Comment: Making change happen

In the last issue of Scottish Left Review we published a programme of action for starting the transformation of Scotland into a more equitable, more sustainable and more rewarding place to live. The proposals were realistic and in many cases new – and yet predictably the mainstream media ignored it and the UK continues to drift further to the hard right. How can the left make change happen?

It’s not that those of us who put the Scottish Left Review together are unrealistic people. We set ourselves a significant challenge in trying to produce a set of proposals which could be implemented in Scotland now and which collectively would amount to a real change in direction for politics which, in Scotland as in the rest of the UK and indeed most of the developed world, are failing. But we did not imagine that publishing a set of proposals would in itself be sufficient to change anything. In this issue we’re starting to ask the question ‘if this is the kind of change Scotland needs, how do we make it happen?’.

It may be worth starting with some context. Firstly, Scottish Left Review is not a political party (nor is it affiliated in any way to any political party or movement) and it is not a campaigning organisation. The reason the Scottish Left Review was set up was to provide a space and a focal point for discussion, debate and analysis. Our aim has always been to print interesting and stimulating material relevant to the left in Scotland from as wide a range of sources as possible and we do not take an ‘editorial line’. In publishing Agenda 15 we are not trying to change that. We would expect – and encourage – people to disagree with parts of what it contains or to point out the many important things it doesn’t contain. This is not a dogmatic take-it-or-leave-it manifesto. But it is an attempt to stimulate thinking which is badly needed in Scotland just now. So in ‘making change happen’ the Scottish Left Review continues to see its primary role are encouraging thinking and bringing people together.

Secondly, we are very aware that the left in Scotland spans a wide range of people. We know that they can be found in a number of different political parties and that many are not a member of a party, and we know that there are many strands of emphasis for the left (economic justice, sustainability, gender, race and so on). While this is a great strength is also poses problems. In particular, we are approaching a Scottish Election and campaigning is already well under way. Elections are naturally polarising and this is especially the case in Scotland where the political left is spread among a number of parties. If we are to get change in Scotland it is unlikely to emerge from a very public contest which is played out primarily in the corporate media. One of the most important steps in achieving change in Scotland will be to build coalitions across divisions and that is very difficult to do when the focus is naturally on the divisions rather than the (significantly bigger) similarities.

Thirdly, as with any enterprise it is healthy to start by recognising that failure is entirely possible. Scotland is not quite as besieged by corporate lobbying power as are London or Washington, but money does not successfully accumulate unless it is capable of protecting itself from interventions which would dilute its unrestricted power. By definition, most forms of power (the power to be heard, the power to influence views, the power to influence decisions) are greatly strengthened by the liberal application of money. So the ability to restrain the negative effects of money rests mainly with those who have no interest in restraining the power of money. As Iain McWhirter points out in this issue, the work of ‘think tanks’ has been heavily distorted (against their will or not) by the interests of corporate donors. And of course most media ownership in the UK has a broadly (or in many cases vehemently) corporate-friendly outlook. If Lord Browne of BP wants to privatise English universities he is apparently able to do it all by himself. It will be a long, long time before there is sufficient reform of society to imagine that such radicalism could be driven from inside government if it wash pushing in the opposite direction.

OK, these are three caveats and it is important that we are aware of them. But they are no reason for inaction or despondency and all can be overcome. Indeed, they help us to sketch out the shape of what needs to be done:

Scotland needs an active focus for developing and promoting ideas. At the moment the left is very disparate; political parties do not usually generate radical new thinking, academia in Scotland has not been effective at challenging the received wisdoms and campaigning organisations have not (in general) worked together to generate an impact bigger than their individual parts. When some right-wing commentator pronounces on the ‘inevitability’ of some form of neoliberal dogma, there is no obvious counterweight. This needs to be addressed.

The left in Scotland needs to rediscover its ability to work across boundaries. The impact of the collectivism that led to the Constitutional Convention has been forgotten and where once Scotland could claim a level of maturity in putting differences aside for the collective good, now it has descended into narrow territorialism. There are two particular manifestations of this which should give us pause. Can there be two political parties in Europe with such a closely aligned political agenda as the SNP and the Labour Party but which are so utterly incapable of working constructively together? And (more typically), how did the emergent left political party in Scotland disintegrate so completely over such petty personal differences? In the development of the Constitutional Convention the STUC played an important role of bringing people together. We need to find a vehicle capable of doing that again.

The left will simply have to be much sharper and more savvy in overcoming the difficulties it faces from established power structures. There is no real prospect of a change in media ownership or a benign benefactor appearing as if by magic to open the routes of communication to the wider world (the Scottish people and Scotland’s decision- and policy-makers). But if the left can be more professional and diligent in how it goes about spreading its message then it may not need a deus ex machina to solve its problems for it.

So, a way to develop strong messages and ideas, a way of bringing people together to support them and a way of getting those messages out to influence views and decisions is all that are needed. These may sound daunting, but in fact they are far from impossible to achieve.

OK, but what does this mean in practice? We can start by examining how others do it. If we look at the way professional influencers work in the US or London we can see a range of the sorts of things which can be done. For example, if everyone who appears on television news and current affairs programmes are all putting forward the same view point and same sets of prescriptions then it is hardly surprising that these views come to be seen as the ‘mainstream’. The neoliberal business lobby makes itself very available – a Newsnight producer or someone putting together a package for the six o’clock news knows that they will never struggle to find a business-friendly commentator because the business lobbies make it easy to be reached. It is not always so easy in the opposite direction. In certain policy areas where there are active NGOs there is no problem in finding a left voice – for example, on homelessness and housing or as we have seen in recent weeks on poverty and welfare. But put yourself in the shoes of a TV journalist – if you wanted to get a counterweight to the CBI in a debate about economic rebuilding who would you phone? You might know an economist or two who might be able to do it, you might find someone from the trade union movement or you just might find someone from a political party – but then again, you might just not bother. If viewpoints are to reach the wider world they must be easily accessible and at the moment there is no ‘entry point’ for left thinking in Scotland.

The same applies to print journalism. Journalists get their information from the people they speak to (as well as what they absorb from the other media and politics). If a journalist wants to know about the impact of public spending cuts he or she will pick up the phone to someone to get a background briefing – key facts and figures, core analysis, a narrative. Again, who do they phone and where do they go? People who do not work closely with the media are often not aware of the genesis of what they read in the newspaper. There may be three people quoted on the record but long before that point there has been an extended conversation with somebody to establish what is the ‘story’. This might happen because the journalist uses his or her contact book but it also happens because the journalist gets a phone call and someone ‘tells them’ what just happened. It does not mean that journalists simply accept what interest groups tell them but effective briefing does have a very significant view on what is written.

So, to put it simply, the left in Scotland has to professionalise a bit if it is to take the sorts of issues raised in Agenda 15 and realise them. It has to find ways to operate with the same sort of effective practices that the business lobby uses on a daily basis.

Politicians respond to a slightly different set of drivers but they are closely linked. Politicians tend to flock towards what they consider to be ‘safety’. That means that they want to be seen to be linked with viewpoints and stories which are the dominant ones. For an awful long time that has meant ‘neoliberal economic policy with just enough social justice to get by’. That was the ‘safety zone’ as defined during the Blair years. It is time that this zone was made less safe. Politicians need to believe that if they do not support the sorts of proposals which have been put forward in Agenda 15 then they may find themselves answering awkward questions. Equally, they need to be persuaded that if they do follow the proposals there is a chance of genuine support, of being able to create their own ‘stories’ about how action they have taken is making a real difference to real people. There is nothing revolutionary in this – it is the very well understood field of political lobbying. It’s just that the left only ever does it in a fragmented, issue-by-issue way. An MSP can vote on one clause about social housing in a piece of legislation filled with neoliberal economic dogma and feel they have ‘struck a balance’. There is virtually no lobbying on the ‘big picture’ issues of economic change. If this isn’t done properly and effectively then it is not reasonable to expect politicians to spontaneously lobby themselves.

It is not just the media; the messages and ‘narratives’ which emerge as the accepted narrative of public events does not come from nowhere. There are three simple questions which inform all human ‘stories’ – where are we?, how did we get here?, and where do we go now? It is only a slight simplification to say that whoever produces the simplest, more apparently persuasive answers to these questions tends to define what people see as happening. (The use of the word ‘apparent’ here is important – often people prefer to believe things which reinforce what they already believe to be true and so the most accurate information is not necessarily the most persuasive information). This is the derivation of the word ‘spin’. The original concept was that it takes much more effort to reverse the direction of a spinning wheel than it does to make it spin in the first place. So clear, simple, explanations with simple, memorable evidence to support it and believable, achievable steps which can be taken next are, when brought together, very effective ways of defining how people see events. Independence from political parties certainly helps. To take a simple recent example, it was clear for a few days after the Westminster Budget that journalists knew it was at least a bit bad for ‘the poor’ but didn’t know just how bad. It was when independent think tank the IFS did an evaluation to show that the poor were losing out disproportionately that this view became the pervasive one. Developing messages and stories is how the public imagination is captured, and it does not just happen by itself.

Next is the need for strength in numbers. If you look at the strategies of corporate lobbyists you become aware of the ways to damage narratives that clash with your own. The leaked strategic advice which Shell Oil received from its public affairs advisers after the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa is a prime example – a crucial part of the strategy was about how to divide and separate the company’s critics. NGOs were divided into those that could be ‘tamed’ and those that couldn’t. The strategy was simply to isolate those which could not be tamed and in so doing to neuter them. It is much more difficult to isolate coalitions of diverse organisations with a single ‘story’ to tell. Finding ways to help organisations come together collectively makes it much more difficult for them to be isolated, dismissed or ignored.

Finally (for now), it is important to be able to respond quickly to events as they unfold and effective, professional approaches to influencing how they are understood make an enormous difference. But it is even more effective if it is possible to create the momentum in the first place. One of the problems is that because the agenda is being driven so ferociously by those with a certain vested interest, responding to what is already running inevitably means that you are travelling along the paths chosen by others. Thus it is that however much overwhelming evidence the left has in opposition to the privatisation of Scottish Water, the question keeps emerging again and again and the discussion is always about the possibility of Scottish Water being privatised. That is because the story is being set by the ‘other side’ which has (through the CBI and its friends, a number of business-friendly think tanks and a number of heavily business-influenced government ‘reviews’) repeatedly done exactly the kind of ‘story setting’ outlined above – we kept water public as a social statement but now that money is tight we need to be more pragmatic and simply selling it off will bring in lots of new cash without any downsides to customers. None of it true, but this is what opponents of privatisation are responding to. Instead, the left needs to be setting the stories. Which figures in Scotland brought down the banking system and are they still influencing policy? Should they not be named and shamed and politicians be pressed to explain why they have not been banned from seeking to influence government further? How much pubic money has been wasted on contract work which granted too much control and reward to private companies at public expense? Who allowed this to happen and how can it be fixed now? There are hundreds of compelling ‘stories’ which will not become stories if they are not told. Agendas must be set, not only followed.

So, to put it simply, the left in Scotland has to professionalise a bit if it is to take the sorts of issues raised in Agenda 15 and realise them. It has to find ways to operate with the same sort of effective practices that the business lobby uses on a daily basis. In effect, we need to replicate the sort of left-wing lobby groups that are found in the US or to balance the sorts of right-wing think tanks we already have in Scotland. There is no obvious existing forum for doing this. That is why the Scottish Left Review is seeking to create a left-wing think tank and campaigning body in Scotland. If we want to achieve the outcomes achieved by the professionals, we need to learn some of the lessons of the professionals. We will keep you up to speed with development as we go along but this is our starting-point. We know Agenda 15 will not simply implement itself. We need to have the capacity to push harder. Change can happen, but we need to be realistic about how it happens. It takes work – and we need to create the structure to make sure that work gets done.