Danny McGregor: Why we need to talk about Corbynism vs the pro-independence movement

08/09/2016
angela

Campaigner Danny McGregor explores the dilemmas facing the left in Scotland as a result of two very different routes to a future with social justice at its heart

THE relationship between the Scottish independence movement and Corbynism could be described as adversarial, given that they represent divergent paths towards achieving social justice. While there’s some truth to this assessment, it ignores the much wider dynamics of UK politics.

For a start, it’s important to recognise that without the first independence referendum and the SNP landslide over Labour in the UK General Election, it would have been difficult to imagine a Corbyn victory in the Labour leadership race. It's worth remembering that those Blairite ruins Corbyn stands on were made in Scotland.

Secondly, since Corbyn is the 'real deal' in terms of progressive politics, it affects the extent to which the SNP can flaunt its own progressive credentials. 
This dynamic should be welcomed by the left in Scotland, as it shifts the terms of debate and exposes a greater audience to leftwing ideas in a way that wouldn’t have been possible without the rise of Corbyn and the movement that brought him to prominence.

While it’s true to say that Corbynism and the pro-independence movement represent two fronts against the establishment, it doesn’t tell us much about tactical nuance or how they might relate to or conflict with each other.

But while it’s true to say that Corbynism and the pro-independence movement represent two fronts against the establishment, it doesn’t tell us much about tactical nuance or how they might relate to or conflict with each other.

The decision by Corbyn to rule out progressive alliances floated by the SNP and the Greens highlights some of the potential conflicts, although his stance may change after the leadership election.

Corbyn’s decision to rule out an alliance may have been born from the fear that many voters had in the 2015 General Election over a potential alliance with the SNP. 

However, this logic seems questionable, given how well the SNP did in live television debates — with many asking if they could vote SNP in England. It’s certainly possible that by painting the SNP as hardened nationalists (read xenophobic, anti-English, etc.) Labour was felled by its own poison of an inaccurate caricature that drove away its own voters when faced with the only way to prevent a Tory onslaught in practice.

Of course, much of this Corbyn-indy dynamic lies very much under the radar south of the border. Given the nature of the two movements (constitutional question versus a UK-wide electoral formation), this is hardly surprising. 

Nevertheless, it remains the case that the debate over Corbynism exists in Scotland in a way that the independence debate doesn’t exist in England.

As a result, the question now facing the left in Scotland is: which option is the most fruitful for us to follow — backing Corbyn or pushing for Scottish independence? This decision boils down to the possibility of success for each project and the degree of radicalism that can be inspired by each of the movements.

Radicalism

A key consideration for voters and activists alike is the extent to which each movement genuinely challenges the status quo of poverty, inequality, war, and environmental destruction.

One example of some of the challenges in the radicalism of Corbyn comes in discussing subjects such as Trident. The removal of Trident is supported by Corbyn, Scottish Labour and, more importantly, the wider membership. 

However, its removal is opposed by the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). Contrast that with one of my favourite leaflets from the first independence referendum and you can see part of the problem.

Contrasted with the Labour Party infighting, this represents to many people a simple path to nuclear disarmament — a symbol of the changed foreign policy very likely to emerge in an independent Scotland.

As always, the social movements are key, but since many view these questions in terms of parliamentary arithmetic, the common sense (and correct short term) position is that you can’t achieve these goals if you cannot whip your own MPs.

Compare the vision of Corbyn and McDonnell and their decision to incorporate left Keynesian economists with the recent SNP decision to appoint corporate lobbyist Andrew Wilson to run the SNP’s growth commission.

Although the SNP adopts a much better language around questions like social security, there is, as yet, little concrete information on what changes would be made even with the increased powers we are set to receive, let alone with full independence. 

It seems likely that given Corbyn’s 10-point plan, with reference to a serious programme of investment and job creation, house building and measures to tackle inequality that the SNP vision of independence would be considerably less radical. 

Compare, for example, the vision of Corbyn and McDonnell and their decision to incorporate well known left Keynesian economists with the recent SNP decision to appoint corporate lobbyist Andrew Wilson to run the SNP’s growth commission.

Of course, this probably overstates the case for Corbynism, in the sense that I’m comparing the most conservative vision likely to emerge post-independence (that of the SNP) with the most radical position possible within the Labour Party at this point in time (that of Corbyn and his colleagues).

Possibility of success?

Radicalism, on its own, is fairly meaningless unless people can see a path towards achieving it. On the independence side, there are a number of risks. For one thing, as I have argued previously (here and here) we may not get to see indyref 2. Secondly, as is always the case, there is a danger we could lose the vote.

On the other side, assuming Corbyn is re-elected, there are a number of questions that emerge. It seems very unlikely that Corbyn will ever get a clear run at the Tories as so many across the UK want to see. Even potentially effective strategies like deselection of known culprits who are incapable of respecting their own membership are fraught with difficulty. 

For one thing, the process would be long and arduous and would inevitably conflict with the kind of movement building focus which has been so successful. If the vision is genuinely to 'retake Labour' for the membership, focusing on only one aspect won’t work. Alas, trying to do both will be a considerable challenge.

If the Parliamentary Labour Party can’t be disciplined by an escalation of Corbyn’s movement, greater powers delegated to members and potential deselections, a split seems inevitable. This is without even mentioning the task of winning a General Election (or, at least, getting a sufficient vote to form an anti-Tory majority).

For those who see independence as a lever for social and economic change, all this has a very positive effect on our own national conversation.

None of these challenges mean that pro-independence campaigners shouldn’t welcome the development of Corbynism. The movement is key. As argued by Adam Ramsey, the mass meetings across the UK shifts the political terrain to the left more generally and brings ideas that contradict free market common sense to a wider audience. 

For those who see independence as a lever for social and economic change, all this has a very positive effect on our own national conversation.

Another reason to view Corbynism in a positive light is that, even without the support of the PLP, the Corbyn-led Labour Party has already inflicted damage on the Tory government on tax credits and disability benefits.

With this in mind, it’s vital to consider all the options of which movement would bear most fruit for the left in Scotland. While the conversation might be a difficult and uncomfortable one to hold, it’s one we must nevertheless engage in if we are to continue the momentum of progressive politics.

Indy post-Brexit

Another consideration in the Corbyn-indy dynamic is how the pro-independence movement relates to Brexit. Although anecdotal, it seems tweets and Facebook posts from some on the left imply that since the present drive to independence is currently being pitched as the status quo of EU membership versus the instability on a UK level, the campaign will inevitably be less radical. 

For some, this seems to mean deprioritising independence (perhaps as compared to Corbyn’s radicalism).

However, this would be a serious mistake. Crucially, it is very difficult to assess where the PLP-Corbyn dynamic will lead. The options as they present themselves currently seem to be a split or semi-permanent feuding — the results of which suggest the only escape to Tory Britain in the immediate short term remains independence.

While it shouldn’t dominate a potential indyref 2, it is inevitable that Brexit and the democratic deficit are referenced.

Secondly, while it shouldn’t dominate a potential indyref 2, it is inevitable that Brexit and the democratic deficit are referenced. After all, this is the mandate to hold another referendum so quickly after 2014. 

Whatever your opinion on the EU, Brexit pushed democratic deficit arguments to the point of no return and, when framed this way, challenges a setup where progressive opinion on Trident, human rights, immigration and trade union legislation can all be ignored so blatantly.

A way forward?

Thus, the question emerges as one of a less radical and more reliable movement for indyref 2 against the more radical, but less certain path of Corbynism. For many in Scotland, it’s not that people are opposed to Corbyn and the movement. It’s simply that, for now at least, it represents radicalism without any follow-through.

There are a number of similarities and lessons we can learn from each other. The obvious ones seem to be the role of the media in discrediting both movements; the importance of tactically timed polling to hit us when we are down; and the centrality of popular mobilisations linked to developing an army of activists who can run an effective ground campaign.

Taken together, the campaign for indyref 2 and Corbynism can radically alter the terrain of British politics for good, and whatever your preference, this essential work must continue. However, the key task will be for supporters of both movements to remain tactically flexible in a constantly changing political environment.

Picture courtesy of Chris Beckett

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