Political Perspectives – The Yes movement’s wasted potential

Conor Boyes and Liam Gleeson are members of Scottish Labour Young Socialists who voted Yes to Independence in September 2014.

For many in Scotland, the referendum was seen a chance to reclaim power from a staid neo-liberal consensus in Westminster. Widespread dissatisfaction with austerity, falling living standards, and a distant political class was channelled into the Yes campaign. For many activists, independence offered a radically different vision of what the role of the state in society and the economy should be. Many had turned away from a Scottish Labour Party that failed to offer any tangible alternative to the the status quo and are now left with a lasting cynicism towards the Labour Party in general. However, Jeremy Corbyn’s election and early successes represent an unprecedented opportunity to shift the balance of power in both Scotland and the UK. Rather than attempting to dislodge capital and the state via separation, the British left must seize power on its own terms and – following the tradition of Nye Bevan – do so in order to give it away.

There is a tendency amongst the right of the Scottish Labour Party to disregard the Yes Campaign as an expression of crude nationalism. This is a misunderstanding of the aims of the movement. Although rooted in a nationalist discourse, the demands of the Yes Campaign were diverse and broadly social democratic in outlook. Foremost was the call to break with the austerity consensus. Young Yes activists did not give up their free time, form new political bodies such as the Radical Independence Campaign, and join ‘Yes-alliance’ parties because they love the saltire and Nessie. They wanted an independent Scotland where a fairer, new type of politics would end wage stagnation and cuts to public services. They were fighting for what the Labour Party has, and always should fight for.

The tragedy of modern Scottish politics is that the largest anti-austerity movement in the country has been captured by a political party with no interest in anti-austerity politics. The Scottish National Party has enjoyed a post-referendum surge in membership, contested the General Election on an anti-austerity platform and, prior to Corbyn’s election, it claimed the mantle of the only anti-austerity party in Westminster. However, the SNP is a coalition that cannot stand. Despite its claims to represent everyone, the SNP is fundamentally a party of the establishment and big business; they will not allow their party to implement the change it promises. The left-leaning SNP students and youth wings will have to struggle against Blairite style top-down management and party discipline if they wish to see any radical policy implemented. Left-wing SNP members can also expect to experience a New Labour style disillusionment; it is becoming painfully obvious that the nationalists are a party of privatisation, low corporation taxes and neo-liberalism. The SNP’s recent adoption of Thatcherite arguments against increasing income tax, their timid record in government and the ongoing privatisation of CalMac and of Scottish Water represent exactly the issues that the Yes campaign railed against in the referendum. The SNP utilise issues of left and right as opportunistic electioneering and all their political decisions are made with achieving independence in mind. Plans to liberate people from poverty, to help working class kids into further and higher education, for land reform are put aside unless they strengthen the argument for independence. The SNP will not implement any progressive restructuring of society for fear of breaking its conflicting coalition of support, and dare we say it is looking unlikely they would have attempted this even had they won the referendum.

An understanding that the SNP could not be the force of social change that had been promised, coupled with a justifiable disillusionment with Scottish Labour, has led many young activists to join RISE. RISE is an electoral coalition, spearheaded by the Scottish Left Project and Scottish Socialist Party. RISE claim to harness the political energy of the working class created by the referendum into a 50 year long project to get socialist candidates into Holyrood. However, this political energy is finite and will soon dissipate. For truly radical change to be achieved, new social movements must be built, sustained and linked with contemporaries such as union campaigns, student movements and environmentalist actions. While RISE do engage in direct action – a tactic to be applauded – the message behind must be more than a parliamentary ambition. Movements cannot and should not be co-opted into a Holyrood campaign: any electoral campaign should work to provide parliamentary representation of the movement. RISE is not short of fancy graphics and promising young activists, but it does lack the material and structural backing of a vibrant social movement. The Radical Independence Campaign has stagnated and fragmented, and RISE no longer has much hope for even marginal influence on Scottish political institutions. The once politically infused are drifting back into apathy; the chance for what they perceived as real change was lost. RISE’s claim to embody the “Spirit of the 45,” and their number one campaigning policy, a ‘people’s mandate’, show that they cannot detach themselves from a movement that is fading every day. RISE fail to recognise the present circumstances they have inherited; the cruel reality is that the thrust of the Yes movement, a response to a lack of political and economic control, was channelled into the SNP. Scotland’s reaction came earlier than in the United States or the rest of the UK and has now largely passed. Socialists who want to make meaningful progress in post-referendum Scotland must move away from pre-referendum tactics.

RISE seek to create ‘something new’ in Scottish politics when their analysis is nothing of the sort. The argument that people are disillusioned with the traditional institutions of the working class – including the Labour Party – has been prominent throughout the left for the last two decades after Labour’s Blairite turn in the 1990s. Unmoved by the failings of the Socialist Party, TUSC and Left Unity, RISE have apparently constructed “something new” by forging a shifting coalition of small established political sects. They cannot develop a line as to why this time, things will be any different. The strategy of creating ‘something new’ has failed consistently. Last summer support for these small ‘new’ parties collapsed whilst an organised Labour left secured the election of a genuine socialist as party leader. Corbyn and McDonnell’s Labour Party is leading in the most recent national polls, whilst Scotland’s newest party is fighting for list votes with the Greens and are projected to get fewer seats than a post-Sheridan split SSP.

A socialist party needs to be democratic at every level, have accountable leadership and autonomy for local branches. Disagreement is common amongst all parties of the left, but bullying over private messages is not. The lack of clear, easy to understand democratic structures within RISE have also led to many seasoned activists and enthusiastic young people leaving the group, weary of back-room politicking and opaque decision-making processes. The ‘Scottish SYRIZA’ seems to be emulating the internal issues that characterised SYRIZA’s later political decay. Recent internal conflicts are a result of these structural issues with the organisation, which may well prove fatal to the entire venture. RISE’s strength comes from the genuine passion of a young and diverse activist base, who want to break open the traditional methods of left organisation, that saw political movements perpetually dominated by a sedentary clique of old men. Yet critical decisions, such as list placements, appear to have been made without any regard for democracy or transparency. Candidates from one group of the party have been prioritised over those from others. Around half of the SSP Executive Committee have resigned in protest over the way they have been treated. Heated arguments are becoming frequent amongst RISE ranks. It is clear that ‘something new’ doesn’t necessarily include the ‘new politics.’

Undoubtedly, the critical failure of the Scottish Labour Party during the referendum was an embrace of conservative narratives embodied in the Better Together campaign. This is far from the only action the party has taken that we are not proud of. Yet despite numerous contradictions and setbacks, the Labour Party has been among the greatest forces for social change in the history of the United Kingdom. Like many labour movement institutions, the party has suffered from reactionary leadership, a lack of democracy and has promoted policies that are not beneficial to the class the party represents. Yet it is the Labour left, the Labour membership, that must fight these barriers.

The Labour Party is a terrain of struggle. Despite many conservative elements and structures within the party, social change can be achieved and socialists can win. History has proven that. Defeats of, and victories won by the left of the party are reflective of those won by the wider left in society itself. A weak Labour party is most often accompanied by a weak labour movement. Subsequently, the labour movement cannot hope to succeed without political representation; despite its flaws, that still lies with the Labour Party.

Scottish Labour Young Socialists was established to help fight these reactionary components of the Scottish Labour Party and to achieve a genuinely socialist Labour Party in Scotland. First campaigning vigorously for Neil Findlay’s leadership and Katy Clark’s – who now works in Corbyn’s office – deputy leadership drive, then for Jeremy Corbyn’s successful bid to become Labour leader. SLYS is at the forefront of the struggle to build a grassroots socialist movement in Scotland. We believe that regardless of how you voted in the referendum, if the tangible goals of the Yes movement can be achieved within the political systems of Britain, then that should be the focus of everyone who recognises the need for social change. More than ever, the Labour movement needs co-operation irrespective of national boundaries, and we need your help to fight for the left in Scottish Labour. We now have the opportunity to unite the left across the country, and to move forward in bringing an end to this era of austerity and hopelessness.

You can join Scottish Labour Young Socialists for just £3 here – http://www.campaignforsocialism.org.uk/young-socialists/


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