Labour in Scotland have had the toughest days in their history, steamrollered by the SNP at the last Scottish elections and facing further losses in May’s council battle. Vince Mills, a left activist in the party takes a look at where the party finds itself.
Perhaps ‘wither the Scottish Labour Party‘ might seem like a better title for an article on the shape of the Scottish Labour Party (SLP) after its Spring conference in Dundee. Or at least such might be the impression on a neutral commentator looking at the half empty Caird Hall that was a persistent feature of the conference for most of the ordinary business of the gathering. Mind you the Caird Hall looked like Vatican square on Easter Sunday compared to the remnants of the Liberal Democrats who huddled together in Inverness. The Caird Hall certainly filled up for Johann Lamont’s first speech as leader of the Scottish Labour Party on the Saturday afternoon of conference.
And with that new leader, who won with the full support of the unions and the left of the Party and, at least according the polls, with a position on devolution that is supported by most Scots, this conference seemed like the perfect time for the SLP to take back the centre left ground occupied by Salmond’s SNP.
Did it? Here we are going to have to resort to Kremlinology. The usual means of understanding shifts in political direction in Labour’s tradition – debates pushing particular positions leading to changes in policy – these have long since gone. Managerialism has become embedded in the culture and indeed the very structures that could deliver positions for debate that might be embarrassing to the leadership have been stripped out.
So to understand whether there is a change taking place, at least in the Party’s upper echelons, you have to look at who the leader is promoting, what hints are being offered in key speeches and how the unions’ concerns are being treated. Let us start with promotions. Neil Findlay MSP for the Lothians and unapologetic leftist was given a role on the backbenches. This may seem unremarkable but would have been unheard of in previous regimes. Such has been the strength of the right that there was no need to trouble itself with inclusion even if in the exclusion of, for example, Elaine Smith, now depute presiding officer, you excluded the MSP with the largest majority in Scotland, risking the obvious inferences from her Labour electorate.
The speech that Johann Lamont delivered also hinted that things could change. She said, for example:
“I know that many of our comrades in the trade union movement left us in May because they felt we had let them down. And so I will work with my trade union colleagues to re-engage with union members and demonstrate that our cause is a common cause.”
At this point of course you are entitled to ask what the cause is and how can it be delivered jointly. Here the managerialist response kicks in. Unite had considered proposing an emergency motion at conference the effect of which was to seek a special conference to debate the constitutional question. However to accept this may have looked like a challenge to the leader who, it is well known, favours a one question referendum with a flat ‘NO’ as the response.
Consequently the motion was withdrawn and in its place there was an executive statement briefed in advance to the press, announcing the creation of a commission to consider Labour’s response to the constitutional issue comprising MPs, MSPs, Trade Unionists and missing, as far as most leftist delegates could work out, party members. So too was the role of the party collectively, whose role in endorsing or rejecting the conclusions that the commission might come up with remains unclear.
Suspicions that minds were already made up and that party members real role was as supporting cast were not helped when in advance of, and subsequent to, the conference SLP members received a helpful reminder from the Party leadership that the Scottish government was having a consultation on the referendum. The message from Scottish Labour not only pointed you to the consultation; it filled the answers in for you. Here is part of the pre-written response:
“There should only be one question in order to give a definitive answer on whether or not Scotland remains part of the UK. I do not support attempts to muddy the water with further questions on other matters. I want the referendum sooner rather than later and do not see the need to wait almost three years.”
Whatever your position on this – I favour a second question – there has been no widespread discussion or debate in the SLP about it; there has only been the statements of the leadership. Furthermore many in the Trade Union movement including those unions affiliated to Labour, are spread over a range of positions from independence on the one hand, a small but significant section, to a variety of positions up to and I suppose including the status quo, although few are actually articulating that position.
The Labour Left
The extent to which the new Scottish Labour leadership is really ready for dialogue and change in a way that would upset the SNP’s bandwagon is still in doubt. The left response at conference at any rate was a clear desire for even greater unity. At both the Campaign for Socialism‘s fringe meeting, comprising predominantly constituency activists and that of Revitalise the Scottish Labour Party, which is an informal network of trade union and constituency activists, there was a stark acknowledgement that the left could only survive as an alliance between the trade union movement and individual activists and that they could only have an impact through serious organisation and democratic convergence on policy positions and support for left candidates. Consequently there are moves to transform the informal Revitalise into a more formal and better resourced organisation.
Even supposing this succeeds and nudges Labour left, it will not be in time to stop some embarrassing defeats for the Party in May. Labour may well lose overall control in Glasgow and North Lanarkshire although the former is more likely than the latter. Glasgow is riven with disputes and petty jealousies and an organized schism in Glasgow First, formed around a group of deselected councillors. However, in the absence of any electoral project that can offer a serious left alternative Labour setbacks may provide grist to the mill of those in the SLP trying to grind out a victory over Blair’s legacy – a managerialist party machine imbued with neo-liberal politics.
A new wave of struggle has emerged since the 2008 crisis of capitalism began. New forms of organisation have also emerged as a new generation enters the struggle. Mhairi McAlpine looks at how the Coalition of Resistance has developed in Glasgow.
Anyone who has followed the trials and tribulations of the left over the past few years will know that Glasgow has not had an easy ride. Our poster-boy, our leading MSP and great white hope turned out to be a sleazy hypocrite who would throw his comrades to the tabloids rather than be seen as anything other than a bourgeois family man. Yet strangely theGlasgowleft is in the ascendancy. There is a buzz in the air and raised spirits. Partly this can be put down to the Hetherington Occupation last year, demonstrating the strength of the determined; partly to the emergence of the International Socialist Group (ISG), a Scottish breakaway from the SWP with new thinking and new ideas, partly down to the global upswing in resistance movements that we have witnessed and partly just down to the healing which occurred in the Glasgow left while our abuser was in gaol.
Coalition of Resistance emerges
One significant emergence in the last year has been the Glasgow Coalition of Resistance. Since the initial meeting of around 150 people representing a remarkable diversity of Glasgow’s radical scene, Glasgow CoR has gone from strength to strength. It has managed to attract an amazingly broad range of people and sustain a level of activity and vibrancy which hasn’t been seen since the early days of the Scottish Socialist Party. Its diversity is remarkable. Only a couple of years ago it would have been inconceivable for SWP members to sit next to SSP and anarchos next to the Labour Left; for trade unionists to be working with students and for community groups to be pivotal in building links across different aspects of resistance. I hear anecdotally thatGlasgowis the strongest section of CoR and while it makes me very proud of what we have built, it is also rather sad that other areas don’t have the same support network.
Glasgow CoR operates primarily as a support structure for other actions – whether that be from organising a solidarity bus for the pickets on J30 and N30; publicising the STUC “There is a better way” demonstration on 1st October, or assisting the Save the Accord campaign with practicalities and moral support. It has a strong activist focus. The usual format of meetings is for people to divide up into medium sized groups to discuss and come up with a plan for either a specific action or an aspect of a larger action. Actions required to make things happen are identified and responsibilities for tasks agreed between the members. With only four elected positions, and elected more by consensus than by ballot, leadership emerges within the groups. Different people take responsibility for facilitation, note-taking and reporting back on each occasion, while the input from participants is controlled through a stack, whereby people notify their wish to speak in advance rather than rely on being chosen to respond, which makes for a more free-flowing and inclusive atmosphere.
This structure gives COR both a vibrancy and an openness – there is no top table, ownership of the projects are distributed giving members, especially new or infrequent attendees an opportunity to participate and take on responsibilities. As people volunteer for things publically, there is an element of social accountability and awareness in task auctioning. This encourages participants to complete tasks that they have taken on, not from an abstract sense of duty or loyalty, but from a concrete feeling of awareness of their role within a wider context and the awareness that other people are relying on their contribution to make their own. After the groupwork sessions, the room comes back together for feedback, to keep everyone in the loop on what has been discussed, and ask for general support for activities that require mass participation, such as promotion, or inform people of the practical arrangements that have been made. The inclusion of people from within the trade unions and campaign groups supported is critical as taking a lead in determining what support is most effective.
While the meetings as described above are the norm, on occasions COR also organises slightly different meetings: generally in the lead up to a major event it will be agreed to postpone a regular meeting in favour of an “activity” meeting, where practical things – banner making or placard making for example will be the main purpose. Although Fredrick Taylor would be turning in his grave at the inefficiencies of these production lines, they are nonetheless fantastic opportunities to build bonds and develop connections which aren’t usually possible in more structured environments. The solidarity of the factory line is build over the shared activity to a common end and these practical sessions give COR participants a chance to discuss thinking, developments, activities in an informal manner with people that they are thrown together with on the “production line” that they would perhaps not naturally seek out.
Another alternative to the groupwork meetings that are held from time to time, are traditional top table speaking events. Usually held in the aftermath of a demo or public activity, these are aimed at linking the activity in Glasgowto wider struggles – within Scotland, the UKor internationally. Technology allows for live linkups with Occupy Wall Street and Syrian activists and speakers such as Owen Jones, the author of Chavs setting the activism in context and drawing links between the struggle here in Glasgow and wider national and international priorities. Although there is theory in these session, they are not theoretical development sessions – more awareness raising of the different strands of thought and locuses of struggle. It would be unfair to describe COR as non-theoretical, but theoretical development is not a major aim of COR. Most participants in COR have a primary political identity outwith, whether as a member of a trade union, political party or campaign group – the theoretical challenge for COR then becomes less to actively develop members in line with a given theoretical understanding, than it is to overcome differences in theoretical understandings and ensure that these do not become barriers to activity, solidarity and support for radical causes.
UK Uncut and Occupy
Its worth comparing CoR with some of the other movements that have sprung up on the left over the last year or so. The first, UKUncut was set up to embarrass, shame and ultimately economically damage companies which refused to pay the taxes that they owed. In a time when people were being told the country was skint and that we would all have to tighten our belts, the revelation that multi-nationals were being let of billions of pound in tax, while terminally ill people were being thrown off incapacity benefit and instructed to seek work struck a strong chord with the public. Locally organised demonstrations were held outside targets, loosely co-ordinated in that sometimes a particular target would be identified but lead on the ground by local activists and campaigners. UKUncut was a star which burned brightly, but the campaign got scorched after the arrest of 148 activists who occupied Fortnum and Mason on March 25th. Bogged down in legal challenges, a substantial section of activists under legal proceedings and a wider section of activists and supporters who now feared legal action being taken against them, UKUncut moved on from direct action to legal action against the companies involved. While this is in many ways a very positive move – challenging these sweetheart deals through the courts is worthwhile, it is also more remote and tucked away than people challenging them on the high street – moving the locus of struggle away from the local and into the foostie chambers of court.
The other major movement to have emerged in the last year is Occupy. Inspired by the occupations ofTahrir SquareandSyntagma Square, Occupy Wall Street sought to take the fight to the centre of power. The movement spread acrossAmericaand when the call to Occupy made on 15th October reached theUK, three camps were established inScotland: Glasgow,Edinburghand …Paisley. The Paisley experience was a portend of things to come. After the camp had to be abandoned after only two nights when the occupier had been threatened and robbed, the vulnerability and naivety of the movement’s tactics were exposed. Tales were emerging of racism, sexism, sexual abuse and violence from the Occupy Camps internationally. When a rape occurred at Glasgow Occupy, the response of the camp was shocking – yet still it continued until an unexplained fire extinguished the protest and the now disbandedEdinburghcamp has also been associated with violence and misogyny.
Occupy generally attracted a less experienced and less active protester: it inspired people who usually just shouted at the telly, but at the same time it also attracted people who struggled within the mainstream and sought an alternative many times out of necessity. Running a 24hour space in a public arena with an eclectic mix of people thrown together in a lifestyler protest is exhausting, mostUKcamps either imploded or dwindled. With no clear sense of purpose, it became merely a spectacle. Occupy as a political movement became a piece of theatre, yet within Occupy, the experience of communal living threw up issues of power, domination and exploitation. Occupy moved into the occupation of physical space with the Bank of Ideas – a far better organised, more structured and more challenging form, but one not as open to the stray passer-by. At the end of last month, with the eviction of both Occupy LSX and the Bank of Ideas, its future is uncertain.
UKUncut and Occupy were both ultimately rootless. They came from the ether – emerging and capturing a mood, rather than rooted from within communities. They both tried to challenge big things – multi-nationals and global finance respectively. They both hit tactical problems and had to change their tactics to adapt. Both matured into more effective, but less inclusive forms of resistance. And ultimately – although the UKUncut legal challenge goes on, both have disappeared as activities that can be incorporated into local action.
This contrasts strongly with CoR. The primary basis of CoR is that it amalgamates existing struggles, lending support, expertise and wo/manpower to building for either distinct local campaigns, or local implementations of national struggles. With a cross-section of people involved in such struggles through an existing political identity, it gives it a diversity, but at the same time a cohesion of shared understanding that other people may have expertise that they can draw from. Rather than competing perspectives, it has overlapping ones. While this can be problematic on occasion – with clashes of events, different priorities and variations in tactical approach, it avoids direct conflict for the most part, by recognising the authority and expertise of contributors, and allowing the struggles to be lead from within the struggle. As such it has a base which can be built on, and a support network to be called on, which goes wider than any particular meeting, yet is not determined by gaining the approval of a particular official. This allows for both open participation, but also effective challenge.
Like Occupy (the 99% are sick of being exploited by the 1%) and UKUncut (multi-nationals should pay the taxes they owe HMRC), it has a relatively simply simple message – that we refuse to accept the austerity being imposed on us, and will fight cuts. There have been a variety of attempts to refine that message, however as with UKUncut and Occupy, its strength is in its universality. How that pans out on the ground is very much up to the individual interests of participants. Most members of CoR for example are opposed to nuclear weapons, and while the mission would encompass a demand not to cut Trident, it is unlikely that such a campaign would garner much support on an individual level within the organisation. CoR is amorphous, but at the same time rooted and able to call on resources beyond its own realm: financial backing from trade unions for support activity; political expertise from experienced activists; connections and communications that stretch beyond its direct participants.
In an earlier Frontline article, I discussed the nature of a holarchy – an entity made up of smaller units – each of which act autonomously and are in themselves made up of smaller units. CoR fits this structure well, in that participants for the most part each belong to at least one other identifiable radical tradition, movement or school of thought, gaining support and sustenance from it. The diffusion of control and devolution of responsibility to within dynamic groups allows for the development of a strong oppositional consciousness – where leadership is granted to those in the forefront of the relevant fight rather than being imposed from on-high ensuring that the tactics and strategy utilised are those most relevant to the fight at hand, increasing its effectiveness.
The SSP was built by drawing together small disparate political groupings, as well as individual socialists who had grown weary of political participation while remaining active within communities, trade unions and pressure groups. It did this in two particular ways – firstly the pull of the charismatic leader cannot be underestimated. For all the criticisms that existed ofSheridan, pre-2004, he was a major and well respected name on the left. His leadership of the SSP gave it a gravitas that convinced the non-aligned that this was a project worth signing up to, while his media profile and the prospect of tangible power convinced left groupings that the SSP was the way forward. The second critical aspect was the toleration and even encouragement of factions – with an agreement that the 20% of disagreements that existed between groupings on the left should be set aside in favour of the 80% we agreed with. For a substantial period these twin pulls served the SSP well – the bright star ofSheridandazzled, while differences in approach were put on the back burner. Ultimately it fell apart as it became evident that differences over personal behaviour, morality and the position of women in the party could not simply be shunted into the 20% that we agreed to disagree about, and that no leader, no matter how charismatic was worth abandoning the fundamental principles of socialism for. Yet the five years of growth for the SSP cannot simply be dismissed.
Strengths and Limitations
CoR demonstrates an alternative, which harnesses the strengths of the SSP: an ability to maintain theoretical perspectives while belonging to a wider organisation, and a visibility which provides gravitational pull, but at the same time avoids the difficulties of leadership embodiment by distributing practical leadership and eschewing formal leadership structures. Differences of opinion on priorities and tactics are not voted for by a show of hands, but by foot, as people lend their weight to campaigns that they see as being worthwhile and determining their own personal priorities on the basis of where their skills can be best utilised and their own personal politics mesh with wider issues.
That is not to say that there is not conflict and disagreement, but it is resolved in a manner which tends not to polarise opinion, and makes it difficult for caucusing or tendencies within CoR to determine its direction, relying on the collective wisdom to shape the movement’s direction. This grounding in existing struggle, coupled with the loose formation unites the best of the traditional structured left with the discourses of the emergent autonomous left, moreover it builds a cohesive culture of tolerance and appreciation of the diversity of methods, places and actions which can be productive in struggle, allowing for a cross-fertilisation of ideas, expertise and understanding.
The limitation of CoR, with its activist focus on practical solidarity and support does however limit its political intervention at a formal level. With upcoming council elections inGlasgowand the dominant Labour party grouping in disarray, the conditions are ripe for a left political challenge. There is however no credible left alternative capable of mounting a challenge. While CoR’s tactics are well suited to agitation, they do not extend to establishing an electable and accountable political platform. This vacuum is a major challenge that the Left must address prior to the next Holyrood elections. While CoR is resolutely not the place for that to emerge from, the development of tolerance and shared culture that it has engendered among the disparate elements of the Glasgow Left must bring us some hope that such an emergence is possible
‘Why it’s Kicking Off Everywhere – The New Global Revolutions” by Paul Mason (Verso, 2012)
Alister Black reviews a new book examining the new wave of struggle
Paul Mason has become well known as the economics editor of Newsnight. He couldn’t have picked a better time to take up that post, he certainly has had no shortage of material. From the collapse of Lehman Brothers onwards, the crisis of capitalism has played out across the globe. But Mason hasn’t just stuck to stock prices and Bank of England statements. He has chased the story from the boardrooms to the streets. In this book he looks at the origins of the crisis and examines the wave of struggles erupting across the globe from Tahrir Square to Greece to the council estates of London. Finally he puts forward a thesis about the new layers involved in struggle, the new forms that this struggle is taking and the problems facing these worldwide rebellions.
Mason argues that post-2008 we are living in a new era. With the state stepping in to prop up banks on a vast scale, economically speaking the neo-liberal idea of the ‘small state’ is as dead as Stalinist Marxism.
The economic crisis has left a new generation of young people who had been co-opted by the system with promises of rising living standards, now facing unemployment and a poorer standard of living than their parents. Mason raises the spectre of new generations of bitter graduates plotting revolution from their bedsits, not unlike Paris in 1879 “but with one big difference, today in every garret is a laptop” (1)
This new generation has used the tools at their disposal to organise and take to the streets of Cairo, Tehran, Madrid, Athens, London, New York and beyond.
Mason is a little vague and contradictory about just how informed this new generation are, at times talking about the volumes of theory to be found around the typical student occupation and at other times saying that activists only want tweets or wiki summaries of theory. In likelihood elements of both are true.
Social Networks not Gunpowder
Speaking of the widespread use of the Guy Fawkes mask of his revolutionary anarchist character ‘V’ from the ‘V for Vendetta’ comic and movie, creator Alan Moore said
“Today’s response to similar oppressions seems to be one that is intelligent, constantly evolving and considerably more humane, and yet our character’s borrowed Catholic revolutionary visage and his incongruously Puritan apparel are perhaps a reminder that unjust institutions may always be haunted by volatile 17th century spectres, even if today’s uprisings are fuelled more by social networks than by gunpowder. Some ghosts never go away.” (2)
For Mason, the victory, albeit temporary, at Tahrir Square proves another pillar of his thesis, that the network will always beat the hierarchy. The network in this case means the flexible and responsive networks built through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Another example could be the V mask wearing ‘anonymous’ network who have used computer hacking to attack targets of greed and oppression from the banks to the security services.
But the network in itself is just a means of communication and coordination. It allows certain tactics that can be used to respond flexibly but it depends on access to those networks. The question of ownership of those networks is also key. Facebook has a business model that is built on selling your data. Oppressive governments can try to tap or block networks. But the network is just a tool, it is neither the solution nor the problem. Perhaps the next step will be to have new social media applications that are more decentralised and anonymous.
The struggles themselves are based on material conditions and class antagonisms. Networks can be useful but in a class struggle organisation such as a trade union or political party it is necessary to have structures that are accountable and transparent. Possibly some of the traditional organisations will need to look to the flexible tactics of the networks to survive and outmanoeuvre anti-trade union legislation and belligerent employers.
Mason looks at how the different groups who are involved in struggles relate to each other. On the one hand traditional organisations such as trade unions and political parties and on the other the new ‘horizontal’ groups such as arose from the student struggles, the ‘Occupy’ movement and the likes of UK Uncut and Anonymous.
The former, on paper at least, have more power. It was the trade unions on November 30th 2011 who put millions on the streets and shut down most of the public sector in the pensions dispute. The latter however have more élan and flexibility.
Whilst they have common interests they can quickly diverge in the realms of struggle. Mason gives the example of the large TUC anti-austerity demo on 26th March 2011 where the mass of trade unionists were entirely isolated from both the peaceful UK Uncut sit-ins and the violent Black Bloc mobilisation.
“it was an advanced preview of the problem which youthful, socially networked, horizontalist movements would have everywhere once things got serious: the absence of strategy, the absence of a line of communication through which to speak to the union-organized workers. The limits, in short, of ‘propaganda of the deed’. (3)”
As struggles escalate that divide becomes sharper. In Greece it ended up with police leaving Communist union stewards to fight off anarchist youth who were trying to attack the parliament.
Building useful links that enable these groups to leverage each others strengths productively is key. Groups like the Coalition of Resistance can play a role in that (see Mhairi Mcalpine’s article elsewhere in this issue) but there is plenty room to build a wider unity.
A New Society
Mason looks at the Marxist idea of alienation and how Marx changed his views (for a more detailed view on this, this link is a good starting point). Mason argues that humanity has started to use the internet to build a ‘connected life’ and break out of alienation. He goes on to argue that this connectedness and collaborative aspects of information technology such as open-source software points towards ways a new society could potentially organise for the common good. This section is really just sketched out but contains plenty of food for thought.
Mason is very good at combining journalism and analysis to outline the context of the current wave of struggle and to outline some of the problems that have arisen. It will be up to those engaging in that struggle to sort these problems out and look to create new forms of organising that can unite all sectors of the movement.
(1) Paul Mason, ‘Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere – The New Global Revolutions’ page 73