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Scotland’s socialist challenge to Labour

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Issue 1747

Tommy Sheridan MSP interviewed

Scotland’s socialist challenge to Labour

THE SCOTTISH Socialist Party (SSP) will be a powerful force in the general election. Socialist Worker spoke to Tommy Sheridan, the SSP’s member of the Scottish Parliament, about the potential for the left. On the day of the interview it had been announced that the SSP and the Socialist Workers Party in Scotland were uniting.

WHAT’S YOUR message as the election campaign begins?

IT IS time for a real challenge to Labour after four years of them letting down working class people. Labour have realised that in the run-up to the election they had to talk more left, to give more prominence to empty rhetoric about ending child poverty, for example.

But the figures reveal the truth-New Labour have spent less on improvements to public services than the Major government, a Tory government, did. They say they intend to spend more, but that does not cut any ice. The people who get the new tax credits can lose up to 85 percent of the money through reductions in housing benefit and council tax benefit because the credit is regarded as income.

Why don’t we have an 85 percent tax rate for the richest, not the poorest? All you get from Labour is the spin, from people who have no notion of what it is like to live in the real world on a low income or benefits. I did a debate recently with Polly Toynbee.

Her new book is full of the corrosive cynicism that there is no alternative, that we can complain all we want but there is no other way-except for Hague and Widdecombe waiting in the wings. Of course that’s a frightening prospect for working class people. We say there is another way, a socialist alternative.

If the disillusion with Labour is not mobilised by the left, there is a danger it can be mobilised by the right. We have to strongly defend the provision of asylum. New Labour will not do it. There’s a briefing document for Labour candidates which says if they are challenged about prisons for asylum seekers then the response should be that it is too expensive. Too expensive!

Politically they are no longer prepared to stand up for the right of people to flee violence and torture and desperate poverty. Instead they argue on the basis of cost. It shows how far they have gone.

WHAT DOES the SSP stand for?

WE OFFER a clear class programme in opposition to New Labour’s record of betrayal, against the businessmen at the centre of government and Labour’s readiness to serve the interests of a wealthy minority. We call for public ownership of oil, transport, construction, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing and finance, the return of privatised assets, a minimum wage of 7 an hour and a maximum wage, a shorter working week, restoring the link between pensions and earnings.

To deliver that would require revolution, no doubt about it. But we can’t have a secret revolution. We need the support of the majority in society.

WHAT ARE the prospects for the left in the coming election?

OUR TARGET is 100,000 votes. If that is supplemented by recruitment -and it must be, because votes are no good without recruitment-then we will have established ourselves as Scotland’s fifth party.

In many of the urban areas we will be the third party, supplanting both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. It will be the sowing of the seeds, a two-year campaign involving industrial campaigns, direct action and civil disobedience leading up to the Holyrood Scottish Parliament elections of 2003 when I firmly believe there is a real prospect of winning eight MSPs.

I wish all the best to comrades building the Socialist Alliance in England and Wales. It is an excellent project and I hope it can evolve in the way it has in Scotland.

WHAT ABOUT the Scottish nationalists?

SOCIALISTS have an ideology which challenges the establishment and can unite the working class, whereas the nationalist ideology is divisive. It sees the world through nationalist spectacles that have never been appropriate because Scottish bosses and industry are just as ruthless as English, French or German bosses.

We look through class spectacles. We try to unite the working class in Scotland as part of an international movement for socialism.

WHAT DO you think is happening internationally?

A DECADE ago, after the downfall of the Stalinist bloc countries, the certainties in politics became uncertainties. The whole notion of socialism was under attack by the ruling class. They declared the New World Order had been established and that socialism was finished. That was a weak moment internationally. But it sparked a process of re-examining ideas and looking at new forms of organisation.

In Europe you can see there were realignments of the left on radical programmes. Over the last four or five years the whole world situation in terms of questioning both the moral and economic right of the free market to dominate has increased apace.

It has accelerated over the last three or four years to the extent that being anti-market is quite popular. We need to improve the equation so that being pro-socialist is popular too. The anti-globalisation forces are refreshing, but what’s missing is the idea of what will replace the present set-up. There is definitely a thirst for genuine democracy but that requires public ownership and accountability.

It’s not enough to just feed off the world movement-we have to be part of shaping it as well. First and foremost we stand on the side of the youth, environmental campaigners and anti-nuclear protesters. But we also have to explain we are involved in a project that encapsulates them as well, which is built around a socialist alternative. $ HOW DO you respond to the SWP-SSP merger?

IT IS very exciting that the SWP has joined the SSP. It is part of a wider process going on at the moment, in opposition to New Labour and the destruction brought by global capitalism. There is a great feeling for unity among the left inside the working class movement.

It is not a moment too soon for all of us to respond positively to that mood. The response from the class as a whole, the more they find out about it, will be, “Thank Christ, at last the left has got their act together.”

Tony Benn often says there are far too many socialist parties and not enough socialists, and it does ring true in many of the battles that we face. We are so divided, whereas the right wing and the establishment are so united. In official politics there is an increasing hegemony around the promotion of the free market. We cannot afford the luxury of being so divided on the left.

The 80-20 principle is a good one to adopt-there is 80 percent that unites and 20 percent that divides us. Surely that’s enough for unity and common action? A social attitudes survey recently showed that since 1999 Scottish society has moved to the left and that nearly half of the electorate is to the left of Labour-well up on 1997.

In no small way I believe this is due to the SSP raising left politics and socialist ideas. Now in the SSP at least 90 percent, maybe 95 percent, of the active left will be in one party, promoting one paper, promoting one programme. At last weekend’s May Day demonstrations in Glasgow and Edinburgh there were SSP contingents with one banner, one set of placards, selling one paper.

WHAT POLITICAL lessons are there from the Record’s disgusting campaign against the SSP over drugs and other issues?

I HAD a column in the Record for the best part of a year and a half, which we used constantly to raise the SSP’s banner and socialist ideas. For example, we called for the scrapping of Section 28 when the Record was running a vile campaign to keep it. The Record let it continue because it was popular. But we heard that Gordon Brown was furious that the Record was not being slavish enough towards Labour.

He apparently demanded that there be a new editor and one duly arrived, Peter Cox. His background was in the Murdoch press. Two days after he took control I got a letter saying the column was finished. For the Record, I went from being the “Radical Voice of Scotland” to “Pillock Number One”, “a low life lurking under a stone”.

It would be naive to think that the Record’s attacks did not have an effect, especially on a layer of older people. For younger people I think going against the stream has made us more attractive. I have done public meetings recently in Fort William, Bellshill, Clydebank, Dumbarton and Coatbridge, and one of the best things about them was the number of young people there compared to previous meetings.

That might just be the growth of the anti-globalisation movement and so on, but an element is that we have touched a nerve by raising the drugs issue. Some people have said I shouldn’t have raised this issue before the election, that it will lose votes. But it would be electoralism if you start to dilute your politics and policies because an election is coming. I always emphasise that the number one issue on drugs is starting the war on poverty because that is where problem drug use thrives.

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