Left Unity: A Scottish Perspective

Anti-austerity protest in Glasgow

Anti-austerity protest in Glasgow

Ken Loach’s open letter discussing a new mass party of the left, and the response it has received, is impressive, says Ben Wray from the International Socialist Group in Scotland.

It confirms what has become increasingly obvious in recent years: the failure of the left to make a significant ideological and political breakthrough since the economic crash in 2008 is connected to the inadequacy of the existing institutions of the left.

I have read the strategy discussions on the Left Unity website with interest and with an open mind: as yet, no one has developed a sufficient strategy and therefore we should all be willing to listen.

However, there has been a significant omission in the discussions thus far. Britain is not a singular political entity; it contains multiple nations, each of which possesses a unique devolved settlement and parliament creating specific national-political dynamics. This has substantial ramifications when considering strategies to construct a new mass party of the left. Furthermore, Scotland and Britain face a constitutional crisis: the impending independence referendum has created the possibility of the break-up of the British state next year.

These issues cannot be ignored when discussing left unity at a UK level. For most socialists in Scotland the concept of a British mass party of the Left is dated. Today there needs to be recognition by all sections of the British Left that socialists in Scotland – and the other nations of the UK – need to organise independently to advance the project of the left in our own particular contexts.

In Scotland this process is already well underway. Not only has the vast majority of the Scottish left arrived at the conclusion that it needs to organise first and foremost on a Scottish basis, but also that we need to fight for left-wing political representation and must support the cause of Scottish independence (albeit in a way that is differentiated from the Scottish National Party).

The literature discussing why the left should support Scottish independence is well known. In this article I simply wish to explain the importance of everyone on the left in Britain understanding the particular national-political dynamic in Scotland, and the ways in which many on the Scottish left have been attempting to advance the cause of left unity and renewal.

The Scottish dynamic

Scottish politics has never been more divergent from that of the UK as a whole than it is today. In the 1990s, Labour believed that devolution would kill off the threat of independence once and for all: the system of proportional representation introduced was supposed to stop any party achieving an overall majority at Holyrood. But the SNP did just that in the parliamentary elections of 2011, winning a majority of working class voters across Scotland and a majority of seats in the Labour heartlands of Glasgow and the West coast of Scotland – seats considered to be so safe that they used to say that if you pinned a red rosette on a monkey Labour would still win.

What is the reason behind this political sea change? It is not because of a rise in nationalist fervour in Scotland: while support for the SNP has risen, support for independence has remained fairly constant. It is because in Scotland there have been centre-left alternatives to the Labour Party at the ballot box. Privatisation and war during the Blair years and the failure of Scottish Labour to use devolution to combat poverty and inequality eroded Labour support and resulted, in the elections of 2003, in the Scottish Socialist Party winning six seats and the Greens winning five.

The split in the SSP and the subsequent collapse of their vote in 2007 did not lead to this voter base returning to Labour. Polling evidence suggests that these voters transferred support to the nationalists and was the primary reason that the SNP secured enough votes in the 2007 election to form a minority government. The SNP then grew in strength through competent governance; the ineptitude of Scottish Labour; and enacting important social-democratic policies such as the introduction of free prescriptions; free care for the elderly; free university education; and ending PFI and PPP projects in schools and hospitals. Whilst the SNP remain anchored within a neoliberal framework, they have been able to use the powers of devolution to position themselves to the left of Labour on key issues and win the social-democratic vote.

The fact that Labour in Scotland no longer dominate centre-left opinion is of major importance in understanding how devolution has created fault lines in Scottish politics that do not exist at Westminster. When the majority of the working-class vote Labour in Westminster elections they do so because they believe it is the only party that can keep the Tories out. In Scotland the Tories pose no threat; Scottish elections, therefore, have a completely different dynamic, meaning that politics is pitched well to the left of the British mainstream. Labour no longer holds a divine right to social-democratic voters. Indeed, since their hammering in 2011 they have moved further to the right, opposing all of the key universal benefits introduced in Scotland which have made Holyrood a tangible improvement on Westminster for the Scottish working class.

Added to this, the Labour party is now in alliance with the Tories and Lib-Dems in ‘Better Together’, the campaign against independence in 2014. They have eagerly joined the chorus of scaremongering and fear-inducing politics of the ‘No’ campaign, fueled by the funds of a corrupt Tory oil millionaire who doesn’t live in Scotland, has been implicated in the cash-for-access scandal and whose company, Vitol, has admitted to giving half a million pounds to the Serbian war criminal Arkan, who indicted at the Hague for the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims.

So whilst any left unity project outside of Scotland must contend primarily with Labourism in the context of a Tory-led government, in Scotland a different set of political challenges exist which require separate Scottish organisation if we are to rise to them. Whilst Scotland remains part of the British state, co-ordination on a British level will still be essential. However there needs to be recognition on both sides of the border that political issues inevitably develop a distinct dynamic in the different nations of Britain.

To illustrate this point, let us consider the Bedroom Tax. This was a Tory policy administered from Westminster. Surely opposition requires the same approach in Birmingham as is in Glasgow? In fact it does not. This is because a plethora of questions arise in Scotland that do not in England: what is Scottish Government’s attitude to the policy and what will it do to mitigate the worst effects? How are the approaches of SNP and Labour councils different? How does the debate fit into the wider arguments about welfare and housing under independence? How does the particular dynamics on the Scottish left affect building resistance to it? These Scottish particularities are likely to grow over time regardless of the referendum result, as all mainstream parties are now committed to extending devolution further.

Radical Independence

The most important differentiation between Scottish and UK politics is created by the independence referendum. The referendum dominates Scottish political life, and is the key talking point in the media and in wider society. It has created a national debate about the future of Scotland and what it should look like. This has presented a challenge for the Scottish left. Firstly, can it develop a coherent position in the debate? Secondly, can it then use this position to push the contours of the debate leftwards?

What has emerged is the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC). The campaign was launched from a conference last November of more than 900 people – the single biggest conference of its kind in Scotland for decades. This massive event brought together the whole of the left (except the tiny number of those on the left still in the Scottish Labour Party). The conference was very significant in rebuilding, renewing and uniting the left after the collapse of the SSP in 2006. One newspaper columnists and political commentator, Gerry Hassan, wrote that it was the most important event north of the border since the advent of the Parliament in 1999.

The basic argument that unites RIC is that it is committed to independence on the basis that it can help build a more socially just society. The five guiding principles of the campaign are:

· For a Green and environmentally sustainable economy

· Internationalist and opposed to Trident, war and NATO

· For a social alternative to cuts, inequality, austerity and privatisation

· For a modern republic and real democracy

· Committed to equality and opposition to discrimination on grounds of gender, race, disability or sexuality

The campaign has provided a framework for the left to begin to work together, and a challenge for it to make its ideas relevant to the overall independence debate. RIC groups now exist in towns, cities and communities across Scotland, including places the left has not been organised in for decades.

It has allowed us to build left unity through the independence debate, healing old wounds and forging new relationships through the process of campaigning.

Left renewal and left unity in Scotland

Our view is that if you take one step towards left renewal, left unity will take two steps towards you. The process of building a new mass party of the left is not easy, but as a starting point it must be based on left renewal: the input of new people, new ideas and new movements. A coalition of the existing institutions of the left will not produce success. We believe that in Scotland RIC provides a framework for us to pursue renewal and in the process build unity.

We stand shoulder to shoulder with anyone who wants to rebuild the left free of the paralysis of organisational sectarianism and ideological dogmatism. In this spirit, we hope that Left Unity supporters take the issue of separate Scottish left organisation seriously, as we believe this is indispensable in a modern UK state context.


13 responses to “Left Unity: A Scottish Perspective”

  1. Mark Perryman says:


    As an English Republican of the Tom Nairn persuasion I entirely agree. There cannot be one ‘Left Unity’, but Scottish, Welsh and English independent variants. This should be made clear from the start.

    Mark P

  2. Fatima Uygun says:

    ‘We stand shoulder to shoulder with anyone who wants to rebuild the left free of the paralysis of organisational sectarianism and ideological dogmatism. In this spirit, we hope that Left Unity supporters take the issue of separate Scottish left organisation seriously, as we believe this is indispensable in a modern UK state context.’
    mmmm interesting, and when pray tell will this begin? 1. There is NO demand for it from the working class anywhere. 2.Secterianism is rife in Scottish politics and denying its seriousness is naive 3.Why would you want to reinforce any more electoral illusions in the workingclass when there is a massive struggle from below taking place as we speak? Supporting struggle from below is what defines us as socialists. The Anti Bedroom Tax is a campaign that ,in my view , has the potential to beat the Tories. Radical Independence means jot if it doesn’t connect with the struggles of ordinary people.
    Leftwing parties should just their finger out and get involved in the struggle, if they are not already. Full stop. Ive got no interest in listening to suggestions of how we can rebuild the left unless its tied to real life campaigns and struggles and un sectarian ones at that.
    But then again it all depends on what you mean by ‘leftwing’. Im off to help paint a banner for June the 1st

  3. Martyn says:

    Where is the evidence or statistical analysis that the majority of socialists in Scotland either (1) have abandoned the notion of a mass party of the Left or (2) support independence?

    • david says:

      1. The articles above does not make any such claim 2. It is undoubtedly the case that the left is overwhelmingly pro-independence. Whats more pro-independence sentiment is strongest among the working class, the poor, unemployed, youth women and ethnic minorities. The statistical info is so well known:


      • Martyn says:

        1) Yes it does: “For most socialists in Scotland the concept of a British mass party of the Left is dated.” Where is the proof?

        2) You said: “It is undoubtedly the case that the left is overwhelmingly pro-independence.” Again, where is the proof? You quote a poll relating to various sections of society, but it doesn’t mention socialists or ‘the Left’.

        I understand the this may be the majority opinion in the ISG or other small groups, but that is not necessarily representative of socialism or the Left. These claims appear to be plucked out if the air.

  4. Jimmy Haddow says:

    Ben Wray from the International Socialist Group offers a “Scottish Perspective” to the Left Unity ‘debate’ it says. Nevertheless after reading this article all I saw was words of rhetorical hyperbole platitudes with no political or strategic reasoning. To me it was just a discussion paper for a talking shop and not something to galvanise the British, let alone the Scottish “Left”.

    Comrade Wray talked about the Radical Independence Conference last November as if it was the beginning of a Scottish left unity campaign. The conference was organised by the International Socialist Group (ISG) (a split from the Socialist Workers Party in Scotland) with the involvement of academics and intellectuals around the journal Scottish Left Review. Conference organisers said the RIC was aimed at all those who are to the left of the Labour and SNP leadership. Many Scottish National Party (SNP) members attended as well as Greens, left groups including the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), Solidarity etc. There was also significant numbers of young people. However, there was only a small smattering of trade unionists participating. The Conference stated aim was to start a “Scottish Spring” and articulate a “radical vision” for an independent Scotland. However, virtually absent from the radical rhetoric of the speakers was criticism of the SNP’s record of implementing austerity cuts and the official YES campaigns relationship with big business. The impression was that this Radical Independence Campaign was in fact, going to give the SNP-led YES campaign a radical cover. In fact the organisers of the conference were articulating for a ‘Nordic style of capitalism’ rather than a socialist style of society as per the comrade’s organisation’s banner of the International Socialist group. The reality is Comrade Wray and the ISG have not only lowered the socialist red banner in Scotland but covered it in the blue Saltire as a means to build the ‘Left’ in Scotland.

    Furthermore, Comrade Wray once again talks rhetorical hyperbole about the Bedroom Tax, but not one scintilla about the massive opposition that has developed over the past 5 months in the working class estates and schemes in oppositional organisation against the bedroom tax. Nothing about the Saturday 27th April conference which saw over 250 delegates and visitors from across the length and breadth of Scotland attend the conference to found the ’All Scottish Anti Bedroom Tax Federation’. With delegates representing 70 local anti-bedroom tax campaigns. Also sending delegates were four trade union branches representing local government and Housing Association workers. Why? Because the ISG and the RIC was not there in this wholly working class arena, but the “organisational sectarianism and ideological dogmatism” of other Left groups, such as the Socialist Party Scotland and SWP, were, because they were the groups who were organising the public meetings in the schemes and housing estates due to their “cult of activism” on the one hand and their roots in the working class areas on the other.

    Finally, but not least let us talk about a radical, nay let us call it a socialist, programme for Scotland as a means to builds Left Unity. For many who currently back independence it’s the fundamental issues of lack of jobs, low pay and cuts to living standards that are the driving force for the overwhelming demands in Scotland for decisive constitutional change. The SNP leadership’s plans would be unable to deliver. Therefore while supporting a Yes vote in the referendum I will also campaign for an independent socialist Scotland as the only viable solution to the fundamental issues facing the working class and young people.

    And to do that lefties and socialists should be fighting and campaigning within the labour and trade union movement as well as in the housing estates for a social programme that includes: an end to cuts, no more attacks on jobs, wages, pensions, public services and benefits to pay for the banker’s crisis. The Scottish government should set no cuts needs budgets to protect jobs, services and communities and help build a mass campaign for a return of the stolen billions from our public services. Support for increased taxes on the rich and big business to help deal with the economic crisis – including a 50% capital tax on the un-invested profits of big business to pay for an emergency programme of public investment and job creation. Support for public ownership of the banks, oil and gas, transport and the renewable industry and other major corporations. No to workfare system and for real jobs and a living wage for all. For the abolition of all anti-trade union laws and an end privatisation in our public services. For a living minimum wage of at least £8 an hour and for free education from nursery to university. No to tuition fees, increase the EMA and for a living grant for all.

    Alongside these demands socialists and the trade union movement need to urgently discuss building political representation as an alternative to the parties of cuts. We need our own workers’ party, not a Left Party, to fight for interests in the same way as the pro-big business parties defend the rich and big business. While supporting a Yes vote in 2014 I consider that on the basis of this crisis-ridden capitalist system there is no way out. An independent socialist Scotland as part of a genuine, voluntary and democratic socialist confederation with England Wales and Ireland, as a step towards a socialist Europe, is the only way to end the nightmare of austerity, cuts and capitalism once and for all.

  5. tim says:

    re ‘workers’ party’ vs a ‘left party’ vs a ‘socialist party’

    why can’t we have a party that is all three, or aims to be all three?

    are the smallish left parties in europe (syriza, fdg in france (pcf/pdg), npa in france, die linke in germany, bloco in portugal, prc in italy etc.) not also workers’ parties? if not, are they capitalist then??? just because they are small parties doesn’t make them not workers’ paries surely?

    i agree that any new left party should aim to become a truely mass party of the working class, and stand up for all the oppressed within society as well, and it should have a strategy aiming at this, (i.e. mass recruitment, involvement in community and workers’ struggles, trade union affiliations etc.) but i don’t really understand the distinction (at this stage anyway) between ‘left party’, ‘workers’ party’ and ‘socialist party’. i think it is a false distinction aiming to try and justify sectarianism in approach to left unity.

    why not join it, then argue for it to adopt socialist policies and a strategy that aims for it to become a mass working class party?

    as for the national question in scotland, clearly there is not agreement on this issue on the left!


  6. Jim Osborne says:

    I reckon Jimmy Haddow and others on the left who think like him should stop slagging off people who are trying to develop new ideas and a way forward and start to articulate a vision of what a socialist independent Scotland would actually look like, what its institutions would be and how they would work. It is time the left moved beyond being a protest movement and prepared itself for leading a new form of society. Perhaps an independent Scotland adopting a “Nordic” style economy and political system is not good enough but if it isnt then those who say it is not have a duty to describe the alternative vision that they have….not in terms of generalities but in some practical, concrete detail. If they cant do that then those of us who do have a clear vision of what a possible future could be must move on without them.

  7. Jim Monaghan says:

    A real flaw in this is the information re the rise in SSP/Greens vote in 2003. The author believes that this came from Labour vote and was then tranferred to SNP, any basic analysis of the data shows clearly that the rise in the left vote was at the expense of the SNP and those votes went back to the SNP, Labour vote stayed pretty much the same. Labour were still the largest vote in Scotland in the 2010 UK General election

  8. tirchyboy85 says:

    The RIC are a great outfit but you guys need to look more to The Common Weal. That is a real piece of forceful, joined up thinking from the left.

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