RISE had a brutal election. There’s no disguising that. Fewer than 1000 votes in the Highlands and Islands. Barely 600 in the North East. Losing to Tommy Sheridan in Glasgow. There aren’t many silver linings in that gloomy vista.
I was with the RISE team at the Emirates Arena on Friday morning as the Glasgow votes were being tallied. It was not a pleasant experience. We weren’t expecting to storm the Winter Palace, exactly, but to lose so resoundingly, after such a lively campaign, was painful.
So, why did RISE fall short? Here’s my assessment, as both a journalist and the organisation’s former press officer.
Referendum fault-lines. The SNP soaked-up the vast majority of pro-independence votes and the Greens occupied what little space there was to the left of the SNP. This meant that RISE was competing for a specific constituency against two much bigger and more efficient party machines. The odds, in retrospect, were always heavily stacked against us. Moreover, RISE was a direct product of the referendum. Radical Independence cuts its teeth boosting turnout in working class areas. But turnout in 2014 was 85 per cent. Last week, it was 55 per cent. That massive 30 per cent drop-off probably shrank our potential base.
Crowded field. In 2003, when the SSP won six MSPs, there was one unified socialist party in Scotland. In 2016, the field was suffocatingly crowded. The SNP, a leftwing Labour party, the Greens, RISE and Solidarity were all jostling for the same territory. In addition, for all the talk of RISE as a ‘Scottish Syriza’, Scotland had already had its Syriza moment – in 2015, when the SNP stormed Westminster. The SNP has a near monopoly on anti-Tory, anti-austerity sentiment just now. That’s not going to change any time soon.
Ground campaign. RISE’s wasn’t as extensive as it needed to be. Our success in securing consistent and widespread media coverage made us look more formidable than we were. In Glasgow, which should have been our stronghold, the activist team was exceptionally dedicated and hard-working but relatively small. We simply didn’t have enough people on the ground to get someone elected.
Resources. RISE had a grand total of two (modestly) paid employees. I was one, Jonathon Shafi, the national organiser, was the other. We lacked paid researchers, local organisers and campaign managers – the basic infrastructure, in other words, of a successful election drive.
Messaging. If you want to win the list votes of people who intend to vote SNP on the constituency ballot, don’t spend your time attacking the SNP. For some reason, SNP voters don’t like that. We were right to target certain Scottish government policies, national standardised testing, for instance. But bluntly accusing the SNP of being rightwing wasn’t smart. The Greens struck a more constructive tone and were rewarded for it.
Substance. The left needs to shake its addiction to empty gesture politics. Moral outrage only gets you so far. Our most pressing task was to build a strong, credible public profile. We should have focused our efforts on pushing a handful of properly researched arguments and ideas. We didn’t, and that cost us.
RISE now has to work-out what kind of future it has. The election delivered a sobering jolt, but also – perhaps – a galvanising one. At 6am on Friday morning, Cat Boyd led a rendition of ‘Bella Ciao’ from the back of the RISE van outside the Emirates. ‘This was our first election,’ she said, ‘The first of many. For others it was their last.’ Since then, RISE activists have remained remarkably disciplined and upbeat. Let’s hope it stays that way.
The SSP holds its national conference in June and party members will vote then on whether to remain affiliated to RISE. They should. There are lots of excellent people in the SSP, but it’s not clear how the party would have fared on its own. I doubt it would have performed any better had it stood independently. (In fact, RISE polled nearly 3000 votes more than the SSP did in 2011.)
Despite the results and the mistakes, RISE ran a strong campaign based around a talented, spirited – but fatally under-resourced – group of people. We made an impression on Scottish politics massively disproportionate to our size. That, at the very least, is a decent start.
I’m now heading back into the far less gruelling and stressful world of freelance journalism.
All the best, comrades. Keep your heads up. There are better days ahead. Hasta la victoria siempre.