Alliances and Not-Alliances: Westminster 2015

I’m a Green party member, and during the referendum campaign I canvassed a bit for Yes in my area. My party’s strength in the Stirlingshire area in terms of elected representatives is centred around the Dunblane/Bridge of Allan area, where the marvellous Mark Ruskell is a local councillor. However, that’s 20 miles away, and with active canvassing for Yes happening closer by, it made sense to join my local canvassers. Given that two of the local councillors, Ian Muirhead and Graham Lambie, are from the SNP, the people I mostly canvassed with were SNP activists.

I was warmly welcomed by them, and was very aware that my presence (wearing my bright Green Yes tshirt) helped us – it clearly demonstrated to voters that the Yes campaign was not about the SNP, but about a broader alliance of people from different constituencies.

All the Yes parties have grown since the independence referendum, including the Greens: the first branch meeting I went to after the referendum needed a hall and over 50 people turned up; meetings before the referendum had been in cafés and pubs with half a dozen or so folk! We are still, overall, a small party when compared to the SNP, but we’re not insignificant. Therefore, I was delighted to see that my old friend Peter McColl has been selected as a Green candidate for Westminster in my former constituency of Edinburgh East (we moved from there last year), opposing the present “Labour” incumbent, Sheila Gilmore. This won’t be easy – the seat has been held by “Labour” for a long time, with Gavin Strang preceding Gilmore.

The Green party does not have the resources to stand candidates in every constituency, so it chooses seats where it might realistically be able to make progress. The combination of Edinburgh East and McColl really does offer that – but it’s far less likely if the former Yes vote is split and an SNP candidate stands too.  In fact, it might even mean Gilmore gets back in, and the unionists will hold the seat.

I welcome Nicola Sturgeon as the new leader of the SNP, and I think she’s likely to be a very good First Minister of the Scottish Parliament. However, I do think it’s a shame that she seems to have ruled out a party political alliance, even a very loose one, for the 2015 Westminster election. The SNP has said it is prepared to support candidates from outwith the SNP who would stand under an SNP banner: whilst this is very welcome (I can’t wait to see who some of the candidates might be), it seems an alliance between parties is being ruled out.

Alliances are common in many European and other countries, and I see no reason why they wouldn’t work well in Scotland for Westminster elections, given that many of us who voted Yes are keen to have parties in Westminster that will stand up for Scotland. This is something that none of the unionist parties offer, least of all “Labour” – as the former leader of their Scotland branch, Johann Lamont, has made clear.

What I would have liked to have seen is as follows: an agreement that in constituencies such as Edinburgh East, where the Greens have a realistic possibility of unseating a unionist politician with a capable candidate such as McColl, the SNP would agree to not stand a candidate themselves but put their considerable resources into serious canvassing for the Green candidate (the ballot paper could say something like “Peter McColl – Scottish Green Party (Scotland Alliance incl. Scottish National Party)” or similar, perhaps also including the SSP, who were an important part of the Yes campaign). In turn, members of the Green party (and the SSP?) would canvass for the SNP/Scotland Alliance candidate in their various constituencies where they’re not fielding candidates, such as Stirling.  Whilst I was out canvassing for Yes with local SNP members variations of this were discussed and generally thought to be a good idea.

Why is this important, when the SNP is dominating the Scottish political landscape just now? Given that in Stirling (and most other parts of Scotland) we, the Greens, are unlikely to be standing a Westminster candidate, I and other Green voters will have to vote tactically, and for many that will mean voting for the (as yet undecided) SNP candidate; I can’t see many Greens voting for the “Labour” party or any of the other unionist parties. Now voting tactically is one thing, but if I knew that the “big beast” that is the SNP was willing to openly work together with smaller parties such as the Greens in an area such as Edinburgh East where the Greens have a realistic chance of defeating “Labour”, I could actually see myself canvassing for an SNP/Alliance candidate in Stirlingshire/Strathendrick (perhaps on the ballot paper as “XXX – Scottish National Party (Scotland Alliance incl. Scottish Green Party” etc.). I simply cannot canvass for the SNP if it does not also represent the Greens.  If there is no alliance, then I might try and go back to Edinburgh a couple of times and help canvass for McColl.

Now that kind of call really is for the larger party to make, as the Green statement on the issue says – and it is a shame that it now seems it won’t be happening this time around. Instead, it seems the SNP is emphasising the more narrow party political advantage it thinks it has on the basis of current support. I very much hope that it is not underestimating the might of the forces against it, when the tired old clichés about “vote Labour to kick the Tories out” and similar nonsense will be revived, for sure (or as I like to think of it: “vote redTories to kick the blueTories out”!). Using the undemocratic FPTP system for Westminster to advantage is not something the SNP has been particularly successful at in the past, and even with polls showing overwhelming support for the SNP at the moment, I am a bit uncertain about how that will translate into Westminster seats. Better, I would have thought, to involve as many campaigners and variety of candidates as possible in standing up for Scotland in order to increase the chances of winning seats at Westminster, than to risk not doing so well alone in the skewed system that is FPTP.

This is especially the case since if there is another hung parliament in 2015, it is, I think, entirely conceivable that the red and blue Tories could form a grand (unionist) coalition, possibly with UKIP, that excludes the “separatists” in the form of the SNP and perhaps Plaid Cymru (I expect the LibDems – who? – to be an irrelevance). For the SNP to think it could play “kingmaker” could therefore well be wishful thinking:

  • it underestimates the visceral and completely irrational hatred that “Labour” have of the SNP, which, if anything, has worsened since September (and is likely to worsen further if “Labour” really are stupid enough to choose Jim Murphy as Lamont’s replacement);
  • the “Labour” party have already said they will continue the economic, military (Trident etc.), social security/welfare and other policies of the Tory party – so there isn’t very much that divides them anyway, making a grand coalition relatively straightforward;
  • the Yes campaign members were not the only ones to have collaborated closely – the No campaign also worked closely together: I, for one, will never forget the “Labour” and Tory parties at the Stirling count early on 19.9. celebrating Stirling’s No vote together – who is to say that kind of cosy arrangement doesn’t herald greater cooperation in other contexts?  (Incidentally, it amazes me that few on the former Yes side seem to think this is important.)

Of course, you might ask why I don’t join the SNP instead of the Greens and then I could campaign for them in Stirling/Strathendrick without any of these moral qualms. I actually know a Green member who after 18. September resigned his membership and joined the SNP, so it’s not as if others have not done so (in a time of crisis, he said, it was what he felt he needed to do). But I joined the Greens for more reasons than independence – the Greens are much more closely aligned to my way of thinking in most areas, and for me and others in the party, independence simply offers the best way to achieve these things (I note that not all Greens agree on this, with some opposing independence).  For me, independence is a tool to achieve greater social equality and a more responsible way of living with our resources and so on – but at the moment it’s a tool we don’t have, and therefore I want to pursue my ambitions for these things in other ways, in the first instance by increasing powers for Scotland via the Smith Commission. I’m pretty confident that independence will come before too long, and quite possibly with Nicola Sturgeon leading the way. But in the meantime, we need to make sure that we have the strongest possible pro-Scotland representation at Westminster in order to ensure that the Devo-Max promises that were made by the unionist parties are kept to. I think working together is a more likely way to achieve that.

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23 thoughts on “Alliances and Not-Alliances: Westminster 2015

  1. Like you I am a new member of the Scottish Greens. I am though more with Mike Small’s position on this than yours. FPTP is an extremely challenging electoral system for the Greens. It has proved hard for the SNP as you point out, but pretty much impossible for the Greens. As you indicate even in the most promising of circumstances, Edinburgh East for example, you tacitly admit that without SNP support the Greens will not win anyway. Far better to prepare for 2016. Even with a more favourable electoral system, Holyrood has proved no easy matter for the Greens. In 2016 we will face a revived SSP and perhaps others. Like them we will be relying to some extent on SNP voters voting Green for Holyrood. Opposing the SNP in 2015 is likely to be at best an irrelevance and at worst a barrier to Green minded SNP voters.

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    • Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

      I’ve been a Green for a while, and having canvassed in elections, I am well aware that FPTP is hard for the Greens. My point is not that we Greens shouldn’t vote tactically in 2015, it’s that the SNP also needs all the help it can get in a FPTP system, and by them not helping the Greens in an obvious constituency like Edinburgh East, it’s closing the door on help it might receive in all the other constituencies across Scotland. It’s not that having me on their canvassing team will swing it for the Stirling constituency, but it might help some who might otherwise not vote, or not vote for the SNP in this area. I am certainly not advocating opposing the SNP – I’m not sure where you get that from.

      As I said, and I agree with you, 2016 is quite a different matter.

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    • Hi Sean,

      thanks for commenting: no, I suspect it’s nothing to do with your explanations of Yes Alliance – I don’t use FB much so haven’t seen your group there (but I did just join it!), but now that I see your name here, I realise I’ve seen your comments elsewhere, and there’s nothing wrong with the clarity of your explanations! Subconsciously, I’ve probably imbibed a fair bit of your argument. 🙂

      I suspect the amazing poll numbers for the SNP being reported continually just now are so bright in the eyes of their strategists, that they can’t properly see these other things that might actually be quite important in the medium- or long-term. Who knows where the SNP’s poll numbers will be next May and how useful such a “Scotland Alliance” kind of thing might be to them then?
      There’s still time for tweaking that policy, which hasn’t got much detail to it at the moment… maybe…?

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  2. I had a fairly lengthy talk with Mark Ruskell and it did seem as tho the Greens in Stirling weren’t too keen on the Alliance idea at all.

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    • Thanks for commenting.

      Please don’t misunderstand me – I have no authority or position or anything in the Greens, I’m just an ordinary member with a view. I haven’t spoken to Mark about this, but he will be in a much better position to reflect the wider Green position here.

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  3. Great post Michael, completely agree. I’m in the same position as you, SGP member who campaigned alongside mainly SNP activists in the run up to the referendum, and would happily campaign with them again if some sort of agreement were in place.
    All too often recently, however, any talk of a ‘Yes Alliance’ seems to be shorthand for ‘everyone vote SNP in May’, with a promise that the Greens and SSP will reap the rewards in 2016.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Neil.
      Yes, it’s hard at times not to almost feel a little used, but I am absolutely sure that is not how “my” (or “your”) local SNP activists saw our engagement.

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  4. Looks like” Sheppard, a comedy and music promoter who played a key role in attracting musicians such as Franz Ferdinand lead singer Alex Kapranos
    and singer-songwriter Amy Macdonald to join a Yes Scotland fundraising
    concert during the campaign, is being lined up to fight for the SNP in
    the Labour seat of Edinburgh East.” http://www.theguardian.com/…/snp-alex-salmond-indepence…

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      • Mind you these issues are very difficult to judge. Who in a Yes alliance can decide who should stand in any constituency. It is subjective and also a bit of a dark art predicting the voting intentions. But in this case there needs to be some sort of cooperation and compromise then one of them has to step back for the bigger picture or risk a vote split.

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        • Indeed – predicting elections is not for the faint-hearted! But I think constituency by constituency some kind of scheme like this could work (could have worked?). McColl is well-known in substantial parts of Edinburgh East and stands a good chance, I think, of defeating Gilmore – possibly more so than so than many SNP folk.

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  5. Hi Michael.
    I enjoyed reading your post. It’s well written and thoughtful. I have to say I disagree that there is any possibility of a Grand coalition involving Labour and the Tories. With the exception of WW2 such a move is unprecedented.
    Like you I am a member of the Stirling Greens (although I joined far more recently). I think I recall you from the post-indyref meeting which was the first I had attended.
    I also attended the more recent meeting mentioned above at which the possibility of an Alliance was discussed. My own feelings on this were a bit mixed (you can read them here if interested http://counterculture.scot/?p=56). I can see the attractions – especially in the red Tory citadel that is Glasgow but I’m less convinced of the value of the idea in Stirling where I think there may be what you might call a lot of “sleeping Tories” e.g people who voted for New Labour but who could easily revert back to the Conservatives. In any case, at the meeting it was agreed that we should hear what the SNP was proposing and it would appear that in fact it was, as you say, the SNP who decided against an alliance.

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    • Hi Alan,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment – and yes, I remember you at the meeting. I missed the AGM as I was away that week, and I missed this weekend’s campaigning as I was speaking on the Middle East at another event!

      A “Labour”-Tory alliance is unprecedented in the UK (other than in war), as were coalitions until 2010. They happen in other European countries, and with the rise of the “small” parties (Plaid Cymru/SNP/Greens and UKIP), we are in very unpredictable waters. There is a lot that could change if the traditional parties see their position threatened.

      Stirling is an interesting situation, and whilst I don’t want a Tory MP, having the “Labour” party in place is hardly better (even though I know McGuire has a family background in a real left Labour context, she doesn’t represent that). Communicating that to voters is key, and I would have been happy to do that for the SNP under these exceptional circumstances we are in, but I can’t do that if the SNP won’t reciprocate in somewhere like Edinburgh East – and it is the larger party that needs to take that step.

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  6. I’m also a new Green member – and an old one from 1978 to 1982 – and am concerned by the willingness some have to stop competing just as the Greens have the highest ever poll results for Westminster across the UK. I see no real difference between the actions of the SNP and those taken by the other parties trying to run a state increasingly dependent on the goodwill of the big corporations. They all seek “growth” at any cost, we are different. Environmental (and social) action is urgent and we need to be clear about priorities, how else can the electorate work out what to do with their votes?

    Independence, and the apparent desire, visible on some forums, to be a proper left (i.e. marxist) party, are competing for priority with an environmental focus. The process of supporting a candidate in a fierce campaign should help members work these issues through. And without a candidates, many votes will not get recorded and we will disappear from view.

    Whatever the electoral strategy, the green movement does not need to wait for a parliamentary majority to start building alternative systems to procure food and shelter, maybe help develop the Cooperative movement (current one is welded to Labour) maybe start afresh.

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    • Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Brian.

      I’ve been a member for a wee while now, but not as long as you (cumulatively!), and I do think that there a sense in the party overall that there is a real need to field candidates even if they have little chance of winning, because it keeps the option in people’s minds of a Green alternative to the other parties (which don’t take the Green agenda particularly seriously). I agree with this stance – it’s not wasted money, even if there is no prospect of winning.

      However, my point here is that I want the pro-independence movement at WM to be as strong and diverse as possible, and the SNP’s move seems to have prevented that.

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      • Hi Michael,
        I suppose I’m enthused about the possibility of collaborating with others locally to set up some everyday systems people need and that way prune the corporations legally obliged to put their shareholders first. Trudging round doors popping leaflets through that claim all people have to do is vote right and a better future comes their way is not for me – that concept never was true. One big reason Labour died (in the 70s) was because they had largely stopped involving people in building a better future and were just concerned with getting their vote. I know there are legal, practical and presentational obstacles to competing with the big privateers on transport, energy, food and care in particular, but I suspect the vote will only increase, and thereby release the resources to tackle those obstacle, if people see something real happening – a bootstrapping operation, if you like. Independence is not a necessary precondition for embarking on this, it may well be a distraction (and I voted Yes).

        Liked by 1 person

        • Isn’t that about short-term aims and long-term goals? I think independence is necessary to achieve many of the longer-term things we want (hitherto I would say that included getting rid of Trident, for example), but in the short-term there are many things we can also do: one of the first things said at the first Stirling Green meeting post-referendum when welcoming new members was that being part of the Greens was about campaigning on key issues, it was not just about encouraging people to vote a certain way.

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          • At 60, retired, and having first been active on one bit or another of the Green agenda since 1976 (Torness) i’m well into the long-term already!

            Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Alliances and Not-Alliances: Westminster 2015 – postscript | In The Public Sphere

  8. Pingback: Westminster coalitions: why the SNP will win at the 2015 General Election | In The Public Sphere

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