On #ric2014 and strategy for Scotland's New Left

The vast Radical Independence Conference shows the potential power of Scotland's radicals - if they can play their cards right.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
23 November 2014
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picture - @williamsonkev

Being “radical” implies two things. First, that you want the change not just some policies, but the whole system – from the root, to take the word to its, erm, root. The second implication is that you stand outside the mainstream.

The Radical Independence Conference yesterday only really qualified for the first of those meanings. Because when you can get almost one in a thousand voters in a room together for a day, it's hard to continue to argue that the ideas they espouse are not within the mainstream of Scottish politics.

It would be easy to reflect on how wonderful the conference was: the extraordinary moment when Tariq Ali said he had never seen anything of this sort on this scale; the fact that there were experienced, practiced speakers able to articulate questions of strategy in clear, passionate ways despite only being in their early twenties; the seriousness with which people approached their task of continuing to change Scotland (for, make no mistake, the Radical Independence Campaign has already changed Scotland).

But if you want that sort of reflection, I suggest having a look at the #ric2014 hashtag, and see how those there responded to what must have been the biggest political conference in Scotland in my lifetime. Because, in a sense what matters is a different question. What next?

As I see it, politics can be divided into three arenas: electoralism, work place organising and organising in the community. Much of the discussion behind the scenes was about the former of these. And, in a sense, the detail here didn't match the rhetoric.

Because whilst everyone was convivial (that was remarkable two years ago. Now, it's become the norm) and whilst there were many calls for unity, there was no agreement about what people should unite behind. For those in the SNP, it's them. The Scottish Socialist Party has called for an electoral pact for Westminster between the three main yes supporting parties. Greens sit between the two – having been open to discussions about collaboration, but not wanting to lose the ability to hold the SNP to account on issues like TTIP and fracking, where their positions are less than progressive.

In a sense, though, this question is moot. The SNP seemed open to such conversations shortly after the referendum – at a time when it looked like they could challenge perhaps 20-25 seats in Scotland, why wouldn't they be happy to give newly resurgent Socialist and Green parties a descent chance at a couple of the seats they weren't targeting? Now the polls put them in contention in almost every seat in Scotland, the maths is different – why would they give away seats they could win? At their conference, the SNP passed policy allowing non-party activists to stand under their banner – in effect, ruling out activists from other parties standing under some joint banner.

The SNP decision doesn't close the door to co-operation between other groups and parties though. And this is worth considering. As Tariq Ali pointed out, the political forces in the room on Saturday have the capacity, if they get organised, to replace a dying Scottish Labour as the opposition in Scotland. If you support independence, then this is a thrilling prospect. If Scotland finds itself in a position where most of its political debate takes place between two parties which both support independence, that will have much more impact on the likelihood of a future yes vote than the SNP securing an ever tighter grip on the country. For those who support radical politics, the prospect of serious parliamentary power is thrilling.

It is yet to be seen what that means – the spectrum seems to me to run from, at one end, people uniting behind the Greens as the only currently credible electoral grouping to, at the other, loose pacts between the various parties (this has already in effect happened once – SSP leader Colin Fox stood aside for the Scottish Greens in this year's European elections; and the people involved in the new Scottish Left Project (who largely organise RIC) in effect did so too). Along the middle ground between these poles sit a number of potentially creative options, and it will be a test of character for everyone involved if they can work out an option which offers voters a single platform in 2016 which can appeal to the breadth of Scotland's radical coalition of voters and get the maximum number of MSPs elected.

But power doesn't only lie in parliament. And it's worth pausing for a moment to reflect on what all of this means for Scotland's trade unions. This is something I've been wondering for a few weeks now – ever since a tweet from the SNP Trade Union Group revealed their membership had passed 12,000. It is, in other words, almost certainly larger – likely significantly larger – than the Scottish Labour Party.

I spoke to their activists outside the conference, and found they (the people I chatted with) didn't want to seek affiliations to the SNP. Rather, they said, they thought trade unions should support candidates in elections on a case by case basis. Inside the auditorium, the first speaker was Suki Sanga, a member of the STUC council. One of the biggest cheers of the day came when she said trade union funding for the Labour party must end. All of this comes in a context in which there are rumours of ongoing serious tensions between the leadership trade union movement and Labour in Scotland, and it's worth remembering the STUC's main intervention in the referendum campaign was to say that Better Together were “disappointing”.

But disassociation from Labour leaves a vacuum. And it seems clear that, in a Scotland with an increasingly dominant SNP, it would be disastrous if the natural party of government at Holyrood also got control of the trades unions in the way that Labour currently has had its fingers around their throats when they have been in government in the past. And so it seems that there is a clear and urgent task among RIC activists in taking Scotland's labour movement away from the two relatively centrist parties, and back to their radical roots.

There are bigger reasons than electoral politics why this matters, but the potential consequences on elections are significant. If trades unions in Scotland do pull the plug on the Labour party, then its major source of funding will be gone. If they back candidates on a case by case basis, then that's a potentially huge source of funding, activists, support and credibility for the sorts of people who were at the conference this weekend.

The final arena in which radical supporters of independence can act is in their communities. As in the UK, civil society in the country which invented the term (thanks Adam Ferguson) has largely been gutted. As across the UK, more and more of it was given state funding to run public services, and didn't notice it had eroded its political teeth as it suckled on this magnetic teet. As across the UK, there is a desperate need rebuild.

In the discussion of strategy at the start of the conference, Jonathon Shafi, its organiser, said that he doesn't expect a referendum in the next five years, and that activists should involve themselves in other struggles in order to both retain the momentum, and to start building the Scotland they want to see. After all, a hugely politicised country is a much more fertile terrain for change than the relatively arid land it was five years ago.

I think he's right, but I'd go a step further. People shouldn't just throw themselves into whatever issues emerge. They should establish or get involved in and help to shape organisations. Again, if you're interested in independence, this is going to be vital. Civil society was said to be key to securing the Scottish Parliament. The fact that it didn't feel able (despite remarkable agreement across the third sector) to come out for a yes vote while corporations were lining up behind no, was a big problem – named organisations which people trust carry weight.

And perhaps more importantly, it's vital for a whole load of other resions too. Huge austerity is coming Scotland's way. There's ever more drive to asset strip Britain, auctioning off public services and natural resources to keep the British economy momentarily afloat. The global crises we are all familiar with are accelerating by the day. All of these require radical solutions, and Scotland, which was key to inventing modern industrial capitalism, has as much duty as ever to show that another world is possible. Crucially, a social movement now exists in Scotland in a way it does in few other Western countries which has the power to genuinely confront these issues. Breaking up the British State will, one day, be a huge contribution to global justice, but in the mean time, Scotland's new radical left can have a vital role in making that state regret ever winning the referendum.

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