Unity in Diversity
Bella Caledonia, by James McEnaney
On Saturday the Marriott Hotel in Glasgow played host to the launch of RISE, a new electoral alliance aiming to deliver socialist representation in the Scottish Parliament from 2016. The event brought around 500 people from across the left-wing spectrum together in one room and was described by Colin Fox as the start of “the most significant left unity project in a generation.” But not all have been convinced, with a range of individuals taking to social media to decry the formation of “Scotland’s Left Alliance”.
The most common critique so far has been that RISE (and surely, by extension, the Greens) are a threat to independence, that their very existence on the ballot paper in May could “split the pro-Yes vote” and reduce the chances of one day achieving an independent Scotland. Even leaving the disputed – and entirely theoretical – mathematics of this aside, the underlying premise of this position is that independence should, in a very direct way, be tied to the fortunes of the largest pro-independence party: the SNP. On a basic level this argument – that the movement is surely stronger if it is united behind a single organisation – is understandably seductive but it does not hold up under proper scrutiny.
Not only is there absolutely no guarantee that unwavering support for the SNP – with which would come an increased majority in Holyrood next year and a subsequent dominance of the 2017 council elections – will bring us any closer to independence; the reality is that the opposite may in fact be true. It is important that people understand that the SNP does not, indeed cannot, represent the full spectrum of pro-independence views in Scotland – in truth, no single party ever could, nor should it attempt to. One of the great strengths of the Yes campaign was the sense that it was open to anyone, and that those of all political persuasions could find a home within a broad, diverse campaign. If our movement is reduced to supporting a single dominant party then that vital plurality will be lost and the momentum built up over the past few years will begin to dissipate.
A culture of electoral compliance amongst the pro-independence left – where the ‘right way to vote’ is to back the SNP on both ballots and failure to adhere to this received wisdom makes you a problem – will damage the campaign for independence in the long run.
There has been a lot of talk about RISE (and the Greens) asking SNP supporters to vote tactically for a smaller party on the list, but this highlights an ongoing, pervasive and critically important misunderstanding of Scotland’s electoral landscape. For a good deal of those on the left it is the votes for the SNP (both in the General Election in May and on the constituency ballot next year) which are ‘tactical’ – what RISE offers is an opportunity for those people to vote for what they truly believe in as well. An organisation like RISE is a potential home to those whose ‘First Past the Post’ votes for the SNP this year and next are a question of realpolitik, not philosophical or ideological conviction.
The defining feature of the AMS system used in Holyrood is that it allows the electorate to back two different parties and, for those supporting independence but identifying as being on the left of the SNP (at least 15% of the electorate according to recent research), this remains the best way to exercise their voting rights: a tactical vote for the SNP in the constituencies and a principled vote for RISE or the Greens on the regional list.
The SNP are not the enemy (RISE will only stand on the List ballot and most if not all potential supporters will be supporting the SNP with their constituency vote) but nor are they the messianic saviours of Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon herself has been at pains to point out that the fate of our nation rests in the hands of the people of Scotland, not the Scottish National Party, and the same is true of independence itself. As Jonathon Shafi told CommonSpace on Saturday: “Independence is more likely if there are a diversity of parties calling for independence.”
The SNP are not the enemy (RISE will only stand on the List ballot and most if not all potential supporters will be supporting the SNP with their constituency vote) but nor are they the messianic saviours of Scotland.
Of course some critics have argued that, whilst RISE would be a good idea in an independent Scotland, we should wait for that crucial change to happen before attempting to build a proper left-wing opposition to the SNP. This argument still assumes that the SNP will deliver independence for the people of Scotland single-handed (a proposition which, as already shown, is far from certain) but it also poses a far more serious problem: what if independence is, for the sake of argument, another twenty or thirty years away?
Are we to spend a generation towing the nationalist party line for fear of ‘creating division’ even when many believe that a number of their policies are wrong? Are we supposed to pretend that we can’t see the short-comings in an organisation which has delivered a number of positive changes but which could and should have done much more to address the fundamental inequalities which still blight our society? Are we really willing to sacrifice those suffering in the here and how (or, even worse, convince ourselves that continuation of the union is the sole reason for said suffering) rather than attempt to improve their lives with the tools and resources already available to us?
The fundamental question is this: will it help the people of Scotland for a single party to be given a free run and face no genuine scrutiny of their record or proposals from a credible, pro-independence, left-wing alternative? Of course not, but nor would it help the SNP – under those circumstances there is a very real risk that an effectively omnipotent Scottish National Party will be sucked into the same maelstrom which has all but destroyed the Labour party in Scotland.
Finally, there has been criticism of the funding structure for RISE, with some tweeting hysterically about a ‘socialist party charging £120 a year for membership’. The reality is, unsurprisingly, different. Yes, the highest membership fee is £10 per month, but there are also £5 and £2 options for those on lower incomes or who are unemployed. Put simply, this means that those who are able to afford £10 a month are asked to do so in order that those who cannot are able to join for significantly less. Not only is this entirely reasonable, it also happens to be pretty much exactly what I argued for recently on CommonSpace.
Socialism, at its core, is about those with the broadest shoulders bearing the heaviest load and, on that basis, the approach adopted by RISE is absolutely in keeping with the philosophy at the heart of such an organisation.
In a practical sense it is also worth noting that RISE does not have the luxury of millionaire backers that the established parties enjoy – there are, quite rightly, no Ian Taylors or Brian Soutars throwing money at this particular alliance. An organisation funded using the RISE model is by definition and necessity accountable to its members alone, not the interests of those with thick wallets and vested interests.
Of course RISE is not the finished article, but it isn’t claiming to be. Decisions on policy, leadership and parliamentary candidates will be made by the members through a grass-roots, democratic process and, in truth, that’s exactly why some are so excited by it. Some people will, quite reasonably and understandably, prefer to wait until a concrete range of policies are on offer; others will want to be involved in shaping those policies and will also willing to contribute some of their time and money to the organisation whilst that process takes place.
Nobody connected with RISE is claiming that the road ahead will be easy and there are no guarantees of success but, just as with independence for Scotland, the initial leap of faith might provide the opportunity to make things better.
As Cat Boyd said on Saturday, another Scotland is still possible – RISE can help to build it