RISE: Scotland’s Left Alliance

One year on from the historic Scottish independence referendum politics here are utterly changed.

The long dominant Labour Party, which opted to campaign against independence — alongside the Conservatives, loathed by the big majority of Scots voters, and the now virtually demolished Liberal Democrats in the Better Together alliance — reaped the whirlwind at the UK general election in May.

Labour lost 40 seats, to be left with just one MP, and the Liberals lost ten, also returning just one — undoubtedly a verdict on having joined the detested Tories, whose sole MP barely hung on to his seat, in a UK coalition.

The huge winners were the surging Scottish National Party and its new post referendum leader Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister in the devolved Scottish government.

The SNP went from 6 MPs in the last parliament to 56 now, winning over 50% of the popular vote, and now utterly dominates Scottish political life, with polls predicting that the party will win 75 seats in next year’s 129-seat Holyrood parliament elections.

For Labour the writing was on the wall almost as soon as the referendum ended.

Within days of last year’s No vote in the referendum the membership of the pro-independence Scottish Greens and Scottish Socialist Party mushroomed as Yes voters joined.  But is was the SNP that saw its membership really rocket from around 20,000 to 80,000 in a matter of weeks.

Nicola Sturgeon embarked on a series of public events culminating in a mass rally in Glasgow attended by a massive 13,000 people, which had the atmosphere of a victory rally, revealing the ‘No’ referendum result to be a pyrrhic victory for the unionist parties.

What is now clear is the hopes of the Westminster establishment that a No vote would quell any idea of an insurgent Scotland breaking with neo-liberalism and austerity have been completely dashed.

What has happened is that the mass citizens’ movement which pushed the character of last year’s Yes campaign well to the left has not, as anticipated, been cowed by the defeat but has stayed on and diversified how it campaigns for independence.

Large numbers have opted to join the SNP and campaign for it as the most viable way of not just seeking independence but of articulating a vision of a social democratic Scotland increasingly at odds with the dominant austerity consensus at Westminster.

Indeed during the general election the SNP pitched an anti-austerity message to voters which, presented UK-wide by Sturgeon in TV debates, gained wide support not just in Scotland but among English voters and made her the most talked-about and popular figure in the campaign.

This approach of appealing to Scotland’s left-of-centre political consensus has the twin advantages of putting a clear distance between the SNP and the British austerity policy of the Tories and occupying what was for decades Labour’s traditional heartland territory.

The political consequences of this have been most dramatically felt by Labour.  Last year industrial heartlands of the party in Glasgow and Dundee voted Yes and in May the SNP swept away all Labour MPs in both cities and across Scotland.

Even the Kirkcaldy seat of former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown (birthplace of economist Adam Smith) fell to the SNP, Brown having retired from the contest.

Many questions are posed by the new politics of Scotland forged over the past year, but one fact stands out above all others.  Scots voters now view politics through a Scottish prism with the braying “clashes” in the House of Commons in London increasingly regarded as irrelevant.

It is this reality that has sealed the fate of Labour in Scotland.  The party has been in long-term decline for decades as it grappled to reconcile the right-wing New Labour project of the Blair and Brown years which courted voters in largely Southern English target seats with a politics unpopular in Scotland.

Despite its dominant position in Scotland it was unable to protect jobs and communities from the Thatcher attacks and then was seen to adopt Tory pro-market policies under Blair.

Then, the impact of the 2008 crash largely discredited Brown’s windy rhetoric to well-fed City bankers of having abolished “boom and bust” economics — always a tough sell in Scotland — as the speculative bubble burst and the bills came in.

However, the final coffin nail was Labour’s cross-class collaboration with the deeply unpopular Tory and Liberal coalition parties in the Better Together campaign to keep Scotland in the failing UK state rather than opting for independence.

It was not just the alliance itself that enraged thousands of Scots but the way the entire panoply of the British state and its related institutions, such as the BBC, civil service, big business — even the president of the United States — were brought into action to discredit the Yes case in what unionist strategists themselves dubbed “Project Fear.”  So biased did the BBC coverage become that it sparked protest demonstrations outside its Glasgow offices.

The machinations of “Project Fear” peaked with a flying visit to Edinburgh by Chancellor George Osborne in which he baldly stated that an independent Scotland would not be allowed to use the £ sterling.  It was clearly a bluff but backed by the combined hegemonic forces of the British state it made an impact.  Indeed it has since emerged that despite the much hyped “neutrality” of the Westminster civil service Osborne’s treasury had a full-time unit working against the Yes case.

In all this Labour — once known as the “People’s Party” — stood exposed as playing a key role in keeping Scotland under the control of a Westminster setup entirely at the service of the bankers and speculators who are now inflicting such damage on the working people Labour once spoke for.

Of course, there is now much talk of a Labour rebirth, given the left-wing challenge from Jeremy Corbyn now leading the Labour Party with a set of left-wing policies such a renationalising energy and railways, scrapping Trident and so on.

Surely such an offer would appeal in Scotland even more than the rest of the UK?

Superficially this view has much purchase but in reality it faces some formidable obstacles — most importantly the simple fact that the SNP has, over the last fifteen years, almost totally occupied the political territory on which a left-moving Corbyn-led party would stand.

Why would the 50% of Scottish voters now backing the social democratic politics of the SNP be attracted to the yet-to-be-made offer from a divided Labour whose new leader will face as much opposition from the right wing of his own party as from the Tories?  Add to this the hard reality of the politics of Scottish Labour, and the scale of the challenge it faces in retaking its lost ground becomes clear.

Scottish Labour branches largely backed Corbyn rival Yvette Cooper as did their solitary MP and Scottish leader Kezia Dugdale.  Their programme is well to the right of Corbyn with support for Trident, marketisation and an austerity policy.

Even more crucial, polling shows that Scottish voters are unlikely to change from SNP to Labour as result of a Corbyn victory and the remaining Labour voter — around 24% of the electorate — largely back the right-wing politics of Scottish Labour.

This means that at present the SNP is seen by many, including large numbers of pro-independence socialists, as the only game in town even if they are as described by one commentator as “Neo Liberals with a heart.”

The evidence for the SNP’s “Neo Liberalism with a Heart” is plentiful.  The SNP opposes Trident based on the Clyde but supports Scottish membership of NATO.  It opposes austerity on paper but imposes large-scale cuts in local councils and has just adopted Tory demands to introduce testing in schools.  It supports House of Lords abolition but backs the monarchy.  The list goes on.

In this context, the pro-independence left not convinced by the SNP and alienated by Labour’s — left-led or not — anti-independence stance have begun to organise to make a challenge at next year’s Scottish Parliament polls.

Inspired both by the pro-independence mass politics of the referendum and the examples of Syriza and Podemos among others they have formed RISE: Scotland’s Left Alliance.  RISE stands for Respect, Independence, Socialism and Environmentalism.

Its components include a range of campaigning bodies, non-party socialists based around the Scottish Left Project and the Scottish Socialist Party.  Much of its impetus is based on the referendum tactics of the mass Radical Independence Campaign, which took the independence demand beyond a narrow constitutional issue and into economic and social policy.

This approach drew in thousands to mass conferences debating the left case for independence and linked the democratic question to its ability to put Scotland on the road to real socialist change and environmental sustainability.  It saw a path-breaking social media campaign to break the information monopoly of the mainstream unionist media which made a major impact.  But most importantly it had activists of different radical and socialist viewpoints organising events such as mass canvassing in working-class housing estates, which played a key role in leading solidly working-class cities like Glasgow and Dundee to vote Yes.

RISE is an alliance of long-term pro-independence socialists, campaigners fighting on a wide range of issues including land reformers, and many who came to the pro-independence radicalism during last year’s campaign.

Scotland’s parliament is elected on a two-vote system.  The first 73 are elected on a first-past-the-post basis and these are likely to be overwhelmingly won by the SNP.  The remaining 56 are elected on regional lists by a proportional system based on votes cast for a party.

It is in this second vote that RISE will concentrate its efforts and aims to try and win MSPs to form a pro-independence left opposition in the Holyrood parliament.  The initial signs are promising after the RISE launch in Glasgow at the end of August: local branches known as “circles” are forming across Scotland and the formation of RISE has generated considerable favourable comment.

Undoubtedly gaining a foothold in Holyrood will be challenging and one important obstacle is the fact that at this point both RISE and the left-leaning Scottish Greens are competing for the same votes.  However, the energy and drive of RISE activists, emboldened by support for independence reaching a majority in the most recent polls, may yet overcome such obstacles and make real the slogan “Another Scotland Is Possible.”

Ken Ferguson is Editor of Scottish Socialist Voice.