One of a series of letters from the Chair of Compass to the members of each of Britain’s progressive parties, originally published on openDemocracy 31 May.
I’ve been writing open ‘letters’ to progressive parties. It’s your turn. Like the other parties, you didn’t ask for my views but I hope you will take them in the spirit they are meant – that of generosity and hope.
I write as Londoner and a member of the Labour party but as chair of a political organization, Compass, that welcomes and revels in political pluralism, as well as a desire for a good society in which much greater equality and sustainability are a daily reality for all.
And I write as someone who believes in democracy and trusts people and their capacity to be amazing. That is why I was so jealous of the political conversation you had as a nation over the independence referendum. It puts the, thus far, awful Euro-referendum to shame. The rise of political consciousness in your country over the last few years has been one of the silver linings in otherwise dark political clouds.
I was always ambivalent about Scotland’s independence choice. I didn’t feel like I could lose. If you remained you could be part of a UK wide progress alliance. If you became independent then there was a good chance of getting something like Denmark on the English border – making the case for a good society in the south not just feel desirable but feasible.
I can totally understand why you think your best hopes lie with freedom from English Tory rule, the Daily Mail, the City of London and a Labour party that just wasn’t good enough. All of this and more helps explain the collapse of my party in your country. Even now, I fear, many don’t know why they have been rejected by their former supporters and look for someone or something to blame – rather than look at themselves. But our values and our dreams mean we have a duty to go around and beyond tribalism.
Let’s start with the reality of the political situation we now face. Events might intervene (like being dragged out of the EU in three weeks), but as far as I can see you won’t get a realistic chance of another referendum for some time. The economic and political situation probably rules it out for at least five years, possibly more like ten. To be confident of winning you’ll need to have consistent poll lead of 65% plus. So what happens in the meantime?
It seems to me that you have tricky balancing act to get right – to hold out the hope of a successful independence referendum but intervene in this long waiting game in ways that really matter. But as soon as you do that the future becomes less certain and more open. A range of different futures start to be presented to you and the people of Scotland.
And this is where I have two worries. First, at least from my vantage point, it looks like that you have shifted your position a little but significantly; independence now feels less like a pragmatic tactic for you to build a good society but increasingly like an end in itself. Remember, that in December 2012 Nicola said this:
“For me the fact of nationhood or Scottish identity is not the motive force for independence. Nor do I believe that independence, however desirable, is essential for the preservation of our distinctive Scottish identity. And I don’t agree at all that feeling British – with all of the shared social, family and cultural heritage that makes up such an identity – is in any way inconsistent with a pragmatic, utilitarian support for political independence.
My conviction that Scotland should be independent stems from the principles, not of identity or nationality, but of democracy and social justice.”
But what if a good society, that is democratic and socially just, was possible without independence? What if a progressive alliance could rid us of Trident and usher in a post-imperial foreign policy, introduce a basic income, end austerity and renew the social fabric of our lives? And what if a Constitutional Convention and a set of policies all the progressive parties agreed to could be enacted to at least start to create a truly democratic state that is fully federal?
I understand all the problems with such an alliance. But for the foreseeable future it’s the best hope we have, in Scotland and the rest of the UK. Labour knows it’s highly unlikely they can win outright. If we end up again with last minute Tory scare stories about the SNP pulling Labour strings then that will only help them win again. Some might say mischievously that is what you want to achieve independence – another Tory victory. But like me, you know that means always shape ends. A good society is never created by doing bad things.
So we have to start a conversation now about that progressive alliance, which means difficult decisions for you about getting more involved in UK-wide politics with Labour. Yes of course Labour must shift too. Massively so (they will be getting their letter soon enough). They were totally wrong not to talk to you in 2015. But you must continue to look and feel like a party that cares about the people of England and Wales, that feels part of a shared human journey and that regardless of borders and their nature, we have a responsibility for each other.
Things are shifting and moving. Corbyn changes all the dynamics for good and bad. John McDonnell is now a strong advocate of PR. More and more Labour MPs are realizing the old tribal game is up. The trade unions too are shifting to embrace pluralism, they know some power most of the time is better than little power, little of the time. Your continued support for PR, despite benefiting so much from first past the post, is an incredible act of political morality. Do more of it.
And if you enter the developing progressive alliance conversation, you will look even more like responsible people and build support and sympathy for your party. We must build the muscles of cooperation and pluralism if you stay in the UK, but especially if at some stage you leave.
And that is my second worry, that you are building a disciplined party machine whose sole focus is to deliver independence when the political culture of the 21st century, of openness, networks and pluralism, could make you look very 20th century. There are hints of too much centralisation and too much small ‘c’ conservativism. The test of our radicalism is only measured in how much we trust people.
So my thought is this, it can’t be independence or nothing, it has to be how we create the conditions in which people can collectively build a good society in the context of the 21st century. That might end up with an independent Scotland sooner than you think, but this, and only this, must be the purpose of our journey.
As ever, you must be bold and take the lead in forging a new politics. Compass is here to help.
My best, always,