Mary McGregor analyses the current debate taking place in the SSP over the party’s electoral strategy

First-Past-The-Post: to stand or not to stand

There is a debate raging within the SSP which, like so many others, actually goes far beyond the superficial topic of the debate, and goes to the very essence of the nature of our party. The debate on whether or not to stand in first-past-the-post seats in the Holyrood elections, as well as in the list seats, is not simply about political tactics. It is about whether or not we are a nationalist party or a socialist party and what we see as the purpose of elections for socialist organisations.

The debate will be had out at the 2006 SSP conference and will undoubtedly be acrimonious. It has angered many party members to see Kevin Williamson use his very privileged position, as a weekly columnist in the Scottish Socialist Voice, to argue against current party policy. He contends that we should not stand in first-past-thepost seats but we should also call on our supporters to vote for the Scottish Nationalist Party – a defender of capitalism and big business! He has been supported by Hugh Kerr, one time MEP and former party press officer. Although neither of them currently holds an elected position within the SSP, they are, however, representative of a trend within the party that views elections as important only if we can get someone elected or if they can aid the push towards independence for Scotland. Comrades should note that they do not differentiate between a socialist and a capitalist Scotland. Thus they are propelled forward to a quite logical position of voting for a party as devoid of principle as the Scottish National Party.

Hugh Kerr argues, …You can’t vote Labour!

Agreed Hugh but neither could I, or should I, vote SNP!

Debates like this have gone on since the days when we set up the Scottish Socialist Alliance. At that time I remember arguing that we should offer a socialist alternative at every possible opportunity. No one talked about the SNP but were more concerned with not upsetting Good Labour Lefts. Ironically, in Dundee East at the last election, we did stand down in favour of good Labour left candidate, John McAllion and he lost his seat. This position was initiated by the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) platform in the SSP.

Although RCN comrades did not agree with, and argued against this move, it was done as an exception rather than the rule. It was democratically decided by the branches with the full knowledge of the party nationally and was accepted by all comrades as the party position once the vote had been taken. I am sure the CWI comrades who pushed for this exception, will be totally against the executive’s proposals to turn the party’s position on its head and make this the norm.

There are other principled exceptions we could cite such as standing down for Rose Gentle, the anti war campaigner whose son Gordon was killed in Iraq.

However, what is now being proposed is far from a principled socialist position. It is being fought for by some who want to save the party money. Some who think it will increase our vote in the list – or second vote – and allow us more elected representatives (although no evidence of this being the case has so far been produced). And by some who really believe that tailing the SNP will somehow bring us to socialism.

No vote for the SNP

Anyone who believes that the SNP are on our side is sadly mistaken or wilfully nationalist. The SNP, where it has power in local government, are just as ruthless as those councils in Labour clutches.

Look at how the SNP council in Perth and Kinross supported the G8 protests or ask the nursery nurses in Angus how the SNP dealt with them during their heroic strike!

Although on the war, the SNP was to the left of Labour; for a nationalist party, it is distinctly of the more reactionary variety. We are not dealing with revolutionary nationalists who fight for national rights against the oppressor nation. We are dealing with a party which, through its firm adherence to capitalism, is complicit in the oppression of the working class.

It is not a republican party and goes to great lengths to accommodate the monarchy and envisages a role for the crown in an independent Scotland! There was a recent stooshie when one of its MSPs called the union flag the butcher’s apron (widely accepted on the left as an effective metaphor for the blood shed thanks to imperialism). Very quickly retractions were made and blame for this perceived gaff, laid at the door of a party worker. Those members in the SNP who do share socialist tendencies, have to keep them firmly under wraps less they affect the respectable image of the party.

It is firmly a capitalist party hoping to follow the Celtic Tiger of the Irish Republic. It has failed to support the SSP on getting rid of the council tax and demanding the right to march to Gleneagles against the G8 warmongers. In fact, the SNP helped ban the SSP MSPs from the parliament for a month after they staged a peaceful protest in the parliament. They thus denied our comrades and the party workers their wages for that month and they denied our elected representatives the right to participate in the democratic process. Why should we support them? Oh, because they want an independent capitalist Scotland!

It is not good enough comrades.

I have some sympathy with those who put forward the view that where we do not have a branch or members then it can be counter-productive to parachute candidates in then simply leave. Even then, this can be justified if the election can be used as a vehicle for building a branch. On the whole, however, these should be treated as exceptions and the local branch’s view should be allowed to prevail.

The general position should be that we stand wherever possible in order to allow the working class of this country the opportunity to vote socialist at every opportunity. We fight the election arguing the case for socialist politics and if we get someone elected, then that is a welcomed bonus but is not the reason for standing.

By pulling out of the first-past-the-post seats, we reduce our credibility in the eyes of the electorate and appear to be only interested in the fight to win the hearts and minds of a nation when there is payback for us in terms of seats. This does not differentiate us from the mainstream parties; it makes us just like them!

The comrades, like Kevin Williamson, who argue we must vote in the first vote for an anti union candidate are elevating separation of Scotland above all other considerations.

Independence First is not a socialist concept. A very long spoon is necessary to sup with the SNP and other reactionary elements that make up that particular coalition. The fight for independence must be integral to a socialist fight or it will lead us to exactly the same place as the Irish Republic: tied firmly to international capitalism!

Election placards
SSP must reject a Vote SNP but... strategy

Minimum demands

There have been many times throughout history where socialists have not stood and have responded in a principled fashion by setting up a series of minimum demands to put to candidates from other parties in order to decide, whether or not, to give them critical support. If the SSP adopts this retrograde position at conference, then at the very least we should follow in this tradition and not give blanket support to any capitalist party but demand of its individual candidates they support such a programme.

The National Executive should draw up a short, straightforward, list of principled demands for example:

  • Support for an independent Scottish republic
  • Immediate withdrawal of British armed forces from Iraq
  • The removal of all nuclear weapons from Scottish soil
  • No new nuclear power stations to be built
  • For a comprehensive National Health Service free at the point of delivery

These would then be formally put to all the candidates, standing in the seat. We would then publicise the responses of the candidates as part of our election campaign. We would urge our supporters to vote for only those candidates willing to publicly declare their support for this basic platform.

This method, which has an honourable history within the socialist movement, gives us a way of supporting progressive candidates (if such exist) in any rival party and avoids giving blanket support to any other rival party. If no candidate in a particular seat is able to publicly and unequivocally support the platform, then we publicly call for an active boycott of the first-past-the-post election in that seat by writing socialist on the ballot paper.

Only this approach is worthy of a socialist organisation. If we do otherwise in relation to the SNP then we have to question whether we are nationalist party or a socialist party.