Anyone who has followed the trials and tribulations of the left over the past few years will know that Glasgow has not had an easy ride. Our poster-boy, our leading MSP and great white hope turned out to be a sleazy hypocrite who would throw his comrades to the tabloids rather than be seen as anything other than a bourgeois family man. Yet strangely the Glasgow left is in the ascendancy. There is a buzz in the air and raised spirits. Partly this can be put down to the Hetherington Occupation last year, demonstrating the strength of the determined; partly to the emergence of the International Socialist Group (ISG), a Scottish breakaway from the SWP with new thinking and new ideas, partly down to the global upswing in resistance movements that we have witnessed and partly just down to the healing which occurred in the Glasgow left while our abuser was in gaol.
One significant emergence in the last year has been the Glasgow Coalition of Resistance. Since the initial meeting of around 150 people representing a remarkable diversity of Glasgow’s radical scene, Glasgow CoR has gone from strength to strength. It has managed to attract an amazingly broad range of people and sustain a level of activity and vibrancy which hasn’t been seen since the early days of the Scottish Socialist Party. Its diversity is remarkable. Only a couple of years ago it would have been inconceivable for SWP members to sit next to SSP and anarchos next to the Labour Left; for trade unionists to be working with students and for community groups to be pivotal in building links across different aspects of resistance. I hear anecdotally that Glasgow is the strongest section of CoR and while it makes me very proud of what we have built, it is also rather sad that other areas dont have the same support network.
Glasgow CoR operates primarily as a support structure for other actions – whether that be from organising a solidarity bus for the pickets on J30 and N30; publicising the STUC “There is a better way” demonstration on 1st October, or assisting the Save the Accord campaign with practicalities and moral support. It has a strong activist focus. The usual format of meetings is for people to divide up into medium sized groups to discuss and come up with a plan for either a specific action or an aspect of a larger action. Actions required to make things happen are identified and responsibilities for tasks agreed between the members. With only four elected positions, and elected more by consensus than by ballot, leadership emerges within the groups, with different people taking responsibility for facilitation, notetaking, reporting back on each occasion, while the input from participants is controlled through a stack, whereby people notify their wish to speak in advance rather than rely on being chosen to respond, which makes for a more free-flowing and inclusive atmosphere.
This structure gives COR both a vibrancy and an openness – there is no top table, ownership of the projects are distributed giving members, especially new or infrequent attendees an opportunity to participate and take on responsibilities. As people volunteer for things publically, there is an element of social accountability and awareness in task auctioning. This encourages participants to complete tasks that they have taken on, not from an abstract sense of duty or loyalty, but from a concrete feeling of awareness of their role within a wider context and the awareness that other people are relying on their contribution to make their own.After the groupwork sessions, the room comes back together for feedback, to keep everyone in the loop on what has been discussed, and ask for general support for activities that require mass participation, such as promotion, or inform people of the practical arrangements that have been made. The inclusion of people from within the trade unions and campaign groups supported is critical as taking a lead in determining what support is most effective.
While the meetings as described above are the norm, on occasions COR also organises slightly different meetings: generally in the lead up to a major event it will be agreed to postpone a regular meeting in favour of an “activity” meeting, where practical things – banner making or placard making for example will be the main purpose. Although Fredrick Taylor would be turning in his grave at the inefficiencies of these production lines, they are nonetheless fantastic opportunities to build bonds and develop connections which aren’t usually possible in more structured environments. The solidarity of the factory line is build over the shared activity to a common end and these practical sessions give COR participants a chance to discuss thinking, developments, activities in an informal manner with people that they are thrown together with on the “production line” that they would perhaps not naturally seek out.
Another alternative to the groupwork meetings that are held from time to time, are traditional top table speaking events. Usually held in the aftermath of a demo or public activity, these are aimed at linking the activity in Glasgow to wider struggles – within Scotland, the UK or internationally. Technology allows for live linkups with Occupy Wall Street and Syrian activists and speakers such as Owen Jones, the author of Chavs setting the activism in context and drawing links between the struggle here in Glasgow and wider national and international priorities. Although there is theory in these session, they are not theoretical development sessions – more awareness raising of the different strands of thought and locuses of struggle. It would be unfair to describe COR as non-theoretical, but theoretical development is not a major aim of COR. Most participants in COR have a primary political identity outwith, whether as a member of a trade union, political party or campaign group – the theoretical challenge for COR then becomes less to actively develop members in line with a given theoretical understanding, than it is to overcome differences in theoretical understandings and ensure that these do not become barriers to activity, solidarity and support for radical causes.
Its worth conmparing CoR with some of the other movements that have sprung up on the left over the last year or so. The first, UKUncut was set up to embarrass, shame and ultimately economically damage companies which refused to pay the taxes that they owed. In a time when people were being told the country was skint and that we would all have to tighten our belts, the revelation that multi-nationals were being let of billions of pound in tax, while terminally ill people were being thrown off incapacity benefit and instructed to seek work struck a strong chord with the public. Locally organised demonstrations were held outside targets, loosely co-ordinated in that sometimes a particular target would be identified but lead on the ground by local activists and campaigners. UKUncut was a star which burned brightly, but the campaign got scorched after the arrest of 148 activists who occupied Fortnum and Mason on March 25th. Bogged down in legal challenges, a substantial section of activists under legal proceedings and a wider section of activists and supporters who now feared legal action being taken against them, UKUncut moved on from direct action to legal action against the companies involved. While this is in many ways a very positive move – challenging these sweetheart deals through the courts is worthwhile, it is also more remote and tucked away than people challenging them on the high street – moving the locus of struggle away from the local and into the foostie chambers of court.
The other major movement to have emerged in the last year is Occupy. Inspired by the occupations of Tahir Square and Stygmata Square, Occupy Wall Street sought to take the fight to the centre of power. The movement spead across America and when the call to Occupy made on 15th October reached the UK, three camps were established in Scotland: Glasgow, Edinburgh and …Paisley. The Paisley experience was a portend of things to come. The camp was abandoned after only two nights, after the occupier had been threatened and robbed, the vunerability and nievity of the movement’s tactics were exposed. Tales were emerging of racism, sexism, sexual abuse and violence from the Occupy Camps internationally. When a rape occurred at Glasgow Occupy, the response of the camp was shocking – yet still it continued until an unexplained fire extinguished the protest and the now disbanded Edinburgh camp has also been associated with violence and misogyny. Occupy generally attracted a less experienced and less active protester: it inspired people who usually just shouted at the telly, but at the same time it also attracted people who struggled within the mainstream and sought an alternative many times out of necessity. Running a 24hour space in a public arena with an eclectic mix of people thrown together in a lifestyler protest is exhausting, most UK camps either imploded or dwindled. With no clear sense of purpose, it became merely a spectacle. Occupy as a political movement became a piece of theatre, yet within Occupy, the experience of communal living threw up issues of power, domination and exploitation. Occupy moved into the occupation of physical space with the Bank of Ideas – a far better organised, more structured and more challenging form, but one not as open to the stray passer-by. At the end of last month, with the eviction of both Occupy LSX and the Bank of Ideas, its future is uncertain.
UKUncut and Occupy were both ultimately rootless. They came from the ether – emerging and capturing a mood, rather than rooted from within communities. They both tried to challenge big things – multi-nationals and global finance respectively. They both hit tactical problems and had to change their tactics to adapt. Both matured into more effective, but less inclusive forms of resistance. And ultimately – although the UKUncut legal challenge goes on, both have disappeared as activities that can be incorporated into local action.
This contrasts strongly with CoR. The primary basis of CoR is that it amalgamates existing struggles, lending support, expertise and wo/manpower to building for either distinct local campaigns, or local implimentations of national struggles. With a cross-section of people involved in such struggles through an existing political identity, it gives it a diversity, but at the same time a cohesion of shared understanding that other people may have expertise that they can draw from. Rather than competing perspectives, it has overlapping ones. While this can be problematic on occasion – with clashes of events, different priorities and variations in tactical approach, it avoids direct conflict for the most part, by recognising the authority and expertise of contributors, and allowing the struggles to be lead from within the struggle. As such it has a base which can be built on, and a support network to be called on, which goes wider than any particular meeting, yet is not determined by gaining the approval of a particular official. This allows for both open participation, but also effective challenge.
Like Occupy (the 99% are sick of being exploited by the 1%) and UKUncut (multi-nationals should pay the taxes they owe HMRC), it has a relatively simply simple message – that we refuse to accept the austerity being imposed on us, and will fight cuts. There have been a variety of attempts to refine that message, however as with UNcut and Occupy, its strength is in its universality. How that pans out on the ground is very much up to the individual interests and perceived. Most members of CoR for example are opposed to nuclear weapons, and while the mission would encompass a demand not to cut Trident, it is unlikely that such a campaign would gardner much support on an individual level within the organisation. CoR is amorphous, but at the same time rooted and able to call on resources beyond its own realm: financial backing from trade unions for support activity; political expertise from experienced activists; connections and communications that stretch beyond its direct participants.
In an earlier Frontline article, I discussed the nature of a holarchy – an entity made up of smaller units – each of which act autonomously and are in themselves made up of smaller units. CoR fits this structure well, in that participants for the most part each belong to at least one other identifiable radical tradition, movement or school of thought, gaining support and sustenance from it. The diffusion of control and devolution of responsibility to within dynamic groups allows for the development of a strong oppositional conciousness – where leadership is granted to those in the forefront of the relevant fight rather than being imposed from on-high ensuring that the tactics and strategy utilised are those most relevant to fight at hand, increasing its effectiveness.
The SSP was built by drawing together small disparate political groupings, as well as individual socialists who had grown weary of political participation while remaining active within communities, trade unions and pressure groups. It did this in two particular ways – firstly the pull of the charismatic leader cannot be underestimated. For all the criticisms that existed of Sheridan, pre-2004, he was a major and well respected name on the left. His leadership of the SSP gave it a gravitas that convinced the non-aligned that this was a project worth signing up to, while his media profile and the prospect of tangible power convinced left groupings that the SSP was the way forward. The second critical aspect was the toleration and even encouragement of factions – with an agreement that the 20% of disagreements that existed between groupings on the left should be set aside in favour of the 80% we agreed with. For a substantial period these twin pulls served the SSP well – the bright star of Sheridan dazzled, while differences in approach were put on the back burner. Ultimately it fell apart as it became evident that differences over personal behaviour, morality and the position of women in the party could not simply be shunted into the 20% that we agreed to disagree about, and that no leader, no matter how charismatic was worth abandoning the fundamental principles of socialism for. Yet the five years of growth for the SSP cannot simply be dismissed.
CoR demonstrates an alternative, which harnesses the strengths of the SSP: an ability to maintain theoretical perspectives while belonging to a wider organisation, and a visibility which provides gravitational pull, but at the same time avoids the difficulties of leadership embodiment by distributing practical leadership and eschewing formal leadership structures. Differences of opinion on priorities and tactics are not voted for by a show of hands, but by foot, as people lend their weight to campaigns that they see as being worthwhile and determining their own personal priorities on the basis of where their skills can be best utilised and their own personal politics mesh with wider issues.
That is not to say that there is not conflict and disagreement, but it is resolved in a manner which tends not to polarise opinion, and makes it difficult for caucusing or tendancies within CoR to determine its direction, relying on the collective wisdom to shape the movement’s direction. This grounding in existing struggle, coupled with the loose formation unites the best of the traditional structured left with the discourses of the emergent autonomous left, moreover it builds a cohesive culture of tolerance and appreciation of the diversity of methods, places and actions which can be productive in struggle, allowing for a cross-fertilisation of ideas, expertise and understanding.
The limitation of CoR, with its activist focus on practical solidarity and support does however limit its political intervention at a formal level. With upcoming council elections in Glasgow and the dominant Labour party grouping in disarray, the conditions are ripe for a left political challenge. There is however no credible left alternative capable of mounting a challenge. While CoR’s tactics are well suited to agitation, they do not extend to establishing an electable and accountable political platform. This vacuum is a major challenge that the Left must address prior to the next Holyrood elections. While CoR is resolutely not the place for that to emerge from, the development of tolerance and shared culture that it has engendered among the disparate elements of the Glasgow Left must bring us some hope that such an emergence is possible
First published in Frontline, Issue 17
Republished in the Irish Left Review