Scotland: RISE – launch of a politically unclear left alliance

Clear 100% anti-austerity and socialist platform essential steps towards new mass workers’ party

RISE – Scotland’s Left Alliance was launched at a conference in Glasgow on Saturday 29th August. RISE (Respect, Independence, Socialism, Environmentalism) has evolved from the Scottish Left Project (SLP) and is primarily made up of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and some of the leading figures (ex-SWP) from the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC).

Although the organisers had hoped that 1,000 people would participate in the launch, at its high point there were no more than 450 present. This was for the morning opening “plenary session”. The numbers then fell away significantly as the day progressed and around 200 were at the final plenary session. Those attending were mainly members and ex-members of the SSP and a significant number who had been involved with RIC during the independence referedum.

Socialist Party Scotland, although we are not members of RISE, participated in the event. We put forward our views on the need for the alliance to adopt a clear socialist platform and a fighting anti-austerity policy, including a demand for non-implementation of cuts by the SNP.

Socialist planning

Brian Smith, branch secretary of Glasgow Unison and an SPS member, spoke at a workshop on the theme of “Our industry in our hands”. Brian argued in favour of socialist planning, democratic public ownership and end to capitalism and for RISE to demand a no-cuts policy from Labour and the SNP. (Brian’s speech can be seen here – 8 minutes into the video) We also highlighted the example of Greece and the failures of Syriza to underline the need for the left to adopt a clear socialist programme.

What was clear from the conference is that the RISE alliance is in danger of falling between a number of stools and is, at present, unclear what it concretely stands for. The political weakness was underlined during the opening speeches to the conference. Colin Fox, co-convener of the SSP – the main component of the alliance – claimed: “Illusions in capitalism appear more and more entrenched than ever on the face of it, yet beneath that the discontent with its features are more and more widespread.”

This is not the first time that Colin Fox has made similar comments. At an SLP meeting in Edinburgh in July in response to a Socialist Party Scotland member who argued for “public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy under working class control and management and the socialist reconstruction of society”, Colin Fox responded by saying; “that is too far to think about now. Class consciousness has been pushed back decades and decades and decades and decades and decades”.

Socialist Party Scotland does not believe that illusions in capitalism are “more entrenched than ever” among broad layers of the working class. It is true that there is mass anger at many of the “features” of capitalism like inequality and savage austerity, without the majority yet seeing socialism as the alternative. But the lack of a mass socialist consciousness does not automatically equate with support for capitalism.

There is an increasing hatred towards the system itself, this may be expressed in the first instance in a hope that capitalism could be reformed for the betterment of the working class. But through the experience of the inability of capitalism to tolerate reforms or partial measures taken against its interests, the desire for system-change and socialism will grow enormously. This process will, of course, not be helped if a new left force like RISE refuse to put forward the case for socialism in a clear way.

Lessons from Greece

The consequence of not being prepared to advance bold socialist measures and a fighting programme to defeat austerity was illustrated in Colin Fox’s blog recently. In a piece written following the Syriza government’s capitulation to the Troika in July he commented, “the unavoidable fact is that the latest deal [the austerity package agreed by Tsipras] was signed by the Greek Government because they had to. There was simply no other option available to it.” But there was an alternative to the Syriza betrayal as Xekinima – the Greek section of the CWI – has explained many times.

Bold socialist policies and a rupture with capitalism, including non-payment of the debt and the nationalisation of the banks and big business etc, was the only way forward. Following this logic to its conclusion, would Colin Fox have sided with Tsipras and the right wing of Syriza in voting for the austerity memorandum in the Greek parliament? Does Colin oppose the actions of the left opposition within Syriza that voted against the austerity package and has now led to the formation of Popular Unity?

What is the likely impact of this approach, were it to continue, on the policy of the new RISE alliance? In essence these opinions will and are, in our view, leading to a downplaying of socialism and an avoidance of putting forward fighting anti-austerity policies. This will tend to result in RISE only putting forward demands and policies that they believe chime with the “low-level of political consciousness”, as they see it. Hence the references on many occasions by RISE to Podemos in Spain, which stops well short of arguing in favour of socialism.

Neither in Colin Fox’s speech to the conference, nor that of another leading figure in RISE, Cat Boyd, were there any demands on the SNP-led Scottish government to refuse to implement Tory austerity in Scotland. Some correct criticisms were made of the SNP in general terms. RISE, it was claimed, would seek to become the “left opposition” to the SNP.

But to achieve this the alliance would need to have a clear policy that all SNP and Labour MSPs and councillors should refuse to vote for cuts. As well as developing policies on a living minimum wage of £10 an hour, public ownership of the economy, socialist planning and other measures. Such policies would be massively popular if taken up by the labour movement, the trade unions and a new mass workers’ party for example.

The description of RISE as being a “socialist” alternative was used a number of times. However, socialism is defined as a “social alternative to capitalism” leaving at least a lack of clarity as to what that concretely means in terms of ownership and control of the economy for example.

Indeed the conference organisers seemed to make a virtue of the fact that RISE was being launched without a political platform, policies or structure. These will be debated at and in the run-up to a conference in November. However, the refusal by the leadership to table even an interim policy platform for debate led the launch event to an unclear, uncertain and confused conclusion. Reflecting this lack of clarity, it was obvious that there were many who had attended the conference who were not joining RISE, at least not on the day itself.

RISE and the SNP

In reality, the political direction of RISE has already been enunciated by leading figures in the media and on the left project website etc. Cat Boyd, in her weekly column in the pro-independence National newspaper, commented that for RISE, “the real choice facing our movement [independence movement] is what kind of diversity do we want?..A monolithic SNP bloc against a big unionist bloc. Or a diverse evolving coalition of Yes parties that seeks to win over the remaining unionist forces to independence?”

The diversity of pro-independence parties with representation in the parliament is hardly the crucial question. More important is whether the pro-independence parties will fight tooth-and-nail against cuts and for a socialist alternative. Nowhere in the article, which sets out where RISE seeks to position itself, does Cat take-up the Scottish National Party (SNP) for their collaboration with austerity. Nor does she say that RISE MSPs (members of the Scottish Parliament) would demand needs budgets and defy Tory austerity.

Jonathan Shafi, another leading member of the new alliance, commented: “We share a lot in common with the Greens. Working together with the Greens will be vital to the general development of a progressive Scotland.” There are real dangers in this approach as the experience of the Greens in government in Ireland, Germany, Denmark etc shows. In governmental coalitions, invariably the Greens have been prepared to carry out savage attacks on the working class. This was also the case in Brighton where the Green-led council imposed attacks on the workforce as part of a major cuts package.

RISE is being positioned as first and foremost a pro-independence electoral vehicle and is in danger of fudging the issue of taking the SNP head-on over their pro-capitalist and pro-cuts policies. It is possible to be in favour of independence – Socialist Party Scotland stands for an independent socialist Scotland as part of a voluntary socialist confederation – and for 100% opposition to the actions of the SNP when they make cuts.

Corbyn campaign

Both Colin Fox and Cat Boyd commented on the Jeremy Corbyn phenomena. As Socialist Party Scotland has also made clear, there was criticism of Jeremy’s opposition to Scottish independence. There were also claims that a Corbyn victory would not last, that he would be defeated by the right-wing in the Labour Party even if he won the election. Nor would there be any possibility of Labour in Scotland changing its pro-business character in the event of a Corbyn victory. Corbyn supporters should join RISE instead as even a Corbyn-led Labour party would not offer a vehicle for progressive left opinion in Scotland because of his position on Scottish independence.

We believe this is an underestimation of the seismic impact a Corbyn victory would have, including in Scotland. RISE and its leading spokespeople should be calling on Corbyn to change his position on the national question but to also recognise that an opportunity for a new left force could be posed if the necessary steps were taken by Corbyn and his supporters, particularly the trade unions.

If Jeremy wins a civil war will likely erupt between the Blairite majority and Corbyn’s supporters inside and outside the Labour party and in the affiliated trade unions. If Jeremy made a call for people to join Labour to help him fight the right-wing and for a re-claiming of the party for trade union and left principles, this could get a big response, including in Scotland. Out of this conflict a new left party could well emerge. Win or lose, we would urge Jeremy to call a conference of his supporters, the trade unions and socialist organisations to prepare to fight for the building of a new working class party.

Delay in launching

While underestimating the potential for a new left force to emerge from the Corbyn campaign, the leading elements in RISE have, by their actions and inaction, weakened the potential for their own alliance. Socialist Party Scotland called in the days following the indyref for a new party of the socialist left to be created in Scotland. We said the day after the referendum: “It’s urgent that moves to build a new mass party are taken now to provide a political home for the working class. If there is a delay in this…the opportunity can be lost and the pro-capitalist SNP can gain instead.”

We called on leading left figures like Tommy Sheridan, who we had worked with in the Hope Over Fear – Socialist Campaign for Independence, as well as leading trade unionists, socialist organisations and others to launch a new party. “It would attract thousands of new working class people to its banner within days, including many who participated in RIC and other Yes campaigns.”

As we know this was not done. Tommy Sheridan went on to call for a vote for the SNP in May and is doing so again for the constituency seats in the 2016 Scottish election. Both the leadership of RIC and the SSP have also compounded the mistakes and bolstered the SNP by their actions.

The SSP even went as far as to call for an electoral pact – a so-called Yes alliance – for the Westminster election with the SNP and the Greens in the weeks following the indyref. This hugely mistaken position, as well as the delay in launching a left alternative out of the RIC, who did mobilise a large section of activists, hugely benefited the SNP.

The 12-month delay in launching a left formation has weakened its impact. As has the confused and unclear character of the alliance itself. With the SNP currently on 62% in voting intentions for the election in 2016 and the Scottish Greens expected to win between 6 to 10 seats, the lack of a political cutting edge, thus far, by RISE will make it more difficult to carve out a distinct left and socialist alternative. This is especially the case if it does not clearly come out against the SNP’s role in implementing austerity and its pro-business policies.

Democracy and structure

As we reported on Friday, there are major problems with the democratic structures of RISE, or the lack of them. At a meeting on Thursday 27 August, Socialist Party Scotland was informed by two representatives of the SLP’s “Forum”, in effect its steering committee, that we would not be allowed to join RISE as an organisation. Indeed we were told that socialist organisations were not welcome, including Scottish TUSC. We produced a public statement on this which can be read here It was also handed out in leaflet form at the conference on Saturday.

Those attending the conference were handed a “Moving Forward” statement as they registered. In stated that campaigns and organisations could affiliate to RISE after all. Whether they are accepted will be decided by the “Forum”. We were approached by a number of people angry at the stance taken by the SLP’s Forum reps who, we were told, “had no authority whatsoever” to tell Socialist Party Scotland they could not join.

This is at least an improvement. As we have argued, even if RISE was being launched as a party – in practice it is a party and an alliance – it would have to allow the right of organisations and political groups to openly organise and to form platforms if they so wished. Any retreat from this position would be profoundly undemocratic and would, as we have already seen, leave the leadership group/s as the only ones who allowed to be organised.

In reality, none of these issues are as yet resolved. There is a significant trend in RISE not in favour of allowing the right of political groups to organise. Within the SSP itself there are a number of differing positions, including a section of the membership who don’t want to be part of RISE, preferring continuing to stand in elections as the SSP.

The conference on Saturday was also anything but democratic. All three plenary sessions were completely dominated by the top-table speakers with no contributions from the floor allowed. These were interspersed with workshops with, again, three, four or five, top-table speakers and at most 20 minutes for general discussion. There was no draft or even interim statements/suggestions on policy or structure to assist those attending or new members to begin discussion over. This is completely at odds with the way in which socialist and working class events should be run.

Members of RISE have been asked to go back to their areas and set-up “circles” of RISE, which apparently will help “grassroots politics”. A tour of meetings will be held to explain RISE and “our purpose, our vision and how to get involved.” But, as yet, it’s not clear what the policies and structure are, making it even more difficult to build the alliance, rather than aid its development.

Major questions also remain as to the class-orientation of RISE. Whether it should primarily base itself on the working class, including the trade unions, or whether a Podemos-type “anti-party party” is the model with no need for “old-fashioned” ideas like Marxism and a socialist programme.

There are significant numbers involved in RISE, including some in the SSP leadership, who seem happy to go along with this latter approach. It is this outlook that is leading to a section of RISE declaring opposition to the involvement of Socialist Party Scotland and Scottish TUSC in the “left alliance.”

Which direction?

Colin Fox declared that RISE was the biggest left gathering since the founding of the Scottish Socialist Alliance (SSA) in 1996 – the forerunner of the SSP. Jonathan Shafi claimed it was “the largest launch of any socialist and radical election campaign in Scottish history”. Both these statements are exaggerations and moreover, RISE has been launched significantly to the right politically of the SSA.

The SSA stood for the “socialist transformation of society” and for “renationalisation of the public utilities under democratic control. Nationalise the major industrial and commercial firms, banks, insurance and finance companies. Develop socialist planning for social need and environmental protection.”

It remains to be seen how RISE will develop and in what direction. As of now, politically and in terms of structure and democracy, there are significant obstacles to be overcome before RISE can begin to play role in building a real socialist and fighting opposition to capitalism and the savage austerity that goes with it.

Socialist Party Scotland will continue to build Scottish TUSC, alongside the RMT trade union and others, with its clear 100% anti-austerity and socialist platform as a step towards a new mass workers’ party. We will also maintain a dialogue with other left forces, including RISE and its members, to assist in the process of building a real opposition to the parties of the austerity establishment.

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