How the potential of the Scottish Left can be realised in a new movement for the 21st Century
The feeling of shock amongst the Scottish Left is almost palpable right now. Despite the apparent strength of the progressive movement and the wave of widespread public support for our ideals we have suffered two hammer-blows in less than a year. Firstly, in losing the Independence referendum, the radical transformation of our nation proved to be beyond our reach (at least for now). Having regrouped, our attention turned to the General Election campaign during which many of us backed the SNP hoping that something could be salvaged from the wreckage of 2014 – and then the Conservatives won a parliamentary majority. Our only consolation has been the successful rejection of a red-rosetted elite which had corrupted so much of what we stand for, but this huge shift has raised an enormous and pressing question: where does the Scottish Left go from here?
Throughout the campaign Nicola Sturgeon made clear – again and again – that the General Election was not about taking Scotland out of the UK, but about making sure our voice was heard within it; it was on this platform that the SNP took 95% of Scottish constituencies, brutally demolishing the remnants of the Labour Party in the process. This was, without doubt, an extraordinary achievement, and SNP members are entitled to a (brief) period of triumphalism, but Scotland’s new voice in Westminster must not be allowed to forget that it owes a significant debt to those on the Left who, to paraphrase the SSP, held their noses and voted for the nationalists.
Left-wing support for the SNP was born out of necessity rather than conviction, with the glaring failures of the FPTP voting system pushing us towards a tactical vote for the party which was best positioned to assist the agenda for radical change in Scotland. Next time – the 2016 Holyrood election – the game changes, and the Left must change with it.
The SNP will never be our party. Even if they can make good on their promises, and even if their new members can pull them gradually leftwards, a genuinely radical, socialist opposition to an almost certain nationalist Holyrood majority is crucial to the continued advancement of progressive Scottish politics. Monopolies on power are never good for those casting the votes and should be resisted for both practical and philosophical reasons.
And of course our historical home, literally built by the blood, sweat and tears of our parents and grandparents, is gone. Accepting this has not been easy, but from the ashes has come the realisation that when Labour abandoned the people of Scotland they were the ones left behind, not us. One day the Labour Party might find a way to rediscover itself and avoid the political irrelevance which seems to beckon: it might split from the UK party and cease to be a branch office; it might refocus its energies on fighting inequality and injustice rather than the SNP; it might recognise that a party of the people cannot also be a party of the powerful elite whose interests are contrary to ours. Equally, it might not. Either way, we cannot afford to wait for them.
There is now an opportunity for the Left to take its place at the heart of Scottish politics. In November last year the Radical Independence Campaign drew 3000 people to a conference on the banks of the Clyde; Common Weal currently has more than 50 local groups operating throughout Scotland and has launched CommonSpace to challenge the complacent mainstream media; the SSP and Greens have seen their membership rise and their profile grow beyond all expectations. The Scottish Left is more vocal, more vibrant and has more potential than at any time in recent history, a consequence of its role in the independence referendum. The appropriately Scottish ‘glorious failure’ that was the Yes campaign provided the vital spark, but now it is up to all of us to fan the flames.
Just think: what if all that anger, all that energy, all that potential could be harnessed? What if the Left really could transform itself from the perpetually fragmented voice of protest into a positive campaign which gives a platform to people up and down the country abandoned by neo-liberal, me-first politics. What if genuine participative democracy replaced the shattered complacency of voting Labour every five years and expecting life to get better. A new movement, truly rooted in communities across the length and breadth of our diverse nation, with its policies sourced directly from the very people it seeks to represent, could change all of that. It could change everything.
If this is to happen then the networks built by organisations like RIC and Common Weal must be fully activated and their potential exploited. We must engage honestly with those in Scotland who are about to come under attack from an emboldened Conservative Party keen to drive home it’s slender advantage before it begins to dissolve. Sometimes our role will be to educate citizens, sometimes it will be to campaign alongside other organisations, sometimes it will be to support and protect communities, but it will always be to listen.
The Left can offer so much to Scotland: a replacement for a Labour Party in near-terminal decline; a defence against the illiberal policies of the Conservatives (and the SNP); a voice which always puts social justice at the core of its narrative; an ‘all of us first’ policy platform which puts the good of people and the environment ahead of neo-liberal demands for short-term profits. It is also only from the Left that a serious challenge to the utterly discredited austerity agenda (demolished by Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman who described it as ‘intellectually bankrupt’ and having been “laughed out of the discourse” almost everywhere but Britain) can emerge. The changes which will improve the lives of the poor, the powerless, the discarded and the disenfranchised are not radical, they are necessary; empathy as the core value of a political philosophy is not extreme, it is human.
The time has come for the Left bury its many hatchets and unite under one powerful banner, but a new vehicle must not exist purely to act as a parliamentary voice for the unions or a nostalgic – but ultimately futile – attempt to resuscitate a depleted left-wing radicalism which lost the battle with conservative ideology in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. Clinging to the idea of trade unions as the primary political voice of the working class, or to the fundamentalist belief that ‘the market’ is inherently evil in all conceivable contexts, will see us achieve nothing but irrelevance. This is not to say that we should not fight the impending Tory assaults on the – vital – trade union movement, or that we should abandon the case for the nationalisation of the aspects of our society deemed ‘too important to fail’; rather, it is an acceptance that the past is, indeed, a foreign country and that, in our 21st Century nation, we too must do things differently.
If we are to achieve our goals we must construct a core framework around which the broader Left movement – in all its diversity – can coalesce and develop over the coming years as we move, I believe inexorably, towards independence. Organisations like the SSP, RIC, Common Weal, trade unions, faith groups and the Greens will not always agree, but we do have a common cause – let us resolve to seek it together. Let us transform our passion and potential into genuine progress.
With this in mind we must turn our attention to the 2016 Holyrood election, for it is in this arena that true mandates from the Scottish people can be won. In many ways the recent flourishing of the Scottish Left is rooted in the restoration of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. On the Canongate Wall of that institution are twenty-six quotations carved into stone and set in concrete. Through these deeply symbolic mini-monuments the voices of Scotland’s past talk to its present and its future. There, on a brilliant piece of Iona marble, the words of Alasdair Gray (or, more accurately, a quotation favoured by the great man) radiate: “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.” When we – as individuals, as a movement, and as a nation – look in the mirror, whether it be in five, ten or fifty years, those words must reflect our actions. The work must start now.
The road ahead will not be easy, and there will be further losses along the way, but the journey is vital and the prize worth the fight, for it is nothing less than a better nation where all of us will come first.