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RISE: New Politics for a Tired Scotland

The first thing RISE wants you to know is that it isn’t a party, it’s an alliance: formed in August 2015. The second is the acronym; Respect, Independence, Socialism, Environmentalism.

Scotland’s electoral system sees candidates elected both from local constituencies and a regional list. RISE is standing candidates in each of those 8 regions in today’s elections – the system is proportional so the strongest candidates are at the top of each list. Unconstrained by tradition or the usual political wrangling that goes into deciding the order of lists, RISE has built theirs to show the breadth of the movement; “trade unionists, carers, refugees,” as one activist put it.

Scottish politics has been dominated by the Scottish National Party (SNP) over the past decade. They took power in 2007 from a Labour party which had never estimated the Scottish Parliament to be on the same plain as Westminster in London. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s neoliberalism might have convinced people in English swing constituencies to give New Labour a shot, but it was fundamentally alien to people in their Scottish heartlands who were generations into post-industrial malaise when the SNP came to power. The SNP’s tenure has swung between neoliberal economic and socially liberal tendencies, alongside a penchant for centralising power as closely as possible within the party.

RISE is both avowedly pro-independence and conscious of the need to renew the far left in Scotland. Its key organisers were instrumental in the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), which brought together people of various leftist hues to fight for independence. That movement enjoyed a friendly relationship with the Yes Scotland campaign, whose policies were more closely aligned with the SNP’s policies than many in RIC could support. Both were mostly happy to distribute each other’s materials, and animated differences of opinion were played up as part of the refreshing, dissenting possibility of an independent Scotland: a politics for all, not for the elite.

Then the referendum happened, and the positivity in post-industrial areas was swept away in a 45-55 ‘no’ vote. Even the result being significantly higher than predicted for the ‘Yes’ side was of little consolation to those on the left who had touted independence as the prerequisite for the social changes they wanted to see. People across Scotland woke up on September 19th 2014 to a country which wasn’t a country, and hadn’t changed at all. Initial anger and, often, disbelief – polling ahead of the vote indicated it was a dead heat, trending towards a Yes vote – was channelled into a political system which two days previously was being described as past redemption, only changeable through revolution.

The SNP and the Greens were the only parties with representation at Holyrood to back independence. Their membership exploded after the vote: the SNP quadrupled in size and one Green party meeting in Glasgow had to be moved from its usual room to an open-air setting. RIC and the activists who had supported it found themselves in a difficult position. The SNP is a mainstream party which appeals to mainstream independence advocates. The Greens are an obvious choice for environmentalists and have a strong history of LGBT representation. For socialists and those further left there wasn’t an obvious place to turn in the political system – if electoral politics was even something they could entertain.

It isn’t that Scotland doesn’t have a socialist options – it has two – it’s just that they’ve been repulsively unelectable. The Socialist Workers’ Party saw its membership collapse in 2013 after details emerged of how it prioritised a senior member’s status over rape allegations against him. The Scottish Socialist Party was represented in the first two Scottish Parliaments after devolution, with its six-seat take in 2003 now looking like an all-time high. Its then-leader, Tommy Sheridan, had been a brash presence in politics for years before becoming the face of long-running scandal involving allegations in drug-fuelled swingers’ parties and extramarital affairs.

Suing the paper which published the claims, he chose to represent himself in court and embarked on a scorched-earth campaign to discredit witnesses, including  Socialist Party leaders. He was awarded £200,000 in damages from the first case, then subsequently convicted of perjury in another which involved additional allegations of witness intimidation. In the time between the cases he founded another party – Solidarity – with those SSP members who remained loyal to him. The party currently has one representative on a local council, in the 2011 elections its leader’s showing was so poor he lost the deposit required to stand.

When right-leaning politicians’ sex lives are exposed they usually have establishment connections and a party machinery to help deal efficiently with the fallout. The Socialists publicly went to pieces and then cratered in the 2007 elections. No seats, no voice, and a leadership still embroiled in a scandal whose legal dimension would last another three years. By the time the referendum campaign got started in 2012 the Socialist Party had still not recovered from the nuclear winter and its members were a rudderless ship. The appeal of RIC was obvious, not just as a campaigning group free from the publicity of the Socialist Party, but as an antidote to the SNP’s deeply neoliberal account of what an independent Scotland would look like.

The Scottish left’s embrace of pluralism in the run up to the referendum was not universally shared. The Communist Party of Britain, now in the seventh decade of its blueprint to bring revolution to the archipelago – The British Road to Socialism – was dismissive of independence as it was offered, believing instead that the true path was one marched by working-class comrades across the UK to first revolutionise the populace, then overthrow the State. Theirs is the kind of orthodox Marxism that cannot conceive of a world without obvious nation state villains. RISE are smarter than that. Their events betray a reading of Marxist and post-Marxist theory, also evidenced by active discussions of the importance of community work and political education.

Their organisation is similarly nuanced. Everyone I spoke to at the events I attended mentioned the idea of RISE being an alliance as crucial to its work. When Cat Boyd, RISE candidate and co-founder of RIC, detailed her political vision recently she spoke thoughtfully about the three pillars of successful political movements; social activism, an intellectual tradition and political education. In her mind, and apparently those of the majority of RISE members, these tenets are by no means incompatible with participation in electoral politics but cannot be primarily served through it.

*****

Jonathon Shafi, national organiser for RISE, made clear the importance of continuing to encourage dissent within the alliance. In keeping with this the launch of RISE’s economics paper The Crash to Come illuminated the fractured state of the left in Scotland. The paper details the perilous state of the UK economy, riven by austerity and unnecessarily vulnerable to shifts in the global economy. By itself it is an odd document, without an obvious audience – the level of economic detail is weighty but unoriginal and while its analysis is probing it lacks policy ideas to remedy the issues it describes. It’s hard to imagine who might read it or why, having done so, they might vote for RISE.

The paper was launched at an event in Glasgow which featured a panel Q&A with three speakers; Cat Boyd, Paul Mason and Bridget Fowler – a sociology professor at the University of Glasgow. Boyd began by talking about the challenges faced by her generation, the under 35s whose future will be bleaker than their parents’. Almost immediately she mentioned the necessity of the Scottish Parliament having a mandate to call a new referendum on independence without Westminster’s say-so. Scotland’s political future has to feature an option to break clearly from everything that has gone before, so her thinking goes.

Professor Fowler spoke next, remarking on the travesty that is American capitalism. Its prison system, its race relations issues, its imperialism and the possibility of contagion. With most of Europe’s avant-garde leftist movements; Podemos, SYRIZA, the CUP and RISE there is a willingness to deal with the continent’s obvious, horrifying capitalistic excesses before casting eyes across the Atlantic. To suggest that America’s capitalism is exceptional sounds more like Donald Trump than a RISE meeting. She said it looks like Scotland may be next, although we already have private prisons, a heritage of treating refugees and asylum seekers as less-than-human, and an elsewhere-storied tradition of profiting from slavery and complicity in the Union. It seems out of step with the rest of the discussion.

Paul Mason goes for a deep-dive on economics and finance. A recent accomplice of Jeremy Corbyn and UK shadow chancellor John McDonnell, he advocates for some of their proposed reforms, including what they call “People’s Quantitative Easing.” Mason has substantial leftist credentials, and believes in a return to the UK Labour party which offers the most credible alternative to the Tories, now that Corbyn is in power. His urging of People’s QE implies that the left can use mainstream parties like Labour and appropriate neoliberal financial terms in service of the greater good, perhaps by investing in infrastructure rather than bailouts for failed multinationals. Mason himself recognises that in Scotland the Labour party has not seen a resurgence under Corbyn: an unfortunate by-product of his tenure coinciding with the Scottish party’s realisation that it had to cut ties with London, just when the new sheriff really did promise to clean up the town.

The triptych at the table were an exceptionally clear portrait of the left’s concerns in Scotland. The woman striving to find political space in a society engineered by people whose actions assure her disenfranchisement – always aware that she and her peers might just have to absent themselves entirely, were the system confirmed to be dead. The professor, brought in from the most prestigious university in the city to describe an outdated theoretical model to people who live out its effects every day. The ex-Trotskyist who finds hope in the promise of a Labour party which doesn’t exist in this country, and which is imperilled at Westminster by its own members – and even then only if it uses the Bank of England’s code words. All three grappling with the concept of independence and how it relates to their thought.

*****

Govan is the kind of area where RISE need to clean up if they’re to win seats in May. On Glasgow’s Southside, by the Clyde river, the area was dominated by shipbuilding until the 1970s when it collapsed, despite the best efforts of the Red Clydeside movement including a work-in at the yards led by Jimmy Reid – trade unionist and leftist. His inaugural speech as Rector of the University of Glasgow, encouraging humanity against the onslaught of post-Fordism, was published in full by the New York Times which called it the greatest speech since the Gettysburg Address. Today the area is typically post-industrial, its tenements unaffected by the brushed-steel and plate glass buildings which house many of Scotland’s largest remaining media outlets, separated from poverty by a large wall and a distance of wasteland.

One Saturday morning in March two RISE volunteers arrived just outside the shopping centre to set up a stall. After erecting a gazebo as a shield against the wind and rain they set about distributing leaflets and materials. The response from passers by was mixed; most happy to accept leaflets, some even to talk about politics despite the weather, others dismissive of the pamphlets and sweets. There is a rich seam of leftism here, but also a strain of thought which sees electoral politics as part of a larger capitalist system which grinds people and communities out in the name of profit. Govan’s malaise pre-dates the shipyards and people here know it. Those who yearn for a return to the industrial era know just how capricious the hand that feeds can be.

Tony stands just inside the door of the shopping centre, by the fruit stand his son has run for six years. A lean man in his 50s, short with greying hair and keen eyes, he talks energetically about Govan and his place in it. Just about everybody here knows him and he’s a youth worker in a local project. He wants to talk about the media and how biased it is. Angry at the lack of coverage of the deaths in Yemen, he berates the treatment some Syrian refugees have received – the coldness and hostility of some people- and decries it as a failure of a community which ought to be welcoming people.

“Politicians are arseholes,” he shrugs, wanly, when asked about RISE – though he’s quick to point out he wishes them the best. He didn’t vote in the referendum, and won’t vote in the future. The anti-war, pro-refugee, anti-capitalistic youth worker can’t see himself voting for RISE because he sees voting as part of a system which distracts from things which really could matter. Opinions with no output in one of the poorest areas of the country. If he isn’t convinced of the alliance’s prospects it clearly has work to do.

He isn’t alone in his concerns. Back at the stall there are other activists; some students, some from other parties. Everyone agrees it would be a result to get Cat Boyd elected on the Glasgow list, but opinion is divided about the likelihood of that. Some see RISE continuing into the future regardless, with this election the first stage in building a consciousness. Others say it isn’t really important, that the alliance structure invites participation whenever necessary, before confiding quietly that they can’t see it achieving much at the ballot box. Nearly all of them have other outlets for their politics, and are enthusiastic about the work they do in their own communities across Glasgow. Whatever happens in May RISE’s future will depend on its ability to co-ordinate and develop this extra-political work in ways disruptive to the political system.

Someone at the stall had a copy of The National – the only daily newspaper in the country which backs independence, first published after the referendum. There was a story that day documenting how Tommy Sheridan’s Solidarity party is facing collapse as more of its leaders quit. Reaction at the stall was mixed, with some mirth about the end of a movement which many on the left see as a personal vehicle for Tommy Sheridan, whose status as the working class candidate has been affirmed by the mainstream political class which knows the left’s most prominent figure is now synonymous with sex scandals and corruption. Some felt that the demise of Solidarity might usher in a new era of collaboration on the left, without querying how an array of political movements could be usurped by one man who hadn’t held elected office in 9 years. Others still thought the whole thing a distraction.

Essentially it is: nobody outside of the left cares about Solidarity. They likely couldn’t correctly identify Tommy Sheridan’s current political party, or even if he was still incarcerated. The nuances of a socialist platform like Solidarity’s versus a broader leftist one like RISE’s are currently lost on most people anyway. What will make the difference to people in post-industrial areas across Scotland is a platform which can learn from their experience, be shaped by it, and represent it in a way which makes changes to them.

When Cat Boyd and other RISE members talk about political education and social activism they’re talking about how to energise a political class which has been disenfranchised for decades and saw its best hope for change blown apart at the referendum. When RISE activists say they aren’t bothered about the election it isn’t because they know or suspect they’re going to be blown out, it’s because they know, like their constituents, that it isn’t about that – troublingly nobody seems able to say what political education looks like, practically, beyond publishing papers like The Crash to Come.

*****

One evening recently there was a public meeting in Govan, just across the street from where the stall was held. The event was advertised on leaflets with a photograph of Jim Sillars, a man so prominent there that his name doesn’t need to be published. He won a shock victory the Govan by-election in 1988, ousting the Labour candidate there, and has been a long-time internal critic of the SNP. Despite being an SNP member he has pledged his list vote to RISE, contravening his party’s call for SNP votes in both ballots.

Stella Rooney, a teenage activist, spoke eloquently about the pressures of recent policy changes on the under 25s. Sillars toured between concerns during the evening, but closed with a warning of the dangers of what he called “the onslaught of the robots.” His analysis seemed to be that AI is the straight evolution of the mechanisation which also killed major industry. The likelihood is that people who will be minded to work with RISE will find this explanation insufficient for their own lives, grasping for theories more cognisant of the machinations of post-Fordist capitalism.

Expectations for the election are realistic – getting Cat Boyd elected is possible but would represent a major achievement, perhaps also Colin Fox, co-chair of the Socialist Party. In Govan, Boyd returned to a simple, oft-asked question: ‘How come some boys in Glasgow live about 30 years less than others?’ For the first time in a decade Scotland might have a movement which can develop answers which meld political efficacy with an insurgent mentality. Centred on radicalism, jarring with authority, RISE has substance. Whether it can work with the communities which need it remains to be seen.

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