Signs of a left revival in Scotland

The independence debate is breathing new life into Scottish socialism.

For a while, the fallout from the Tommy Sheridan affair and the virtual collapse of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) threatened to put an end to the organised left in Scotland. Between 2003 and 2007, the SSP’s share of the vote at Holyrood fell from nearly seven per cent to less than one per cent, while a surge in support for the SNP, fuelled in part by Alex Salmond’s targeted appeals to social democracy, almost completely eclipsed other radical alternatives like the Greens.
 
Today, Scottish socialism seems to be in ruder health. Last weekend, as many as 900 left-wing activists gathered in central Glasgow for the Radical Independence Conference (RIC), an initiative aimed at providing the left with an opportunity to make its own distinctive case for Scottish self-government. Delegates included trade unionists, journalists, students and environmentalists, among others. Keynote speeches were delivered by Scottish CND’s Isobel Lindsay, Robin McAlpine of the Jimmy Reid Foundation and commentator Gerry Hassan. Contributions from Quebecois, Basque and Greek socialists helped locate the event in the broader context of the international anti-austerity movement.
 
Two other recent developments have added momentum to this nascent left revival. The first was the formation of a new Holyrood parliamentary group composed of veteran left-nationalist Margo Macdonald, Green MSPs Patrick Harvie and Alison Johnstone, and independents John Finnie and Jean Urquhart, who quit the SNP in October following the party’s decision to embrace NATO. The second was the refusal of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) to affiliate to the pro-Union Better Together campaign despite what must have been heavy pressure from the Labour Party.
 
The catalyst for the revival itself is the debate surrounding Scotland’s constitutional future. Whether Scotland has secured enhanced devolution or seceded from the United Kingdom altogether, RIC organisers view the 2016 Scottish elections as a moment of potential breakthrough. If an overwhelming majority of Scots vote No in the independence referendum, the SNP may fracture, leaving a block of non-aligned nationalists and social democrats which could form the basis of a united left front. If there’s a Yes vote, some elements of the Labour left, impatient with Scottish leader Johann Lamont’s chronic lack of ambition, may be tempted to join a new socialist/Green alliance. Either way, popular discontent in Scotland over public spending cuts is likely to find formal political expression sooner rather than later.

The challenge for RIC will be to keep its loosely assembled coalition, which includes members of Sheridan’s Solidarity organisation, the Socialist Workers Party and the SSP, together long enough to turn it into a sustainable electoral force. This could be difficult: in recent decades Scotland's radical left has proved every bit as fractious as its English and European counterparts. Jim Sillars' break-away Scottish Labour Party, formed in the mid-1970s, collapsed under the weight of Trotskyist factionalism. The socialist 79 Group was expelled from the SNP in the early 1980s because of its alleged links to Sinn Fein. Ten years later, the splintering of Militant Tendency in Scotland saw the birth of Scottish Militant Labour, a precursor group to the SSP.

But here RIC has a couple of significant advantages. Most of its organisers are under 30 and therefore largely free from the sectarianism of their predecessors. Delegates even reported a sense of transition at the conference – a ‘passing of the baton’ from one generation of Scottish leftists to the next. Crucially, in its support for independence, RIC has a clear, unifying purpose. These are encouraging signs. Considered alongside Holyrood’s new left-leaning working group and the apparent weakening of Scottish trade unionism’s commitment to the British state, you could be forgiven for thinking socialism might be set for some kind of comeback in Scottish politics.

Veteran left-nationalist Margo MacDonald is one of the leaders of a new Holyrood parliamentary group. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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