A fresh ‘party’ launches this week and will provide a viable alternative, writes Lesley Riddoch
So a new political movement is about to be born. Rise will be launched on Saturday as Scotland’s new left-wing alliance with a platform of principles spelled out by its name – respect, independence, socialism, environmentalism – and an intention to stand candidates in the forthcoming Holyrood elections.
Rise is the brainchild of the Scottish Left Project (SLP), itself the product of a post-indyref pact between the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC). On its website, the SLP explains: “There is a need for something truly new and original to be born out of the independence movement that can manifest itself at the ballot box in 2016 and beyond.
“We are constructing a replacement for Labour that truly reflects the needs of Scotland’s working-class and a policy programme … to escape skyrocketing inequality, anti- immigrant hysteria, endless war and the degradation of democracy.”
No doubt that will appeal to many Scottish voters – but can Rise convert sympathy and interest into seats by next May amidst a suddenly crowded left-wing marketplace? Despite Corbynmania, the rise and rise of the anti-austerity SNP and the slow but steady growth of the Scottish Greens, it probably can.
It’s true that support for the SNP shows no sign of waning with a recent poll giving them a 62 per cent share of the vote at next year’s Holyrood elections. But there are mutterings in the ranks about the self-congratulatory tone of the party’s forthcoming October conference and the hasty way candidates have been chosen.
Despite the presence of 70,000 new members recruited while the SNP was in anti-austerity campaigning mode, there seems to be very little controversy or radicalism amongst the motions accepted for debate. According to the Director of Common Weal, Robin McAlpine: “Only 3 out of 25 resolutions directly call for a decision on a change of policy. Across the whole agenda items not being discussed include the economy, housing, tax, investment, austerity, banking, local democracy and health. Meanwhile there are nine resolutions congratulating the Scottish Government on things it is already done and another 14 based on criticising its opponents.”
This may not feel like the agenda new SNP members think they signed up to. Yes activists are uneasy about Nicola Sturgeon’s decision not to include a commitment to a second independence referendum in the 2016 manifesto – and whilst some agree that not enough material change has occurred to guarantee a changed result, it seems weak not to have a spirited debate of the issue in October.
Beyond the pivotal independence question, there is also disquiet about education, Police Scotland, the unwillingness to break up Scotland’s super-sized councils and the recent decision to drop a land reform proposal forcing companies registered in offshore tax havens like the Seychelles and Cayman Islands to register in the EU if they want to own Scottish land.
So far, so rather disappointing.
But of course Nicola Sturgeon herself is personally popular, the SNP has avoided Labour’s turmoil by wholeheartedly accepting all-comers as members and popular new MPs, and most new recruits will not believe their party is settling for “don’t rock the boat” politics – at least not this soon.
Rise could also receive a serious challenge from a Jeremy Corbyn-led UK Labour party – or a massive boost if his election is blocked by other leadership candidates. Thousands queued to hear the unashamedly socialist MP for Islington during his recent Scottish tour and even independence supporters in the crowd seemed reluctant to spoil the party by asking awkward questions about his reluctance to back more powers for the Scottish Parliament. Indeed the vast size and enthusiastic left-leaning composition of Corbyn’s audience resembled nothing more than the huge rallies that have characterised the Radical Independence Campaign – the driving force behind Rise. It’s possible some RIC supporters are morphing into Corbyn maniacs – but that might not matter.
Despite conciliatory noises from the new Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale and deputy Alex Rowley’s comment about needing to re-examine the case for renewing Trident, Scottish support for Jeremy Corbyn may not help the fortunes of Scottish Labour in May any more than the Cameron bounce south of the border ever helped Ruth Davidson north of it. The Scots have become one of the world’s most savvy electorates and having broken from a long-term habit of blindly voting Labour, are unlikely to offer uncritical support again.
Rise have pitched their camp in clear political space, to the left of the SNP, Scottish Labour and probably the Scottish Greens. Their popular and persuasive MSPs – Patrick Harvie and Alison Johnstone – won plaudits and media profile during the independence referendum. The Holyrood elections may be their time to collect, but that depends on the fairness of media coverage for smaller parties and their ability to convince supporters that Greens are as serious about fighting austerity as combating climate change.
Obviously though, the difficulty of achieving profile in the conventional media also applies to Rise – in spades. With only two left, independence-leaning newspapers, and broadcasters which prefer the simplicity of small panels for election hustings, these newcomers could easily find themselves completely ignored. Still, RIC are consummate masters of social media and have proved themselves able to motivate the vast ranks of Scots who sit beyond political parties and the conventional media.
They already have credible potential candidates in Cat Boyd and Colin Fox and a collective, grassroots structure that contrasts with the centralised management style of the SNP. Given the reluctance to call Rise a party – it is loosely modelled on the Spanish Podemos movement – there may be more than the usual pressures over how to select candidates and policies.
But Rise begins with two advantages. Nicola Sturgeon and Jeremy Corbyn have helped re-legitimise left politics – and the big question about next year’s Holyrood elections is not about the likely winners but the likely opposition.
Scots know they need a political spectrum in Holyrood not a monoculture. Rise provide voters with a viable deep red.