Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Reports of the Death of the Left have been greatly exaggerated

The death of Jimmy Reid recently has prompted a number of press commentators  - eg from Iain MacWhirter, Gerry Hassan and BBCScotland’s Ask Kay programme - that the death of Reid in some way signified the ‘death of the left’ in Scotland. 
These comments largely indicate the wishful thinking of the commentators, rather than any serious suggestion that the left in Scotland has in some way ceased to command Scottish politics, and they are flawed in a variety of ways.
Firstly they make the common mistake of people in the media of individualising a collective. The left - as Reid would have agreed - is far more than one individual or even one political party. An argument could indeed be made that it isn’t even a coherent whole. Whatever influence it has on the body politic, comes as a result of support or not in a range of campaigns and political activities - including but not restricted to votes in elections.
Secondly, they make the mistake (as indeed do many on the left) of somehow magnifying an image of a ‘Red Scotland’ (or at least a ‘Red Clydeside’) that contains some exaggeration. While it is true that Scotland has a larger proportion of trade union members, and higher levels of support for public services than apply across the UK as a whole, the overall political view of our families and friends is not that hugely different  - on a right/left split - than in many other parts of the UK, eg Wales, Liverpool, the North of England et al. Reid himself is an example of that, in 1974 - at the hight of his activity and powers - he failed to overcome sectarian smears in his own constituency and came third in the February Election that year.
It is probably truer to describe the activity of the left as coalescing around specific campaigns - and when this happens successfully, it draws in many people who do not think of themselves as on the left. The UCS work in, for example was supported by many Tory Party branches in Scotland.
However, there is a kind of truth in the doom-sayers and self-fulfilling prophesisers pronouncements. Ignoring the problems of galvanising that kind of ‘mass movement’, and the difficulty in building support for progressive causes won’t make the problems go away.
That is why it is heartening that - as we face the worst attacks on our services and our living standards ever - unions and campaigning groups are seeking to re-address the lack of political understanding amongst their activists and members. It is true that it could have done with an earlier start, but the UNISON pilot Unions and politics course, the success of unions and branches in connecting with community-based campaigns and a regular although not well publicised series of actions in the private sector - like the defence of decent pensions in the INEOS dispute - suggest that the death of the left has been greatly exaggerated.
And finally, the record of the STUC in leading from the front in many key political campaigns (Constitutional Convention anyone?) means their plans to build co-ordinated resistance to the ConDem attacks should be followed with some hope.

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