On Sunday, I met hundreds of people who think politics is fun and can change the world for the better. It was quite a shock. Hardly any of them wore smart suits or were looking for a parliamentary career. There were lots of women as well as men, and children as well adults. And lots and lots of folk under 30. Was this truly a political gathering?
Yes, Jim, but not politics as we know it. I was enjoying a festival in Glasgow organised by the Common Weal movement. More than 600 people had paid ten quid a head to squeeze into the Arches in Glasgow, better known as a music venue. And yes, we had music as well as discussions on town planning. There was stand-up comedy – and I don’t mean elected politicians. And debates in which the audience told the panel to shut up and listen.
Common Weal is an initiative born out of the Jimmy Reid Foundation, itself set up to honour (by doing) Jimmy’s radical and ecumenical approach to politics. Early last year, the foundation began a modest exercise to publish new policy ideas for an independent Scotland (or even a not-so independent one). This snowballed as scores of academics and interested parties asked to join in. Common Weal had tapped into a latent desire to come up with new (but practical) ideas to make Scotland a better and fairer place. Hence the title Common Weal, the old Scots phrase meaning shared wealth and wellbeing.
Common Weal has become the intellectual heart of the left-wing of the pro-independence campaign. It forms part of triumvirate, with the Radical Independence Campaign (doing the door knocking) and National Collective (on the cultural front). Through all runs the notion of popular participation and openness to new thinking – hence a festival of politics rather than the usual “rally” to listen to the “leaders”.
This popular insurgency is transforming the way Scottish politics works – only the establishment parties and traditional media haven’t noticed yet. They soon will. For on Sunday Common Weal’s most visible and articulate spokesperson, Robin McAlpine, declared the movement’s intention of standing in the 2016 Holyrood elections – regardless of the outcome of the independence referendum. The Common Weal has its eyes set on power, not protest.
Can’t happen? Consider the spectacular rise of Podemos (“We can”), the anti-austerity movement in Spain. Podemos sprang to life only in January as a project to contest the European elections scheduled for 25 May. Using social networking, activists spontaneously formed more than 400 campaign groups across Spain. Some 30,000 people voted online to select Podemos candidates. Campaign finance was raised through small donations. Result: Podemos won 1,239,133 votes and five seats. It won 11.3 per cent of the vote in Madrid.
The usual criticism of so-called “movementist” politics is that it is unstable and incapable of dealing with those famous “hard” choices so beloved of mainstream politicians. But McAlpine is not pursuing a single-issue agenda or the politics of grievance. He and Common Weal are using the new social networks to draw thousands of disenfranchised people into a personal discussion of policy alternatives for Scotland, covering everything from bank reform to transport. This is the opposite of mainstream politics in which policy is handed down by the elites.
How can Common Weal capture political power without a traditional political machine, including support from the traditional media? Robin McAlpine thinks he has an answer. He outlined this at Sunday’s festival in one of the best political speeches I’ve heard for ages. It was passionate without being demagogic; warm without being manipulative; and thoughtful without being utopian.
McAlpine proposes that Common Weal creates its own digital newspaper, its own film unit and (eventually) its own daily television service. He also wants to create permanent urban drop-in centres – part coffee bar, part media-tech – to create a novel kind of gathering place in which politics comes to the people.
The practical problem facing Common Weal for 2016 is whether or not to field its own candidates (doubtless chosen through popular online primaries). If it decides to challenge the existing political parties head on, it obviously risks losing the sympathy of Common Weal supporters who are members of the SNP, Labour and the Greens.
One possibility is for the Common Weal campaign machine to throw its weight behind Holyrood candidates of any mainstream party who also endorse the Common Weal manifesto for social justice. But while SNP and Labour candidates might sign up to Common Weal principles in order to get backing, it hardly seems credible that they will defy their own party whips once safely elected. Besides, as Robin McAlpine made clear in his speech on Sunday, Common Weal wants power at Holyrood to implement its radical programme.
If there’s a Yes vote, Scottish Labour will be in disarray while left-wing SNP supporters will feel freer to show their disagreement with the party’s moderate stance. In those circumstances, one can see a Common Weal slate of candidates in 2016. With the political status quo in smithereens, Common Weal could conceivably hold the balance of power. The SNP would be likely to remain the dominant political force immediately after independence – but not forever.
If there’s a No vote in September, it will energise the Scottish pro-independence Left rather than demoralise it. Common Weal has been careful to position itself for this possibility and the political regrouping that will inevitably follow. SNP activists have observed amazing party discipline during the referendum campaign. In the aftermath of a No vote, expect the SNP’s Left to rebel against Salmond’s moderate stance on keeping the pound, Nato membership and the monarchy. That opens the door for Common Weal – even more so if the Tories win next year’s UK general election.
Of course, politics is littered with the carcases of failed “new” parties. But Common Weal is a rare mixture of old heads and new technology. And a pragmatism born of past defeats combined with the boundless optimism of the young. It also does great festivals.