FRANCES Curran never expected to be an MSP. When she was elected, she hadn’t bet she’d be preparing for an independence referendum within a decade either.

After doing and seeing what she thought improbable, the former Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) MSP is on a mission some might see as impossible – uniting Scotland’s fractured socialist base in a new campaign aimed at securing a “big Yes majority”.

That means bridging the party political gaps between Labour, the Greens, the SNP and her own party and it also means convincing disaffected and disengaged working class people to join them under the banner of Socialists for Independence, a new non-party group that puts ecology and equality at the centre of its drive for social change and looks to harness the radical activism of the climate movement.

“We’ve had weekly Zoom meetings for a year just reaching out to people we know are socialists and asking them if this is a good idea,” Curran tells the Sunday National. “The conclusion is that it is.

“There are people out there that parties find hard to reach. We think we can do that.”

Curran, a passionate campaigner, was one of six SSP MSPs returned in 2003 in what was the party’s best ever Holyrood election result. The contest also saw the Lib-Lab coalition returned, with Jack McConnell serving a second term as first minister and Jim Wallace of the LibDems as deputy first minister. These were the days of the “rainbow parliament”, when three independents and John Swinburne, leader of the Scottish Senior Citizens Unity Party, also took their places in the chamber.

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By 2007 the landscape had changed and the Tommy Sheridan (above) trial had resulted in the turbulent break-up of the SSP. It returned no members to Holyrood and neither did Sheridan’s new Solidarity party. That election also brought the SNP breakthrough that would see it push Labour into second place by a majority of one seat, ending Labour’s ballot box dominance and ushering in a new era where the question of independence would become increasingly prominent.

When she took her seat in 2003, Curran hadn’t expected to win. The new West of Scotland regional rep was suddenly left trying to work out care for her then-three-year-old son. He’s now an adult and part of a generation that’s grown up under devolution and come of age in a time of constitutional debate. It’s something she reflects on every day teaching politics at City of Glasgow College. “2014 changed the landscape completely,” Curran says. “Young people before that, politics went over their heads, they were not interested. 2014 totally engaged a generation of young people. Politics has become a bit more sexy.”

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But it’s not yet sexy enough to bring everyone to the ballot box. National turnout for the referendum was 84.6%, a figure that hit 91% in East Dunbartonshire. But Glasgow’s total was 16% behind that top-ranked area and the city recorded the country’s lowest turnout. Dundee’s 78.8% put it in second place. Both of those cities, which share high rates of deprivation, recorded Yes majorities, but Curran regrets the lower rate of participation and says it’s the people who stayed away who decided the outcome. Socialists for Independence, she says, has the potential to bring more of these people over to Yes, regardless of their previous voting habits. “If more people in Glasgow came out to vote the last time, if more people in other working class communities did, we would have won it,” she says. “The big issue there is trying to ensure that people are engaged enough to come out and vote.

“We think we can do that. We can get into working class communities and get these voices heard and get the vote out.”

Scotland, Curran argues, is “a left-wing country”. “There’s mass support for socialist ideas, even if they aren’t given that title,” she goes on. “The SNP government has implemented a whole lot of socialist policies like free school meals and free prescriptions, and free public transport is now a generally supported policy, even though we were totally ridiculed when we proposed it.

“After 2014 there were a lot of people looking for a political home and they joined different parties where they’re active in trying to change those, but there isn’t one place for socialists to go. I don’t think it’s a big leap from where most people’s political centre of gravity is to thinking that capitalism is the problem and we need a root and branch change.

“Our group’s foundation is that all of us want a total transformation of Scotland and we want to build a new society and a new nation. We are not asking anyone to vote for us, but we are developing a whole raft of policies about how Scotland can be transformed.

“We’ve had a lot of members join from the Labour Party. There are a lot of Labour Party people, both supporters and members, who are pro-independence and socialists, but that party is not pro-independence even when the majority of young people and working class people are,” Curran continues. “Socialists who support independence don’t have a political home – there’s a space for this,” she says of her organisation, which aims to speak to every Yes group in the country in the coming year. “It’s not party political, we’re not interested in having debates with different people inside parties, we’re interested in coming together on what we agree on and how to advance the ideas of socialism in the broader Yes movement.

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“There are two key challenges to the movement; one is to win the right to vote in a second referendum, the second is to win a big majority for independence and at this point in time we are not there. We are prepared to work with people at this stage who are not convinced, but who are prepared to fight for the democratic right of Scotland to decide. Maybe unlike other parts of the Yes movement, we are in a position to make those links and develop a wider movement for that right to decide.”

The National:

At its first AGM in June, the group will launch a drive for 1 million conversations about socialism in Scotland (“Most of those will be with people who are opposed, but let’s talk about it, let’s talk about how we are going to stop working class communities and families being battered by what’s coming next, economically,” Curran says) and it sees the climate as a crucial issue and a galvanising force. “We had tens of thousands of young people involved,” says Curran of the protest around November’s COP26 summit. “They want to change the world, they want to change Scotland and a lot of them have reached the conclusion that we need system change. There’s young people looking for a total root and branch, radical transformation in order to save the planet. We think we can connect with that.

“We can’t just muck around the edges. We need a map to a socialist Scotland where at its heart is the issue of a transformation of the environment, system and country, and wouldn’t that be a beacon globally? How exciting would that be? And it’s actually possible.

“Nobody in 2003 would have predicted that we would have had an independence referendum by 2014 – not even the SNP. It shows you how quickly politics can change. We hope they are going to change swiftly in the direction of socialism.”