Civic Scotland: nationalism by proxy?

The launch of a new civil society campaign in support of "a broader debate" about Scotland's future

Yesterday, leaders of Scottish civil society met in Edinburgh to launch a campaign aimed at promoting a wider public discussion about Scotland's political, social, economic and constitutional future. The civic Scotland coalition is made up of the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), an umbrella body for third sector bodies, the Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC), think-tank Reform Scotland, the Scottish Youth Parliament and the National Union of Students Scotland, the Institute of Directors Scotland and representatives from various religious institutions like the Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church.

Speaking at the launch, Alison Elliot, Convener of the SCVO, expressed frustration at the way the main political parties had conducted the discussion so far: "(It has been) inadequate. The purpose of our initiative is to enable the debate about Scotland's future to make a connection currently lacking with the things which actually matter to people in this country". Although the coalition insists it is completely apolitical and holds no view on whether or not Scotland should become an independent nation-state, it also says that, over the next few months, it is going to examine alternatives to the status-quo, including devolution-plus, full fiscal autonomy and federalism. As Dave Moxham, assistant secretary of the STUC, indicated, it is highly likely that it will eventually come out in favour of multi-option referendum: "We believe that a significant proportion of (STUC) members are interested in options other than the status-quo and independence, and we believe there is space to take that debate forward."

In doing so, civic Scotland faces two substantial challenges. The first is that of running a politically neutral campaign around a highly politicised and divisive issue. The second is that of making the case for a referendum which offers voters a maximum devolution or devolution-plus option without actually endorsing any single constitutional position. In time, these balancing acts will almost certainly prove impossible to maintain.

Take the debate over the format of the ballot paper. The UK government seems set to oppose anything other than a simple Yes/No question, while the Scottish government has repeatedly hinted at its willingness to consider a two or three option system. This makes a confrontation between Holyrood and Westminster more or less inevitable. When it occurs, civic Scotland will have to back the former, thereby strengthening nationalist claims that they are more in tune with Scottish public opinion than their Unionist rivals.

There are a couple of other reasons why the launch of the civic Scotland campaign works to the benefit of the SNP. Firstly, it exposes the awkward position Labour and the Liberal Democrats currently find themselves in with regard to the constitutional debate. Both parties appear to agree that the powers of the Scottish Parliament should be significantly increased, yet they also maintain that the referendum should consist of nothing more than a clear-cut choice between independence and the status-quo. This is completely inconsistent. If they are genuinely committed to an enhanced devolutionary settlement, they should join civil society in insisting on the chance to vote for it in 2014. Secondly, it gives Alex Salmond - arch gradualist that he is -- the mandate he needs and wants to stage a multi-option ballot. In the event voters reject independence, this would guarantee Scotland gained a high degree of fiscal autonomy in the very near future.

Clearly, civic Scotland is keen to avoid straying onto the minefield of Scottish party politics. Given how treacherous the territory is at present, this entirely understandable. Unless the Unionist parties give ground on the format of the referendum, however, it probably won't have any choice.

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How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.