Conditions for Change in the Here and Now

Stuart Fairweather surveys three groups campaigning for social transformation in Scotland: ‘In between the action of the unions, largely but not exclusively focused on wages, and the ideologically contoured world of ‘self-help’, a new political space is emerging.’

How do we build momentum for change? How do we create the conditions for meaningful action on inequality? How can our institutions move beyond mitigation and towards transformation? It seems more urgent than ever to ask these questions. 

During the second half of the twentieth century, with some justification, Scotland’s working class people believed that their economic circumstances would improve over their lifetime in comparison with previous generations. This belief, of course, never extended to all and its truth was tested at times but it has endured as a strong presumption. Thatcherism’s destructive impact challenged this view and its half-life still contributes to the trauma of many of our communities. Recent events such as the pandemic, the Tory handling of Brexit, the disastrous Truss government and the response by Sunak and Hunt are compounding this century’s decade of austerity. Inflation and profiteering are eroding incomes in real-time. This comes on the back of long-term cuts to wages. The belief in continual generational economic improvement is now being tested to breaking point and beyond.

This erosion of belief affects our attitudes to both politicians and politics. Politicians try to convince us that they can manage the crisis without transformational change but their assertions are increasingly less than convincing. Those who tell us that times are tough for everyone are simply lying. Their failure to name the rich and capitalism’s relationship to inequality leads to further disdain. Elections and referendums, even if they are considered helpful ways to berak out of this logjam, seem a long, long way off. 

In this context, people have been looking to unions to defend their economic interests. Where things are more acute, food banks, food larders, warm banks and other forms of mutual aid have been established. In between the action of the unions, largely but not exclusively focused on wages, and the ideologically contoured world of ‘self-help’, a new political space is emerging. This political space is new in the sense that it has developed at a time when devolution is well established but being tested; where the Westminster Tory government is staggering towards potential electoral defeat; where local government is under increasing strain; and where independence is not on the immediate horizon. 

With mixed fortunes, a number of campaigns or alliances are attempting to fill this space. This article focuses upon the ‘People’s Assembly Against Austerity’, ‘Power to the People’, and ‘Enough is Enough!’ Consideration is also given to the work of the STUC and its affiliated unions. 

The People’s Assembly in Scotland enjoys the support of a number of unions, the Morning Star newspaper, and the STUC, alongside others. Since it was established in 2014 at a Glasgow rally where Ricky Tomlinson connected with a particular demographic, it has consistently campaigned on a range of issues relating to the cost-of-living crisis and is particularly attuned to recognising where these connect with the concerns of organised workers. Scottish Left Review editorials have previously highlighted in a comradely fashion that some of the more recent actions of the People’s Assembly have been less than well supported. The fact that many of the its activists and members have other roles in the movement that take up time and energy may be one contributing factor. The close ties between its plans and the prospects of the Corbyn era Labour Left may be another. 

Power to the People emerged from the links that Democratic Left Scotland and Socialists for Independence have with the Party of the European Left. Discussions that started at the time of COP26 led to practical action including opposition to increasing fuel poverty by taking the campaign to the door of Scottish Power. This focused action on an immediate concern and gained some traction and media attention. Additionally, Power to the People, as the name suggests, is about more than simply combating exploitation by fuel companies. It is about energy democracy and about addressing the (im)balance of power in wider society. It remains to be seen whether these factors will give the campaign longevity. It has deliberately been involving independence supporters alongside those that take a different view on the constitutional question. As some of those involved have said, when they raise your electricity costs, they do not ask you which way you voted in the referendum. 

Enough is Enough! was brought together by a range of organisations outwith Scotland. The Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) was instrumental. It has close links with the RMT and is backed by Tribune magazine. So far, the Scottish dimension to this campaign’s activity centred on a major rally in Glasgow. Most of those involved in the event at Glasgow’s Fruitmarket were activists rather than politicians. Importantly, Power to the People was involved in this Glasgow event. More localised activity, coupled with support for picket lines has been a common feature of Enough is Enough! and something to be welcomed. In Scotland, Living Rent’s involvement in Enough is Enough! is another important development. The connection between Living Rent, its work on housing and rents, and its links with the other campaigns is a positive feature of the anti-exploitation ecosystem that is emerging. 

Arguably the activity of the People’s Assembly, Power to the People, and Enough is Enough! can now be seen against the backdrop of the STUC’s ‘Scotland Demands Better’ call. The STUC has nine demands backed by detailed briefing papers and associated publicity. Enough is Enough! has similar demands, while the People’s Assembly and Power to the People have specific materials but they are all largely complementary. All of this begs questions about co-ordination and capacity. Outside Glasgow and Edinburgh, some suggest that it is often difficult for existing activists to staff all these overlapping campaigns. However, they should not be seen as being in competition. The different campaigns have different areas of focus. Some are developing their strategies to increase social media reach whilst others are building in geographic communities or within unions. Added to this, the existing on the ground campaigning infrastructure is different in Fife than in Aberdeen, Ayrshire than in Inverness. 

Dundee’s recent experience is that the well deployed social media contacts of Enough is Enough! enhanced the established local contacts of the trades union council, the Tayside Unite Community branch, Pensioners’ Forum, and Unite’s Area Activists’ Committee. Whilst not exclusively focused on young people, the demographic make-up of Living Rent activists changes the composition of events. All this, combined with the voices of strikers and those supporting the daily activity of food-banks, added authenticity to growing numbers. The timing of events in the City of Dundee and the links with strikers at the long-running Unite-led dispute at the University of Dundee over pensions added another layer to the actions that took place. Power to the People’s Fuel Poverty banner was a regular feature on the picket line of the lowest paid staff at this major institution, as was the presence of Living Rent, Extinction Rebellion, the RMT and the Pensioners Forum. 

So far so good. But none of these new developments alone means that we win. The forces against us are strong. So, what do we need do in 2023? The leadership shown by Roz Foyer is a positive development. The experience of the STUC’s work around the Scottish Budget needs to be connected to the developing work of the People’s Assembly, Power to the People, and Enough is Enough!. There is a need to work together to build a unified defence of incomes and services. Our approach needs to be open to those newly experiencing the impact of Tory policies alongside those, sadly, have too long been used to them. The experience of people on picket lines needs to connect with the experience of holding communities together. One should not be seen as being more important than the other. But communication and contact are not automatic, and humility is needed alongside organising. As we saw in Glasgow during COP26, climate campaigners can meaningfully visit strikers taking action. Others can make similar visits and strikers need to take the step to go and speak with the community. Learning can be shared and alliances can be built. 

April is the planned date for the removal of the so-called energy price cap. It will be the date for new wage claims to be negotiated. It will also be the time council tax rises and further reductions to services begin. April will also see the STUC Congress meet in Dundee and this offers an occasion to bring all those campaigns against poverty, austerity and the Tories together with those taking action on wages and terms and conditions. Thought needs to be given to how this occasion can be used to maximise building a co-ordinated movement. Existing campaigns need not lose their identity. The People’s Assembly, Power to the People, and Enough is Enough! should come together to consider tactics and approaches needed to elevate the struggle to defend working people at work and in their communities. 

In all probability, we are a long way from the next Westminster election. This gives us an opportunity to work together on the demands outlined by the STUC. Making progress on these is essential, by pressurising politicians at all levels, by backing strikes and supporting community initiatives. Alongside this is the need to listen to each other and particularly to those new to the campaigns, so that we can build a politicised understanding of how we connect work on immediate issues with efforts to expand our control over our society and its resources.

Stuart Fairweather is a Dundee based member of Democratic Left Scotland. He has been involved  with all  three campaigns: the People’s Assembly, Power to the People,  and Enough is Enough!