The ‘RISE’ of the Scottish left is challenging the SNP’s hegemony in Scotland

The SNP under Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership are sweeping all before her, and are on course to win comfortably at the Scottish Parliament elections, held next May. Jenny Morrison looks at the post-referendum increase in left-wing activity, placing it in the context of the independence movement and the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader.

This piece first appeared on our new Democratic Audit – Scotland site

Scotland is said to have undergone a political earthquake in the twelve months since the September referendum. Following their ‘defeat’ the Yes movement swung behind the SNP which is now the dominant political force in Scotland. Attempting to challenge SNP hegemony in the independence movement is the new left wing pro-independence party RISE-respect, independence, socialism, environmentalism-which will contest the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections. However, while RISE declares it aims to be the main opposition to the SNP, it is also reticent in criticising SNP policy instead arguing for unity in diversity in the independence movement. A continuing emphasis on the unity of the Yes movement until independence is thus limiting the ability of the left to build a socialist challenge to the SNP.

The SNP and the Yes movement: a left alternative?

The six months after the referendum saw SNP membership quadruple to over 110,000 members or around 2% of the Scottish population. While mass disillusionment with Labour already existed across the UK, the alliance with the Conservatives in the ‘Better Together’ campaign rapidly accelerated Labour’s demise in Scotland. In contrast the SNP, grasping onto the anti-austerity rhetoric of the Yes movement, was able to claim the mantle of the true guardian of Scottish social democracy. The result is well-known: the May British general election saw the SNP win 56 of 59 Scottish seats while Labour utterly collapsed gaining only one seat in Scotland. Since May the SNP have continued to successfully position themselves as a progressive alternative to Labour and the Conservatives.

The surge in SNP membership is predominantly working class and broadly left wing-the SNP trade union group now has more members than the entire Scottish Labour Party. However, the core politics of the national party provide for little substantial social and political change. The SNP vision has been called a Scottish version of Third Way politics enacted under New Labour. National cohesion is promoted through the linking of supply side reforms, such as the much vaunted childcare policy, with an underlying commitment to global competitiveness and economic growth. In other words, the SNP exemplify ‘talk left, walk right’ politics where their anti-austerity rhetoric obscures their actions which cater to a neoliberal agenda. Thus while the SNP are likely to support tokenistic reform to bolster their left wing image, they offer little platform to challenge the British neoliberal consensus.

Independence, RISE and Corbyn

Officially launched on the 29th of August, RISE is an electoral alliance formed by the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and the Scottish Left Project (SLP) which aims to provide a pro-independence socialist voice in Scotland. While there is little doubt the SNP will win the upcoming 2016 Scottish elections, it is unlikely to be a repeat of the British general elections. The peculiarity of the Additional Member System (AMS) in Scotland means the more constituency seats a party gets, the less chance it has of gaining list seats. Small parties such as RISE, therefore, have a far greater chance of gaining seats than under first past the post. Having united the fragmented pro-independence Scottish socialist left, red-green alliances are now being tentatively mooted opening the possibility of the development of a broad left challenge in Scottish politics. Together with a strong movement beyond parliament, this left could challenge the SNP vision of Scotland and connect independence to a transformative movement for social and economic change.

However, RISE has been ambivalent in its attitude towards the SNP. While on one hand the socialist alliance explicitly aims to oppose the SNP, on the other RISE activists position themselves as part of a united, if diverse, independence movement which includes the SNP. In this second understanding, RISE seeks only to hold the national party to account rather than directly criticising their positions. The SNP, one supporter states, are not the enemy. As RISE must gain the second list vote of left wing SNP supporters if it is to win any seats, the muted criticism is perhaps a logical electoral strategy. However, the pro-independence left risks being positioned as a radical younger brother of the SNP. RISE could perform a useful function for nationalists, permitting the appearance of diversity and bringing in more working class or left wing voters yet never challenging SNP ownership of the independence movement.

The election of Jeremy Corbyn raises an even more difficult question for the pro-independence left: why independence at all? The left case for independence was predicated on the inability to enact change in a gridlocked pro-neoliberal Westminster. Independence is not an a priori progressive option and Corbyn sits substantially to the left of the SNP. Nonetheless, with a Conservative majority and the challenge of the right within Labour, RISE argues the independence movement still offers more fruitful terrain for radical change. Moreover, a staunchly Blairite Scottish Labour Party is unlikely to win back substantial support leaving the majority of left wing activism in Scotland outside the Labour party. Yet if the independence movement remains the best vehicle for social transformation, socialists must break the binds of the SNP and connect to the roots of pro-independence radicalism.

A United Movement

Many in Scotland, including on the left of the SNP, have celebrated the Corbyn win as expanding the spirit of the Yes movement into England. However, the SNP cannot provide the vehicle for change which much of the independence and pro-Corbyn movement desire. If RISE is not to act simply as a fringe group for the SNP it must directly confront the politics of the national party. The form an independent Scotland takes will be determined by the form of the movement which guides the independence process. Therefore, the pro-independence left must go beyond arguing for unity in diversity and challenge the political core of the SNP. If independence is to mean more than the restating of the neoliberal status quo, the SNP must be as much the enemy as Scottish Labour is.

DA_SocialMedia_Scotland-01This piece also appears on our new Democratic Audit – Scotland site

Note: this post represents the views of the author, and not those of Democratic Audit or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting.

JennyMJenny Morrison is PhD candidate in Politics at the University of Glasgow. Her research is on feminist organising within the Scottish independence movement. She is also a campaigner with the Radical Independence Campaign and a supporter of the Scottish Left Project.

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