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.