“It’s not me, it’s you” – the left’s break-up with the wider public was not particularly amicable. Over the last 20 years there has been a lengthy conversation about why the left no longer drives public agendas, why no-one looks our way anymore, why we’re not loved. It’s not entirely clear that we have come to any helpful conclusions.
There are external factors and boy do we dwell on them. The media is against us and it is all owned by the right wing. Anti-trade union laws broke our ability to organise. Consumerism and the debt economy hoodwinked the people to prefer shopping to politics. Westminster is in the pockets of Big Business. You’ve heard all of these before.
And of course, all of this is true. However, we need to dwell a bit on the gap between something being true and something being causal and unavoidable. “Why haven’t you cleaned up that mess out there?” – “Because it’s raining”. That may be true, but is it sufficient to justify inaction and failure?
You can rewrite all the reasons/excuses above in a different way. We have failed to set a media agenda in either broadcast or print. We have failed to organise in ways that have moved on since the 1970s. We haven’t given people a strong enough reason to turn their eyes away from shelves full of consumer goods. We have failed to do anything to capture politics and political parties for ourselves.
So is this all just a case of ‘we just aren’t self-critical?’. Well, I suspect few people will associate the recent history of the left with lack of internal criticism. Unfortunately, it seems that all of the criticism revolved around the two words ‘left unity’. It is assumed that we failed because we were divided.
And that’s the generally accepted truth of modern politics – division is failure, unity is strength. That may be so, but the Scottish People’s Alliance was united for all three months of its existence. They didn’t split and they also failed.
Actually, unity works if there is something to be united around. That is seldom an organisation; unity works best round a vision. And it is here that the left has only itself to blame.
What vision has the left offered Scotland, Britain or the world? We have provided a sequence of complaints. We have issued demands. We have protested and opposed. But add it all together and what does it become? Perhaps we know; the compelling evidence is that no-one else does.
In fact, ‘unity’ has often been a euphemism for insularity and myopia. You know, as in ‘there are only three of us left but we’re completely united and disagree on nothing’. We’ve been on an eternal quest for what we do and don’t agree on, believing that it is self-evident that we should build our case on what we agree about and manage-out what we don’t. So we all agreed that the situation in Palestine was dreadful and something must be done.
Well, the situation in Palestine is dreadful and something must be done. And we should be working, as always, to make that case. But what if a family of four with permanent money worries because of insecure, low-pay work doesn’t think that Palestine is the priority. What then? Do we berate them for their insularity? Or do we try and talk to them? Of late, there hasn’t been much talking ‘to’, only ‘at’.
On other matters – our strategy, our skill-set, our approach, our language, our solutions – we have been more noticably quiet. We have spoken among ourselves for so long we have not self critical but critical of each other. This can’t go on.
There are a number of factors which are changing this attitude. One of them is the shock for some that a crisis of neoliberalism hasn’t ‘automatically’ bounced people in our direction (‘if this doesn’t do it, what will?’). Another is the increasingly strident and confident rhetoric from the right (in England at least). Another is that by observing the independence debate from our various standpoints, everyone seems to have become a commentator on political strategy.
But perhaps above all are two over-arching factors. One is that, one way or another, the period after 2014 in Scotland will be a period in which there are significant changes in Scottish politics. Either we are in a decent enough state that we can influence those changes. Or we aren’t. Another is that a new generation of the left is emerging. After a period in the 1990s and 2000s in which little fresh blood was injected into the Scottish left, now a younger group which emerged in the period of Blairite media management have arrived. They see left politics not through a prism of the 1970s and 1980s but in the context of a smarter, more savvy political culture.
So in this issue we wanted to ask some difficult questions about how we talk, what we talk about, who we talk to and what we think we’re achieving with all this talk. What is quite refreshing is that in hardly any of the contributions is there either a complaint that the ‘world is against us’ or an assumption that ‘we’re doomed to fail’. In fact, they are all inspired by the idea that if we can get this right, if we can improve the quality of what we do, then we are in a very good position to start the process of recapturing the agenda of Scottish politics.
No-one can possibly think that what we have been doing is good enough. But we can be better.