None of the parts of the radical left in Scotland (RISE – Scotland’s Left Alliance, Solidarity or Scottish Trade Union and Socialist Coalition) made any headway in the May 2016 Scottish Parliament elections. On the list seats, the threshold for Solidarity and RISE winning seats was about 6%. Neither won enough total votes across the whole of Scotland if combined to even get elected in the Glasgow list seat.
So let’s try to work out what went wrong by firstly taking it as a given that the policies of such a socialist political force are clear, straightforward and uncontentious. These policies would be ending austerity, increasing spending on the welfare state, reversing privatisation, wealth redistribution, progressive taxation, a living wage and so on as well as supporting independence. They would be costed so as not to be liable to being accused of being ‘pie in the sky’.
Let’s also assume for the moment that there is little or no divisive competition between radical left parties and candidates (which is something of an ‘ask’ given the current divisions played out between RISE, the SSP and Solidarity). The left would then not be its own worst enemy here because of some form of unity, working together and non-aggression pacts.
On the basis of the 2014 referendum result not ending the quest for independence as the means to pursue radical social justice, one would then assume that most, if not all, of the key conditions for the outcomes of success for the socialist option at the ballot box would be in place. These are collective grievances, a renewed sense of political engagement, clearly identifiable enemy and so on. But, alas, one would be wrong. Assuming the aforementioned basics are in place, they are necessary but in themselves insufficient to gain the desired outcome.
This is because the missing element for such a socialist force is credibility. Simply put, credibility means believability and it refers to both message and messenger.
Credibility of the message has been assumed to exist so the problem of credibility of the messenger is the salient issue. This refers to the leading individuals involved and the organisation (party, alliance, slate) they are part of. It is not about their trustworthiness, professionalism and expertise per se. It is about whether they have the requisite social weight and standing. Put bluntly, you can have the right message and policies but if you and your organisation are not taken seriously, if you are not believable, then the message is undermined and will get nowhere fast.
Why might this situation come about? Candidates and organisations can be seen as ‘Johnny-come-latelies’; as being tiny in numbers and supporters; as having big ideas that cannot be delivered upon etcetera. No matter how much the ideas might be supportable, potential voters think candidates and organisations as just not credible in being able to deliver so are not worth voting for.
For example, the policy ‘say no to all cuts’ and to ‘fight all cuts’ looks fine at one level but at another it is holed below the waterline by the manifest reality there is little resistance to even just some of the cuts and none to many of the cuts. This leads most people to think the demands to say no to all cuts and fight all cuts are pie in the sky – they lack credibility.
Applying this analysis to the RISE, what does it mean? Most obviously, it means its candidates in May 2016 had to be well known in advance as has to be the organisation they come from. This was not the case and it was no good declaring the intention to stand in late 2015. The individuals and organisation must come alive and be well known well before that. For Solidarity, the same is true but it also had the problem of being led by Tommy Sheridan who has lost the credibility he once had.
But declaring early enough is again necessary but not sufficient because timing in itself does not create the required social weight and standing of believability. The north and south of Ireland can give us some purchase on the issues at hand. In Eire, revolts against the bin tax and water tax provided mass, quantifiable grievances where popular cooperation was required for them to be implemented. Into this mix, the figure of Joe Higgins has been crucial. A councillor first in 1991, then an MP in 1997, then an MEP and back to being an MP (until 2016 when he stood down), he has played a similar role to that which Tommy Sheridan did until 2004. He was also jailed over his opposition to the bin tax. Around him other socialist councillors and MPs have been elected (most obviously through the Socialist Party).
In the Irish general election of February 2016, the organised radical left (Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit) won six seats and the wider radical left won another half dozen. This was in spite of the United Left Alliance (an alliance primarily between the Socialist Party and People Before Profit) winning five seats in 2011 but then splitting apart and some of these MPs parts setting up their own organisations. Nonetheless, that the radical left already had parliamentary representation, united the major parts of the left (the SWP and Socialist Party), has charismatic leaders (Joe Higgins, Richard Boyd Barrett), had been involved in sharp struggles over material issues (bin tax, water charges) and had national media prominence allowed it to advance.
Gerry Carroll, born in 1987 and representing the People Before Profit (PBP) Alliance, won a seat in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the constituency of Belfast West in May 2016. He first came to prominence as a young activist. For example, at the age of 16 he fundraised with fellow activists to travel to Edinburgh for the Make Poverty History protest. He contested the Belfast West by-election, 2011, triggered by the resignation of Gerry Adams, for PBP, winning 7.6%. At the Belfast City Council election in 2014 he gained one of the seven seats in the Black Mountain area from Sinn Féin, coming third. He contested Belfast West again at the 2015 general election, coming second with 19.2% of the vote. After being elected a councillor, Carroll criticised large pay rises for councillors, while other council staff suffered effective pay cuts, and campaigned against privatisation and cuts. In 2016, he was elected as an MLA for West Belfast, topping the poll on the first count and gaining a seat from Sinn Féin. Carroll was also elected along with fellow PBP candidate and veteran civil rights campaigner and journalist, Eamonn McCann (born 1943). McCann represents the Foyle constituency.
Turning back to Scotland, this suggests success also requires credible, longstanding figures and organisations engaged in sizable popular revolts (especially at a local level). They cannot be created overnight. They emerge from mass resistance against grievances which are quantifiable with clear attribution of the culprits and where popular cooperation is required for implementation (and can be refused). Both the independence campaign and the fight against austerity need to be measured against these criteria in order to evaluate what potential they provide. Here, it is worth noting that the campaign for a radical form of independence was more a battle of big ideas, one of agitation and propaganda and not one of action and practical battle against a singular grievance.
Campaigning against austerity has highlighted that the bedroom tax only affected a minority of people and was taken at source from people so reducing leverage against it. Anti-cuts campaigning has illustrated that because most people do not realise the effect of cuts until they come to use or rely upon the service but by then it is too late. Added to this, there has been no obvious upturn in the industrial class struggle so that a revolt against redundancies and pay cuts has not provided an alternative focus for resistance.
So where does this leave the radical left? One obvious action is to stand selective candidates in the local elections next year because of the use of STV (single transferable voting) with multi-member seats. But to do so with any credibility and chance of success means the aforementioned conditions would need to be in place. Maybe that means the 2022 council elections are a more realistic target. That would also mean removing the corrosion of credibility of the radical left being divided amongst itself.
Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford and editor of the Scottish Left Review