Can Yes be Red – where is the working class optimism in the Yes Campaign?


No slogan of the Yes campaign has sunk through to become common sense for working people in Scotland. The sloganeers and propagandists, unsure where to focus their energy, resort to spraying the multitude with liberal optimism. The politicians address their audience as a nation of people who have vague ideas about their own problems and aspirations, all connected to overlapping spheres of work, family, community or nation. The strategists and policy-advisors then present solutions to people’s manifold problems and make promises to fulfill their aspirations. The White Paper is both the reference book and masterwork of the Yes campaign, providing not just a list but a synthesis of the solutions offered to the people, and prescribing to almost every person something to improve their conditions of life. The spin-off groups and alternative programmes on the soft right and soft left all fit within this basically populist method of appeal, Common Weal being most tempting for progressives.

Roch Wind believes these strategists’ nationalist perspective never lets them see beneath the surface of people’s place in their society, for it ignores the class antagonisms which determine the social opportunities, wealth, and position of each individual. The kind of hope or optimism generated by the Yes campaign through personalized offers cannot become transformative for the whole class of working people, because it offers no strategy for improving people’s collective power over their conditions of labour, which is the condition for their class advancing as a whole. Personal optimism, even if held by working people, does not amount to working class optimism. (This is not to say the Yes campaign makes a classless pitch, for the nationalists’ offers depend on the success of the middle classes, and so they must promote the power of that class which controls the economy, which we call the bourgeois class. There is good reason for bourgeois optimism about what follows from Yes.)

A thorough critique of social reality gives the working class reason to be optimistic, by revealing the latent power of working people who produce and reproduce the wealth and resources on which all depend, and their antagonism with those who control the economy. The real potential of this power is not acknowledged but quietly denied by the leaders of the Yes campaign, who instead focus on building belief and confidence in the nation as a whole community – Salmond often talks of how he has trained himself to believe ‘with every fibre of his being’ that the nation will improve and society will become fairer and more prosperous, while the Common Weal’s Director has lately launched a blog ‘on why Scotland can face independence with confidence’. They are not interested in developing class optimism, but style themselves as left-wing by explaining how they will improve the lives of the people in the nation – an effective populism which can give a progressive justification of cuts to corporation tax without seeking tax-rises for the rich, and which dismisses warnings about the prospect of businesses dictating policy after independence. Furthermore, because the SNP see no need to appeal to class in particular, and because they can offer something for everyone, they believe they are the party of social justice, and believe Labour critics are merely bitter about the success of popular nationalism without having a plan of their own.

These are among the reasons why most Labour activists, including those who stand for working class interests, aim for a No vote and a Labour government at Westminster, seeing no clear route from independence to advancing working class interests. These people are probably right to believe that whatever the internal configurations of the far left, the SNP will be elected after a Yes vote, and Labour will lose in 2016 under a weak leadership which lacks ideas and shows no sign of reviving before the referendum. And even if they are too pessimistic, Scottish Labour can hardly be said to have a plan for the advancement of the working class if there is a Yes vote. With nothing to offer, Scottish Labour won’t be elected, and probably couldn’t advance the collective interests of working people even if it was.

Indeed, a strategy for Scottish working class advancement after a Yes vote has yet to be presented by a party capable of winning control of government. Some pro-independence left activists have begun to address this, though they take the state of the left as their starting point, rather than the social condition and the political allegiance of the population. Until some credible party or movement presents a radical programme based on the concrete conditions and political traditions of working people in Scotland, those whose interests are bound up with the fortunes of the working class are right to doubt the potentialities of independence. This is why many socialists feel there is little cause for working class optimism via a Yes vote.

But before ruling out a Yes vote, the reasons for working class optimism after a No vote should be considered. The best prospects depend on the weakly class-based platform presented by Miliband’s Labour party, influenced by Left Labour elements like the Labour Representation Committee. Yet even if Labour does win Westminster next year, Labour’s policies seem not to aim for working class empowerment, but simply improvement of their income: in response to the farcical sight of Tories branding themselves a workers’ party, Labour just spluttered that ‘they’ll never be our party’ and asserted that workers are ‘£1,600 worse-off’ under the Tories. The vision developed by British ‘One Nation’ Labour seems, like the Common Weal, to have ambitions for the nation and for protecting and advancing individuals, but has less to offer in terms of uniting working people, especially given Miliband’s stance on trade union affiliation. And though priorities like energy reform give some reason for hope, his party mostly chases issues like tax-cuts and Europe, which will shape UK politics for years to come. So the prospects of working class advancement after a No vote largely ride on our aged Labour Party, founded 114 years ago, now steered by an elite at Westminster: the same old driver in the same old vehicle, which has stalled on this British road to socialism so many times before. The snapping of the trade union links at next month’s special conference will be only one more fundamental impediment to British Labour’s decent repair.

For reasons like these, those who remain loyal to Labour and opposed to independence seem determined to be hopeless, in more ways than one. Others who traditionally backed Labour have abandoned the party, yet will still vote No. But a number harbour a different sentiment about what Labour could be in Scotland, a sentiment that will yet grow. Despite the shortcomings and trappings of the Scottish Labour party, and their deep and dreadful pessimism, there’s no convincing reason why a more classic ideal of what Labour could be is unrealizable in Scotland, especially during a period when people are thinking about politics and the idea of social reform outwith a corrupt and stagnant Westminster system. In a post-independent Scotland the air can be cleared of static constitutional issues like Europe, devolution, and independence, allowing space for projecting ideals and ambitions for how our society could be reformed and led, perhaps, by a strong, left-steering Labour party.

For Labour is reformable in Scotland. Its membership and leadership is old, weak, and losing control, but we would not have to change the whole outlook of this party, with its elements of working class tradition and its trade union links. With some strong people using good language to make statements about how the party should be, ambition and the will to reform Scotland might be enough to revitalize Labour, and to take a first step towards deeper economic self-government by working people and those at the wrong end of the power line.

Roch Wind feels that a real change to Labour (and a real change to conditions in people’s lives) will only come about with independence. To attain this, we believe people who promote independence as a means to advance the position of the working class should consider placing their faith in Labour as a body able to represent and advance working class interests, credibly and feasibly. Scottish Labour requires, first and foremost, a credible strategy that makes working people optimistic about the future after independence. It requires a programme that addresses working people’s material ambitions, and gives those who exploit their labour a reason to fear. Most people are willing to believe things will go well, but first have to be involved in the movement for power of a credible party, using common strength, not just leaving things to take their uncharted course, for this leaves out the collective agency that is a condition of class progress. We optimists require bold slogans, clarity of vision, resolute struggle and confident leadership, to make our Scottish Labour party and movement realise the power we need, the forces we oppose, and the kind of end we are determined to reach.



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