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Gregor Gall;  building grassroots leadership in the SSP

Continuing the ongoing debate in the Scottish Socialist Party about the role of Platforms, the Socialist Unity Network interviewed Gregor Gall


SUN: > Can you briefly outline your political background?

Gregor:> While at Aberdeen University, I joined the Labour Club (affiliated to the National Organisation of Labour Students (NOLS)) in 1985. From here, I joined the Labour Party shortly afterwards. I was active in campaigning in the 1987 general election but soon became less active in the Labour Party as it moved further rightwards under Kinnock and more active in student politics and in the emerging anti-poll tax movement. In 1990, I joined the SWP in Aberdeen before moving down to Manchester to do a PhD. The SWP in Manchester at the time was quite vibrant and youthful. My attraction to the SWP lay in what I saw as its clarity of, and emphasis on, ideas, in particular its rejection of the Labour Party, its lines on the self-emancipation of the working class, the revolutionary party, state capitalism, and its overt internationalism. Only through the passage of time, I came to understand these as much more problematic than I could have comprehended at the time. My level of activity in the SWP was very high between 1990 and 1993 in Manchester. This level of activity continued when I moved back to Scotland (Stirling). But being in Stirling, as opposed to Manchester, was a levelling experience. It was difficult to say the least, whether at the university or in the town. The continually overblown perspectives of the SWP (‘the 1990s will be our decade’) were clearly so in Stirling. My critique of the SWP (and the SWPlatform in the SSP), which is outlined in What Next? (No. 30, www.whatnextjournal.co.uk), emerges from this period. In brief, I have counterposed the Scottish Militant tradition (despite its weakness) to the SWP tradition and concluded that the latter is ultra-left and the former is far more able to engage with the more politicised of ordinary people because of what were labelled to be ‘workerism’ and ‘centrism’.   

 

SUN: > In Scotland the launch of the SSP, and before it the SSA, seems to have been possible because the Militant tradition was far more successful that the SWP. There is a common sense understanding that the SWP suffered in Scotland because of failures around the poll tax, would you say that was correct? My experience in England was that although the Militant were sharper on the importance of the poll tax and the tactics to beat it, they were no better at implementing the fight on the ground than the SWP.

Gregor:> I agree with the first part of your statement: Militant, probably for reasons of prioritising the Labour Party, had an understanding that extra-workplace community campaigns, whether inside Labour or not, had a better purchase than just or only that which the SWP initially followed, namely, that trade unionism and industrial action had to be the cornerstones of the anti-poll tax movement. The SWP in Scotland suffered immeasurably from this, and it re-inforced its marginal position amongst the far left in Scotland (which far predated 1989). Whilst Militant played a very important role in Scotland in the anti-poll tax movement, this was neither true throughout all of Scotland, and nor was Militant in the leadership of all local groups. I still found Militant and the SWP in Aberdeen, for example, were very much on the fringes and tolerated by those in the local anti-poll tax groups only by dint of their hard work, not political ideas.

 

SUN: > In the recent edition of Frontline you paint a fairly negative picture of the contributions that platforms have played in the SSP. Do you think that the very existence of platforms is simply a transitional stage in the development of broad parties, to allow comrades from independent currents such as the CWI and SWP to join the broad parties?

Gregor:> I tried to make clear that all the platforms have a long way to go to realising their potential. Whether they can, in fact, achieve this requires them to have an understanding of and engaging with the specific nature of the SSP as a new project and the dominant conditions under which it operates, whether Scottish, British and international and the nature of the period we live under. In both practice and personal preference, I see the platforms continuing in existence for a long time to come because their activists are needed as are their broad socialist politics and grounding. More specifically, as long as the CWI and IS tendencies continue to exist, their members will continue to constitute themselves as platforms. Nonetheless, for the SWP/IS tendency, having members in different broader or larger parties in England, Europe and Australasia does present them with a stark choice about how they organise because the terrain they operate on inside these large organisations is so different from that which they grew up under.  

 

SUN: > When the SWP joined the SSP, I know a number of middle ranking SWP comrades in England who were both surprised and delighted. What was the evaluation at the time amongst the SWP comrades in Scotland?

Gregor:> When the SSA was formed, it was dismissed by the leading lights in SWP in Scotland (and Britain) as an electoral, reformist and nationalist mistake-cum-diversion from the ‘real class struggle’ and ‘real socialist politics’. (My own evaluation was that there was some truth in these points but that they were exaggerated. I now believe that I too exaggerated the existence of the presence of these characteristics.) Over the period of a few years of the SSA’s growth (organically and by ‘acquisition’), and critically, by the continuing marginalisation and membership stagnation of the SWP, there became little option but to join. Nonetheless, there was resistance to joining as a result of the fear of liquidationism, particularly with regard to the public selling of Socialist Worker. Those in the leadership in Scotland were talked round by CC members.

 

SUN: > When you resigned from the SWP earlier this year you mentioned a quite sharp decline in size and influence of the SW Platform. Have the comrades who have left the SWP stayed active in the SSP, but no longer see the relevance of the Platform, or have they dropped out of politics?

Gregor:> Inevitably, it’s a bit of both but probably with more of the burn out and becoming inactive type. The reason for that is that individual SWP members have had difficulty adapting to the SSP. With a mindset that the SSP is ultimately deficient and that de facto ultra-leftism is correct, it is hard for individual former and now unaligned members to stay active within the SSP. What always strike me about the SWPlatform members in SSP arenas or on demonstrations or at conferences is that there has been a shrinking of the active core and that core which remains active is comprised of the same, old tired faces. I have seen no obvious evidence of a growth in new, young cadre. You can work out who the leading cadre are by what roles they play, and I conclude from this that the internal regime is still pretty much the same as it ever was, i.e., narrow, self-selecting and ultra-loyal.

 

SUN: > What is the formal relationship between the SW Platform in Scotland, and the SWP leadership in London? Does the SW Platform have its own independent leadership, or do they defer to the London CC? Does the SW Platform leadership attend the IST international conferences as an independent organisation in its own right, or are they an appendage of the SWP?

Gregor:> The formal relationship is not clear. You might expect that the SWPlatform is a fraternal, subscribing organisation within the IST, which send delegates to IST meetings and which develops its own policies with regard to the specific situation it finds itself in, has its own publications, internal bulletins and website etc. There is very little evidence of this which means that the informal, unstated relationship is far more important. Initially after joining the SSP, the SWPlatform took its lead from those CC members responsible for Scotland. More latterly, it has grown an ability to act without direction. But this does not mean that the space for independent judgement and action has opened up because the worldviews of two are the same.

                                                                                   

SUN: > The clearest expression of the SWP’s attitude to the SSP seems to be the writing of Alex Callinicos in the IST bulletins, where he seeks to delimit the SSP model to being contingent on specific Scottish circumstances. Strategically the SWP argues for organisational separation between “revolutionaries” and “reformists”. Given this, what is the long term strategy of the SW Platform – do they aspire to gain the leadership of the SSP, or to split it, or to act as a pressure group within it? Or is this never openly discussed?

Gregor:> This is a difficult question to answer on a number of levels. One is because the IS/SWP view has changed as a result of developments with regard to Respect, where the relationship between revolutionaries and reformist in practical terms is much less clear than how you characterise the SWP position. (I unreservedly welcome the emergence of Respect but it seems to be it is not without many serious challenges which the SWP is rather to keen to gloss over.) The other is because there has been a lack of internal discussion in recent years. Certainly, the feeling after joining was the SWPlatform was that as an organised and sizeable presence, it could credibly challenge the leadership, although not gain the leadership, and thus steer the SSP leftwards. Now, with that hope clearly gone and recognised as such, the SWPlatform hopes to be the Marxist voice and pole of attraction in the SSP. For the moment, the SWPlatform is a long-term operator within the SSP. But, I suspect, much will depend on how well Respect performs outside it heartlands in the next few years (in addition to the general tempo of the class struggle). These will determine what prospects the SWP thinks exists for itself.

 

SUN: > Much is written about the alleged ultra-leftism of the SSP because the ISM categorise the Labour party as a “capitalist party” rather than a “bourgeois workers’ party”. Does this accusation hold any water in the SSP’s day-to-day approach to workers who retain loyalty to Labour?

Gregor:> No, I think that the SSP shows an approach which tries to meaningful engage with these types of workers. This is all the more so given that the breakthrough represented by the elections of 2003 has not been sustained or reinforced. The biggest problem for the SSP with these types of workers is that the ideas it represents in the abstract are appealing but it is seen to lack the critical mass of size to be credible and convincing. A chicken and egg situation. 

 

SUN: > To what degree has the looseness of the ISM contributed to the success of the SSP? Had Scottish Militant Labour continued as a democratic centralist group within the SSP would this have undermined the process of regroupment?

Gregor:> The ISM has contributed to the relative success of the SSP in two ways. Most obviously, its members and supporters, but more importantly has been that it has been able to move out of the orthodox Trotskyist or Militant/CWI intellectual straightjacket so that it can re-examine issues and approaches in the context of practice and some degree of influence and implantation. Much of this overall approach was already in train with SML but it became more accentuated in the form of the ISM.

 

SUN: > There is some discussion of the ISM being relaunched because it has not succeeded in its aim of building a grass roots Marxist leadership across Scotland. Do you agree with that?

Gregor:> I agree with this assessment and see it in terms that the ISM has been unable to come to terms with its own success. It’s a bit like when various left grouping in unions become the de facto national leadership but then their internal organisation withers because they’ve won control of the union’s organisational levers. But because the organising a union is a distinct task, because unions’ structures are for a wider purpose and the control the left has is not uncontested, the left then finds it much more difficult to implement its ideas. The ISM is a very shrunken as an active and identifiable force. In many ways, its purpose has run its course. But the task of generating grassroots Marxist cadre was always going to be bigger than the ISM could rise to. The ISM did not in its heyday have the organisational reach across the whole of Scotland to do so. Having all the regional organisers and many of the other full-timers from its ranks did not particularly help.

 

SUN: > What is your assessment of the longer term affects of the Sheridan resignation crisis?

Gregor:> The leadership debacle has had a significant and deleterious impact on the activists in the SSP, both inside and outside the platforms. I have made an analysis of it in Scottish Left Review (No. 26, www.scottishleftreview.org). But what I want to stress is that this is only one problem the SSP is currently facing, and not even the most serious one (see below).

 

SUN: > Do you think there is a danger of the SSP being sucked into parliamentarianism and routinism, and what is the solution to counter this?

Gregor:> Since May 2003, with the election of six SSP MSPs, the party has experienced a relative demobilisation in the size, and amount of activity, of its cadre. This may seem a strange thing to say because for roughly a year after May 2003, the public national profile of the SSP had never been higher. To the outside observer, this must seem to be intimately connected to this breakthrough. It is, but not in the way that people suspect.  Parliamentary cretinism, what I take you to mean by ‘parliamentarianism and routinism’, is most usually understood as, on the one hand, the parliamentary group coming to dominant a party by dint of conscious stealth, and on the other, by the centre of gravity of a party moving into parliament. Of course, there is evidence of this. But the issues are not black and white.

 

Many of the key pre-2003 activists now are MSPs or are Parliamentary workers. This is necessary to support the MSPs and to use the platform of Parliament as much as we can. The key issue here is why is it that a new generation of activists have not emerged or have not been produced to fill this vacuum. Four further issues are critical here. One is that many of the members and activists that helped get the six elected by general campaigning and specific election work have sat back and let the MSPs and other staff get on with ‘the job’. For example, my branch (Edinburgh North and Leith) had between 20-25 members out of 60-80 members in the branch come to twice monthly branch meetings prior to May 2003. Now, it’s down to about 10. These now inactive members see that their job was to get the MSPs elected so that they could ‘fight for socialism’ as a result of having that public platform. The second is that the members which continue to be active do not have a very good understanding of how a parliamentary platform can be used to build the SSP. This is most clear over extra-parliamentary campaigns to support SSP bills where with only 6 MSPs and only 19 SSP, Greens and independents out of 129 MSPs, extra-parliamentary pressure must be brought to bear on other MSPs and parties to support SSP bills, either to get them passed into law or to have any impact on Scottish Executive policies. Thirdly, the SSP underestimated (or more accurately did not give much thought to) the amount of resources that are necessary to be given over to acting seriously as a party with significant parliamentary representation. This concerns both the call on MSPs to speak at countless public meetings and to the media, and the preparation this requires, but also that if the SSP does not take its parliamentary work and responsibilities seriously, it will be torn to shreds by other parties and the media, thus undermining its credibility and stature. Lastly, the terrain on which the SSP works has not been so favourable of late. The anti-war movement has subsided as a force in between demonstrations. There has been no major trade union struggle like the nursery nurses since early 2004.

 

So I’m pointing to a far more complex process going on that would seem to be the case to any outsider. Because this is a complex process, answers to resolve the challenges aren’t easy to come by. It’s easy to say what should be done but far harder to mobilise members to do it by argument or exhortation. The leadership debacle and convenorship election contest prevented this relative demobilisation from being easily identified. The general election and G8 protests haven’t helped the process of trying to resolve these either. At the moment, there is an organisational stasis at the top of the SSP. Having a new leader has not meant breaking out of this so far. In the autumn and winter of this year, the SSP needs to turn its attention to Colin Fox and other leading members touring the country and making the case for socialism in public meeting as Tommy Sheridan did between 1999-2003 in order to revitalise existing members and drawn in new members. These meetings should outline what the SSP’s vision is and how it can be achieved (in terms of linking reforms to revolution through a transitional mechanism).

 

SUN: > There has been a lot of sterile criticism of the SSP for its alleged “nationalism”, however, do you think the SSP punches under its weight at a UK level, for example in the trade unions? Does the SSP seek to influence unions at a national (UK) level or simply at a national (Scottish region) level?

Gregor:> The SSP could do more to raise its profile outside of Scotland and bring the benefit of its experience of building a broad, pluralist party but recent events since 2003 have not been conducive to the time being there to do that amongst the activists. The SSP does seek to influence national (UK) unions by working in alliance with others, often the Socialist Party, because the unions remain overwhelmingly cross-Britain bodies.

 

If I may take the chance of this interview to plug two of my books, I will.

The first is ‘The Revolutionary Witticisms of Colin Fox, Carolyn Leckie and Rosie Kane MSPs’ (Wordpower books, £5.99, ISBN 0-9549185-0-9, obtainable through www.word-power.co.uk and other bookshops).

 

The second is ‘The Political Economy of Scotland: Red Scotland? Radical Scotland’ (University of Wales Press, £19.99 ISBN 0-7083-1973-4, obtainable through www.wales.ac.uk/press and other book shops).

 

Both cover many of the broader areas touched upon in this interview.  

 

June 2005

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