Frontline hosted a meeting recently which brought together socialists from different backgrounds to look at the question of building left unity in Scotland. In this article Frontline editor Alister Black reflects on the challenges ahead.
As Mayday came around, socialists took to the streets to celebrate international workers day, to campaign against Tory austerity, for international solidarity and for a better world. In Scotland Mayday had another significance this year as it marked 500 days until the referendum on Scottish independence. The referendum has energised activists and is increasingly the context in which protest exists within. The Mayday march in Edinburgh saw a big contribution by independence campaigners following on from similar displays at the Bedroom Tax and anti-Trident demos. Homemade placards can be seen at all these events with the same message – things could be better in an independent Scotland.
The Scottish left is overwhelmingly pro-independence. At the same time there is an understanding that things will not automatically get better if we replace the union flag with the saltire. Change in favour of working people has to be fought for. To achieve change we have to be organised and we have to be united. The Scottish Socialist Party achieved a real step forward for left politics ten years ago when it united most of the Scottish left, built branches across the country and had six members elected to the Scottish Parliament. The SSP succeeded in pulling Scottish politics to the left – elements of the SSP programme such as free prescriptions were taken up by the SNP administration and enacted into law. An effective and united left can pose a real challenge and make a real difference to the lives of working class people in Scotland.
A Tale of Two Cities
Left politics in Scotland is in a very fluid state. The success of the Radical Independence Campaign in bringing the left together is one side of this. The other side is long term activists leaving their parties, of splits and new formations and sometimes of people dropping out of politics altogether. The last issue of Frontline detailed some of these trends. Since it was written we have seen a formal split in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) with a new group the International Socialist Network (ISN) being formed. Other SWP dissidents remain in the party to fight their corner, for now.
Activists in Edinburgh have been able to work together in increasingly cooperative ways. Radical Independence in Edinburgh hosted the biggest rally of RIC’s ‘Peoples Assembly’ tour with 150 packing in to hear speakers and debate. Recent branch meetings have seen crowds of 50 turn up and have been full of enthusiasm, plans are underway to launch local branches across the city. It was RIC in Edinburgh who organised a hugely succesful protest against UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s visit to the city, which brought dozens out on the streets with just a couple of hours notice and made virtually every front page of the national press the following day.
In Glasgow, by contrast, the atmosphere has been described as toxic with conflict arising over the attempt by Tommy Sheridan to make a comeback in Scottish politics on the back of the campaign against the bedroom tax with the help of elements of the SWP. The fallout of the SWP rape scandal has also led to some bitter confrontations.
Is Left Unity Possible?
It was against this background that Frontline organised a fringe meeting at SSP conference which asked ‘is left unity possible in Scotland?’ The SSP conference itself had set a positive tone by passing a motion which called on the party to look into the possibility of a broad left platform for the European elections in May 2014.
Thirteen people attended from five different groups. These were the SSP, including co-spokesperson Colin Fox, the ISG, the ISN, the Republican Communist Network (RCN) and some who were still members of the SWP. The discussion was comradely and participants are to be congratulated for having the courage to come together to discuss these issues.
The meeting was addressed by Gregor Gall, a member of the Frontline editorial board and also an SSP member and by Pete Ramand of the International Socialist Group (ISG). Both outlined the position the left found itself in and the opportunity of the current period for building unity.
Firstly there was general agreement that there is no real programmatic difference between the groups, or at least in the broad demands they would put forward. There was a recognition that the division of the left was unsustainable and that some sort of renewal of the left, drawing on the spirit of the Radical Independence Conference was the way forward.
The speed, scale and feasibility of unity were areas where differences could be seen. For the ISG and most likely the ISN, the sooner this can be achieved the better. The ISG made clear that they saw themselves as a temporary formation who would be happy to dissolve into a broader group. The ISN perspective seemed to be that left unity was one of their key priorities. This is certainly supported by their activity in England where they have been in talks with Socialist Resistance and the Anti-Capitalist Initiative and have oriented towards the new Left Unity formation.
However many speakers, particularly from the SSP, were concerned that we needed to make sure we did not repeat the mistakes of the past. After all the SSP had formed as a party of left unity, but despite all the constitutional safeguards in place, that unity was wrecked by the split. How, they argued, could we trust those who had taken part in this split without a full accounting for what took place?
Similarly the RCN emphasised the need for a political balance sheet to be drawn up of events – something they argued had not been sufficiently done by either side.
Of course as well as the negative lessons of the SSP split it is also important to assess the positive aspects and learn the lessons of how the SSP built. The SSP was able to capture tens of thousands of votes and gain six seats in parliament as well as building dozens of branches across Scotland and attracting the best working class militants to its ranks, including affiliation from the likes of the RMT and Lothians postal workers. It was to the fore in every arena of working class struggle.
The party did not materialise out of thin air or because some of us thought it was a good idea. It emerged from the mass struggle against the poll tax, a struggle which had a positive effect on one of the key groups who led it, Scottish Militant Labour (SML). SML began a process of working with those allies it had encountered in the poll tax struggle. It formed the Scottish Defiance Alliance to campaign against the Criminal Justice Act, and organise illegal protests against it. This group encompassed everyone from anarchists and radical greens to community groups and the Marxist left.
The Defiance Alliance led to the creation of the Scottish Socialist Alliance. Not everyone stayed on board for this development and some who did remained distrustful of the intentions of SML. Relations between groups in the early stages could be antagonistic. It was a process of working together in campaigns, in elections and in meetings and discussions which began to overcome this distrust.
Trust remains a key issue in building left unity today. Activists from all sides need to demonstrate in practical terms that they have rejected the methods of the past, the methods of cynically using struggles as nothing more than an opportunity to recruit to their own brand of socialism, or of building party-front type organisations.
This is not to say that there should not be open debate and discussions about our differences. Far better to have an open and honest discussion than to hide our differences or rely on back-room maneuvers. Building unity is a process and not something we can simply declare.
Some meetings have already been hosted by the RCN and these are likely to continue with a broader range of participants. The ISN also stated that they intend to host meetings on the subject and would be inviting participants
Frontline is happy to play its part in this process and we are glad that many of the organisations and individuals involved have offered their perspectives for this issue of Frontline.
There is a long way to go and different views regarding the way forward. However there are some key events coming up. The SSP conference passed a motion calling for a broad left slate for the 2014 European elections. This could be a rallying point for the next stage in rebuilding a serious socialist force in Scotland.