What sort of left party do we need?

Ben Wray launches a new web series which seeks to find solutions to a pressing organisational puzzle.

The Scottish left is a contradiction.

On the one hand, if we do win the referendum, a new Scottish nation-state will be built on the back of a movement that was, at minimum, influenced and affected by the left. The remarkable Radical Independence Conferences of 2012 and 2013 have shown a degree of political maturity and unity that has rarely ever been seen on the Scottish left. The anti-neoliberal Common Weal Project led by the Jimmy Reid Foundation has had a major influence on the mainstream debate over what an independent Scotland would look like, including being supported in principle at the SNP conference last year and unanimously backed by SNP councillors. The overall independence movement is driven forward on the basis of being to the left of Westminster austerity politics, as reflected by voting patterns which show the rich voting no and the most deprived voting yes. The left is a serious part of a movement that could break the British state on the premise of wanting a more socially just and equal society free of militarism and Thatcherism.

On the other hand, whilst the broad left in Scotland may never have been more influential than it is today, the radical left in party-form may never have been so divided and dysfunctional. When the radical left has stood in elections as TUSC, the SSP or Solidarity over the past half-decade, it has achieved minuscule votes. Since the Sheridan split of the SSP in 2006, the radical left has not been able to recover itself electorally or organisationally, if anything becoming more split on a party level since then. Whilst initiatives like RIC have been shaped and to a large extent led by the radical left, this doesn’t get round the fact that we have failed to recover in any way in a party-form in Scotland.

Does this matter? Do we need a left party at all? It may not seem a key issue now in the context of the referendum campaign entering its final six months. However, post-referendum, regardless of the result, a question mark which may seem marginal now will quickly rise to the fore: ‘Where now?’. Whilst, hopefully, the broad left that has built itself up through RIC and Common Weal will maintain itself in the post-referendum climate, there will be forks in the road which will require new answers pretty quickly. The 2016 elections will be a major challenge as to the sustainability of a left challenge post-referendum. We should also be aware that it is easier for us all to get on when the debate over what sort of Scotland we want is theoretical – in the cold light of day political ‘realism’ will quickly emerge; we should not be so naive as to expect that at least some of those who speak warm words now won’t buckle when it comes to the crunch. The radical left will lack teeth if all it can rely on to pressure the mainstream after the referendum is broad-based campaigns.

If we did enter the post-referendum scenario with the left in its current form, what would we look like? The left is currently broken into, very roughly, four parts:


None of these options provide, in my view, an effective force the left can rely on to carry us into a new Scotland, certainly not in their present form. Not that they cannot play an important role as part of a wider left challenge, but the sum of the four parts does not and can not strike any sense of dread into the vultures of global capitalism that will swarm over Holyrood the day after a yes vote. Indeed, if we don’t win the referendum the situation is all the more in need of reconstruction – the movements that have taken us this far will need a new direction to galvanise a renewed challenge to the British state in a different form. The 2016 elections would surely be the only feasible option in that scenario.

So, one way or another, we need something better than what we have now. My contention is not that if we create the perfect left party then capitalism’s days are numbered. The left has always and will always be reliant on the determination of the working class to challenge the system. But waiting for a working class revolt to wash away all our problems is not a plausible option – even if it did arrive in a flood like in Paris May ’68 it will fall short if the left are not well organised, well rooted and dynamic in their leadership. The only way you can tackle this with any efficiency and effectiveness is through a party form. Some will not like that word, will consider it to have too many bad connotations and will seek to address the problem in different terms. However, the problem itself must be addressed. At the end of the day politics involves the organisational combination of individuals – the options are either to embrace that fact and deal with it consciously or ignore it and experience it unconsciously.

After the SSP split in 2006, the radical left in Scotland still have a long way to go to regain credibility and purpose. The independence movement has got us to a position where we are campaigning together again and with many new people in common cause. Now we need to work out how we are going to take the next step and become a serious force again, with lessons learned from past mistakes but with renewed vigour grounded in the understanding that Scotland is on the cusp of historic changes and we can play a major role in shaping them.

I am going to express my case for what sort of Left party we need across seven ‘cases’, one each week:

  1. The case for an electoral party
  2. The case for training and expertise
  3. The case for tolerant democratic discipline
  4. The case for politics, not just beliefs
  5. The case for a more effective relationship between party and movements
  6. The case for ‘revolutionary reforms’
  7. A new party for a new Scotland

Lots of readers will have already decided they want nothing to do with my vision for a left party merely by observing the titles of the nine articles. That is fine, I don’t expect to convince everybody. But I challenge those people to prove that I’m wrong by building a successful left another way. Explain to me and show me how to do it better, and if you do I’ll be more than happy to admit that I’m wrong. There has to be an increased intellectual rigour from the Scottish left. It’s not enough to know what you don’t like – you have to be able to provide a way forward for what you want to see happen and provide an evidence-based case for that strategy. That’s what I aim to do here.

Finally, this doesn’t necessarily mean we need a new party – it could come about from the reinvigoration and renewal of an existing party. My contention here is that what we currently have isn’t adequate and what follows are proposals for the sort of left party I believe we need. Hopefully it will help encourage debate on this subject amongst those on the left of all parties and none.

NOTE: A lot of what follows is contextualised by my experience on the radical left. I realise that for (hopefully) most readers this is a vantage point that may seem peculiar or maybe even off-putting if you haven’t yourself been part of the radical left (lucky you) with its fairly narrow intellectual influences. I can only say that one can only write from experience, and that if any terms, references or emphasis are confusing I’m happy to clarify in the comments section.

Read each of the ‘cases’ comprising the series here:

The case for an electoral party

The case for training and expertise

The case for tolerant democratic discipline

The case for politics, not just beliefs 

Rethinking the relationship between party and movements

The case for revolutionary reforms

A new party for a new Scotland

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