Colin Fox is the national co-spokesperson for the Scottish Socialist Party and a member of the Yes Scotland advisory board. He was MSP for the Lothians between 2003 and 2007. Colin is speaking at the upcoming Radical Independence Conference (RIC). We discussed RIC, the independence movement and the future of the Scottish left.
Poll after poll has shown that the ‘Yes’ side are continually lagging behind the ‘No’ camp, so do you think we’re going to win next year?
“Do I think we’re going to win the referendum? Yes.
If you’re looking at the polls, the polls say we’re behind and if we had the referendum today, we’d lose.
But there’s a number of factors that have still got to be played out in this referendum.
One is the question of the 2015 General Election. There was a poll [recently] saying that Miliband’s lead has gone completely now, so there’s the prospect of a Tory government in 2015. I think the received wisdom would be that if the Tories look like they are going to win again then that’s certainly got to help the Yes campaign.
There’s also evidence that says a big proportion of the population are registered still as ‘Don’t knows’ – that’s working class people, that’s what that is. So it is all to fight for in the schemes of Glasgow, the schemes of Edinburgh, Dundee and everywhere. I think the big challenge for the Yes side is to convince a lot of these people who are saying they’ve not made up their mind. So for the left, the socialist movement, we’ve got to persuade them this isn’t just another election. This chance only comes round once. And that can be done. So I think the Referendum is there to be won, it’s there to be fought for. And since the Yes side have been behind in the polls, that’s a greater incentive for us to work harder, there’s nothing particularly new in that.”
How do we win the Trade Union vote?
“Trade union members are nothing if not pragmatic, they’re often quite conservative with a small ‘c’, focussed on their pay, conditions and pensions and so on. If you take the Royal Mail for example, it’s quite clear that many of the national leaders want to recommend a No vote, the trouble is that in the last Scottish elections a majority of CWU members voted SNP they didn’t vote for Labour. There is this disconnect between the political view of the leadership and their membership and I think it’s true of most the unions now.
The union leaders based in London, with their connection to Labour, they want a No vote. Their problem is the rank and file is nowhere near as close to Labour. They don’t even vote Labour here, the majority of them. So they are winnable to a Yes case provided you explain what it means for their pay packet, their your job, their industry and future. You’ve got really high stakes there. And this is why people would be ill advised to conclude this referendum is already over. It’s a battle between venture capitalism and the rest of the population. The trades unionist vote is up for grabs – what actually changes people’s minds is their material conditions.”
It’s been said many times that Scotland is more left wing, on the whole, than the rest of the UK. So is the left argument for independence being heard at all, or are we fighting a losing battle?
“First thing is, Scotland’s political centre of gravity is definitely left of centre. I would describe is as social democratic. It isn’t socialist, not yet at least. But they support public ownership by a majority, they support redistribution of wealth, they support Government intervention in industry, they support the abolition of NHS prescription charges and the abolition of tuition fees and elderly care charges. They support scrapping Trident nuclear weapons. They oppose the bedroom tax and the anti-union laws. Unfortunately such a majority does not exist across England or the UK as a whole.
And on the lefts voice. I’m going to the Yes Scotland Advisory Board meeting this afternoon and obviously there’s people from the left, right and centre there. So those of us on the left, I think our great advantage is that the population of Scotland are left of centre. Social demographically Scotland is a pyramid where the vast majority are working class, you’ve got a thin layer of the middle class and then the elite at the top. Socialist ideals already resonate with the base at the bottom. So the left has to convey our vision of independence via the Yes Scotland mass movement with its hundreds of branches across the country.”
What should we be doing as socialists?
“Our job as socialists is to intervene in the Yes campaign and debate the kind of independent Scotland we want. And also to intervene in our class as a whole because we need to persuade them that Yes is what needs to be voted for and that it’s in their best interest to vote for it.
We won’t get our message across through the Daily Record will we? The mass media is hostile to independence isn’t it? That’s the challenge the left faces against the mass media all the time, they’re all owned by big businesses aren’t they, so it’s not in their interest to present the socialist case positively.”
So in terms of the independence debate, where do you think the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) fits in?
“ I think it’s really important. RIC has to be one of the big successes of the independence movement, personally I’d like to see it more involved with Yes Scotland.
I think RIC has done a really good job of flagging up the issues that are important to the working class and our needs. And one of the things, if you speak to most of the people in Yes Scotland, they take their hats off to the Radical Independence Campaign, they respect the work done.
When you think about the predictions the No side were making, ‘the SSP, the greens, RIC, the SNP all on the one platform together, that’ll never work they’ll all be fighting one another!’ It’s proved to be rubbish. I think the Radical Independence Campaign has been great, the conference last year was terrific, I’m really looking forward to this years.”
Bringing the conversation to your experience and the Scottish left more generally, can you tell us a bit about your experience as a Labour Party member?
“I joined the Labour Party in Motherwell in the early 1980’ at a time when Tony Benn was standing for Deputy Leader. I set up a branch of the LPYS [Labour Party Young Socialists] and recruited dozens to it in Motherwell, Wishaw, Bellshill, Carluke and Lanark.
But the Labour Party in Motherwell was brutally right wing unlike other places where in the early 1980’s at least it was a significant left-wing party. Whether you’d describe it as socialist party well that’s another matter. But I joined it to advance the socialist cause. And I only mention it not for any kind of romantic notions about what Labour used to be like but to counter pose it to the Labour Party today. What young guy or girl in Motherwell, growing up as I did in a working class household is going join the Labour Party? Nobody. Not in their right mind!
The point I’m getting at, is the Labour Party I joined in the 1980s – that ship’s sailed, it’s gone, never coming back , it went down like the Titanic.
The Labour Party has abandoned socialist ideas. And if we were going to see a Labour left emerge we would have seen it years ago. The Labour left is no stronger than any other left formation in Scotland today. My sister was in the Labour Party until recently; she’d say ‘as long as Tony Benn’s in the Labour Party then I’m in it. But he said if he were 18 now he’d never join it and that says a lot. I think Miliband’s playing a game trying to convince people that he’s different to Blair and Brown – the naïve and gullible may fall for it but I think most people are wiser than that.”
What do we need to do in order to re-engage the masses in left wing politics, and how do we build up the idea that a mass left-wing party needs to exist?
“How do you build a mass socialist party in Scotland? How do you do that? Well it won’t be done in five minutes. Look at the SSP’s Councillor Jim Bollan whom you also interviewed recently – he’s been a stalwart in his community there for 30 years. ‘I’ve got a reputation here’ he told you , ‘I’ve worked hard to build that reputation’. You have to build roots over a long period – you have to be patient and have stamina. Sometimes the left can be impatient and lack stamina and application. This is serious and I think sometimes the left doesn’t take it’s politics seriously enough or face the challenges seriously enough.
The SSP is committed to building a mass party in Scotland. But even back in 2003 when we had a huge national profile, 6 MSP’s and 80 branches across Scotland we didn’t have a mass party. But nobody else has come close to that. Nonetheless that’s what’s needed, a mass socialist party with branches in all the schemes. The left has to wake up and realise that demands a lot of hard work, a lot of painstaking effort and determination.
At the same time the left should have much more confidence in its own ideas. We have to get out there and talk to people – talking to one another isn’t convincing anyone.”
Given that, how do we create a united left in the face of so much division, especially since the whole Sheridan split?
“Obviously unity is important because we are stronger together. And the SSP succeeded in building the most important left unity project Scotland has seen in decades. So we know how important that is.
Left unity is important, very important. But it has to be real, it has to be profound. It has to be based on a shared ideological program and shared tactics. And it has to be mature. Scotland doesn’t need another revolutionary socialist sect, when we don’t have mass workers party yet.
The left has got greater power together. And on the way to uniting everybody we need successes. Our political life – yours in the ISG, mine in the SSP – will be so much more enjoyable if we’re winning! Gaining reforms isn’t socialism but it’s an advance!
Elections come last – asking people for their vote should come after you’ve provided an explanation and illustrated that you can deliver what you say. The SSP were around for a good 5 years before the 2003 election you know. The SSP’s success was based on a few things – the SNP and Labour had moved significantly to the right. You had socialists in Glasgow saying ‘I’m a socialist, who should I vote for? Tony Blair? Naw, no danger’. But we also had a record of action both in Stop the War and on the firefighters picket line to name but two.
There’s a history there where the left worked well together – the anti-poll tax campaign too, Hands off our Water – and we succeeded. Remember Scotland’s the only part of the UK where the water companies aren’t privatised. Out of that the left thought – we’ve got differences but we’ll work together. And you mention the Sheridan saga, we need to put all that behind us. The working class need an effective Left party more than ever”.
So we need a mass party of the left, but what happens, in your experience, when you gain a position in a parliamentary system which has been historically the domain of the right-wing?
“MSP’s got £55,000 a year when I was there. They’d say “Oh Colin, would you like to come and meet the Queen? Would you like to come and meet Sir Jeremy Peat, the chief economist at the Royal Bank of Scotland? Here’s £ 55k a year for your salary and another 150k for your expenses. So they try to buy you off with all these luxuries and flattery “Oh you’ve been great, you won an election you must be really proud”. All this individualism. But of course the SSP has a policy to protect you from all that. Remember that our MSP’s got a workers wage, so I took 22k, the average wage of my constituency and the other half went to the party. So what happened was when we made it clear we could not be bought off what they did, and this must be the biggest compliment to the SSP we ever had, they expelled us from the Parliament for a month and fined us 30k. The harshest penalty of any political party has ever had!
Why? Because interrupted Jack McConnell’s in the middle of FMQ’s and we walked down holding placards demanding the right to protest against the G8 at Gleneagles and all hell broke loose. We were banned and never even got as much as a hearing. It’s like a badge of honour you know. My attitude is – they try and buy you out and if they can’t do that they try and destroy you. “