What's left? Rise alliance faces crossroads ahead of SSP conference

Post-election conference to confront poor performance in Scottish elections

IT HAD THE FANFARE of a movement, the press operation of an established party, and the dedication of a generation of new activists - but ultimately the socialist coalition Rise fell far short in its first election contest.

This weekend, the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), which formed a crucial part of Rise’s campaign, will debate whether the organisation has a future at the ballot box.

The SSP conference will bring together a mix of Rise proponents, those who were opposed to the move from the outset, and sceptics who will now decide whether the party’s re-organisation was worth it.

In pure electoral terms, the figures don’t make cheery reading for the SSP. In the first two Scottish elections it returned two per cent and 6.7 per cent respectively, successfully electing MSPs. At the 2011 election is received 0.4 per cent - a sign that the party needed a change following the Tommy Sheridan schism.

So following the upsurge of activism during the Scottish independence referendum, the leadership decided to join with key figures from the Radical Independence Campaign as part of a new coalition: ‘Respect, Independence, Socialism, Environmentalism’. Yet, when it came to election day the coalition managed just 10,911 votes - 0.5 per cent of the national turnout. Rise finished behind the Sheridan-led socialist party Solidarity, and ninth overall.

The result has prompted a process of soul searching, and a step back from electoral politics for some of its key members. Cat Boyd, who was the party’s lead Glasgow candidate and a regular spokesperson, does not plan to be a candidate in the 2017 local elections. Jamie Maxwell, who worked as the group’s press officer, concluded his work on the campaign with a piece considering Rise’s “brutal election” experience.

“The SSP-Rise relationship worked well. Both organisations benefitted from working closely together.” SSP leader Colin Fox

Jonathon Shafi, a key coordinator in both Radical Independence and Rise, has spoken of a renewed focus on community campaigning following the election defeat. Other supporters, like ex-MSP Jean Urquhart and former SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars, have left elected office. 

However, the status of Rise is now in the hands of SSP delegates. The party’s executive, led by Fox, is recommending that it continues with Rise as part of ongoing campaigning. 

Speaking to CommonSpace ahead of the conference, Fox explains: “The executive committee will present a statement to conference, passed unanimously at our [meeting] in May, which makes clear our intention is to remain part of Rise.

The recent history of socialist parties in Scotland is one of splits, schisms, deeply felt divisions, and defeat by electoral rivalry.  

“The SSP-Rise relationship worked well. Both organisations benefitted from working closely together. The SSP is in good spirits and played a prominent role in Rise over the past year and inter alia provided most of its candidates in May. We are naturally disappointed that Rise did not do better in the elections but remain steadfast in our commitment to broad left work.”

Challenges remain. How can Rise ever distinguish itself from the wide variety of parties - SNP, Labour, Scottish Greens, Solidarity - who are all jostling for leftwing voters? While over 100,000 people joined the SNP and Greens post-referendum, Rise didn’t launch until August 2015 - missing out on the massive influxes elsewhere.

The campaign itself got lost between mixed messages of attempting to challenge all the major parties simultaneously. Should the party attack the SNP for ignoring more radical proposals? Should it suck up to nationalists in a hope of receiving list votes on election day?

Maxwell concluded that Rise’s approach failed: “If you want to win the list votes of people who intend to vote SNP on the constituency ballot, don’t spend your time attacking the SNP. For some reason, SNP voters don’t like that … bluntly accusing the SNP of being rightwing wasn’t smart. The Greens struck a more constructive tone and were rewarded for it.”

Yet there was no strict discipline on what approach to take. Fox, speaking to CommonSpace, questioned the SNP’s credentials and warned that SNP votes would be a “waste” on the list system. 

Others in Rise tried to strike a more conciliatory tone, but to no avail. What came next – following endless online spats – was an obvious bitterness between Rise and SNP loyalists, souring the group’s image before it had become fully established. 

The story had moved on a great deal from the eulogised tales of mass canvasses, coordinated by the radical left through the Radical Independence Campaign, which were welcomed as playing a key role in mobilising working class communities during the independence referendum.

Symolising the new divide Mhairi Black MP accused parties that “claim to support independence” of a “profoundly disingenuous” campaign to win list votes in the Scottish election. The SNP Youth group mocked Rise’s “protest politics” after the radical took their direct action work to the inside of a Glasgow McDonald’s fast-food chain, hoping to persuade its workers to unionise for fair pay. 

While Rise protests against Donald Trump or for a second independence referendum gained attention, previous pro-independence allies were now more sceptical – and often scathing – of the coalition’s new electoral motivations. Ultimately, the hot air between the Rise and the SNP came to naught: in six of Scotland’s eight regions neither party won any list MSPs and Rise were far away from winning any. 

More consistency came from Rise’s approach of lending support to coalitions on land reform, rent controls, opposition to fracking, tax justice, TTIP, and a range of popular campaigning issues. However, even then they faced fierce competition from the Scottish Greens – who were often sending out similar responses with the benefit of a more established party profile.

Despite election debacles, Jonathon Shafi, a key figure across the International Socialist Group, Radical Independence, the Scottish Left Project and now Rise, is optimistic about the group’s future.

“Rise very much wants the SSP to remain an affiliate,” he says. “Rise is opening up to discussion, debate and action determining how best to grow the forces of the radical left in Scotland in the years ahead. We will be seeking to work with a widening range of leftwing causes and campaigns to grow the social weight of the far left.”

Shafi lists nine separate ambitious priorities from campaigning against welfare sanctions to “developing a media platform” to “establishing a social hub". None broach next year’s local elections which - similar to the Holyrood vote - may come too soon for Rise to make any form of significant breakthrough. A strategy for election success remains elusive. Instead, what Shafi describes as “extra-parliamentary pressure” (campaigns to keep politicians to the left), may become a greater focus.

“It's clear that none of the major parties were able to mobilise vast numbers of the electorate to vote,” he claims. “Business as usual politics in Holyrood has not inspired voters - and is a pale reflection on the referendum campaign. Rise will be part of a long-term process of grassroots, community, workplace and campus engagement and winning on local campaign issues to connect with people who feel they do not have a voice.”

However, that optimism is not universal. The recent history of socialist parties in Scotland is one of splits, schisms, deeply felt divisions, and defeat by electoral rivalry.  

“If they join an alliance permanently, then the Scottish Socialist Party is finished as a party.” Allan Grogan, ex-SSP campaigner

Beyond the major parties, the socialist left remains divided into dozens of tiny factions - the Trade Union Socialist Coalition, the Socialist Workers Party, the Communist Party etc. The controversy of Tommy Sheridan’s conviction for perjury is one of the longest lasting barriers to any form of unity.

Rise couldn’t avoid similar factionalism. Allan Grogan, a founder of Labour for Independence, threw himself into building the Scottish Socialist Party - but was one of the members disappointed with how the Rise organisation was created. He later resigned from the SSP executive.

“From what I hear from people still in the party there seems to be a split,” he tells CommonSpace. “Where they go is uncertain. I always felt that the SSP was trapped with the alliance. If they join an alliance permanently then the SSP is finished as a party. It becomes a platform. If it goes it alone it will have spent the last six months building a rival party. 

“I joined the SSP with a view to making the SSP electorally viable by attracting traditional Labour voters on a socialist left wing ticket. Instead the party decided to join a far left alliance who have spent more time arguing with other socialists and attacking other pro independence parties than working in communities and talking to working class voters.”

Grogan attributes the SSP’s electoral stagnation to the way Rise was established: “My branch, which when I joined just after the referendum was at about 20 regular attendees and activists, dropped to often two to three members at branch meetings. At least six executive committee members left. It may be more, including two office bearers.”

Yet with united support from the remaining SSP leadership for the project, it’s likely that Rise will continue and attempt to rectify those divisions. The enduring challenge is defining what they are uniting for: a community movement for socialist politics? An electoral alliance to get socialists into the parliament and councils? A continuation of the left-wing pro-independence movement?

Among its affiliates, the answer is a combination of all of these hopes and more. ‘Our dreams wont fit in your ballot box’ is one slogan of the Spanish anti-establishment movement Podemos, that Rise took inspiration from. After the election, Rise and the SSP will have to consider that message. If socialists’ hopes go far beyond electoral politics, should elections remain a major focus for their efforts in the years ahead?

Picture courtesy of Rise

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