We may have lost on Thursday but the battle to represent working-class interests goes on
The National, by Cat Boyd
After the referendum I could have walked away from radical politics. I could have joined the political mainstream, or continued in a job that paid well. I might’ve, in retrospect, preferred to have hidden from the harsh realities that come from life in the public eye. However, that would have meant breaking the promise I made to working-class people in meetings across Scotland, my promise that we would never abandon them whatever the result. That’s why, along with many others, I began the allegedly impossible – and still unfulfilled – task of bringing about left unity.
Despite a hugely disappointing election result for socialism in Scotland, I’ll continue to honour my pledge. Don’t get me wrong, the result made me pause for reflection and humility. I’ve learned a lot; particularly the lesson that moral certainty, youthful energy and media coverage can only take you so far without real money behind you. Given our finances, we punched above our weight; but the money Rise spent on this election wouldn’t cover a Bullingdon Club member’s bar bill. That’s not a complaint or a moan. We just have to do better on fundraising.
And don’t get me wrong, I’m emotionally drained and disappointed, not just because of my own performance, but because some of the best radical left campaigners from the referendum, including the Greens’ Sarah Beattie Smith and Maggie Chapman, failed to gain election. That’s a tragedy for our political culture. We’ve achieved so much in transforming the image of a tribally macho, stale, conformist Scottish politics, but we haven’t driven that into the parliament, and we’ll have to confront that failing.
Despite feeling chastened, though, the result reinforces the view I had before. Only the right and the radical left are offering straight answers to straight questions on Scotland’s future. The political centre cannot hold. Yes, we need the SNP to get independence; but the SNP hasn’t begun to answer the thornier questions about its economic model, and, faced with a resurgent Toryism, we need straight answers fast.
We drifted through the election campaign expecting an SNP majority. Instead, the headline result of this campaign, as the Daily Mail puts it, is “the revenge of middle Scotland”. Revenge was in the air throughout this election. And we need to understand this backlash to confront it.
Two years ago, the headline story was Scotland’s working-class communities, who, in voting terms, are very much the polar opposite of “middle Scotland”. 2014 was the revenge of the most written-off, patronised, and feared sections of our country. I enjoyed that process, seeing our working-class communities come alive again.
It’s what made the referendum exciting for me. Others, to say the least, didn’t enjoy it so much.
Many middle-class voters looked on aghast as people they regarded as criminals and scroungers came out behind a campaign the establishment regarded as economically irrational.
And, for right-wing middle Scotland, it got worse. The Yes campaign wasn’t just working-class. It also brought a motley crew of scrappy young Marxists, roll-up-smoking socialists, long-haired ecologists, feminists, immigrants and all the “rabble” under its umbrella. To Scotland’s scared middle class, it must have seemed like a zombie apocalypse.
Then, it got worse again for them. Labour, the party of social conservatism in Scotland, elected a “Trotskyist” leader in Westminster, that once proud pillar of middle-class wisdom; worse, this Trotskyist leader wore rumpled suits and pastel-coloured shirts. Democracy, “middle Scotland” must have decided, was including all the wrong sorts of people.
The fearful middle classes mobilised around this election. It helped that Scotland’s centre-right had a leader who didn’t fulfil the nasty stereotypes we generally associate with the Conservative Party. But what mattered more was their fear. Terrified of nationalism, driven out of Labour, contemptuous of the LibDems, they only had one option. Only one party fulfilled their desire to take revenge against the messy, democratic horde. That’s why we have a Tory opposition.
For socialists, the most disappointing feature of the election is the low turnout in many of the working-class communities who mobilised behind independence. Scottish Tories, of course, will be happy to see ordinary people back in their box. But I would argue that everyone who really believes in democracy should be humbled by this fact. A true democracy should judge itself by how it performs for the most marginalised in society. In that sense, we’ve all failed.
Those of us who support independence – whether for radical, centrist or conservative purposes – should take a warning from this result. Working-class areas of Scotland cannot be taken for granted. That’s what Labour did for decades.
Electorally, the SNP has won these communities from Labour; that fact continued to hold true through this election campaign. Nonetheless, when it comes to a referendum, we can’t have 30 percent turnouts in these areas, or we are truly, monumentally screwed. Regardless of our vision of a future Scotland, I think the radical left has a big role to play in keeping our communities mobilised and energised with political debate.
When it comes to winning a referendum, we’ll have to confront the economics of a divided Scottish society. The idea that Scotland “can’t afford independence” is ludicrous. But some section of Scotland will have to make sacrifices, or there will be fiscal problems. That’s what I mean when I say that only the radical left and the radical right have got straight answers. The working class can’t pay more. So the choice is that we either accept that taxes must rise for those who can afford it, or we watch the Tories argue that the public sector must shrink.
To an extent, this election, and even the EU referendum, are simply window-dressing to a much broader international debate. The Panama Papers has highlighted the criminality and inefficiency of the ruling elites who control our businesses and our economies. British overseas territories are hubs of money-laundering and tax-dodging, as is the City of London itself.
Beneath this corrupted capitalism lies our democratic recession and our already-skeletal public sector. We can’t ignore this and hope it will go away. Responsible politicians need to confront this at a global level. I’m convinced Scotland can play a strong role in this by moving faster towards independence.
So, over the coming months and years, I’ll continue to be a part of radical, left-wing politics and hopefully build upon the new roots of socialist organisation in the places that are still so often shut out by both Holyrood and Westminster. And I’ll keep to my promise that no poor, struggling or lonely person in Scotland will be left to face their troubles alone. My pledge is still to Scotland’s working-class communities, who mobilised during the referendum for a better society: our chance will come again, and I’ll continue to do everything I can to help make that happen.