Sep 13 2006

Scottish Socialist Party Split by Sheridan

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 13RCN @ 6:41 pm

Socialist Resistance statement (August 27 2006)

Former convenor of the Scottish Socialist Party Tommy Sheridan won the first round of his defamation action against the News of the World in (the Scottish Court of Session in early August, on a majority (7- 4) decision of the jury.

He was awarded his claimed £200,000 in damages. The News of the World has said it intends to appeal and an investigation by police has begun into allegations of perjury committed during the trial: this inquiry is expected to last six months or more.

Sheridan has moved quickly to split the SSP. He has called a rally for Sunday September 3 to form a new party. Both the major platforms in the SSP, the Socialist Workers Party and Committee for a Workers International platforms have met, declared support for his call, and are building for the September 3 rally.

Socialist Resistance is opposed to this split and supports the United Left and others who are appealing to the members to stay in the SSP and continue to build it, The unity of the Scottish left, on which the SSP was built, has to be defended. It was not just Tommy Sheridan and the News of the World who were involved in this trial. Others were drawn into it whose integrity has been trashed. There were the 18 witnesses for the News of the World, including 11 members of the SSP EC, dragged into court against their will.

These SSP members have been branded as liars by their decision to tell the truth to the court. They now face possible perjury charges. Both the SWP and the CWI immediately lauded the decision of the court as a “fantastic victory”. No doubt for Sheridan it was. But for the Scottish left it is a disaster. It is also a setback for the British and European left, given the positive influence the SSP has had on the development of the European left since its foundation eight years ago.

Sheridan’s decision to take the News of the World to court, and his refusal to consider any other course of action, was the cause of this disaster. Once he went down that road the SSP was certain to be dragged in and the outcome disastrous – whatever the decision the jury had taken.

Mistakes were no doubt made by the EC, who were desperately trying to deal with the crisis Sheridan created, but the responsibility was his.

Sheridan’s unilateralism reflects the idea that a party is built around a central charismatic leader, who in the end regards himself as bigger than the party, and unaccountable to it. This is one of the dangers which small mass parties like the SSP face.

Articles

This crisis was triggered by two articles published in the News of the World in November 2004. These claimed that Sheridan had had extra-martial affairs, engaged in group sex at a Glasgow hotel, and had visited Cupids (a sex club in Manchester).

In response to defamation charges filed by Sheridan, the News of the World defended the articles as substantially true. They cited five women witnesses who claimed to have either had affairs with Sheridan, or had seen him at Cupids or having group sex in a hotel in Glasgow.

The evidence of two of these as witnesses was tainted in that they had sold their stories to the News of the World. But this is not proof that they were telling lies.

The News of the World also cited evidence from within the SSP Executive Committee concerning statements Sheridan had made, at a meeting of the EC on November 9 2004, called to consider allegations published in the first of the two News of the World articles.

These allegations referred only to a married MSP, but it was clear from the context that it was Sheridan. He admitted to the meeting that he had indeed visited Cupids in Manchester on two occasions.

He made it clear nonetheless that if he was named by the News of the World he would sue them for defamation. It was on the basis of the stance – that he would sue over allegations which were none-the-less true – that he was asked to resign as SSP convenor by a unanimous vote of those present. It was his stance which created the depth of crisis in the SSP.

He could have ignored the allegations, come clean, or denounced them and they would have blown over. The idea that the only way he could survive politically was to take the News of the World to court was nonsense.

The News of the World obtained a citation that the minutes of this meeting be used as evidence at the trial. They had controversially extracted the minutes from the SSP through the powers of the court after Alan McCombes went to prison in an attempt to keep them confidential.

Open letter

Central to the process of splitting the SSP was the open letter Sheridan circulated at the emergency SSP National Council (NC) meeting on May 28 2006, called to discuss the situation and held whilst Alan McCombes was in prison.

The letter had been issued to the media prior to the meeting.

It said:

Today there exists an unsavoury cabal of comrades at the core of the leadership, their hands on the apparatus, who are more interested in pursuing personal vendettas, through vile lies and slander, than conducting the class struggle.

It goes on to describe them as: akin to the dark days of Stalinism; McCarthyite and effectively acting for the state.

The letter was designed either to stampede a majority into supporting him at that meeting, which is what happened, or provide the basis to lead a minority out of the SSP.

The open letter also contained a dangerous claim that feminism is alien to class politics. It attacked the SSP’s 50-50 policy which ensures equal numbers of women and men in elected positions and insisted that;

We are a class-based socialist party. Not a gender obsessed discussion group. Our socialist principles and class identity define us first. Not our gender or sexual orientation.

‘Conspiracies’

In court Sheridan claimed that there were two separate conspiracies against him. The first, he said, was by the News of the World, the other was by a faction inside the SSP leadership who were out to oust him as part of a political takeover.

This nonsense neatly diverted the proceedings away from eyewitness accounts of sexual activities to political conspiracy theories which the jury were hardly in a position to assess. There had been political tension in the SSP, but that is very different to a factional conspiracy.

The News of the World cited 11 of the 24 SSP members who had been present at the November 9 2004 EC meeting as witnesses. They were able to make these citations because of a fabricated set of minutes of the meeting been sent to the News of the World anonymously, presumably by Sheridan or one of his supporters. These contained Sheridan’s version of proceedings and included an incomplete list of those present.

These witnesses attended court under the strongest protest. Each was asked under oath, if the official minutes were accurate, and if Sheridan had admitted that he had visited Cupids. They each confirmed that both were the case.

Sheridan promptly denounced them as liars and perjurers and the minutes as a fabrication. It was he said the mother of all stitch-ups. It was not just the News of the World that Sheridan had put on trial – it was the SSP as well.

In fact of the 19 present at the EC meeting of November 9, 15 have confirmed the accuracy of the minutes – the 11 who appeared in court under citation plus four more who were not cited but who have issued a statement since to that effect.

The other four EC members appeared as witnesses for Sheridan and said exactly the opposite. They agreed with him that what he had actually said at the meeting was that he had never visited Cupids, and that the minutes had been fabricated. Only one set of witnesses could be telling the truth – hence the perjury investigation. The conclusion is inescapable.

Tommy Sheridan lied his way through the case and in the course of this repeatedly accused others of lying whilst knowing they were telling the truth. He had expected the entire EC, who had urged him not to take court action, to lie in court in order to back up his case. He then regarded them as traitors because they refused to do so.

Moralistic

Sheridan was prepared to go to any lengths to defend the moralistic reputation he had cultivated as a clean living sexually loyal husband. Right up until the momentous NC meeting on May 28 -when everything changed in the SSP, when the framework was set for the trial and the split, and when the SWP and CWI platforms swung behind Sheridan – the validity of the minutes of November 9 2004 had not been in question.

Sheridan’s open letter proposed, on the one hand, that the minutes be handed to the court and on the other questioned their authenticity – claiming that they were falsified as part of a conspiracy to remove him from office.

Once he had proposed handing the minutes to the court he either had to drop his defamation action or discredit the minutes which, until then no one had questioned.

Sheridan also claimed in his open letter, that he had never read the minutes. This is flatly contradicted by Alan McCombes who insists that the minutes were discussed in a meeting between Allan Green, Colin Fox and Sheridan on May 12 2006 soon after they had been cited by the News of the World.

McCombes reveals it was Sheridan himself who proposed the adoption of the policy of refusing to hand the minutes to the court. This only made sense if he accepted that the minutes were accurate in the first place.

Sheridan, the CWI, the SWP and others argue that it a scandalous that 11 SSP EC members appeared in court as witnesses for the defence. But if they had refused they would have been arrested and charged with contempt of court.

If they had refuted the minutes and lied they would have risked perjury, which carries a heavy prison sentence. Were they to deny something in court which they knew to be the truth in order to protect Sheridan’s image as a respectable married man?

There are certainly times when socialists would do otherwise, but this would be in situations where what is at stake was the defence of collective action or an issue of principle.

This was not an issue of principle. These comrades were being asked to put the interests of one man above the collective interests of the SSP.They were right to say no.

Allegations

The scandalous allegations of scabbing (i.e. crossing class lines) escalated after the trial, finished. It relates to Sheridan’s demagogic claims – taken up with relish by the SWP and the CWI – that the trial was a battle between capital and labour in the form of a battle between Tommy Sheridan and Rupert Murdoch. Socialists have to know which side they are on in such a battle, they have repeatedly claimed. This is simplistic nonsense, reduces politics to crude sloganising.

The treatment of some of the women witnesses by Sheridan was demeaning to say the least. After sacking his legal team Sheridan examined them himself.

The minutes of the meeting of November 9 2004 should never have been taken in the way they were. But in the end it was not the minutes that were the problem for Sheridan. EC members could still have been cited to appear and asked to explain what happened at the meeting and exactly why Tommy Sheridan had been asked to resign.

It is hard to see where the policy of withholding minutes from court was going after the NC on May 28. The policy that the EC put to that the NC was not sustainable. It was the non-viability of that policy which – although he had proposed it himself – gave Sheridan the opening in that meeting which he seized upon.

SSP marchers

SSP marchers

Pluralism

This damaging split in the SSP does not in any way devalue the importance of building broad pluralist parties of the working class. Such parties are the product of objective political developments: the collapse (or semi-collapse) of the communist parties; the march to the right of social democracy; the decline of the Labour left; and the emergence of mass resistance in the form of the global justice and anti-war movements.

The need for such parties is not about to go away. What has to be re-emphasised, however, is that genuine pluralism, gender equality, democracy and accountability – including the accountability of the most prominent members – are not an optional extra for such parties. They have to be built into their culture and their practice if they are to have a long-term role.

The starting point for Sheridan’s new party is not good, based as it is on a wrecking action against the SSP over the refusal of SSP members to lie in court in order to protect his personal reputation. It will be an alliance between Sheridan and the SWP not unlike the alliance between George Galloway and the SWP which forms the basis of Respect. It would be a huge step back from the democratic unity on which the SSP was constructed.

The CWI will be in an awkward
situation given their hostile relationship with the SWP in England and Wales and the model they are pushing for their new mass workers party. These are all forces which were held together inside the SSP by the existence of the ISM which formed the core of the organisation from its inception.

These developments are a defeat for the radical left in Scotland and internationally. This is a defeat brought about by the determination of one man to put his ego, his desire to create an image of a respectable family man, before the interests of the party he and others had worked for nearly a decade to build.

The only winners from a split in the SSP will be the pro-market forces in Scotland, the nationalists, and the Blairites. Socialist Resistance will stand with the comrades of the SSP in their determination to rebuild their party out of the debris.

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One Response to “Scottish Socialist Party Split by Sheridan”

  1. Emancipation & Liberation » Emancipation & Liberation Index 13 says:

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