Members of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) voted at an emergency meeting last Sunday to give full political support to Tommy Sheridan, the party co-chair and member of the Scottish parliament (MSP).
Since Sheridan resigned from his position as party convenor under pressure in November 2004, there has been an internal battle for the future of the SSP.
There have been two competing visions of where the party should be going, with those grouped around Sheridan fighting for an outward looking mass party as against those who want a smaller, narrower “pure” party.
The question of the future of the party has crystallised around Sheridan’s libel action against the News of the World.
This action follows scurrilous allegations about Sheridan’s private life made by the Murdoch press in 2004, at a time when Sheridan was heavily involved in giving support to the newly-formed Military Families Against the War.
The SSP’s national council met last Sunday in an atmosphere of crisis.
This arose from a request by the News of the World two weeks ago for a copy of the minutes of the executive committee meeting in November 2004 at which the issue of the allegations against Sheridan were first discussed.
At that meeting, executive members shamefully refused to publicly back Sheridan and demanded his resignation as party convenor, which he accepted under pressure.
The executive’s grounds for demanding this were not, apparently, the content of the allegations, but unhappiness with the way in which he intended to conduct his defence.
Sheridan’s resignation as convenor disorientated and demoralised many members and supporters of the SSP.
Last Sunday, a front page article in the Sunday Herald revealed that soon after that executive committee meeting in November 2004, an unnamed senior SSP official had given the newspaper full details of what had been discussed.
National council delegates were understandably furious.
Last Sunday’s meeting passed an emergency motion calling for the resignation of the party official involved and for disciplinary action to be considered against any other leading members who were aware that this information had been leaked.
The Herald article has also left the executive’s strategy of “defiance” of the courts over these minutes in tatters.
Alan McCombes, the SSP’s policy coordinator, was jailed for 12 days last week for refusing to hand the executive’s minutes to the Scottish courts.
There was already dismay and disbelief within the party that a confidential discussion within the executive should have been minuted in such unnecessary and inappropriate detail.
The meeting rejected the leadership’s proposal that the party should persist in keeping the minutes confidential when they were clearly already in the public domain.
The refusal to hand them over could not only result in McCombes remaining in jail indefinitely, but could also bankrupt the party.
Delegates also rejected the executive’s preferred solution to this crisis – that Tommy Sheridan should drop his libel action against the News of the World.
John Milligan from the RMT union delegation made a powerful contribution in which he rightly argued for solidarity with Alan McCombes, who was still in jail at the start of this week.
He also expressed the feelings of many delegates when he voiced full solidarity with Sheridan in his fight against the Murdoch press.
The meeting ended with delegates voting to endorse that position.
The national committee may prove to be a turning point in the fortunes of the SSP.
The election of six SSP MSPs to the Scottish parliament in the elections of May 2003, with 130,000 votes across Scotland, should have marked a major step forward for the SSP.
Instead an over-orientation on the Scottish parliament, followed in November 2004 by the failure of the party leadership to give full support to Tommy Sheridan – an outstanding class fighter – confused many people.
The resulting demoralisation has been compounded over the past 18 months by a whispering campaign against Sheridan by a faction within the party.
The effect has been to prevent the SSP from moving forward and engaging with the real issues facing working class people in Scotland.
Since November 2004, the Socialist Worker platform within the SSP has fought for support for Sheridan against the News of the World and argued that he was wrong to resign as the party’s convenor.
Now that the air has been cleared and party members have made their views known, it is essential that the SSP focuses on building support for the Scottish parliamentary elections in 2007.
That will mean fighting to regain the support and trust of the tens of thousands of people who voted for the SSP in 2003.
We need to show them that over the issues that concern them – low pay, the worst health in western Europe, the lack of social housing, the ongoing war in Iraq – only the Scottish Socialist Party is capable of presenting a real alternative to New Labour in Scotland.
Iain Ferguson was a delegate to the SSP national council last weekend.