Against the political quietism of the CWG

The SNP Common Weal Group is the most visible, organised and prominent entity on the left wing of the SNP. There are other groups (such as SNP CND, SNP Socialists, SNP Friends of Palestine and SNP Trade Union Group) which are full of leftists, but the CWG is the largest group explicitly representing the left in any formal capacity. It began as an organisation set up with the very best of intentions, of winning SNP members to progressive and ambitious policies, thus placing the onus on leadership to adopt them. I was involved in this initiative for a couple of months after its establishment and left for mostly personal reasons, but also because I became disillusioned with the long-term ambitions and strategies of the group. These have come into sharp relief recently, as the group has come under fire from two different sides of the party – young, progressive and queer members who are scrutinising the group’s endorsement of multiple bigoted candidates (among them those with transphobic, anti-choice, antisemitic and misogynistic views), and from those close to the leadership who condemn CWG’s decision to run a slate as divisive, factionalist and counterproductive to the unity needed to advance independence. The former line of attack is one with a lot of truth which deserves unpacking, while the latter must be unequivocally resisted and pushed back against. 

It should be made clear at the outset that this is not intended as an attack on any of the individuals who sit on the executive committee of the CWG, or the majority of its ordinary members. Ideally, this should be the starting point for a comradely and productive discourse on the future of the left in the party. Many of them are people I consider comrades and friends. Their sincerity and dedication to the independence cause and left-wing ideals should not be in any doubt. CWG’s willingness to accept endorsements from, and in turn endorse, candidates with sordid histories of bigoted views is deeply harmful and politically self-defeating, but I don’t believe that the decision to do so is driven by bigotry itself so much as it is a wilful abdication of staking out principled positions on social issues in the misguided belief that avoiding these fights will make building a consensus on issues like land reform, finance or decarbonisation somehow easier.

In fact, it is likely a mistake to believe that such positions could even be arrived at through ‘consensus’, as opposed to cultivating a coherent bloc that can aggressively pitch them as demands in direct antagonism to a hostile party leadership acting on behalf of the Scottish establishment. To accept at face value the notion that the SNP’s direction can be shifted through dialogue and consensus alone is to fundamentally accept the premise of both leading wings of the SNP – that everybody can get what they want as long as we leave the actual politics to the grown-ups at the top and don’t disturb the leadership.

A number of people publicly defending the CWG have appealed to some onerous ‘battle of ideas’ as being the realm in which the left can triumph over the SNP’s wayward neoliberal drift. Some like Kevin McKenna have gone even further and posited the CWG as the tonic to an alleged obsession with identity politics that is supposedly consuming the party leadership and its outriders. To some, the neoliberal drift and idpol are intertwined. This line of argument fundamentally misreads (A) the commitment of the party leadership to social progressivism, (B) the relationship between intersectional liberation and working class struggle and (C) the idea that the direction of the party can be contested on ‘ideas’ alone, as opposed to concrete power. In some ways, the dead end that the left finds itself in is symmetrical to the impasse of the fiery and furious (but ultimately meaningless) ‘Plan A vs Plan B’ debate raging in the party. 

For the left to succeed, there must be a basic recognition of the reality that the SNP leadership is not made up of merely misguided idealists acting out of pragmatism, with an eye on the polls and acting cautiously so as not to ‘frighten the horses’. State power has imbued it with a number of obligations to various social, political and ideological interests, such as landlords, the corporate lobby, the oil industry, NATO and the City of London. It has proven its willingness to put these interests ahead of both the independence cause and even short-term electoral considerations. These interests are irreconcilable with the interests of the Scottish working class, which the left should identify as the primary social agent and seek to represent – not abstractly champion policy positions. Thus, it is necessary to draw dividing lines within the party, not seek to erase them. Figures like Alyn Smith can clearly see this, which is why they pre-emptively attack any efforts as divisive and counterproductive to the indy cause, calling for the imposition of an artificial unity instead. The left cannot go along with such a unity and hope to see any of its aims accomplished, which is why the open embrace of a more confrontational position is both inevitable and necessary. 

The party leadership’s ability to appeal to the primacy of ‘the cause’ as a means of crushing any incipient left-wing threats or dissent is the foremost reason why a central priority of the pro-indy left (both outside and inside the party) must be to fight for the broader independence movement’s autonomy, and to remove the SNP from the the commanding position it currently enjoys within it. In such a situation, the urgency of promoting left-wing policies should take a back seat to the indy movement and parallel social movements such as those of renters, precarious gig economy workers or the labour movement. In order to best advance these forces, the SNP left would be of most use to the wider movement by building up its internal power through electing its own party office-holders and municipal/parliamentary elected representatives who are committed to acting as a direct and accountable conduit for working class organisations and social movements. Done right, this would grow the influence of the left up to a point where the party leadership cannot ignore it or the movements it represents. The CWG’s current strategy is one of opportunistically piggy-backing the candidacies of pre-existing candidates with their own political commitments and no accountability mechanisms through nebulous affirmations of existing party policy. This represents a dead end.

‘Pledges’ are essentially a one-way transaction, where a group doles out its endorsement to a candidate already running, in exchange for some form of affirmation. Three of the six pledges in the CWG charter (green new deal, national care service, tenant rights) are already officially part of Sturgeon’s plan for government. The other three (local wealth, public ownership and land reform) are all things that have passed in past SNP conferences and which Sturgeon has nominally committed to. Now, to be very fair to them, a lot of the pledge signatories are serious progressive candidates with a record of being critical of the party leadership and its reactionary intra-party opponents. However, several others are reactionaries hoping to use the pledges to gain left-wing support, and some are even incumbent MSPs and ministers. For instance, Ash Denham is a leading proponent of the ‘Nordic model’ of criminalising sex workers’ clients, a policy that the majority of sex workers themselves, some of the most marginalised and precarious people in our society, have roundly condemned as a threat to their safety and livelihoods. Joan McAlpine has a record of whipping up animosity against trans people on social media and invited known hate-mongers banned from social media to speak at Holyrood; she has also called for continued oil exploration off the west coast and urged the Scottish Government not to “rush into” green investment. Kenny Gibson has a litany of workplace bullying, harassment and spending indiscretion allegations against him, to the point where his own constituency party is now trying to oust him. Stuart McMillan is a vocal champion of the oil industry and opponent of Air Passenger Duty. Their records in Holyrood demonstrate steadfast loyalty to the leadership line on policy issues. They won’t have any problem signing up to the CWG pledges because none of them confront the party leadership in a way that makes their positions as frontbenchers untenable. A real left would be opposing, not endorsing, such MSPs.

Perhaps even more egregious than some of the MSP endorsements are the NEC endorsements. Those include an assortment of people with documented records of bigoted and reactionary statements. Neale Hanvey (nominated for the member conduct committee!) described trans rights advocacy as a gateway to enabling child sexual abuse and was only recently reinstated after being suspended from the party for sharing antisemitic content on social media. Chris McEleny has implicitly defended gay conversion in Catholic schools on the basis of “faith-based values” and openly espouses anti-abortion positions incompatible with any movement supportive of a woman’s right to choose. Roger Mullin was a high-profile advocate of Sterlingisation and sat on the board of the Growth Commission, something which several CWG exec members including myself leafleted members against in the conference lobby. He now chairs a financial/banking consultancy firm with Michelle Thomson. Several other candidates on the endorsement list have a record of hostility to trans people. On some committees, the CWG has actually endorsed all the candidates standing, a clear sign of rank opportunism guided by little consideration other than the ability to claim ‘victory’ no matter who actually wins. There are several good candidates who have also been endorsed by the CWG, and they should not be discredited for appearing on the list next to completely unacceptable figures, However, their inclusion on the list as a whole has discredited the SNP left in the eyes of a lot of progressive members, and the wider Scottish left. For instance, a progressive NEC candidate, Emma Roddick, was originally included in the endorsement list but asked for her name to be removed as soon as she saw who else was being endorsed alongside her. Not only are some of these nomination endorsements a betrayal of marginalised people, they also reflect a lack of serious long-term strategy. 

Looking through the list of signatories, it is clear that the candidates associating themselves with the CWG are ideologically disparate and come from both Sturgeonite and Salmondite wings of the party. In the long term, the success of the left relies upon making the factional polarisation at the top of the party irrelevant and bringing together people from both sides who want to fight for left-wing goals. This was definitely part of what motivated CWG’s founding, but it is clear as day now that their endeavour to do so has nothing to show for it. Instead, careerist politicians like Joanna Cherry use it as a fig leaf to burnish their own progressive credentials despite having few demonstrable radical political commitments, as part of the SNP’s wider factional war. A coherent and organised left ought to demonstrate and argue against the limitations of both the Sturgeonite and Salmondite worldviews, and bring in people from both sides of the divide by emphatically propagating a line of socialism, intersectional equality, peace, environmentalism and national liberation above the petty personal grievances and socially backward prejudices that animate the factional war and culture war. There is real evidence that the obsessions of the party’s factional warriors are extremely minoritarian in nature, and these are the only values – combined with a willingness to fight entrenched power within and outwith the party – that can override them.

Around much of the world, we are seeing the re-consolidation of the centre – and an important feature of this is the defeat of radical left-wing currents within centre-left formations such as the Labour Party and Democrats. It is very timely then, that just the other day, the Labour Party’s NEC election results were made public, revealing that though the left remains the largest grouping, it has retreated from its zenith. Unlike these other examples, the SNP left has never occupied a dominant or even an insurgent position. The SNP’s political hegemony is built on the collapse of traditional labourism, and the radical energies within it didn’t emerge inside the party so much as they were forged separately in the independence movement of 2014, before being largely absorbed into the party machinery. There are signs of hope for the indy left outside the SNP, with the revival of groups in the wider Yes movement, such as RIC and a new AUOB-backed organisation. A strong and effective left within the SNP ought to act as the beachhead for the wider radical energies in the movement to force the party leadership to make tangible concessions to both the left of the party and the broader working class itself.

I am still an SNP member, and I don’t intend for that to change any time soon. The socialist case for staying in and continuing to engage with the SNP is, at least to my mind, not premised on it being an ostensibly social-democratic party that can be ‘pushed left’, the way that Labour leftists justify staying in the party after Corbynism. It is because the SNP is right now the central actor in the independence movement, and the resolution of the national question is the single greatest matter of existential importance to the Scottish left. The SNP is also the only true mass party and hegemonic in Scotland’s dominant-party system. For that reason, to the extent that leftists should engage in electoral interventions at all, it makes little sense to do so through any vehicle other than the SNP. As I have said earlier, de-centring the primacy of the SNP in the wider independence movement is a matter of vital importance to both the left inside and outside the party, and there is work to be done both internally and externally to bring this outcome about.

Several of the greatest victories for CW policy in recent SNP conferences have been kicked into the long grass of consultation phases or de-facto annulled by corporate veto. Look no further than the national investment bank being led by former Tesco Bank CEO Benny Higgins, or the public renewable energy company completely falling off the agenda, or Andrew Wilson subverting the motion and amendment passed at conference which mandated the implementation of a new currency as soon as practicable. These kinds of betrayals will not be reversed by CWG attaching itself to NEC or even MSP candidates. It will require a much deeper left strength both inside and outside the SNP, one which can put pressure on Sturgeon through multiple vectors at once. However good CWG’s strategy may be for getting left-wing policy motions passed on the conference floor, it has no way of holding the SNP leadership’s feet to the fire to even implement the policies it has already committed to. For this reason and many others, a completely different model of organisation is needed. 

Unless we correctly locate the situation that the SNP, left and independence movement find themselves in, our analysis – and strategy – will fall short of the mark. For that reason, it must be emphasised that the SNP has not shifted right since Salmond in any meaningful sense. Neither has it become any more centralised or bureaucratic. What has however happened, is that the radical energies brought about by the process of the 2014 referendum were largely absorbed into the electoralist initiatives and mass rank-and-file surge in the SNP, resulting in the diminution of the autonomous extra-parliamentary pro-independence left. A parallel process has been the steady retreat of the mass political consciousness and politicisation of everyday life also brought about by the 2014 referendum. Since then, much of ‘official’ Scottish politics has existed in a vacuum, and the defining electoral outcomes – SNP losses in 2017, Tory/Labour losses in 2019 – have been in one way or another the product of antipolitics. 

Anti-political sentiment is also responsible in large part for creating the vacuum that Andrew Wilson was able to fill with his Growth Commission proposals, which the SNP leadership have embraced. Wilson and Robertson point to private polling to suggest that establishing a Scottish currency is unpopular. But just today, a poll which laid out the fact that a new currency is SNP policy itself, and that it is required for monetary/fiscal autonomy, showed it commanding a near supermajority in support. When we put popular arguments to the public, they respond accordingly. It is therefore a task of the left to reinvigorate the popular imagination of the public around the real opportunities of independence itself, outwith party structures.

These are all significant challenges and I’m not going to pretend that I have any immediate solutions to them. However, one may begin to sketch the outlines of what such an organisation may look like. The truth is, the fate of the left inside the party is inextricably tied to the health of the wider Scottish left as a whole. But what I can say with some certainty, is that it is simply not enough to graft the political commitments of the left onto incumbent elected members and representatives with their own pre-existing political commitments – especially without proper mechanisms for accountability and holding their feet to the fire. Building an influential caucus in Holyrood or the NEC will not be enough – the path to left-wing power in the SNP must also flow through struggles for greater democracy within the party, which is why it is important to offer critical support for initiatives like the ‘Plan B’ motion despite its fundamentally unsound premises and assumptions.

In a couple of days’ time, the STUC is going to pass a motion officially affirming its support for Scotland’s right to choose. This will almost certainly further disorient Scottish Labour, creating an opening for the SNP to become closer to the trade union movement. This would be a great opportunity for the SNP TUG to assert its membership of tens of thousands within the party to put pressure on the leadership to do so. In the midst of a pandemic where people risk losing the roofs over their heads, Living Rent has been catapulted into even greater significance; a loud and vocal contingent of parliamentarians on the government benches echoing their demands may put more pressure on the cabinet to pass rent controls. On these and so many other issues, a real and confrontational left could be taking on the party leadership on matters of life-and-death importance to the Scottish working class – matters which will also have a significant impact on the trajectory of the independence movement. 

The SNP base is overwhelmingly progressive in its orientation and largely working class. Popular left-wing policies carry the support of a supermajority of its members, but that fuzzy mass approval of radical policies cannot be manifested into a concrete majority for radical political change, without confrontation and genuine political and ideological struggle. This requires the left to draw a line in the sand between those who are serious about challenging the power of the party leadership and the entrenched elite interests it represents, and those who aren’t. Similarly, a line in the sand needs to be drawn between those who are and are not serious about the emancipation of all of the working class, from poverty and inequality but also from racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia and other forms of bigotry. The left that currently exists within the party, as organised under the CWG, is sadly unfit for purpose – but the potential for something much better exists, if we on the left of the party choose to build it.

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