Less than a week after around 400 people discussed proposals for a new national membership organisation of the grassroots Scottish independence movement, a second online event has placed the proposal on firmer grounds, paving the way for the imminent election of an interim national committee aimed at bringing ‘YesAlba’ into existence by the end of the year.
All Under One Banner (AUOB), the street movement which has mobilised tens of thousands of independence supporters at marches and rallies since the 2014 referendum, organised both of the virtual ‘Assemblies’, but has made clear that it sees the new organisation as much broader than its own ranks. It has drawn inspiration from YesCymru in Wales, which had just 2,000 members in January but has grown rapidly to reach an impressive 15,000 members this month. Both the name ‘YesAlba’ and its draft constitution draw heavily from YesCymru’s example.
The first of the two Assemblies focused on a wider political discussion about the independence movement and strategies for realising independence. The Republican Socialist Platform has already published my report from the first Assembly. The following Assembly on Sunday 22 November was a much smaller event with a narrower, more practical remit.
‘Doing the donkey work’
Those of us attending the second Assembly were dubbed YesAlba’s ‘steering group’. In total, there were around 100 of us, including more than a dozen RSP members. Andrew Wilson, one of the key figures in AUOB (who is not the ex-SNP MSP and lobbyist), described the group’s task as “doing the donkey work”. He made clear that the principal task of the day was to discuss and agree a process for electing YesAlba’s inaugural national committee.
Unlike the first of the two Assemblies, which took place over six hours on Hopin, this meeting took place over roughly three-and-a-half hours on Zoom, making use of its breakout rooms feature to host separate sessions, dealing broadly with structures, membership, fundraising, online decision-making, digital strategy and legal structure. A majority of participants, including me, joined the session on structures (which unfortunately spent a great deal of time discussing the name of the organisation rather than the mechanisms by which it would take decisions).
A republican socialist approach
The RSP’s regular monthly meeting was brought forward to Saturday 21 November to discuss the emergence of YesAlba and how we, as republican socialists, should respond to it. This was a very useful exercise and brought out a wide range of attitudes towards the new organisation, ranging from the enthusiastic to more cautious. It was particularly fortunate that YesAlba’s draft constitution had been circulated the previous evening, allowing us to discuss in advance some of the specific proposals being brought to the second Assembly.
Although there were important points raised about the political orientation of the new organisation, and the prospect of winning it to a republican strategy based on the sovereignty of the people and away from the SNP leadership’s unsustainable position of deference to the British constitution, the discussion was also underpinned by a strong desire that YesAlba and the process of establishing it should be as democratic, accountable and transparent as possible. By the end, we had reached agreement on the following specific points:
- The YesAlba constitution should be amended to provide for the right of existing national organisations, like the Radical Independence Campaign, to affiliate.
- The inaugural national committee should be elected by an online ballot as soon as possible, rather than being elected by Assembly participants on the day.
- The commitment in YesAlba’s constitution that it will ‘exclusively’ use All Under One Banner to organise marches or demos should be removed.
When RSP members raised these arguments in the Assembly, they were widely supported. Although there remained, by the end, uncertainty over the content of YesAlba’s constitution and the process by which it would be finalised, there were encouraging signs that these points and others raised by RSP members over the course of the day would lead to revisions.
National committee election
It was welcome that Andrew Wilson made clear at the beginning of the Assembly that the election of the inaugural committee was not going to take place on the day, as some had expected, but would instead take place by online ballot, with a period for nominations to be submitted and election statements to be circulated and considered. This was an important commitment to democratic process at a critical juncture in the founding of the organisation.
However, AUOB also proposed that the franchise for that online ballot should be limited to the new ‘steering group’ made up of the roughly 100 people attending the second Assembly. RSP members argued consistently for a wider franchise in order to involve more people in the process of establishing the organisation and increase its democratic legitimacy. We raised the alternative of balloting everyone who registered for the previous Assembly as well as attendees of the second Assembly. This proposal was put to the Assembly (albeit after technical hiccups) and won majority support. In practice, this means that the franchise for the upcoming committee election has been expanded from roughly 100 people to more than 1,200 people.
RSP members should be extremely proud of our role in dramatically widening the election franchise. As another participant pointed out, political groups or factions which were overrepresented among the 100 steering group members benefited the most from the smaller franchise. RSP members made up nearly 15 per cent of the steering group but will make up less than one per cent of the wider franchise the Assembly eventually adopted. This will hopefully be seen as evidence of our commitment to embedding a democratic culture and process within the new organisation rather than opportunistically seeking sectarian advantage.
There was an earlier vote during the Assembly about the make-up of the national committee. However, participants were only asked whether it should have 15, 17 or 19 members. AUOB had suggested that the committee should be made up entirely of specific roles like secretary, vice-secretary, chair, vice-chair, etc. and various additional roles like youth officer or trade union officer. Although the Assembly voted for a 15-member committee, no decision was taken on what the 15 roles would be. This has led to a very confusing nomination process in which nominees have been invited to propose roles they want to occupy; it is not immediately clear how this will translate into a ballot. The question of how long the committee will remain in place, raised during the Assembly, will also go to a wider ballot, with voters given the option of three months, six months or nine months.
AUOB’s relationship to YesAlba
In his introduction at the start of the Assembly, AUOB co-ordinator Neil Mackay emphasised that YesAlba would be “completely autonomous” from AUOB. However, the draft constitution drawn up by AUOB included an unusual clause concerning the organisations’ relationship:
78. Subject to clause 39, Yes Alba shall appoint and shall use exclusively All Under One Banner, as constituted from time-to-time, to organise and fulfil the arranging and holding of processions, rallies and similar Yes Alba events which shall be funded in full by the Association. This does not limit the operations of All Under One Banner.
In practice, this could mean that AUOB, an organisation without a formal membership or democratic structure [Edit: AUOB has contacted me to clarify that it does have a formal democratic structure. I am happy to accept the correction.], could wield a veto over demonstrations supported by YesAlba members. This could have implications where disagreements emerge between the two organisations. For example, AUOB is broadly opposed to the idea of a pro-independence march in London, an idea which was discussed by RIC in February. I proposed an amended section 78 which would instead obliged YesAlba to invite AUOB to co-organise such events, and was promised that this would be “looked at” (though, like with many other proposals, it was unclear how or by who).
The left’s relationship to YesAlba
The draft YesAlba constitution drawn up by AUOB also failed to include any provision for existing national organisations, like the Radical Independence Campaign, to affiliate. RSP members raised this in the structures session and in the plenary, and there seemed to be wide support for this, including from the AUOB team. AUOB organiser and SWP member Keir McKechnie appeared to indicate that its absence from the draft constitution was an oversight and that national and regional affiliations are “quite important”. This is a positive sign that a process for affiliation will be in place by the time of RIC’s AGM on Sunday 17 January 2021, though there is no detail about what the rights of affiliated organisations may be.
I noted in my previous report that there was a substantial current of participants in the first Assembly who were hostile to what they considered “politics” creeping into the movement. This attitude was also present in the second Assembly. This current is made up of people for whom independence is the goal in and of itself, rather than a means to an end; in practice, they will push against any discussion within the movement about class politics or independence as a vehicle for political change in Scotland and across these islands. This is a conservative current and the relationship between the left and YesAlba will in many ways depend on how dominant it becomes. It is difficult to gauge its strength before the organisation is fully democratised. One participant snipped at George Kerevan from the chat: “I don’t identify as a ‘comrade’, George.”
This hostility to “politics” was also evident in a discussion about whether or not candidates for election to the YesAlba national committee should disclose their other political affiliations. A number of RSP members argued that those seeking election to the committee should have to make public their other affiliations in the interests of transparency. This was resisted by both the ‘anti-politics’ current and the AUOB team itself. Neil Mackay said requiring disclosure is “factionalism and offsets the democratic process”, and that it would “introduce party politics” into a “non-party political” organisation. RSP member Allan Armstrong, among those challenging this view, rightly responded: “Not declaring your political affiliation does not avoid factionalism. It just means it is hidden behind the scenes from the membership and wider public. Once people can see the political (SNP, Green, other) or organisational (AUOB, Yes group) [affiliation] of committee members, they can see how politically/organisationally broad it is.”
It remains a possibility that the inaugural national committee of YesAlba will be dominated by the various organisations already jostling for supremacy within it, such as AUOB and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). It is important that the inaugural committee is genuinely broad and strongly committed to embedding democracy in YesAlba from the outset. This is particularly important considering that the committee will likely now be responsible for establishing a process for finalising YesAlba’s constitution and legal structure. The RSP is still considering what recommendations, if any, to make in the coming ballot.
These caveats aside, if YesAlba becomes both a mass organisation and an open arena for political discussion and debate, then there is a very weak argument against RIC affiliating to it. It may prove to be the arena in which RIC can win a greater section of the independence movement to a republican strategy anchored in civil disobedience, a development which would help to break the deadlock between Sturgeon and Johnson over a Section 30 order. It could also serve to support the revival of RIC, which has been left without a clear sense of purpose since its effective collapse after the 2014 referendum. This is a discussion which should take place in RIC groups now to allow a decision to be reached at the AGM in January.