“It is fear that reinforces the walls we build, people are afraid to be swayed from their convictions, afraid to question their moral instincts and expose themselves to ideas that may challenge the fabric of their entire existence, but what are we if we are not seeking to better ourselves?” ―
We are entering a new phase of the independence campaign. One in which “mandates” are traded against each other – propping each other up more than they are trying to topple the other.
One in which the bounds of the constitution must be challenged rather than worked within.
One in which the “status quo” is no longer the answer to “change” nor is it even on offer.
One in which the nature of the debate becomes ever more existential rather than aspirational.
The idea of a 2020 independence referendum is all but dead with even the First Minster now looking more towards a post-2021 election victory to bolster her own mandate even where the UK Government has already committed to ignoring it.
This isn’t going to be a fight won by legal battles (though a clarification on the UK’s constitution would be welcome) nor by wagging votes at each other.
Meanwhile, Scottish politics itself is suffering as the two major cleaves running through it (Yes vs No and Remain vs Leave) have dealt a crippling blow to the designed “collegiate” atmosphere that the Scottish Parliament was supposed to be founded upon.
Some might hope that a more gradualist approach to independence will get us there, even if it really does take waiting a lifetime. But between the impending climate emergency and the sheer unlikelihood of the other parties changing their minds on their own, I don’t think this is a wise approach.
Common Weal recently published a strategy document aimed at using the sheer power of the Yes Movement as well as the substantial bloc of SNP MPs in Westminster to start to apply pressure on the UK Government – to first mock and embarrass them then to ramp up and slowly bring their ability to govern Scotland to a halt until and unless they accept the inevitability of Scottish independence.
How about we add another tool to that box and start to bring pressure on the Unionist parties themselves? Could we even do this from within? Could we give them the nudge that we need?
One Vote Better
One of the other consequences of the decay within Scottish politics was noted in a recent report on Scottish wellbeing which correctly identified that with the exception of the SNP, the political parties in Scotland largely lack the critical mass to develop policy and campaign effectively. This shouldn’t be a cause for celebration even within the SNP though. I have been concerned that the weakness of other parties threatens to lead to the same complacency within a hegemonic SNP as was experienced – to their fatal cost – by the Labour hegemony that preceded it. Political parties do not need to function at their best. They merely need to be one vote better than their Opposition.
But for us in the Yes movement, the weakness of these parties leads to an opportunity.
What if the Yes Movement could join the Unionist parties as members and gather a strong enough lobby group within them that they could change party policies on blocking a second referendum or even their position on independence itself?
What The Plan Is Not
What I am absolutely NOT proposing here is that SNP, Green or Socialist members leave their respective parties to join the Unionist parties.
Nor am I asking that currently politically unaligned campaigners join up for parties – particularly if those parties do not align to your values in other areas of policy. I’m not asking Socialists to try to join the Tories.
The reason for this is for an important practical reason as much as it is about maintaining an appearance of avoiding underhand tactics. Any party worth anything would rightfully expel or block any prospective members whom they found were joining for maliciously disruptive purposes. And they’d be right to do so.
My goal with this proposal is to find those people who hold pro-independence views but who vote for pro-Union parties. Could we find enough of them to turn a party around on this one specific policy without threatening them on any other area of policy or asking people to compromise their own core values?
Surely This Is Impossible?
Everything in politics is impossible until it is inevitable. I’m no stranger to fighting uphill battles or of watching members take back control of a party to demand a policy shift that the leadership has rejected. I’m also a member of a party that has had a debate about its approach to independence. Where the Greens were perhaps wary of the position or, later, considered it outwith their core ideals the shift since the 2014 indeyref campaign is undeniable. If anything, the Greens of 2020 are even more outspoken about the urgent requirement for independence than the SNP.
Parties are ultimately accountable to their members. When they cease to be, they signal that NONE of their members are welcome as anything more than a meal ticket to keep the party funded.
The only question is one of numbers. Are there enough potential members out there to challenge the existing members and win a debate at party conference?
The Numbers Game
First we need to find out how many members there actually are in each of the Scottish pro-Union parties. This is not an easy task. Parties are often more than happy to discuss membership figures when they are on the rise but less so when they are on the decline. One former membership secretary of a prominent Scottish party once told me that their primary brief in the role was to “find excuses to not publish membership numbers”.
Add to this, the challenge of finding numbers for just the Scottish branches of the party when the party itself may not track them or may not consider them to be important in a “One Nation” context.
Last June a document leaked from within the Scottish Labour party which indicated that they had 21,162 members across Scotland as of January 2019.
The Conservative Leadership contest this week gives us a more direct count as they outright declared that there are 10,911 members in Scotland who were eligible to vote in that contest.
The Scottish Liberal Democrats have not, as far as I can find, published their figures for some time – if ever – so for them I have resorted to a proxy method of taking their UK membership figures – 115,000 in August 2019 – and assuming a “population share” of them coming from Scotland. This gives us 9,413 Liberal Democrat members in Scotland (If someone within the party knows the value to be incorrect, please contact me and I’ll update accordingly).
Next, we have to look at pro-independence sentiment within the “pro-Union parties”. It shouldn’t be considered strange that someone would hold a view on a single issue that differs from their party – even within the SNP, not every voter supports independence and even some members would vote No in a referendum tomorrow – possibly because they support independence but “not yet” or possibly even because they agree with everything else OTHER than independence.
I have been tracking the numbers on independence support within the party voters since the 2014 referendum. Within the Conservatives, the percentage of Yes voters is a small but consistent 2%. Labour’s indy support has been steadily rising – possibly as hardcore Unionists have moved to the Tories while being replaced with younger Corbynites – and and now exceeds where it was right after the referendum at 35% and the Lib Dems have been extremely volatile – possibly as a result of Brexit. As of the week before Brexit, 15% of Lib Dem voters were pro-independence.
Since we know how many voters there actually were in Scotland at the 2019 Westminster elections we can estimate how many of those voters hold pro-independence sentiments.
We can estimate that 179,000 Labour voters are pro-independence, plus 39,500 Lib Dem voters and 13,850 Tory voters.
And here’s where the magic happens.
Of, By and For the Members
You’ll probably see where I’m going here.
In each of the Pro-Union parties there are fewer signed-up members than there are pro-independence voters. It is mathematically possible for these pro-indy voters to become members and to achieve an overall majority of the party – thus it is possible for them to take an explicitly pro-independence motion to their party conference and win it in a completely open and democratic vote. This holds even for the Conservatives.
Granted, the numbers for that party are tight. 79% of pro-indy voters across Scotland would have to sign up as members compared to just 1 in 8 pro-independence Labour voters. And EVERY party understands the difficultly in converting voters into inactive members – never mind active campaigners.
But the numbers ARE there and COULD be exploited by a sufficiently motivated independence campaign. I don’t think anyone in the pro-Union campaign has noticed this yet or fully understands the ramifications but this shows just how tenuous the existence of the Union actually is.
Of course, if a new surge of members into these parties did happen then I don’t expect it to go unnoticed or to go without response. I fully expect the parties to react.
At their most draconian, they could purge those members deemed not to be sufficiently right thinking. Before they lose their majority, the pro-Union bloc could make support for the Union an existential condition of membership. This would certainly say more about the party’s love of democratic debate and ability to think outside it’s own box. Such a move may annoy existing members (both pro-independence and pro-Union) and could well choke off badly needed funds and avenues for growth. Such a party would be doomed to die and would have to admit that it is contributing to the decay in Scottish policymaking.
If they do allow a pro-indy bloc within their party, the bloc may not reach sufficient size to be influential or may be corralled into a “safe” ring, kept well away from levers of power within the party. The only way around this is weight of numbers. Once a lobby hits a certain size, it cannot be silenced. Once established, it becomes harder to purge.
Finally, once party branches have been flipped and start sending pro-independence motions to Conference, one must contend with the mechanisms within the party which decide which debates get discussed and which don’t. This can become intensely political (See, for example, debates in the SNP around the Growth Commission or “Indyref Plan B”). These mechanisms will also vary from party to party and I’m not sufficiently well versed in them to outline them here. This will become a task for pro-independence members. They must cultivate the sympathetic contacts or get themselves onto the policy committees so that their bloc can be heard at conference.
And then, finally, once the party votes for a policy, the members must ensure that the leaders adhere to it. They may simply ignore policies. They may “creatively interpret” them so that they can maintain their own position without breaking with the strict letter of what conference passed. They will probably be outright hostile to policy changes.
It wouldn’t be the first time that a party leader has stated that there wouldn’t be a policy change while they are in the top seat.
It wouldn’t be the first time that the impasse was solved by removing and replacing them.
I’m not underestimating the challenge in this idea. I’d rank it up there as a hypothetical mathematical exercise on par with trying to “game” the AMS system to ensure a pro-independence majority in Parliament.
But if we want independence, we may need to escalate our campaign by parts and there may come a point where this kind of attempt to flip the pro-Union parties becomes possible or necessary. The numbers are already there to make it possible and even just the attempt could be a catalyst towards independence as people start talking about it outside their normal “in groups”.
So I lay this out as a challenge and an opportunity. Pro-independence canvassers should already be asking people about their independence sentiment and their party affiliations. Gather that data in your campaign groups and start targeting the kind of voters I’ve mentioned here. Try to bring them in as pro-indy activists and get them talking to their party colleagues.
At worst, we may start to see the reaction of the party leaders as they realise that the battle has opened a new front behind them. They may not react well to that. An unbalanced opponent is a defeated one.
Independence is within our grasp. But we might need to reach out a bit further than we thought to grasp it.