PEOPLE often make false assumptions about my politics. Unionists assume I must be a dyed-in-the wool SNP activist. They’re wrong. And some on the Yes side think I’m still a member the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), which I represented as a Central Scotland MSP from 2003 to 2007. They’re wrong too. The truth is, I’m very consciously not a member of any political party.

I started drifting away from the SSP about ten years ago. My experiences in the party had left me exhausted and disillusioned and led me to become more interested in feminist politics. Although I kept paying my subs for years later.

I also felt that when we were founding Women for Independence, it was in the interests of the independence movement that I should avoid any involvement in party politics. And it was a far more productive use of my limited time than remaining active in the SSP.

There were then, and still are, some people in the SSP whom I respect immensely. So, despite my disenchantment, I chose not to make a big deal of things. I did not storm off in an egotistical huff. Instead, I gradually reduced my subs to zero. And no-one seemed to notice. Nobody from the party’s branch, regional or national structures ever asked me why.

This weekend, the annual conference of the SSP took place in Glasgow against a background of what appear to be growing tensions. I understand that the party’s co-convenor Colin Fox spent a fair bit of his opening speech condemning former members who have drifted away and existing members who don’t regularly attend meetings or take part in street activity.

I have to say that when I hear of a party leader condemning his members and former members for disloyalty, it sounds like the chief executive of Marks & Spencer lambasting customers for shopping elsewhere. It misses the point.

I’m one of probably thousands of ex-SSP members. I noticed years ago that the party was a bit of a revolving door. “Why don’t we follow people up and ask them why they’ve drifted away?” I asked. “Surely we could learn something?” Nothing happened. And to this day, with every period of politicisation there has been – from the Iraq war to the independence referendum – the SSP sucks in and churns up a new swathe of members destined to perpetuate a cycle of enthusiasm, commitment, disenchantment and disillusionment.

The SSP is the first and only political party I ever joined. I was inspired by its commitment to socialism, independence, left unity, pluralism, democracy, and equality. I’d been around trade unions a long time and had always been put off by the dogmatism and sectarianism of the various hard left groupings. I’d never been interested in the Labour Party. The SNP wasn’t explicitly socialist. The SSP, in the beginning, felt like my political home.

I loved that we aspired to be a party of open political debate, encouraging different political platforms and currents. We weren’t afraid of passionate, sometimes heated, but essentially respectful arguments. We held these debates at conferences in in the full glare of the media. So I was surprised to hear recently that the SSP leadership has tried to discipline long-standing members for publicly expressing criticism of the party.

This is Scotland 2018, not Russia 1917. This is the age of social media. Political debate is out there in public. SNP politicians openly criticise the party leadership over the timing of the independence referendum, the Peoples’ Vote on the EU, the currency or the Growth Commission and a whole range of other issues. Labour politicians have public disputes over anti-Semitism, Brexit, immigration and a whole lot more. The debates within the Tory Party are front page news, day-in, day-out,

So why on earth would the leadership of a socialist party that was built on the principles of pluralism, diversity and democracy imagine that they could or should stop people expressing their views except through party structures – which by all accounts are non-existent across much of Scotland?

With hindsight, I can see that today’s problems were there from the beginning. Back then, as I’m inclined to do with everything, I threw myself into the SSP with gusto. I was a single parent of two children working full-time as a midwife – and I was heavily involved in trade union activity. Within weeks of joining, I’d been “encouraged” to assume responsibility for organising a branch. Very soon, my enthusiasm became a duty. Despite the SSP aspiring to be a broad, pluralistic party that would welcome whatever contribution people felt able to make, the culture on the ground was much more pressurised. It was all about street stalls with petitions, sales of the party newspaper and signing up new members.

I have huge respect for some people still in the SSP. Others I don’t know. And the SSP Twitter feed – run by the party’s social media guy, Scott McDonald – is one of the more impressive elements of its communications, sharing interesting content and debating with opponents robustly but respectfully.

Unfortunately, the messages coming out on other channels from the party’s official leadership are more crude and increasingly more shrill. In the 2016 election I was astonished at the relentless anti-SNP message churned out by Colin Fox in his capacity as spokesperson for Rise. It seemed to me particularly silly for a pro-independence organisation to expend energy attacking other pro-independence forces in an election. I have met people – including SNP activists – who were ready to give their second vote to Rise until they were turned off by Colin’s grandstanding.

Of course, criticise the Growth Commission. And yes, adopt a more critical approach towards the EU. And present a more radical vision for independence. But I would suggest that if the SSP were to concentrate on its own positive alternative way forward, while engaging where necessary in more constructive criticism, it would gain a lot more respect among the 100,000 members of the SNP, most of them on the left and many of them socialists.

And that’s before we start on the hundreds of thousands of SNP voters across the poorest communities of our country who see the SNP not as “bourgeois nationalist neo-liberals” but as the only party right now with the capacity to deliver serious change in the form of national independence and a permanent end to Tory rule over Scotland.

There have been moves recently in the SSP, by people like my friend Frances Curran, to transform it into something more recognisable as itself. Things may be starting to change. I hear on the grapevine that a resolution on independence from the Lothians branch failed to be carried at the conference because of its intemperate anti-SNP tone. I was heartened to hear that – because there is and should be in Scotland space for an explicitly working-class-based party that supports independence. Whether the SSP can become the kind of organisation needed to fill that space very much remains to be seen.