JS Jones surveys a Scottish political scene that seems hostile to the advance of left politics, but wonders whether electoral developments might create new openings.
Scottish politics is a hostile landscape for the left, particularly at the moment where the opposition to the centre comes from the right. This might be the most dispiriting election of my lifetime, which has so far included spending the early hours of a birthday reporting on the largest Tory majority since Thatcher. Each of the parties in this election inspire in me varying shades and nuances of revulsion, and Alba’s entry met with similar acclaim. All this with no prospect of effective left wing representation, and an independence movement splintered further.
But on the other hand, the clocks have gone forward. More time in the evening for walks as far as the adjoining local authority area, it’s warm enough to go with a t-shirt sometimes and if you squint just hard enough through the grotesque pageantry of it all, you can kind of see the outline of how even the new Alba party might eventually be a good thing for left wing politics. The secret is to consider what Alba might mean for the independence movement overall.
Let’s take Alba at their word. They don’t want to challenge the SNP directly in this cycle, focussing only on regional lists to build a ‘supermajority for independence.’ Historically the second vote on lists is framed as an opportunity to give smaller parties a chance, and it’s here that the Greens have always had success – presumably from pro-independence voters wanting to ensure some ecological input, or to keep the SNP honest.
Greens as tired as the SNP
The trouble is the Greens have done a woeful job of trimming the SNP’s sails. It’s an oft-muttered frustration that the Greens are indistinguishable from the SNP on policy, but that’s mistaken. The Greens have three obvious avenues for critiquing the SNP – human rights, environmental policies and good governance.
Unfortunately they fail to put their messages across adequately: a recent campaign leaflet through my door looked like the Lib Dems had picked the wrong colour scheme for their materials. On human rights the Greens saw the resignation of a respected, effective MSP in relation to a disagreement about gender identity, but somehow this came off more as an administrative snafu than a principled stand for human rights.
Most egregious is the inability to gain traction on the Scottish Government’s handling of the Greensill investment in Lochaber. For those who don’t know, an aluminium smelter and two hydroelectric facilities were sold to a private company, Liberty Steel, after the Scottish Government sweetened the deal by guaranteeing £14-32 million of earnings per year on hydroelectric energy over 25 years and a further £7m loan.
This alone should have raised eyebrows, but in recent weeks the company which bought the facilities followed its own backer, Greensill, into bankruptcy. This is to say nothing of David Cameron’s alleged deep ties to the failed business, as far back as his time as PM.
Eyebrows strained by flexing, countless copies of the Financial Times soiled by coffee spit takes, but no effective opposition. The outrages are many: how can the Scottish Government’s industrial strategy have allowed such an enormous investment into private hands? What due diligence took place on the deal? Why does taxpayer money ensure renewable energy benefits private steel companies and not the public purse? All good questions, none being capitalised on by the Greens.
As tired as the SNP might look now, they have the wellspring of power to reinvigorate them. New candidates will come in next month, with new faces required even at cabinet level. The Greens cannot say the same, with only 6 seats won last time and their core people hoping to remain in place.For the SNP renewal is guaranteed, it’s a question of management, but the Greens are now facing an uncomfortable position of still being the fourth party but with the SNP having no need for even the appearance of collaboration with them.
Some of the Greens’ struggle to make headway on policy issues might be down to personalities – a lack of killer instinct or simply being content with the appearance of playing a part. It might also be part of an internal culture which lacks the incisive quality needed for effective opposition. But that lack of bite can be a serious problem in campaigns, too, and it’s here that the Alba leadership will be betting they can make some inroads.
In their first few weeks Alba have pulled media focus and popular attention with a string of high-profile new members. The SNP’s response to some of the news has maintained all the dignity of someone in the earliest stages of a particularly ugly breakup, including claims that a colleague of forty years and justice minister for seven had become an embarrassment to the party and they were glad he had gone. “Good”, said one fictional MSP “they never appreciated us anyway”.
There’s no clear sense yet of how Alba will perform at this election, but it seems unreasonable to suggest they have no credible chance of returning at least one candidate. A party devoted solely to the regional lists could conceivably get a handful of candidates. Because of the Green’s outsized role in passing the budgets and rescuing the SNP from uncomfortable votes we can forget they only have five MSPs. Without a role in passing key legislation, the Greens are just the party after Labour at FMQs.
We still know little about what Alba really stand for or who precisely their voters might be. But from some of their public statements the party seems no more coherent ideologically than the SNP has been of late, and showing some antipathy to universal human rights. The party’s success depends on there being enough pro-independence voters who believe the SNP cannot be trusted with majority power, so we need old-guard career politicians to keep them at bay. This kind of system-venerating nostalgia can drive people to behave in ways at the ballot box they wouldn’t admit to their pollster, far less their nearest and dearest. That a party of this pedigree can claim to be revolutionary is a tragic reflection of how political horizons have narrowed in the independence movement since 2014.
So now what?
Let’s assume that Alba have identified an electoral cohort that can win them a few seats, and stir things up. The SNP will still be looking to make most of their gains in constituencies, pushing back on a rudderless Tory party and possibly mopping up some of the more divided unionist-backing voters torn between an unproven Anas Sarwar and Boris Johnson’s Scottish emissary. Alba isn’t an obvious threat to the SNP’s main pursuit of a majority in parliament.
The worry for the Greens isn’t that they might lose seats directly to Alba, but that in the aftermath of the election an SNP majority doesn’t need their votes and Alba grab airtime as the unofficial opposition. Also, whatever people’s opinions of some of the Alba candidates might be, they are proven and experienced debaters who could specialise in the kind of quick-witted soundbites the Greens can’t seem to muster. In this scenario the Greens could be in for a long stretch on the sidelines.
Maybe that just means more time to think. An SNP majority would cut into their media exposure and might give them the opportunity to refocus on key issues, but internal disputes over human rights, business interests and the path to independence will keep providing opportunities for opposition. Alba can’t possibly provide that by themselves, they would likely highlight the urgent need for an ecological, pro-human rights and pro-independence group which could also demand credible reform of public institutions.
All these things should be agreeable to the vast majority of people who currently identify as leftists. In particular it could be useful to establish a political grouping for younger voters for whom human rights and ecology combine in completely different ways from older generations. Such a party might include a commitment to support ecological and left-leaning candidates who can agree on each other’s policy platforms in future elections, beginning with the Green party as a base.
This would rely on acceptance within the Green movement that being the fourth or fifth party at Holyrood means nothing if the SNP return to majority status. That may take some time to arrive, longer still if polling suggesting the Greens could cement their status as the fourth party comes to fruition.
Much of this discussion is moot if the Greens are content with the thrill of pushing for fourth place at Holyrood indefinitely. But if they can arrive at the conclusion that an integrated Green-Left movement could better reach younger demographics and strengthen its policy arguments, and that the cause of independence overall is too important to be left in the hands of an SNP which is soaked in private interests, there could yet be a powerful political grouping, with a much better chance of campaigning actively in former Labour heartlands currently iced out of the national political process but effectively mobilised by the Radical Independence Campaign ahead of 2014.
But such a political grouping would still be very much on the Greens’ terms – their representatives would be the ones in power, theirs the party with a track record of electoral success. The prospect of a new independence referendum seems practically far off, and we might yet live to see a dispiriting election turn into a dispiriting period of animosity between Alba and the SNP, and more widely among the scattered fragments of the independence movement.
It’s hard enough to see the current alignment of pro-independence factions surviving the coming parliamentary term. But then few imagined the 2014 referendum being as closely fought or as ideologically diverse as it turned out to be. Now as then, the message is the same: something new is necessary, just not this. The longer-term health of the movement depends on reconciling ecological, rights-based and socialist principles into a movement which can reset the balance of our social and political institutions.