Filling the vacuum in Scottish politics

Around 40 to 50 people attended a meeting in Kirkcaldy last week to hear speakers from the Scottish Left Project (SLP), a new grouping of socialists and leftwing activists that has emerged following the referendum for Scottish independence and which plans to run candidates in the 2016 Scottish parliamentary elections. Nick and Mike went along to take the temperature.

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Kirkcaldy, a town in Fife with a population of about 50,000, was formerly a Labour Party stronghold and part of Gordon Brown’s former constituency. This meeting was hosted by Common Weal, an organisation that originated in the centre-left think-tank The Jimmy Reid Foundation. Many of their ideas, such as nationalisation and defence of the role of the welfare state, would comfortably belong in the manifesto of any radical left organisation. Although the very name of Common Weal (“wealth in common”) and their slogan “All of us first” imply that we all have something in common in a society divided as much as ever by class, the very fact that groups like this exist with a vibrant and active local membership indicates the political space that has now opened up in Scotland following the referendum campaign. They and many others in the SNP, social movements and grassroots campaigns are very open to the debates on rebuilding the left that are taking place wholly outside the Scottish Labour Party.

This was the main theme of the introduction by Jonathan Shafi, the cofounder of the Radical Independence Campaign. He argued that what we are seeing is not just a temporary drop in Labour support from which they will be able to recover, but the end-game of a long-term ideological and organisational decline. There is therefore an urgent objective need to fill that vacuum with working class politics. In the longer term the aim is to develop a coalition drawing on the experience of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, although there is no blueprint that can just be rolled out to fit Scotland. More immediately it means mounting a credible campaign for the 2016 elections for the Scottish Parliament. The system for these elections means that in addition to a constituency vote, electors can give a second vote to an “Additional Members” list of candidates decided by proportional representation. It is these second votes on which the campaign will be focused.

The main beneficiaries of Labour’s collapse will clearly continue to be the SNP. The wholesale transfer of votes from Labour and the surge in SNP membership, notably from Trade Unionists, has raised expectations that they can deliver on the promised platform of anti-austerity. Those same voters and members will however also be open to the argument that there is a clear voice missing from Scottish politics, and that a vote for an organisation such as the SLP is an important way of anchoring politics further to the left.

Shafi argued that the existence of RIC during the referendum forced the Yes movement away from a bureaucratic campaign focused on narrow constitutional questions, towards one of mass participation which heightened the political climate and moved progressively to the left, and that the methods developed during the referendum (e.g. focused mass canvases and voter registration) can be deployed to mount a campaign infused with energy unlike anything the other parties can deliver.

The meeting also heard from Lewis Akers, a member of the Scottish Youth Parliament and Scottish Socialist Party, and Myrto Tsakatika, a member of the Scottish branch of Syriza. Attendees were mostly young and gender balanced and came from a broad range of backgrounds and experiences (environmentalists, trade unionists, student activists, independence campaigners, etc.). We spoke with an active member of the SNP who chose to miss their local SNP branch meeting that evening in order to come along. She told us that she regarded herself as more leftwing than the SNP and that she worried about the prospect of the SNP having a monopoly on Scottish politics.

After the introductions, there was time devoted to small group discussion sessions. At our tables we discussed the type of organisation that the SLP could become, how it would organise, and relations with the rest of the left (such as the Scottish Greens). We also discussed how the SLP could potentially reach out to those who traditionally haven’t voted, those who have become disillusioned with the Labour Party and those who were perhaps No voters in the referendum. Two main areas of contention emerged from this.

The first was from those who saw the formation of another left group (alongside TUSC, Left Unity and Solidarity) as unnecessary and just another entrant into an already crowded field only able to take votes from each other. This was countered by the argument that there is a much larger constituency than that being reached currently, but to tap into it means having a vision beyond simply aggregating the fragmented sections of the left or standing under banners of convenience. It is also a reality that many left groups in Scotland haven’t yet managed to move beyond the events that tore the SSP apart and, while the SLP is a genuine attempt to do so, we need to recognise that not all existing organisations will yet come on board. Building a movement that goes beyond those existing forces on the left and is not the ‘property’ of any of them is a necessary part of eventually creating the conditions for that unity to become a possibility.

The second was the question of how the SLP could attract those who voted No in the referendum out of genuine distrust of nationalism in all its forms, yet share many politics on which the SLP is based. In response to this Akers and Shafi argued that, regardless of how we voted in the referendum and other political differences in our recent past, there is currently a changing political landscape in Scotland and a widespread desire to “do politics differently”. It was therefore incumbent on each of us to put aside our differences and build on the widespread momentum for change that clearly exists in Scottish society.

There was a strong feeling from the floor that any debates or decisions made about the future of the organisation ought to be transparent, accessible and genuinely democratic, and not just decided by a handful of activists in Glasgow or Edinburgh. Unfortunately, and perhaps this is a lesson to be learnt for the future, there was no mechanism proposed, no systematic collection of contact details nor any further meetings arranged locally for attendees to continue with these discussions. The scope for contributions from the floor was also limited to just a few. The mood in the room was good, however, and the level of political debate was generally very high. Local ownership of the project needs to be addressed, but as the speakers were keen to point out the ‘Project’ is not the final form (and certainly not the final name!) but the very process of learning, discussion and debate that is going on right now. Many more meetings like this are being held to engage with campaigning organisations, those involved with social movements and individuals who see the urgency and potential of rebuilding left politics in Scotland and want to shape the direction that takes.

If the people who were there this week are representative of what can be organised without much publicity in towns and cities across Scotland then there is every chance that the SLP can emerge as a genuine force for 2016. We’re joining, and would encourage everyone else to do so to help make sure that the SLP lives up to its potential.

If you want to organise a meeting or invite speakers in your local area, then get in touch with the Scottish Left Project here.

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