The Point
Last updated: 02 August 2019. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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On The Rise?

Alongside hundreds of others I attended the launch of Rise in Glasgow on Saturday. Rise stands for 'respect', 'independence', 'socialism' and 'environmentalism'. Effectively an alliance between the SSP and the organisers of the Radical Independence Campaign, Rise's launch on Saturday was billed as the most important left unity initiative in a generation. Of course, in a context in which the SNP has pitched its tent firmly on social democratic ground, and Jeremy Corbyn winning the Labour leadership looks increasingly likely, it may sound counter-intuitive to launch yet another left wing initiative. This may well turn out to be the case, but I say this; Scotland is in the midst of an unprecedented period in its modern political history, and simply put, anything is possible.

In regards to Labour, most of the people I spoke with on Saturday were supportive of Jeremy Corbyn but they understand that winning the Labour leadership is the easy part. Once elected Corbyn faces an organised backlash from the Labour right, who will undermine his leadership from day one. The Blairites will be as loyal to Corbyn as he was to them and the emerging civil war will not be a pretty sight. In Scotland, Kezia Dugdale fails to convince; from what I have seen she is cut from the same political cloth as say Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper, and in a time when Jeremy Corbyn has put ideological politics back on the agenda, managerialists like Dugdale are literally struggling for air.

Rise's relationship with the SNP is more problematic. Rise activists differ from the SNP leadership on a range of issues; the monarchy, NATO, and industrial policy. But from what I heard on Saturday, if there is a dividing line running through the independence movement it is likely to be found on the question of public sector cuts. Many of those present on Saturday have witnessed the impact of cuts first-hand; community campaigners spoke of seeing libraries, day centres and community centres close. Many trades unionists spoke of their fight to save jobs and judging by the fact that over 50 thousand jobs have been lost in local government it is a fight that is being lost. The bulk of the anger is directed at the Tories, but it is also directed at MSPs and councillors, SNP ones included, who have passed on the cuts. For many people, the narrative that 'we must wait until independence' is just not good enough. One young activist said to me that 'David Cameron couldn't give a damn if the SNP are opposed to austerity, so long as the policy is carried out'. I thought it was an astute point.

Yet, I understand the SNPs dilemma, and political activists must always be wary of the thin line which exists between principled opposition and cynical opportunism. There was fighting talk on Saturday demanding that SNP Councils set 'needs budgets', in effect deficit budgets, although how this demand translates into actual practice was never explained. Sloganeering is easy when not in power. Furthermore, rather than being 'neoliberals with a heart', the modern political experience suggests that social democrats find it very difficult to avoid being in government without some form of collaboration with neoliberal practices. Just ask Alexis Tsipras? The great French cultural theorist Pierre Bourdieu understood this only too well when he wrote that 'the strength of neoliberalism is to be put into people who call themselves socialists'. However, there has always been a strand of left wing thought which finds it more comforting to talk about betrayal than it does to confront the nature of power and rule in modern society.

But Rise is correct to raise these issues and they are correct to scrutinise the relationship between the SNPs rhetoric and its actual performance. The biggest challenge facing Rise is to spell out its vision with a set of detailed policies which they are capable of delivering on. Electoral politics is not everything, but without electoral representation, a group's politics, however well-intentioned, lack credibility. The Rise leadership also faces the daunting challenge of keeping the alliance together. From what I saw on Saturday, there is a new politics of the left emerging. A discursive shift, for anyone who pays attention to these things, can be detected. For example, in an age where ideology is problematic, socialism has given way to that ubiquitous of terms, radicalism. Moreover, the obsession with 'the working classes' is less profound, hinting that the left is beginning to find a language which recognises the fragmentary and contradictory nature of people's social existence. In addition to this, loose networks based around computerised connectivity have replaced the political party, which is often constructed by modern activists as an outdated organisational form.

The way forward for Scotland's radicals will not be easy. Anyone familiar with electoral politics will tell you that it requires discipline, organisation and clarity. Endless consultations, workshops and participatory exercises, however well-intentioned, must also be married to a coherent strategy which provides leadership and direction. And whilst social movements are important, it is also the case that thinking of the world only in terms of movements, all too often leads to a lifestyle politics trapped in a never ending echo-chamber which is disconnected from the lives of 'real people' the movements claim to represent. Election results can be a cruel reminder of this reality.

And it is with elections in mind that I finish this article. The voice of groups like Rise ought to be heard in Scotland's parliament. Those who say that it's bad for the SNP, betray the fact that the dominance of one party in the yes campaign was a weakness not a strength. But there is one problem. There was an elephant in the room which was ignored on Saturday. The problem is this; the Scottish left is sleepwalking into an election where radical left groups are going to end up competing against one another on the regional lists. To borrow a phrase from the Cold War, the outcome of this scenario is 'mad' – mutually assured destruction. The desire to be MSPs should always be tempered with a consideration of what's in the best interest of the cause. It may not be possible in every region, but I do hope that activists on the ground can put pressure on their respective organisations to consider the case for not splitting the radical vote. Failure to do so may result in the squandering of the best opportunity in a decade for the radical left to gain parliamentary representation.

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

Word Power Books