George Kerevan: Is it too late for new radicals?

With left-wing voters flocking to the SNP, the Radical Independence Campaign has its work cut out, says George Kerevan

With left-wing voters flocking to the SNP, the Radical Independence Campaign has its work cut out, says George Kerevan

SCOTLAND could soon get a new political party. Saturday sees the big post-referendum conference of the far left Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), Scotland’s new anti-austerity movement. Over 3,000 people are expected to attend, which explains why the event will spread over the Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow Science Centre and even the Crowne Plaza Hotel, which is more used to hosting bourgeois businessmen.

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Clearly, the old joke about the far left meeting in a telephone box no longer applies. The political radicalisation of Scotland during the referendum campaign has swollen the ranks of the anti-capitalist left as well as the SNP and the Greens. The Nats have enjoyed a staggering 60,000 new recruits since the No vote on September and are aiming to top 100,000 members in total before the general election in May. The pro-independence Scottish Green Party has seen its membership rise from 2,000 before the referendum to over 7,000.

But the true significance of the RIC conference lies not its size – bigger than anything the far left could mount south of the border – but in the likelihood it will be the launch pad for a new political party that aims to win representation at Holyrood on a radical, anti-austerity ticket.

RIC believes there is a generation of frustrated young people – across Europe, as well as in Scotland – looking for a political home. According to leading RIC campaigner Cat Boyd: “What we need is a further expression of the amazing, youthful energy of the grass-roots independence movement. This must be a political expression which captures the very essence of the fight for democracy that shaped it. None of our existing organisations are capable of doing that, so we need a new radical party.”

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RIC’s inspiration comes from the Podemos (meaning “We can!”) movement in Spain. Podemos sprang to life out of popular street demonstrations against spending cuts and youth unemployment. The latest opinion polls have Podemos neck-and-neck with the governing Popular Party and ahead of the Spanish Labour Party.

I wrote about Podemos as a potential model for a Scottish anti-austerity party in this column back in July. However, a Scottish Podemos may have been overtaken by seismic events since 18 September. As I’m sure my friends in RIC know, Marx warned that during a revolution 20 years of ordinary political development can be compressed into a single day. This is exactly what has happened following the referendum. Witness the staggering rise in SNP membership and Scottish Labour’s meltdown in the polls.

The Unionist parties gambled that a No victory would see off the SNP and focus politics back on Westminster. But three years of discussing what a better Scotland might look like has emboldened working-class voters and young people – those with little to gain from the present dysfunctional system – to revolt.

In their minds, winning independence or Home Rule is a means to an end. The bottom line is they are rising against austerity, privilege, and corruption – political and financial.

What RIC and the original Podemos in Spain rightly discerned is that there is an appetite for popular involvement in politics that was not there before, and that the internet has provided an effective tool to bypass the traditional media in order to mobilise support.

Unfortunately for a Scottish Podemos, this revolutionary wave has flowed straight into the SNP, by-passing the far left. Tens of thousands of those new recruits are working class. SNP branch meetings now resemble in social composition and accent those of the Labour Party of a generation ago. The SNP’s trade union section now has more members than Labour has ordinary members in Scotland.

This new membership could push the SNP further to the left. My (enlarged) SNP branch met last Monday night. Most attendees were from the local housing schemes. There was a passionate, half hour debate about fracking after which the branch voted to send a motion to the SNP’s policy-making National Council demanding an end to drilling for unconventional gas. Formally, the SNP opposes such drilling without the consent of householders – a right the Tories at Westminster have just removed. But that’s hardly the same thing as opposing drilling in principle, is it?

The SNP under Nicola Sturgeon is a genuine social democratic party with a mass working-class base. The youthful left in RIC will only cut itself off from this radicalisation if it sets up shop in opposition. This logic is not lost on Tommy Sheridan, who has recovered a lot of popular favour after the sorry affair of his libel suit, by throwing himself into the Yes campaign with a disarming lack of ego. Sheridan argues: “In order to maximise the pro-independence vote in next May’s general election, all Yes supporters should vote for the SNP, and all other pro-Independence parties should not stand if the SNP candidate will commit to fight for a new referendum as soon as possible and against all Westmonster [sic] austerity cuts.”

How would the SNP leadership react to support from today’s equivalents of John Maclean? In an interview in the New Statesman, Nicola Sturgeon seemed friendly: “I don’t agree with everything Radical Independence put forward but their contribution to the referendum both in terms of ideas and in a hard, organisational sense – doors knocked and miles covered – was hugely positive.”

On the other hand, the RIC organisers accuse the SNP of deliberately scheduling Nicola Sturgeon’s mass rally for new members in SSE Hydro, slap bang next door to the RIC conference, and on the very same day. The SNP claims they could not get another venue large enough but it does seem an unfortunate clash.

In strongly nationalist Catalonia, Podemos polls barely 4 per cent. Instead, anti-austerity votes have gravitated to the Left Republicans, the traditional left-of-centre independence party. Support for the once-dominant Spanish Labour Party has collapsed to a derisory 6 per cent. These are hard facts the RIC conference should ponder before launching a new party.

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