As we enter the final week before the General Election, I have been reflecting on how much things have changed.
Since well before I was first active in politics in the 1980s, the left as a whole has been a fragmented affair with major disagreements between different organisations, usually over theoretical matters entirely incomprehensible to most people. The result has usually been acrimony and a distinct inability to build meaningful and sustainable alliances to effect real change and challenge the orthodoxies that capitalist societies deem to be normal.
Each organisation thinks it has the one true vision and, instead a spectrum of ideas which complement each other or which can inform better ideas, a myopic stance emerges. Periods of periodic success have bred a culture where having got something right means that the organisation’s views on everything else must also be correct and unchallengeable.
The problem, as I see it, with purists is that they don’t use theory as a tool but let it function as a straitjacket. They lose the ability to effect real change on the ground by boxing themselves into irrelevant corners. Occasionally their approach may chime with a real issue but, more often than not, it’s a circular conversation which involves only those already involved.
Since the referendum in particular, the debate now is much looser and the ability of people to work with people they don’t agree with 100% has improved as a result. Parties, organisations and individuals involved in this have found a very different dynamic in play.
I still remember holding my nose and voting Labour while they were expelling good socialists from the party. This was voting for something you didn’t agree with because the alternative was far worse. There was still also the fanciful notion that Labour could be saved. Critical support of the SNP at the ballot box is a much more positive and engaged affair. It’s a recognition that they now fill a major chunk of the void that was left on the left when Labour left town. However, they are not the only show in town and need to be reminded of this fact.
More importantly most people seem quite happy ignoring party lines. Voting for a party or even signing up as a member is not the end of the conversation, and not a barrier to it either. We have multiple layers of identity, opinion and aspiration and should see ourselves the richer for it.
The organic growth of the Common Weal, from think-and-do tank to network of groups and the prospect of the Scottish Left Project achieving a meaningful reconfiguration of left politics nationally are two examples of this.
It’s this which has brought me back into active politics and I feel much more optimistic than I ever have that a broad movement, built from the bottom up, is emerging and continually wrong-footing the old guard, both within Establishment circles and within entrenched areas within the existing left. There will be wrong-turns ahead, without doubt, but the question is whether those across progressive spectrum are now confident enough to ride those waves.
The referendum campaign gave us a glimpse of how politics can be different. Let’s get on and do it!