Scottish Socialist Party members cannot have failed to be affected and concerned by the events surrounding Tommy Sheridan’s resignation as the party’s convenor, the subsequent speculation and ‘analysis’ in the media and the handling of the events by the SSP Executive Committee. During the internal discussions the question of what socialist principles should be guiding our response to these issues was never explicitly raised. We in the RCN think it important to explore this question and see (with the huge benefit of hindsight) how such a principles might have guided the SSP through these uncharted and ‘shark filled’ waters. Before proceeding further, it is necessary to state that whilst the RCN has had, and continues to have political differences with the Executive Committee and Tommy nevertheless we applaud the Executive Committee’s role in

  • Establishing a credible socialist party in Scotland
  • Opposing sectarianism and being open to new ideas
  • Promoting an atmosphere of comradeliness and fraternal debate

We also applaud Tommy’s

  • Record as a class fighter.
  • Presentation and defence of the policies of the SSP, particularly during the last election and over the Iraq war.
  • Ability to inspire working class people and win them to the SSP.

Upholding socialist principles

To fully explore these principles or guidelines would take more than this editorial but any list would certainly include:

  • Being for the most complete internal democracy and for a candid transparency amongst comrades in the party.
  • Support for Tommy, the SSP executive and the SSP when under attack from a hostile media.
  • Honesty with the working class.
  • Confidentiality and discipline to be exercised outwith party forums when engaging with the media, remembering that the bourgeois media is always hostile to the socialist programme and they will, from time to time, pose as false friends.
  • Egalitarianism – that is we would respect and act towards each other as equal comrades. We acknowledge that some comrades, like Tommy, consistently make an outstanding contribution but we all contribute and there should be no hierarchies only elected and accountable officials. In this sense the executive were brave and correct to challenge Tommy if they genuinely believed that he was in the wrong. The media wish to present the SSP as a one man band. This incident has illustrated the fact that this is not the case.
  • That we strive to ensure that our decisions are guided by principle not on the basis of popularity, personalities or perceived personal or factional advantage. That our actions further the causes of the SSP, the working class and socialism.

The Cult of Personality

There is an important fundamental distinction to be made between how we deal with issues inside the party and how we relate the content and fruit of our discussions to the outside world.

Some comrades felt that unconditional support for Tommy was the only principled position to take, given the attacks on him being launched by the News of the World. With regard to the media we think that this was correct. However, some comrades went further and held a position of unconditional support for Tommy within the party. This is an error in principle that may lead to errors in practice. Any tendency towards this is an unhealthy block on socialist democracy. We need to pay heed to the lessons of history. We must be on our guard against the development of the cult of personality, of infallible leaders. Criticism of even the best of comrades doesn’t automatically constitute disloyalty to them, the party or the class. If you think someone is wrong then the mature, socialist thing to do is to tell them in a comradely manner. That is a fundamentally healthy practice. If we later discover that we were mistaken then we apologise and move on.

To the SSP’s great credit, the executive and the majority of the party resisted the personalisation of politics in public and party arenas. The party didn’t focus on the details of Tommy’s personal life in its approach to this difficult situation. In contrast the media tried to personalise and trivialise what was going on. They continually push the idea that it is individuals, who are the cause of, or solution to the world’s problems and that all we need to do is to elect/evict Bush/Blair/ Saddam Hussein/Fidel Castro and everything will be alright. This is bourgeois politics and is full of traps for socialists and the working class. For example many journalists, who usually spend their time attacking Tommy, suddenly began defending him – the better to attack the SSP.

Caught up in the system?

Of course the parliamentary system is designed to dazzle and corrupt those who seek to represent the interests of the working class and promote socialism. That is why our stance of a workers’ representative on a worker’s wage is so important. It is a structural support for our representatives against the seductive charms of the bourgeoisie. However the most insidious corruption isn’t necessarily financial. Being an MSP immediately reduces a person’s contact with ‘ordinary lives’. After a while they may start to feel more comfortable with and better understood by members of the paparazzi and MSP’s from other parties. Our MSP’s must make such an awareness part of their everyday consciousness and be on their guard.

The recent problems should be related to the wider issue of the transformation that has taken place in and around the party since we gained 6 MSP’s. From this perspective the whole party needs to reflect on and take responsibility for what has happened. We rightly accepted the state’s money when it was offered and used it to employ good comrades in ways that made us a more effective force for socialism.

However what we perhaps neglected was to ensure that there were sufficient structural and emotional supports to aid our MSP’s negotiate the political and personal minefield they were about to enter. For example we accepted Tommy’s rise to being a media celebrity garnering all the publicity and other benefits that his superb performance as our convener brought. This developed further so that he formed one half of an ‘ideal couple’ and still we accepted this Hollywoodisation of our flesh and blood comrades. But we forgot that no individual or relationship can withstand such constant media scrutiny without some damage accruing. Some of our other MSP’s have had emotionally damaging experiences too.

Another problem with this transformation was the creation of a parliamentary and executive grouping serviced by (low) paid party workers. This incipient bureaucracy shared a working environment and was beginning to distance itself, from the wider party. Again we all need to take responsibility for this. Recent events have shown that there are fractures within this grouping; some stemming back to the 50:50 debate around gender balance in party bodies; another which might be described as traditionalists vs modernisers. Unfortunately these differences instead of being argued out in front of the party have been papered over. Not in front of the children/members. Yet it is essential that our elected leadership is open about political differences that may arise so that the members can form their own judgments. This culture of keeping difficult debates within the executive and playing down political differences has made it more difficult to deal with the issues surrounding Tommy’s resignation.

The heightened media interest in our organisation was an occasion to proclaim loudly that the SSP has a collective and democratic leadership and not be defensive about it. It was an opportunity to explain that whilst Tommy is a valued and extremely important member he is subject to the democracy and discipline of the SSP the same as everybody else.

If a leading member of the SSP chooses to ignore the democratic decision of the party, which s/he has the right to do, s/he needs to ensure that s/he makes clear that s/he is not speaking as a representative of the SSP. Notwithstanding the above, it is important that no comrade undermines Tommy’s position as he battles our common enemy. Let us be clear, when it comes to the crunch, socialists have no friends in the bourgeois media and they are past masters at bullying and bribing working class folk to undermine our struggles.

Fallible and human

With regard to the ill fated news conference – it is widely accepted that this was a mistake. However, little real damage was done and hopefully lessons were learned. A positive aspect of this is we came over as real people struggling with a real dilemma, fraught with ambiguities, not like the other bourgeois parties who filter reality through a screen of spin and present themselves as infallible, and therefore, inhuman. In the longer term this ‘fallibility’ may do us more good than harm. On a practical note it may have been better to leave all contact with the media in the hands of our press officer who’s response to most of the enquiries could have been, Members’ private lives are none of your business!

Much of the media effect only lasts in the collective short term memory. Instead, perhaps the biggest challenge is the damage to the internal democracy of the SSP. The executive motion which sought to be the definitive SSP response to the whole affair was presented to the membership, at a specially convened National Council, as a fait accompli i.e. it could not be amended by branches. Other, constitutionally legitimate, motions were not allowed to be heard. At the subsequent National Council meeting two weeks later, motions discussing the issue were of course made redundant and pressure was put on branches to withdraw any remaining motions. The message was clear – the membership cannot be trusted. This makes a farce of the constitution which is there in part to support democracy and defend the right of the membership to democratically control their own party. Instead we were left impotent and weakened.

We felt that the Executive Committee and Tommy had formed a bureaucratic united front against the membership. It is one thing to present a united defensive face outwards to a hostile media, it is not acceptable to turn a similar face inwards to the membership. This must never be allowed to happen again. We all have a responsibility to defend and deepen the precious internal democracy in our Scottish Socialist Party. No individual or grouping is more important than that!

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