Battle for the ‘list’ vote: why backing RISE won’t help independence

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G.A. Ponsonby argues that a vote for RISE will not help the case for independence

Last summer a new political movement was born.  RISE, which stands for Respect, Independence, Socialism and Environmentalism was officially launched to considerable fanfare.

Here is how the Sunday Herald reported the news:

‘Scotland’s new left-wing electoral alliance is to be called RISE, the Sunday Herald can reveal.

The grassroots anti-austerity movement, anchored around the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and the Scottish Left Project (SLP), has been taking shape over the last eight months under the nickname the Scottish Syriza.’

On the face of it, a worthy initiative providing further proof of the ever growing political engagement that sprang from the 2014 independence referendum.  Who, among those of us who yearn for a more equal society, could possibly object to the creation of a movement which has as its core aim the broadening of left-leaning socialist politics?

Well me for a start.

At the time of the announcement, the creation of RISE looked like the latest manifestation of what I viewed as reluctance by some to accept their time in the limelight had come to an end.

The independence referendum created the perfect opportunity for pro-independence groups to emerge.  Common Weal, the Radical Independence Campaign [RIC] and Women for Independence were the three better known.  Others such as the Arts & Culture group National Collective and business group N-56 emerged only to fade after the vote.

The referendum threw up personalities.  Few had heard of Cat Boyd or Alan Bissett before the referendum, and Robin McAlpine was a name I only vaguely recognised.  All three had high-profile roles throughout the referendum and were an asset to the Yes campaign.  They were not alone.

But the increased profile enjoyed by these and others was down to one party – the SNP.  Had Alex Salmond not steered the nationalists to an historic majority in the 2011 Scottish election, then many of those who are now well known personalities may never have made that leap from relative obscurity.

The SNP’s win begat the Yes campaign, which gave many people a level of political relevance they could never have dreamt of.  The referendum now over, some have decided to use that profile to help set up a new party – RISE.

UnknownThe name RISE is remarkably similar to aforementioned RIC.  That isn’t surprising given some of those behind the new party were also behind Radical Independence.  The leader of RISE is Jonathon Shafi, whose profile shot up during the independence referendum through his role with RIC, which he co-founded with Cat Boyd, another RISE leading light.

Both have acknowledged the independence referendum as the catalyst for their new party.

Speaking to Common Space last August, Jonathon Shafi said:

“The radical left proved its value during the referendum campaign.  We proved that we can reach people others can’t with our message of achieving an anti-neoliberal independence.”

He added:

“Rise is a product of the independence movement, the anti-austerity movement and the anti-war movement, with the involvement of trade unionists and community activists the length and breadth of Scotland,”

A month later Cat Boyd told the Guardian:

“The referendum was a democratic revolution and I think people want to see that movement reflected in parliament.  What I would hate to see is that the main opposition to the SNP next year are the parties behind the dead hand of Better Together,”

Creating a new party is one thing, it is quite another to raise its public awareness and to convince that same public to vote for it.  RISE has benefited from generous coverage from the online sites Bella Caledonia and Common Space.

Bella editor Mike Small has publicly backed the new party and was one of the speakers at its official launch last August.  Cat Boyd serves on the Bella Caledonia editorial board.  So it is no surprise that the site has provided RISE with much-needed exposure.

Common Space has carried several articles about RISE.  The dozen I found contained a mix of news and opinion.  The site has also published at least one article critical of RISE, but most of its coverage has been positive..

As things stand RISE owes much of the profile it has to these two alternative media sites.  That has raised the online profile of the embryonic entity, formed only in December 2015, considerably.

SNP votes

Away from those “comfort zones”, things have been very different for RISE.  The ‘Scottish Syriza’, as it initially termed itself, has managed to alienate swathes of online Yes activists and some pro-independence bloggers.

On the day of the official launch, leader of the Scottish Socialist Party Colin Fox, whose party is now allied with RISE, made it clear that the new alliance would be targeting the SNP.  Fox specifically singled out the SNP’s List vote, the so-called ‘second vote’.

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The call for voters to ditch the SNP on the List has played alongside press releases from RISE claiming a second vote for the SNP is a wasted vote.

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Writing in Bella Caledonia last November, Jonathon Shafi said:

“The SNP’s electoral supremacy is so complete that all recent polls show a consistent pattern: the party can almost certainly win the Scottish election on the constituency seats alone.

“Once we embrace this fact, the Scottish elections could suddenly become very interesting. For independence supporters, voting SNP twice becomes counter-productive to maximising independence MSPs.”

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This very public targeting of the SNP has angered many in the pro-independence movement who see it as a dangerous and unnecessary tactic that may lead to a split in the pro-indy vote for Holyrood.

Polling specialist James Kelly has dismantled the claim more than once on his Scot Goes Pop blog.  Stuart Campbell, writing on his Wings Over Scotland blog, has also challenged the claim that a second vote for the SNP is wasted.  But RISE and its supporters persist.

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Running in parallel with the ‘Wasted Vote’ claim is a narrative that says the SNP is too powerful, isn’t radical enough and needs to be challenged.  In his Bella Caledonia article, Jonathon Shafi added:

“If the only party holding SNP to account is Labour, the policy and intellectual debate in Scottish politics will stagnate.  We need a broader parliament, with fresh ideas about how Scotland can meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.”

Shafi went on to criticise what he termed the SNP’s “…decades-long, glacial-paced movement to independence”, and suggested the party leadership were happy to remain in power permanently by “blaming everything on Tory Westminster.”

The SNP has no shortage of opponents. Another political party – especially one born out of the Yes campaign – lobbing grenades at it isn’t the best way to defeat a Unionist movement now on its knees. It is though guaranteed to pique the interest of a pro-Union media on the lookout for anything that might nibble at the heels of the SNP in the run-up to May.  Weaken the Nats and you always weaken the independence movement.

Those behind RISE and those who support it are fervent in their desire for independence. I don’t doubt that for a second. Had Jonathon Shafi not created the Radical Independence Campaign then hundreds of thousands of marginalised voters may never have engaged in the referendum debate. For me RIC did what Yes Scotland failed to do – engage with the people who had nothing to lose; those on the margins of society.

RISE though is different. It has the distinct whiff of a self-important pseudo-elite group, desperate to recapture the referendum spotlight. If that means hoodwinking SNP voters into backing RISE then so be it.

Most Yes activists who took part in the referendum joined the SNP after September 18th 2014, choosing to try to effect change from within.  A significant minority joined the more radically left alternatives, the Scottish Greens and the SSP. Pro-independence parties resonated with energy and drive, they still do. The Greens are expected to erode Unionism even further by relegating the Lib Dems to fourth place in May.

Last May saw the virtual wipe-out of Scottish Unionist representation at Westminster. The SNP took all but three seats not because voters backed every single policy but because enough of them realised that Unionism can only be defeated by supporting the only party capable of defeating it.

For most of us, the SNP is the vehicle to independence.  Only when we have reached that destination do we disembark and set about creating the new Scotland.  We simply do not have the required powers yet.

The independence movement has proved itself remarkably resilient and more than willing to accommodate different parties vying for their Holyrood vote.  Only RISE has attracted significant criticism. Even Tommy Sheridan’s bid for the list vote, which is loosely based on the Yes campaign slogan of hope, hasn’t attracted the same level of ire.

RISE is soon to launch a bid for £100,000 for a campaign fund. The success of that appeal may provide a pointer as to the probability of electoral success.  But what happens if it fails? What happens if, as polls suggest, RISE remains an obscure political alliance with no elected representatives at Holyrood?  What will have been achieved?

I don’t support RISE, I’ve said so publicly.  Indeed I upset some who are sympathetic to the new party when I advised independence supporters not to touch them with a barge-pole.

I believe the next referendum will be brought closer by having as strong an SNP majority as possible.  That means voting SNP on the constituency vote and on the list vote.

Let’s not gamble.  Let’s stay focused.  We’re winning.