Radical Independence campaigners including Scottish Greens at the Lothians region count of the 2014 referendum.
Radical Independence campaigners including Scottish Greens at the Lothians region count of the 2014 referendum. Photo: Ric Lander

This week, a new political group is coming together in Scotland. RISE (Respect, Independence, Socialism, Environmentalism) has been a long time in the making. It’s the product of an alliance between the Scottish Socialist Party (which, for the geeks, is itself an alliance of various socialist groupings formed in the late 1990s) and the Scottish Left Project.

Many of its members are friends of mine and of others in the Scottish Greens. They’re people we’ve campaigned alongside in the referendum, and in other struggles over the years. Many of them are impressive and prominent activists (and, in one case, an MSP). They’ve generally been on the better side of the various socialist splits in recent Scottish history – this is no Sheridan or Galloway style ego-project and fandom. In other words, all things being equal, I’d like to see their candidates in parliament. Cat Boyd in Glasgow probably has the best chance, and will, if elected make a great MSP.

That said, they will be running against Greens. And while Holyrood’s Additional Member System is proportional, it isn’t perfectly so. There are mathematical disadvantages to smaller parties (which pretty much means everyone but the SNP these days) in running separately. Vote splitting is a genuine problem and I hope this is the last time that Greens and RISE run against each other in an election. I’m not sure that there is room for two large parties to the left of the SNP. And we’d both like to become large parties.

This is particularly true since there has clearly been a growing together of Greens and explicitly Socialist parties in recent years – in Scotland, the UK and across Europe. Changing attitudes on rights for women, LGBT people and people of colour; the anti-globalisation movement; a growth in collective understanding about climate change and the environment; the global economic crisis and the anti-austerity movement have produced a generation of activists in both traditions whose ideologies are remarkably aligned in a way they weren’t always in the past.

So, on the one hand, Socialist parties (with a capital S) have become more Green: the Scottish Socialist Party now supports Basic Income. The new party, RISE, has the word “environmentalism” in its name. Where 20 years ago, there were still those on the radical left who saw feminism, LGBT rights and environmentalism as deviations from the class struggle, today that attitude is unacceptable in all but the smallest and most shunned fringes of socialist thought (case in point, George Galloway). Whilst some members of explicitly socialist parties are still keen on more centralisation than I am, most have looked at the decentralising models of “socialism for the 21st century” developed in counties like Bolivia and Ecuador, and started to support more radical democracy (which is one of the Greens’ founding principles).

At the same time, Greens have grown from a party which sometimes clung to a couple of narrow niches (whilst always having a broader analysis) to one with activists accustomed to campaigning on a huge range of issues. And even those who choose to focus primarily on environmental concerns have returned to the more traditional Green analysis that it is the system to blame, not people forgetting to do their recycling or buying ‘the wrong things’.

From that perspective, whilst it’s possible to find disagreements between RISE and the Greens (Greens support taxes on wealth as well as income, the SSP historically didn’t), I am not entirely convinced that these are bigger than the disagreements you’d find between the members of the respective parties. As such, I think it’s a shame that it seems they will be running candidates against each other.

Of course, from my point of view, what I’d like is for RISE members to join the Green Party. They will complain that it is too white and too middle class, both in membership and therefore in tone of voice. And this is true, but the party is keen to confront these problems, has the democratic structures through which things can be changed, and since the surge in membership last year, has already made progress. In England, where Greens have put effort into working class areas, we’ve had plenty of success – you don’t get to be the opposition on Solihull council by relying only on the muesli belt.

For Greens, though, this should perhaps be a wake-up call that the party has so far failed to attract as many potential supporters from less well off demographics and from people of colour as we could: both of whom are well represented among RISE’s more prominent figures. Speak to their activists, and they say things like “if I showed my Mum your policies, she’d vote for them, but she looks at your party, and thinks ‘that’s not for me’”. This is feedback we need to hear if we want to grow our electoral base in the long run.

And it’s not really good enough to call for unity, and then say “and so you should all join my thing”. Because that’s obviously what everyone thinks. In that context, here are a few ideas for the sorts of things which could be done. To be clear, I’m not proposing any particular one of them, merely pointing out that they may be possible:

  1. An all-out party merger with a name acknowledging the two components (like Bündnis 90/Die Grünen – “Scottish Green Party/RISE”
  2. A deal similar to the Labour and Co-operative party: You can be a member of either party, or both. If you are a member of both, and are selected, both go on the ballot paper. The smaller party (which at the moment is RISE) doesn’t run independent candidates.
  3. A slightly looser deal, where the two parties run joint lists in Holyrood and European elections (as Greens do with left parties across Southern Europe), run against each other in local elections but encourage voters to transfer to each other, and agree to stand in different seats in First Past the Post elections.
  4. One party runs in constituencies, the other on the list (though that might be seen as breaking the rules).

All of these options bring problems, but are they bigger problems than splitting the vote of those who want radical change?

Short of that, I hope the parties at the very least are both sensible enough to be respectful to each other, and not spend their time attacking each other. It is a historical fact (if with little data to prove a long term trend) that Greens and the SSP have tended to rise and fall together in Holyrood elections: both getting 1 MSP in 1999, then massive surges to 6/7 in 2003, then collapsing to, respectively, none and two in 2007 and staying there in 2011 despite the Lib Dem slump and the anti-austerity movement being at its peak. I suspect this is because persuading people to use their regional votes to create a pluralistic parliament rather than to elect the First Minister is as important as persuading them which colours they want in their “rainbow parliament”.

It would be too easy for Greens and RISE members to hop into our respective tribes and start throwing rocks at each other: it’s traditional for political parties to fight hardest against those closest to them. But we have a world to change, and neither of us is the enemy. There isn’t time for immature bickering. The parties have sprung up from different places, but I do hope that they slowly finds ways to grow together.