Ken Loach’s open letter discussing a new mass party of the left, and the response to it is impressive. It confirms what has become increasingly obvious in recent years: the failure of the left to make a significant ideological and political breakthrough since the economic crash in 2008 is connected to the inadequacy of the existing institutions of the left.
I have read the strategy discussions on the Left Unity website with interest and with an open mind: as yet, no one has developed a sufficient strategy and therefore we should all be willing to listen.
However, there has been a significant omission in the discussions thus far. Britain is not a singular political entity; it contains multiple nations, each of which possesses a unique devolved settlement and parliament creating specific national-political dynamics. This has substantial ramifications when considering strategies to construct a new mass party of the left. Furthermore, Scotland and Britain face a constitutional crisis: the impending independence referendum has created the possibility of the break-up of the British state next year.
These issues cannot be ignored when discussing left unity at a UK level. For most socialists in Scotland the concept of a British mass party of the Left is dated. Today there needs to be recognition by all sections of the British Left that socialists in Scotland – and the other nations of the UK – need to organise independently to advance the project of the left in our own particular contexts.
In Scotland this process is already well underway. Not only has the vast majority of the Scottish left arrived at the conclusion that it needs to organise first and foremost on a Scottish basis, but also that we need to fight for left-wing political representation and must support the cause of Scottish independence (albeit in a way that is differentiated from the Scottish National Party).
The literature discussing why the left should support Scottish independence is well known. In this article I simply wish to explain the importance of everyone on the left in Britain understanding the particular national-political dynamic in Scotland, and the ways in which many on the Scottish left have been attempting to advance the cause of left unity and renewal.
The Scottish dynamic
Scottish politics has never been more divergent from that of the UK as a whole than it is today. In the 1990s, Labour believed that devolution would kill off the threat of independence once and for all: the system of proportional representation introduced was supposed to stop any party achieving an overall majority at Holyrood. But the SNP did just that in the parliamentary elections of 2011, winning a majority of working class voters across Scotland and a majority of seats in the Labour heartlands of Glasgow and the West coast of Scotland – seats considered to be so safe that they used to say that if you pinned a red rosette on a monkey Labour would still win.
What is the reason behind this political sea change? It is not because of a rise in nationalist fervour in Scotland: while support for the SNP has risen, support for independence has remained fairly constant. It is because in Scotland there have been centre-left alternatives to the Labour Party at the ballot box. Privatisation and war during the Blair years and the failure of Scottish Labour to use devolution to combat poverty and inequality eroded Labour support and resulted, in the elections of 2003, in the Scottish Socialist Party winning six seats and the Greens winning five.
The split in the SSP and the subsequent collapse of their vote in 2007 did not lead to this voter base returning to Labour. Polling evidence suggests that these voters transferred support to the nationalists and was the primary reason that the SNP secured enough votes in the 2007 election to form a minority government. The SNP then grew in strength through competent governance; the ineptitude of Scottish Labour; and enacting important social-democratic policies such as the introduction of free prescriptions; free care for the elderly; free university education; and ending PFI and PPP projects in schools and hospitals. Whilst the SNP remain anchored within a neoliberal framework, they have been able to use the powers of devolution to position themselves to the left of Labour on key issues and win the social-democratic vote.
The fact that Labour in Scotland no longer dominate centre-left opinion is of major importance in understanding how devolution has created fault lines in Scottish politics that do not exist at Westminster. When the majority of the working-class vote Labour in Westminster elections they do so because they believe it is the only party that can keep the Tories out. In Scotland the Tories pose no threat; Scottish elections, therefore, have a completely different dynamic, meaning that politics is pitched well to the left of the British mainstream. Labour no longer holds a divine right to social-democratic voters. Indeed, since their hammering in 2011 they have moved further to the right, opposing all of the key universal benefits introduced in Scotland which have made Holyrood a tangible improvement on Westminster for the Scottish working class.
Added to this, the Labour party is now in alliance with the Tories and Lib-Dems in ‘Better Together’, the campaign against independence in 2014. They have eagerly joined the chorus of scaremongering and fear-inducing politics of the ‘No’ campaign, fueled by the funds of a corrupt Tory oil millionaire who doesn’t live in Scotland, has been implicated in the cash-for-access scandal and whose company, Vitol, has admitted to giving half a million pounds to the Serbian war criminal Arkan, who indicted at the Hague for the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims.
So whilst any left unity project outside of Scotland must contend primarily with Labourism in the context of a Tory-led government, in Scotland a different set of political challenges exist which require separate Scottish organisation if we are to rise to them. Whilst Scotland remains part of the British state, co-ordination on a British level will still be essential. However there needs to be recognition on both sides of the border that political issues inevitably develop a distinct dynamic in the different nations of Britain.
To illustrate this point, let us consider the Bedroom Tax. This was a Tory policy administered from Westminster. Surely opposition requires the same approach in Birmingham as is in Glasgow? In fact it does not. This is because a plethora of questions arise in Scotland that do not in England: what is Scottish Government’s attitude to the policy and what will it do to mitigate the worst effects? How are the approaches of SNP and Labour councils different? How does the debate fit into the wider arguments about welfare and housing under independence? How does the particular dynamics on the Scottish left affect building resistance to it? These Scottish particularities are likely to grow over time regardless of the referendum result, as all mainstream parties are now committed to extending devolution further.
The most important differentiation between Scottish and UK politics is created by the independence referendum. The referendum dominates Scottish political life, and is the key talking point in the media and in wider society. It has created a national debate about the future of Scotland and what it should look like. This has presented a challenge for the Scottish left. Firstly, can it develop a coherent position in the debate? Secondly, can it then use this position to push the contours of the debate leftwards?
What has emerged is the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC). The campaign was launched from a conference last November of more than 900 people – the single biggest conference of its kind in Scotland for decades. This massive event brought together the whole of the left (except the tiny number of those on the left still in the Scottish Labour Party). The conference was very significant in rebuilding, renewing and uniting the left after the collapse of the SSP in 2006. One newspaper columnists and political commentator, Gerry Hassan, wrote that it was the most important event north of the border since the advent of the Parliament in 1999.
The basic argument that unites RIC is that it is committed to independence on the basis that it can help build a more socially just society. The five guiding principles of the campaign are:
· For a Green and environmentally sustainable economy
· Internationalist and opposed to Trident, war and NATO
· For a social alternative to cuts, inequality, austerity and privatisation
· For a modern republic and real democracy
· Committed to equality and opposition to discrimination on grounds of gender, race, disability or sexuality
The campaign has provided a framework for the left to begin to work together, and a challenge for it to make its ideas relevant to the overall independence debate. RIC groups now exist in towns, cities and communities across Scotland, including places the left has not been organised in for decades.
It has allowed us to build left unity through the independence debate, healing old wounds and forging new relationships through the process of campaigning.
Left renewal and left unity in Scotland
Our view is that if you take one step towards left renewal, left unity will take two steps towards you. The process of building a new mass party of the left is not easy, but as a starting point it must be based on left renewal: the input of new people, new ideas and new movements. A coalition of the existing institutions of the left will not produce success. We believe that in Scotland RIC provides a framework for us to pursue renewal and in the process build unity.
We stand shoulder to shoulder with anyone who wants to rebuild the left free of the paralysis of organisational sectarianism and ideological dogmatism. In this spirit, we hope that Left Unity supporters take the issue of separate Scottish left organisation seriously, as we believe this is indispensable in a modern UK state context.