Neal Lawson: An open letter to the SNP - it's time to join political forces with Labour

Neal Lawson, chair of influential leftwing thinktank Compass, writes an open letter to the SNP calling for a progressive alliance with the Labour party

DEAR SNP,

I’ve been writing 'letters' to progressive parties. It’s your turn. Like the other parties, you didn’t ask for my views but I hope you will take them in the spirit they are meant – generosity and hope.

I write as a Londoner and a member of the Labour Party but as chair of a political organisation that welcomes and revels in political pluralism, as well as a desire for a good society in which much greater equality and sustainability are a living reality. And I write as someone who believes in democracy and trusts people and their capacity to be amazing. 

I can understand why you think your best hopes lie with freedom from English Tory rule, the Daily Mail and the City of London. All of this and more helps explain the collapse of my party in your country.

So I was so jealous of the political conversation you had as a nation over independence. This rise of political consciousness over the last few years has been one of the silver linings in otherwise dark political clouds.

I was always ambivalent about Scotland’s independence choice. I didn’t think I could lose. If you remained you could be part of a UK-wide progress alliance. If you became independent then there was a good chance of getting something like Denmark on the English border – making the case for a good society in the south not just feel desirable but feasible. As ever, we should trust the people.

I can understand why you think your best hopes lie with freedom from English Tory rule, the Daily Mail and the City of London. All of this and more helps explain the collapse of my party in your country. Even now, I fear they don’t know why they have been rejected by so many of their former supporters and look for someone or something to blame – rather then look at themselves. 

But we have a duty to go around and beyond tribalism. Let's start with the reality of the political situation we now face. Events will intervene, but as far as I can see you wont get a realistic chance of another referendum for some time (can you even have another referendum without UK Government consent?). The economic and political situation probably rules it out for at least five years, probably more like 10. To be confident of winning you need to look at a consistent poll lead of 65 per cent. So what happens in the meantime?

Even now, I fear they don’t know why they have been rejected by so many of their former supporters and look for someone or something to blame – rather then look at themselves. 

But it has to be about more than independence. And this is where I start to worry. It seems to me, at least from my vantage point, that you have shifted your position. Independence no longer feels like a pragmatic tactic to build a good society but increasingly like an end in itself. And I worry,, too that your party discipline is building a machine with just this focus. It doesn’t feel as open and fluid as a 21st century political formation should be. Is all this part of your incredible rise tapering off?

In December 2012, Nicola [Sturgeon] said this: "For me the fact of nationhood or Scottish identity is not the motive force for independence. Nor do I believe that independence, however desirable, is essential for the preservation of our distinctive Scottish identity. 

"And I don't agree at all that feeling British – with all of the shared social, family and cultural heritage that makes up such an identity – is in any way inconsistent with a pragmatic, utilitarian support for political independence. My conviction that Scotland should be independent stems from the principles, not of identity or nationality, but of democracy and social justice."

But what if a good society is possible without independence? What if a progressive alliance could rid us of Trident, introduce a basic income, end austerity and renew the social fabric of our lives? I understand all the problems with such an alliance. But for the foreseeable future it’s the best hope we have - in Scotland and the rest of the UK. Labour know they cant win out right.

But what if a good society is possible without independence? What if a progressive alliance could rid us of Trident, introduce a basic income, end austerity and renew the social fabric of our lives?

If we end up again with last minute Tory scare stories about the SNP pulling Labour strings then that will help them win again. It can’t look like that’s what you want as the root to achieve independence. Means always shape ends.

We have to start a conversation now about that progressive alliance. Yes, Labour must shift too. Massively so. But you must look and feel like a party that cares about England and Wales, that there is a shared human journey. And there is a danger that such a fixed view will fuel the Tory rise in Scotland.

Things are shifting and moving. Jeremy Corbyn changes all the dynamics for good and bad. John McDonnell is now a strong advocate of PR. More and more Labour MPs are realising the old tribal game is up. The trade unions, too, are shifting to embrace pluralism. 

Your continued support for PR, despite benefiting so much from first past the post, is an incredible act of political morality. Do more of it.

With no foreseeable referendum likely we have to have a discussion about a meaningful federalism. Don’t be blinkered – you might get the good society you want from a federal or conferral Britain. And if you enter the conversation, you will look like responsible people and build support and sympathy for the party.

I understand all the problems with such an alliance. But for the foreseeable future it’s the best hope we have - in Scotland and the rest of the UK. Labour know they cant win out right.

Demand to be part of the Labour-inspired constitutional convention. It's pointless if you’re not.

So my thought is this: it can’t be independence or nothing, it has to be how we create the conditions in which people can collectively build a good society; they might end up with an independent Scotland, but this, and only this, must be the purpose of our journey.

As ever, you must be bold and take the lead in forging a new politics. Compass is here to help.

My best, always

Neal Lawson

The CommonSpace opinion section is an open platform for anyone who wants to voice their views and does not represent the editorial position of CommonSpace itself. If you'd like to have a piece published, email CommonSpace editor Angela Haggerty at angela@common.scot

Picture courtesy of Liam O’Hare

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