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29 January 2001

Waging war on wee Ally McBeals

Don't mock Tommy Sheridan's Scottish Socialist Party. It helps the poor get their stairwells cleaned

By Tim Luckhurst

On 23 November, the night of the Glasgow Anniesland by-election, BBC Scotland’s Election Special programme perpetrated a grave injustice. Representatives of Scotland’s four “major parties” were gathered in the studio. Exiled on a remote link was the tanned and pugnacious Tommy Sheridan MSP, the leader of the Trotskyite Scottish Socialist Party. Sheridan was indignant. Why, he demanded, was he restricted to occasional interjections when the Liberal Democrat was on the panel? What right had the BBC to depict his party as a minority player? Next time, he insisted, he should be in the studio alongside Labour, the SNP and the Tories. He then proceeded to taunt the First Minister with a relentless critique of Labour’s refusal to participate in campaign hustings.

A visitor to Scotland would have found it hard to believe that Henry McLeish was the senior politician. Sheridan was quicker, wittier and better focused. McLeish was saved from humiliation by technology, rather than his own guile: because Sheridan was an external contri-butor, his microphone could be cut when he interrupted too often.

Sheridan cheated himself of his place in the studio after the cynical pre-Christmas contest in Falkirk West. While Labour scraped home on the lowest turn-out in Scotland since universal suffrage, the SSP leader was in prison for refusing to pay a £250 fine imposed for his part in an anti-nuclear protest at Faslane. He milked the experience for every gram of publicity. “It does not surprise me that, in the season of goodwill to all men,” said the professed atheist, “I am being sent to prison after standing up for a nuclear-free Scotland and a peaceful world.”

Sheridan’s clever mixture of cheap publicity and po-faced earnestness makes it easy for opponents to dismiss him as a figure of fun. Tom Brown did just that here in the NS last month. I have been guilty of it myself. Midway through Sheridan’s sentence, I joked that he would portray this brief incarceration as the equivalent of Mao’s long march or Karl Marx’s early struggles with Prussian absolutism. Sure enough, before emerging from four days in Greenock prison, he had compiled a prison diary for a Sunday newspaper. It was cold at night, we learnt, but prison conditions had improved slightly since his previous sentence (for his poll tax protest). Eat your heart out, Antonio Gramsci.

Comrades on the outside did not let him down. We know (the diary again) that Sheridan’s grim cell was much cheered by the news that the SSP had managed fourth place again in Falkirk West. His colleague Ian Hunter won 989 votes, or 5.07 per cent. Hugh O’Donnell of the Liberal Democrats lost his deposit with a humiliating 3.15 per cent.

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The SSP has become a real force, at least in Scotland’s battleground central belt. Sheridan’s tireless campaign for “an independent, Socialist Scotland” can no longer be dismissed as an amusing diversion. The statistics prove it. In the 1999 Scottish elections to the Edinburgh parliament, his dedicated band of post-entryist Trots won 18,581 votes in the ten parliamentary constituencies that make up the Glasgow region. That was 7.25 per cent of the total. Labour’s future coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, got 7.21 per cent, a galling 108 fewer votes. Sheridan’s tally in Glasgow Pollock, where his work as a councillor has made him a hero to many constituents, rose from 3,639 (11.09 per cent) at the 1997 general election to 5,611 (21.5 per cent) in 1999.

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Since then, the SSP has gone from strength to strength in by-elections where it might easily have been pushed aside in the contest between Labour and the SNP. In Anniesland, in 1999, the SSP’s Rosie Kane pushed her Liberal Democrat opponent into fifth place.

This is not to say that decent, tax-fearing Blairites, with second homes on Mull and children at private schools, need fear vast redistribution and bloody revolt by their domestic staff. But they should pay attention, because in the sink estates and peripheral wastelands where “social inclusion” means sharing a packet of ten Embassy Regal, the SSP is building support. The party is doing it with the sort of community politics that new Labour may one day regret spurning.

Sheridan and his comrades are a product of new Labour’s alienation from its heartlands – and they know it. The hatred between the SSP and new Labour is palpable. Rosie Kane, the SSP candidate in Anniesland, captured the spirit in a campaign interview. “I’d hoped to get to a hustings where I could sit on a platform alongside Bill Butler [Labour] so he could see what a real socialist looks like,” she said. “I live every day with poverty. It’s the politics of the bus stop. It’s about the dirt and grime and tears of poverty. When Tony Blair came to power, 36 per cent of Glasgow kids qualified for free school meals. Now it’s 44 per cent. Nothing has been done to lift people out of poverty.”

To affluent political commentators and to the people whom Kane calls new Labour’s “wee Ally McBeals with their perfect hair”, the SSP’s solutions to these problems look risible. Yet elsewhere, they are increasingly popular. It is not the commitments to nationalise Scotland’s financial institutions, ban the bomb and divide housework equally between the sexes that make the SSP effective. Nor is it the party’s commitment to community ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. That’s seen as so much bollocks in Pollock. Getting housing benefit claims sorted, arranging new tenancies, cleaning stairwells and organising repairs is not. Labour used to do it when it had grass-roots activists sufficiently motivated to care.

And now? Well, the SSP has spotted another flaw in Scottish Labour. The party is not reformed, modernised and Blairite – it just tries hard to look that way. The results of mixing unreformed Scottish Labour practices with new presentational techniques are grotesque. Labour MSPs wander around in identical suits and shoes. They carry clipboards and set their phones to vibrate so as not to interrupt television interviews. They defer to the minder programmed to shepherd them. Labour MSPs and candidates must be the most uninspired, inarticulate clones Scottish politics has ever witnessed.

To excluded populations, vaguely nostalgic for the thunder and radicalism of conviction politics, these Labour machine politicians are indistinguishable from Tories. Scottish Socialists, in contrast, sound authentic. In the parts of Scotland that prosperity left behind, the SSP has credibility. There are lots of parts like that.

What does it amount to? A party perhaps capable of winning 5 per cent across the central belt, with 10 per cent in Glasgow? At best, that is probably the most Sheridan can hope for. But it is not a trivial prize. The Scottish Parliament is elected by a semi-proportional system. It is not hard to imagine circumstances in which the SSP can win two or three list seats at the next Scottish election.

And the message of all this? Labour’s alienation from the excluded, the hard core of have-nots left behind by both Thatcher and Blair, has left a gap that fundamentalist socialism can still fill. In a country where Labour and the SNP already grapple for the mainstream, left-of-centre vote, this creates a new factor that could be as significant to Labour’s Scottish prospects in a tight election as Ralph Nader’s national profile was to Al Gore. All opinion poll evidence suggests that the next race for the Scottish Parliament will be very tight indeed.

Tim Luckhurst is a former editor of the Scotsman