The radical left after Holyrood

Issue section: 

The performance of the radical left during the 2016 Scottish election is worthy of detailed consideration. RISE and Solidarity stood on all the regional lists, with Solidarity gaining an average 0.64 percent of the votes. RISE, which was given a great deal of positive media coverage, achieved only a 0.45 percent share of the vote.

In 2003 the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) won six MSPs and in Glasgow achieved 15.2 percent of the list votes. At that time the SSP was able to win support based on the credibility of its leading members, Tommy Sheridan in particular, for their opposition to the poll tax and the strength of the anti-war movement.

The galling thing this time around is that the conditions for the radical left were still favourable. The mood in working class areas in Scotland remains solidly pro-independence and anti-Tory.

The radical left played a central role in mobilising working class support for the yes vote in the 2014 referendum with Hope over Fear and the Radical Independence Campaign. This should have been a springboard for a serious electoral challenge in both the general election and the recent Scottish election.

So what went wrong? The first thing that needs to be understood is that after the 2014 referendum both Solidarity and RISE let the Scottish National Party take the initiative.

In the case of Solidarity this took the form of explicitly calling for a vote for the SNP at the 2015 general election. This was despite the fact that the SNP has played a central role both nationally and locally imposing the Tories’ austerity agenda in Scotland. Their justification for this was the belief that a vote for the SNP would further the cause of independence.

While those involved with the Radical Independence Campaign did not go that far, by delaying the launch of a left alternative until after the 2015 general election, they allowed the SNP to scoop up the vast majority of activists who had enthusiastically campaigned for independence during the referendum campaign.

As the veteran Scottish political journalist Iain MacWhirter witheringly observed at the time:

The idea of a pan-nationalist Yes Alliance at the 2015 general election has also been dropped, as has talk of a new left wing party on the lines of Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain. The view in Radical Independence seems to be it is best to let the SNP lead the battle against the Westminster establishment, which does raise questions about what the campaign is for.

Another major problem for the left in Scotland is the fact that it remains hopelessly divided. The leadership of RISE cannot even bring itself to publicly acknowledge the existence of Solidarity.

Some initial discussion has taken place about the way forward. In response to an SNP plan to launch “a new initiative on independence” this summer, Colin Fox, the leader of the SSP, which stood in the election as part of RISE, criticises the SNP for being too conservative, for implementing the Tories’ austerity and supporting Nato, but calling for the relaunch of a broadly based independence movement.

Robin McAlpine, the director of campaigning think tank The Common Weal, has written a new book on how Scotland can become independent by 2021, focusing on how to win the next referendum by “knowing it is already won”.

This would involve a wide ranging discussion in Scottish civil society with a relaunch of the “Scottish Constitutional Convention” to address the weakness of the previous campaign, which did address in insufficient detail “the fiscal, monetary, social and regulatory infrastructure” of an independent Scotland.

There is general acceptance on the left in Scotland that support for independence and for the SNP is not about nationalism but rather is a focus for opposition to austerity and the Tories.

For the left to grow in Scotland it has to be much more critical of the SNP role in implementing Tory austerity. Crucially, the left must become a part of the daily processes of working class resistance.

A glimpse of the potential came with the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition vote in the Holyrood elections. It averaged 2.1 percent across the six constituencies. Brian Smith, the chair of the Unison city branch, gained a 3 percent share of the vote in the Glasgow Cathcart constituency.

Tusc campaigned on a strong anti-austerity, pro-socialist platform, and while their vote was far from being a breakthrough it does show there is space for the left in Scotland to win support if it presents a distinct alternative.

Next year there are council elections across Scotland which will provide another opportunity for the left. However, for this to be a success it needs to find a way to work together in fighting austerity, for workers taking strike action and in opposing racism and supporting refugees.

There also needs to be agreement that at the very minimum left organisations should not stand against each other in elections, and if possible should stand together as part of a united campaign.