The Scottish left needs to talk about collaboration, not another party
Greens campaigning in Norwich. Image: Norwich Green Party.
In the last week, thousands of people have joined the Scottish Green Party and the SSP. Tens of thousands have joined the SNP. If it ever was a good idea to build a new left party in Scotland, then the time to launch it was two weeks ago. Now, it seems, that ship has sailed.
There is an obvious case for left yes activists joining the SNP. But it seems likely that they have emerged from the referendum as the natural party of government in Scotland, and it’s going to be they who we will be holding to account in the coming years – politics is about more than winning independence. Likewise, if we are to secure a yes vote in the future, the best way to do it will be to build a hegemonic Yes politics in Scotland – to ensure that the main debate is between two different pro-independence parties. As Scottish Labour wobble above the gap between Scotland’s shifted tectonic plates, that seems more plausible than ever.
The question, then, is, under what banner should the Scottish left rally? I should lay my cards on the table at the outset. I have now been a member of the Scottish Green Party for almost half of my life, but I have no formal role in the party, and speak only for myself. Having said this, I genuinely think most people on the contemporary left reading the Greens recent European election manifesto would find it a descent expression of their politics – just as radical as the demands you’d find from most RIC supporters. The party is democratic, run by its members, and big enough to have prized its way into the public consciousness – now more than ever. It’s important not to underestimate how hard that recognition is. It takes a very long time for someone to feel able to vote for a party. It is very rare in UK politics for a new one to emerge, and immediately get political support.
The usual criticism from the left is that Greens lack an appeal to working class voters, and that’s a criticism that I understand. But it’s the product of a very real problem, and I think any new left party would find itself in a similar position. It’s easiest to explain this by going to Norwich in the period 2003-2010.
In the early Noughties, Greens began winning council seats in Norwich – largely based on the votes of university students, recent graduates, and academics. Once they were elected, however, these councillors then spent their time in the council estates in their wards, supporting working class communities. In 2010, Norwich South was, after Brighton, the second Green target in the country. I spent the last two weeks before the election there.
What we found surprised us. Most people in the middle class streets which had elected our councillors in the first place shifted their vote, tactically, to the Lib Dems. People in the working-class areas, on the other hand, tended to have a different attitude. They weren’t as consumerist in their politics. They understood solidarity, and they knew that it was the Greens who had been fighting shoulder to shoulder with them against Labour’s cuts and privatisations over the last five years. In 2010, council estates of Norwich South turned out in force for the Greens. The middle-class areas, which had put our councillors there in the first place, deserted us.
The point is this. Young, middle-class Guardian/Herald reading muesli belts are the easiest places for newish left-wing parties to win votes. Working-class areas are much less flippant, and much harder to get on board. But once they do, they stick with you.
What does all of this tell us about Scotland now? First, the problem isn’t that Greens are incapable of winning working class votes – as our experience in Norwich shows. Where we have an active presence on the ground, where we talk about how our policies impact on the material circumstances of those most impoverished by the system, we are very capable of mobilising such support.
The difficulty is that, just as Green voters in Norwich were loyal once they’d made the change, working-class voters are more likely to be loyal to Labour than are the middle-class left. In the pressure of elections, political parties are always going to focus on the areas in which our job is easiest. And so Greens have spent a lot of time winning over that low hanging fruit, and honing our messages for that audience.
In post-referendum Scotland, it is absolutely clear that that political reality has changed. There are huge working-class areas who have been alienated by the Labour party, and the left needs to move fast to support people in these areas to continue to be politically active.
Any new left party would be under exactly the same pressures as the Green Party is to focus on middle class areas and win over the middle-class left, and, likewise, it is just as important for the Green Party not to fall into this trap as it is for any other party. The Scottish Green Party is a product of what happened to Scottish (and UK) radical politics over the last 30 years or so, and the future Green Party will be a product of what’s happened to it in the last two years or so. The main difference between the Greens and the SSP and any other new party is that the Greens have more infrastructure, have MSPs and councillors across the country, and at least have a chance of supporting thousands of new members.
So, I think you should all join the Scottish Green Party. But I’m pretty sure that, for perfectly good reasons, some of you won’t. And it’s important for Greens to respect that. There are genuine differences between radicals, and these shouldn’t just be swept aside. The next question, then, is how does the radical Yes movement which united pretty successfully for the two years of the referendum navigate the next two years – with both Westminster and Holyrood elections ahead. How do we find ways to express our genuine and honest differences whilst focussing our ire on the real enemies – as I wrote last year, you don’t need to be holding hands in order to avoid treading on each other’s toes.
I think the solution with regards to Westminster isn’t too hard. It would be ambitious to believe that we could win more than two MPs in Scotland, and I think we should aim to do that. Greens have chosen a target candidate and a target seat: Peter McColl in Edinburgh East. Peter is a prominent anti-cuts campaigner, rector of Edinburgh University, which sits at one end of the constituency, a community activist in Portobello at the other, and was the opening speaker at the first Radical Independence Conference. I hope most on the Scottish left would happily rally round him. Greens should be willing to give concessions to both others on the left and also the SNP in exchange for giving him a clear run against Labour MP Sheila Gilmore.
I think it’s also plausible if ambitious that one of the RIC organisers – perhaps Cat Boyd or Jonathon Shafi, though it’s not for me to say – could win a seat in Glasgow. I think we should try to find a way for Greens and the SNP to stand down to give them a clear run – in exchange for the ISG/RIC not running against us (Greens or the SNP) elsewhere. If the SSP are planning on focussing on one particular seat, I would also advocate standing down to give them a clean run in exchange for them doing the same for us in our main seats.
It seems ambitious but plausible that we set as a target for May 2015 two MPs from the radical movements which mobilised so much of the Yes vote, and also that we (those of us to the left of the SNP) hope that the SNP win more seats in Scotland than Labour so that feet can be held to the fire.
The next question is what happens in the 2016 Holyrood elections. In this case, there is more of a problem. Because there aren’t 59 Westminster seats to target, but, in practice, 8 regions. What we discovered in 2007 is that, when lots of small parties run, we all get wiped out. And it’s important that we don’t let that happen again.
I have no neat solutions to suggest here, other than to say this: it must be possible for each of the main radical forces in Scottish politics to somehow express its own identity and distinct politics, and yet not compete against each other in these elections. If we can’t do this on the back of the good will and friendships built up during the referendum, we will never be able to. We don’t have to find the answer now, but we do need to start talking.