This is not a protest

by Robin McAlpine

Anyone who was involved in yesterday’s Radical Independence Conference knows the political buzz is justified, but the big question is ‘what next?’

The Radical Independence Conference which was held yesterday was probably the most important event held by, for or with the Scottish left in a very long time. The outpouring of enthusiasm was genuine and inspiring. The message for the left from the left couldn’t be clearer – people want something to focus their political actions on and they want it to be meaningful, positive and united. Yesterday to a very large extent they got it – to my eyes a very large proportion of the people who were there did not come from any organised left group and many people were being drawn back in having drifted away from the movement. Keeping this going seems to me the single most important task ahead of the left. These are just a few first reactions to yesterday.

First, the event was incredibly well organised and I know just how much effort went in to making it happen. That most of the work was done by a group of activists few of whom are yet 25 years old holds great promise for the future. Enormous congratulations are due to all at the International Socialist Group and especially Jonathan Shafi.

Second – and it is very important to make this point – there is one sadness in this coming-together; the issue which has united most of the left is one which does not yet unite it all. There remains a section of the Labour left and the trade union left which is not yet ready to join this movement. I would urge all involved with RIC to remember that these opinions are sincerely held. Those on the left who are standing aside from this project are still fellow travellers and if this is indeed a movement that runs beyond the referendum we must keep a seat at the table for them to join us once the polarisation caused by the independence debate is over. We must make absolutely sure that we do not sow the seeds now which may later lead to more division. The Jimmy Reid Foundation will continue scrupulously to include people from all sides of the constitutional debate. In turn, it is important that those on the left who do not support independence recognise the strength of feeling and genuine commitment to change of those congregating around RIC and do not in turn see them as the enemy.

Third, people have really noticed what has happened here. I spoke to many people from many different backgrounds. I spoke to a retired guy who’d never really been to a big political event before and had been unsure about the constitution debate. He left quite changed. I spoke to a good number of people from what you might describe as ‘closer to the establishment’ and they were broadly impressed by the start made and very impressed by the atmosphere. I spoke to students who are desperate to organise and find ways to become involved. I talked to the old left many of whom were bluntly surprised at what they saw, having been sceptical this could be pulled off. There were academics who saw this as the start of something of a reawakening of thinking about policy and politics in Scotland. In short, there are many different things that people took out of yesterday and we need to be clever at making sure that there is enough in this campaign to keep them all engaged, inclusive without being ‘lowest common denominator’. That won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.

Fourth, this has captured the attention of the mainstream. That carries with is  a significant burden; if we want to keep their attention we need to do things that maintain the credibility of the movement. The Sunday Herald editorial suggests that some of what we say is open to crude caricaturing – and that’s fair comment. We do still have many long-standing slogans that haven’t made it past the slogan stage. We need serious thinking; anyone that thinks we can win this by running around Scotland shouting at people alone is mistaken. If we are to be serious we need serious thinking on policy. George Kerevan was absolutely right in his Scotsman column; that an event of this size had so little focus on the economy is a weakness. It is one we need to remedy.

Fifth, we didn’t get the media coverage we should have. While in part we will moan, we must be careful; 900 people in a room is significant but not in itself news. Partly we need to make sure that at all times we are meticulous in our engagement with the media, using all the techniques necessary to maximise coverage. And partly we need to make sure that we are setting an agenda worth reporting. Again, like it or not the media believes the economy to be an issue against which a movement is measured in assessing credibility. Complaining isn’t going to do any more. We all know that if we can’t influence the national agenda, winning will be difficult. Sometimes this means we will have to do things on their terms.

Sixth – and in fact at this early stage the most important thing – is that this is no longer the left talking to itself. The very nature of this campaign is about the left talking directly to Scotland again and that makes it a conversation and not a demonstration. We must be very careful not to tell the public what it should be worrying about rather than listening to what the public is really worrying about. As the broad left we are all utterly sick of the way Israel has behaved towards Gaza. It must be fought. But at the same time it would be silly of us not to acknowledge that this is not what most people are talking about most days. A good movement does not only tell people what they should be caring about but also listens to what they care about. Some of these issues – Palestine, nuclear disarmament, biodiversity – are important but not the first or best way to engage with people outside our movement. Likewise, we need learn to talk to people in new ways. This is not a protest movement – we are not calling for something to be ended. If we mean what we say, this is a movement which we want to lead to the government of Scotland along green/socialist principles. That means we are no longer opposing things but offering things. In an independent Scotland we will no longer be opposing cuts – we will be deciding whether to make them or not. So we have to stop reverting to ‘demanding’ an ‘end to cuts’. Instead we need to start ‘fighting for a world class universal welfare state’. This is about a vision, not opposition. To explain what I mean, close your eyes and imagine ‘no oranges’. Do it again and now imagine ‘no screwdrivers’. Looks the same, doesn’t it? So how can we expect people to be inspired by ‘no cuts’? Talking to people and not at them is not a sign of weakness…

But that is why we are so enthused – because in our hearts we all realise that this is not a protest but something better. This is a movement which will propose positive change. not merely react in anger to changes in society moving in the wrong direction. No-one (and I think I can genuinely say no-one) who came yesterday did not go home excited about the possibility. It is living up to that possibility that matters now. We want a new start, a new relationship between the left and mainstream Scotland, one which places us as a credible and effective voice. To achieve that we must be aware that we have to do some things in ways we haven’t done them in the past. If we can, this really could be the start of something incredibly significant.

Robin McAlpine

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9 replies

  1. I feel quite annoyed I missed out, from all reports it sounds like it was fantastic. If only these things had been happening when I still lived in Glasgow!

    However, if this is to lead onto something bigger, then there’s still time for those of us who missed out on Saturday to get involved. It’s interesting just thinking about the various ways this can evolve – if this is indeed the rebirth of the left in Scotland, does this mean we dispense with the parties that led to the current fractured nature of the left and replace them with a new one, one that corrects the faults inherent in the old parties? Or is it merely a vehicle for bringing together various voices onto one platform? You can almost imagine a sort of Greens/Socialists alliance, although that’s unlikely given the Greens are currently progressing fairly steadily as they are.

    It certainly feels like this could be the precursor to the kind of Left party that Scotland will require once we’re independent and trying to have the sort of rainbow parliament that most normal European nations have, and which we sampled momentarily between 2003 and 2007. Those who were turned off by the SSP/Solidarity mess may finally be able to find a home in Scottish politics. That would certainly be welcome.

    As long as folk learn from the past and realise the importance of compromise, rather than splitting off into the Independent Radical Conference or Conference on Radical Independence etc when something doesn’t go their way!

  2. To my mind Doug, the very strength of the conference was the fact that it wasn’t about parties. The idea of replacing old parties with one big new one would be the worst mistake that could be made. There are many of us on the broad left that have no party affiliation, others, I suspect, that have been doubting their affiliation as top down policy forces them to compromise just a bit too much.

    You don’t have to imagine a …/…/… alliance hopefully that’s what you can see happening in front of you and hopefully it well never be dominated by party interests or indeed any party(s).

    Scotland doesn’t need a new Left Party, It needs a lot of dedicated individuals co-operating and working together. It needs a movement that makes those of us that have been grumbling without actually doing anything for far too long get off our arses. A new party is never going to do that, A vision of a brighter future might.

  3. Good points. The party ought to be over for the established parties. They haven’t given us greater democracy and they won’t – as long as they see themselves as mini-companies fighting for a (bigger) share of the market (and the power and personal benefits that go with it).
    On the criticism that the conference didn’t tackle economics. It seems to me that that criticism tends to come from people who want a cast-iron guarantee that (especially their own) living standards won’t fall under any new political arrangement. That promise can’t be made. What can be promised – if there’s solidarity instead of competition and “everyone for him/herself – and the devil take the hindmost” is that the quality of life will be better in the long run.
    I feel strongly that the most important next move is to get a constitutional convention up and running (whether ‘official’ or ‘unofficial’) and start a constitutional debate (which can of course include economics). But the main point is to ask the Scottish people: what the simple question: what kind of society do you want to live in (and your children and grandchildren)? That cuts across party history and ideology. There’s likely to be a parliamentary system anyway – to add some representative democracy to what ought to be primarily direct democracy – and new party groupings can emerge out of what the people have decided in the constitution they have themselves drafted – and ultimately approved in a referendum. It will be a constitution for the 99%, not the 1%. But we need to start now. I have some expertise in the design and practice of direct democracy which could be my contribution to this important issue.

  4. Here’s two questions that arise from Robin’s excellent article.

    1. Do the progressive left aspire to form the next government of Scotland?

    2. If not, why not?

    These questions take us down the road of realpolitik, defence, foreign policy, and hard-nosed economics and taxation/spending priorities.

    Since neither question has been seriously discussed by the overwhelming majority of RIC attendees – not anyone outside the SNP (Scottish Greens?) – it would be extremely premature to talk about going down the road of the “one big party”.

    KW

  5. ‘This is a movement we want to lead to a government on green/socialist lines.’ Greens and socialist won about 6% of the votes in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election. The conference on Saturday may have been a success but there is no sign of a significant movement, amongst voters, in favour of socialist or green politics. This has all the hallmarks of another false dawn, when the left in Scotland sees a groundswell of support which simply is not there.

  6. As a local activist caught up in the everyday business of street work and leafleting etc, there are a couple of things that worry me about the way that the left in Scotland is participating in the independence campaign. The most important I think is the way that the unionist media constantly portrays any kind of statement or any intervention (from the left) as some kind of split and it seems that we haven’t figured out a way of dealing with that.
    It’s also becoming clear that nationalists are basically tolerating us at the moment. There is a bit of warmth, but not that much and it seems to me to be quite fragile. My own experience so far has been that any time any sort of demands are made of the independence campaign, or should I say any time that the left tries to assert itself, with a vision or something, then it’s treated as hostile.
    The other thing, which is kind of related, is that the independence campaign has been going for months. Myself and other comrades in my home town of Paisley are becoming increasingly concerned that none of the materials that we have been given so far contain any left wing politics. I thought that the way that Yes Scotland was operating was on the basis of groups. Doesn’t that mean that there should be a Radical Group or something?
    The RIC produced some material and there was activity to build the conference, but this as far as I can tell was all centred around Glasgow.
    When we are thinking about what to do next, I would like to see some greater input from the left into what is being said and what material is being put out, but I am genuinely worried that anything we do is being pounced on by the unionists and used as ammunition. I know I am just a local pest, but it just seems like we have got this big decision to make about priorities. Is independence more important or is it our vision. I know the automatic response is that t two are not mutually exclusive, but really if we go by what the papers are saying, then there is little evidence to confirm this. I don’t know. Am I just being paranoid?

    • Hi jimmykerr,
      You sound a bit dispirited. I don’t know which party you’re working for, but the fact that you’re out leafleting and talking to people face-to-face speaks volumes. I’ve just lately gone back to the SSP. and have been leafleting for the first time since I was a teenager – like many I was scunnered beyond words at the whole Dmitry Noshame episode, and there must be loads of folk who are still hurt, just turn their faces away from anything containing the word ‘socialism’. It’s just such a shame that simple words like ‘socialism’, ‘solidarity’, ‘respect’ become tainted with so many negative associations, stereotypes. Even ‘the Left’ is like a red-rag to many folk. Short of devising a whole new vocabulary to encapsulate what we believe and envisage, we’re stuck with what we have, but what we have remains vital nonetheless – all we can do is be honest in deciding our own allegiances, then act upon them. Sounds to me like that’s what you’re doing. More power to ye.
      (If you can make it, there’s an SSP public meeting in Ardrossan Civic Centre tonight, 7pm. – don’t have to be a member. All welcome.)

  7. Just a whiff of magical thinking at RIC itself. On the cusp of a revolutionary moment? Um…

  8. Weel said Robin, but hey, Ye are geed at that man. Yer stuff oan the Jimmy Reid foundation site is essential reading for us all. Keep it gaun man.

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