The bearded Bolshevik bites the dust

The trouble with being a socialist in Scotland is that your history is always going to be better than your future. It is hard to live up to a past that encompasses Keir Hardie, Jimmy Maxton, John Maclean, John Wheatley, Red Clydeside and the struggles of the miners, the steelmen and the shipyard workers.

As Gordon Brown said in his biography Maxton, the 1922 general election, when Labour won 30 Scottish seats and "Glasgow blazed red" with ten of the city's 15 seats, was "the Scottish Labour movement's finest hour".

Since then, Scotland may boast a wide base of collectivism in council housing, schools, water supply and public works - but that is steadily being dismantled and the decaying bastions of collectivism are not being renewed. The council housing stock is about to be transferred and, despite the growing number of sub- standard homes and persistent homelessness, Labour authorities in the west- central belt are selling off "surplus" housing land, including greenbelt sites, to private developers. The country's biggest public projects, including the new Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and a new stretch of England-bound motorway, are private finance initiatives.

In deference to the lingering belief that Scotland is more left-wing than elsewhere, the leadership is always careful to push "old Labour" buttons when it crosses the border. It will do so at the weekend's Scottish Labour Party conference at Inverness - although, with the party in pre-election, don't-scare-the-voters mode, the S-word will be taboo.

The only S-exhibition, naked and unashamed, will take place at the fringe meeting of the Campaign for Socialism, which insists: "CFS knows that most ordinary members of the Scottish Lab- our Party are hostile to new Labour solutions."

A mere ten CFS members could, indeed, nudge Scottish Labour leftwards - because they happen to be MSPs.

In particular, they could sabotage the new-Labour-led Scottish Executive's controversial scheme for the transfer of Scotland's council housing stock into the control of housing associations. They argue that there must be a right to high-quality public sector housing, which must be retained in council ownership except where a stock transfer has been initiated by tenants.

They also spurn "the marriage of new Labour to capitalism" and the strategy of skilling up the Scottish workforce to attract foreign investment in the service-dominated economy. Instead, they call on the Scottish government to extend social ownership, and the co-operative movement to help fight food poverty, create jobs and provide goods and services.

Nor do they dismiss the use of the Scottish Parliament's limited power to raise extra taxes to help attack inequality (through measures for economic regeneration) and provide better public services.

But if Scots really were as socialist as the CFS would like to think, the Scottish National Party would now be wearing Labour's left-wing clothes and Tommy Sheridan's Scottish Socialist Party would be doing better than it is.

John McAllion, MSP, whose leftishness cost him a front-bench position, contends that socialism can still be an electoral asset in Scotland: "A more left-wing Scottish Labour Party would immediately see off the Scottish National Party.

"The SNP strategy is no longer about independence: it's about trying to brand us as the 'new Tories'. They are trying to occupy the ground we used to hold in Scotland before 'modernisation'."

The CFS was stung by John Lloyd's failure to mention the campaign in his recent New Statesman article on a resurgence of the left. The CFS secretary, Vince Mills, complained to his members: "He does so, rather oddly I thought, on the basis of what he perceives as opportunities for the left outside the Labour Party - Livingstone in London, Sheridan in Scotland. Sadly, he ignores the possibility for real left development inside the Labour Party itself . . . "

In fact, Sheridan's party could do no better than a fourth-place 5 per cent of the poll in December's Falkirk West by- election, a seat many believed had been bequeathed to the SSP by the resignation of the Labour maverick Dennis Canavan. In the latest Herald-System Three opinion poll, the Scottish Socialists have edged up a percentage point, but only to 3 per cent on the first vote for the Scottish Parliament and 6 per cent on the second vote.

The CFS presence at the Scottish Labour conference is a straightforward trawl for those in the party who still believe an alternative to Blairism has a chance. Otherwise, as Mills jibes: "Get a suntan, a suit and try to work out some clever soundbites for a passing journalist."

It is all somehow reminiscent of that 1922 election and the Tory poster of a bearded Bolshevik with the legend: "He Wants You to Vote Socialist - Don't." Scots did then, but they don't seem to be bothered now.