Report: YesAlba inaugural committee elections

Following a week-long online ballot, the 15 members of the inaugural YesAlba national committee have been named. The election – though conducted imperfectly – moves the process of establishing the new organisation onto a firm democratic basis for the first time, away from the more opaque decision-making by the All Under One Banner (AUOB) team. However, the results also raise new concerns about the political direction of the new organisation.

Conduct of the election

At the most recent AUOB Assembly on 22 November 2020, RSP members successfully argued for the widening of the franchise from roughly 100 people to more than 1,200 people. In the end, 329 people voted; this was less than a third of the total franchise, but not far off the 400 people who attended the earlier AUOB Assembly on 14 November 2020. It is welcome that the total turnout was at least more than three times what it would have been with the smaller franchise.

Unfortunately, the election process was a lot messier. First of all, the last Assembly reached no firm conclusion on what roles there should be on the new committee. As a result, the committee was elected as a whole, with 45 candidates competing for 15 places, with the distribution of roles left up to the inaugural committee to collectively decide for itself (even though candidates were encouraged to indicate in their election statement what role they wanted to take on).

The election took place using the Choice Voting platform, which is expressly designed for elections in which voters can rank candidates in order of preference. However, a ranked system was not used for YesAlba. Instead, voters were invited to choose 15 candidates in any order, with the 15 collecting the most votes being deemed elected without any transfers. This can best be described as ‘first-15-past-the-post’, comparable to the system used in Westminster’s multi-member constituencies until the 1940s. It would have been preferable and more democratic to use the single transferable vote system, which is already used for internal elections in most Scottish political parties and may well have led to a different outcome.

It was also regrettable that voters were not invited to express an opinion on how long the inaugural committee should remain in place. The nomination form for candidates asked whether they thought it should remain in place for three, six or nine months, but those voting in the election itself were not invited to give their opinion. It is a bewildering democratic practice to allow decisions to be made by candidates instead of voters.

Election results

In order of votes received, the elected committee members are George Kerevan (247 votes), Craig Murray (197), Neil Mackay (179), Angus Brendan MacNeil (178), Andrew Wilson (137), Sheena Jardine (135), Suzanne Blackley (133), Mairianna Clyde (131), Ian Grant (117), Charlotte Ahmed (110), Keir McKechnie (109), Lyn Middleton (103), Gillian Mair (95), Linda McCorrison (95) and Carol McNamara (93).

Neither Benn Rapson nor Mike Picken, the two members of the Republican Socialist Platform who we publicly supported, were successful, though they performed relatively well among the 45 candidates. Benn came in 23rd place with 71 votes and Mike came in 29th place with 58 votes. Benn openly sought the role of youth and student officer and outperformed the others who indicated the same. As it stands, nobody among the 15 people elected to the committee is either young or a student, meaning this role cannot realistically be filled without expanding the committee through mechanisms like co-option or a by-election. Similarly, it doesn’t appear that any of the 15 are active trade unionists, so the same would be needed for a trade union officer, which was one of the roles widely supported at the last Assembly. Mike, who indicated that he wanted to take up the role of vice-treasurer, continues to contribute to the work of YesAlba’s finance and governance working group, which has met since the Assembly.

The most troubling feature of the election results is how well candidates drawn from the reactionary wing of the independence movement have performed. This is especially worrying in light of the SNP’s recent internal elections, which also saw some socially progressive incumbents defeated in favour of their reactionary opponents. This merits serious scrutiny.

Reactionaries on the rise

In stark comparison to the small, quiet YesAlba election, the battle for seats on the SNP NEC was fiercely contested. Kerevan notes in his latest piece for Conter that this was the “first since the 1990s, and certainly the first since the SNP membership grew exponentially after the 2014 referendum, in which there has been an organised opposition”. This organised opposition took the form of two somewhat overlapping slates: that of the centre-left SNP Common Weal Group (CWG), and that of the more anonymous and explicitly reactionary ‘SNP Good Guys’. Many mainstream candidates were given the disparaging label ‘wokes’ for their progressive social positions; one unhinged detractor even wrote a bizarre ‘anti-woke’ theme song, disturbingly reminiscent of the most surreal parts of the Trump campaign in the US.

SNP and RSP member Tejas Mukerji has previously argued that the 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”. This is plain to see in the response to the make-up of the new NEC. Some very welcome inroads by the left, such as the election of high-profile campaigners against sterlingisation and the conservative Growth Commission report, have been overshadowed by the election of reactionary candidates, particularly those associated with the escalating campaign in the SNP against transgender rights.

When Colette Walker, a supporter of the transphobic ‘SNP Women’s Pledge’, was defeated in last year’s election for SNP women’s convener, she abandoned the party altogether, establishing the Independence for Scotland Party (ISP) on an explicitly transphobic platform. Glasgow councillor Rhiannon Spear, who succeeded in that election, spent much of the following year campaigning against transphobia in Scottish politics and championing the Scottish Government’s proposed administrative reforms to the gender recognition process. For this work, she became a sustained target of the movement’s reactionary wing; Wings Over Scotland has castigated her for months as a “toxic divisive horror” and “truly repellent”. This year, she was ousted in favour of Caroline McAllister, convener of the SNP Women’s Pledge.

Likewise, Fiona Robertson, a disability justice activist who worked closely with Cllr Spear on trans inclusivity in her role as the SNP equalities convener, was defeated by Lynne Anderson, treasurer of the SNP Women’s Pledge. A significant number of LGBT+ SNP members were quickly surprised to find that they couldn’t access Anderson’s Twitter account despite having never before engaged with her, because she had apparently used a tool which allowed her to automatically block Scottish Twitter users who have openly spoken in support of trans rights.

Altogether, the SNP Women’s Pledge has announced that 12 of its members are now on the SNP’s NEC. Not all are women; one of them is Neale Hanvey, who last year compared trans people to paedophiles and won his seat while suspended from the SNP for antisemitism (including sharing an crude cartoon of George Soros as a ‘puppet master’ controlling Obama and Hillary Clinton), and who now sits on the SNP’s member conduct committee.

McAllister was not endorsed by the SNP Common Weal Group, but Anderson and Hanvey were. Kerevan, who endorsed the CWG slate, refers to this very cautiously in Conter: “The CWG also promoted some candidates associated with opposing the Gender Recognition Act. This is a focus of criticism from others on the left, and certainly a rallying point for leadership supporters to attack the CWG.” Kerevan’s writing often switches between a more active, invested register through which he seeks to shape events, and a more passive one in which he observes without guiding. In taking this latter approach, Kerevan abstains from taking a clear position on whether this was right or wrong; his call for “the new left forces in the party [to] consolidate their important but still vulnerable ideological bridgehead inside the SNP” is too vague. The presentation of some members’ transphobia as a mere disagreement over legislation is also too surface level an analysis. Kerevan should have gone further and made a clear statement of solidarity with trans people in the party and the movement. By doing so, perhaps both Kerevan and Conter (which has not published anything on transgender issues since 2018, and nothing at all under current editor David Jamieson) could have spared themselves the sharp criticism on social media which followed the publication of the piece.

The YesAlba connection

While many in the movement were still grappling with the surprise SNP NEC results, AUOB announced the YesAlba committee results. These also included significant wins for the reactionary wing of the movement, though it was far from a total sweep of the board.

The complete results of the inaugural YesAlba committee election (click image to expand). The distribution of votes between the 15 positions is irrelevant, as they were collated.

Kerevan was the most popular candidate by a significant margin, winning 247 votes from 329 voters, i.e. 75% approval. This reflects his high profile in the movement, his participation in the two AUOB Assemblies and his repeated calls for a new organisation along the lines of the Catalan ANC. This could be seen as a triumph for the pro-independence left. However, Craig Murray emerged as the second most popular candidate with 60% approval. He is closely aligned with the reactionary wing of the movement and often openly hostile to the left. This marks his second bid for a high-profile role in the movement, overlapping with his run for the ceremonial role of SNP president and winning around 20% of first preference votes.

Murray, who did not participate in either of the Assemblies, has indicated that he wants to become the chair of YesAlba, which would effectively make him the face of the organisation. This would be a spectacular own goal, not least because his ongoing prosecution for contempt of court over his blog posts about Alex Salmond’s trial for sexual offences would immediately embroil the new organisation in a damaging spat already deeply tainted by misogyny and rape myths. This would likely prevent YesAlba from becoming a genuinely mass organisation and representative of the entire Yes movement. On top of this, Murray is vocally anti-feminist and has fiercely defended misogynists like Tommy Sheridan. Adopting the language of the alt-right, he claims that the left is trying to censor his blog as well as Wings Over Scotland, one of his key allies. Murray will also attract considerable negative attention over his embrace of conspiracy theories, such as his various arguments that the Douma chemical attack in Syria was a “false flag” or that the UK and Israel could be responsible for the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury.

Kerevan could be a reasonable choice for chair, and one with more legitimacy given that he attracted 50 more votes than Murray. However, he was an SNP MP as recently as 2017, which would undermine YesAlba’s raison d’être as a grassroots movement which is independent of the politicians. Murray is emphatically not a politician (though not for want of trying, as he failed to pass vetting to become an SNP candidate), but his appointment would conflict with Kerevan’s earlier suggestion that YesAlba will become the organisation of the “working class” element of the independence movement. This is hardly consistent with Murray’s wealthy background as an ex-diplomat who recently purchased a home in Edinburgh outright for over £600,000.

Four members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) vied for a spot on the committee; each openly identified themself as an SWP member in their election statement, acceding to the suggestion of the RSP at the last Assembly. Keir McKechnie and Charlotte Ahmed were elected. It is disturbing to see the SWP gain this foothold in the movement given its history, particularly its cover-up of rape allegations against its national secretary but also its role in the collapse of the Scottish Socialist Party. That McKechnie and Ahmed succeeded while SWP members Bob Fotheringham (70 votes) and Brian Claffey (65 votes) failed likely reflects the high-profile role they played in the Assemblies. The pair are unlikely to act as standard-bearers for socialist politics or as a bulwark against social conservatism (despite their formal support for trans rights), considering the SWP’s opportunistic habit of shelving its own positions in exchange for organisational privileges, e.g. accommodating Zionists within the Scottish section of its Stand Up To Racism front organisation, of which Ahmed is a prominent spokesperson.

Committee members Lyn Middleton and Gillian Mair are both vocal campaigners against gender recognition reform and fans of Wings Over Scotland. Middleton has, for some time, used “We are all Rev Stu” as her display name on Twitter in an expression of solidarity with Wings (a.k.a. ‘Rev’ Stu Campbell) after he was banned from the platform for violating its hate speech policy by harassing trans users. Mair claimed in her election statement to have been explicitly endorsed by Wings Over Scotland (though that endorsement seems to be missing from the Wings site).

It is worth emphasising that, unlike in the SNP NEC elections, voters did not take a disciplined approach to the YesAlba elections. Many reactionary candidates, like ISP supporter Terry Howson, did not succeed in getting elected, while many dedicated independence supporters who are uninvolved in these battles did. There is also no clear reason why, for instance, Ian Grant, treasurer of the Scottish Independence Foundation (SIF), was easily elected to the committee but Kevin Gibney, co-founder of the prolific ‘citizen livestreaming’ operation Independence Live, was not, given both have made a major contribution to the movement. The presence of Angus Brendan MacNeil, a sitting SNP MP and one of the leading proponents of a ‘Plan B’ on independence, may have interesting political consequences for YesAlba.

Prospects for YesAlba

Just as I started to put finishing touches on this report, figures from the SNP mainstream began to respond to the announcement of the inaugural committee. The response has been hostile from some quarters; James Dornan MSP, for instance, has disparaged YesAlba as “a new talking shop” and instead urged independence supporters to simply “get behind the FM”. This contrasts with SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford’s attendance at the first of the two AUOB Assemblies, where he welcomed the emergence of the new organisation despite receiving a thorough grilling from its delegates over strategy (notably, he has stayed quiet ever since).

Separately, the organisation has come under fire from Gaelic language activists over its use of the name ‘YesAlba’, which was previously used during the 2014 referendum campaign by pro-independence Gaels. This embarrassment could have easily been avoided if the name had been opened up to a discussion and a vote, instead of being imposed by AUOB.

It is not yet clear whether the make-up of the inaugural committee or these obstacles will have a serious impact on YesAlba’s growth. As one example, Dundee and Angus Independence Group has already decided to affiliate to YesAlba (though is also joining the recently-launched National Yes Network, which some see as a competitor). I argued in my previous report that “if YesAlba becomes both a mass organisation and an open arena for political discussion and debate, then there is a very weak argument against the Radical Independence Campaign affiliating to it”. If YesAlba immediately flounders, that conversation comes to a natural end. If, however, it gains a mass character in spite of all this, the left may have a responsibility to intervene and contest for its leadership.

Either way, RIC’s role in injecting republican, socialist, green and progressive politics into the movement remains distinct and important; it will likely be able to connect the independence movement with social inequalities and class struggle in a way that YesAlba doesn’t currently appear keen to do. All eyes now turn to the RIC AGM in January.

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