Tories.  The RS21 group that left the SWP also support Brexit but have evolved a better position on voting in the UK election, similar to that advocated in the previous article by Mike Picken.  Some former SWP activists launched the RISE electoral coalition and have recently launched a print version of the online journal ‘Conter’, to act as a focus for ‘anticapitalist debate’ in Scotland, but still hold to a pro-Brexit position.

[2] ‘Labour Isn’t working – let’s get Independence done’ by Colin Fox, Scottish Socialist Voice Issue Number 528.  The title of this article is actually based on two Tory Party slogans: ‘Labour isn’t working …’ is from the 1979 election when Margaret Thatcher was first elected Prime Minister, and the second is from the main Tory slogan in 2019, which is ‘Let’s Get Brexit Done!’.

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