SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 189 June 2015

Scotland’s electoral earthquake

The election result in Scotland shook the political establishment to the core, with the Scottish Nationalists winning all but three of the 59 Westminster seats. For the Labour Party it was catastrophic, crashing from 41 MPs to just one. PHILIP STOTT reports on this seismic shift.

An electoral earthquake on 7 May resulted in the Scottish National Party (SNP) not only winning a majority of the Westminster seats in Scotland, it very nearly achieved a clean sweep. Capturing 56 of the available 59 MPs, the SNP won 50% of Scotland’s votes, more than doubling the 20% polled in 2010. Riding on the crest of a huge anti-austerity, anti-political establishment tidal wave, the SNP inflicted on its main victim, Scottish Labour, not so much a defeat as a ritual slaughter. Observer columnist, Kevin McKenna, summed it up: "A judgment, biblical and implacable, was delivered to Labour and it has left the party on the edge of extinction in a country which it felt it owned fewer than ten years ago".

With 24.3% of the vote, Labour’s share fell to its lowest since 1918. Not since 1906 have so few Scottish Labour MPs been represented at Westminster. Not a single Labour MP was elected in the crucible of the working class – the former red Clydeside of Glasgow – or indeed the entire west of Scotland region. The scale of the defeat was reminiscent of the annihilation suffered by Pasok in Greece earlier this year. This experience is also likely to be inflicted in the near future on the Irish Labour Party, the junior partner in an austerity-laden coalition in the Irish Republic.

For many of the 1.45 million who voted SNP this was the second round of the historic independence referendum of September 2014. As Socialist Party Scotland commented then, following the narrow victory for the No campaign, "the winners will become the losers and the losers will become the winners". The parties of the so-called Better Together campaign – Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrats – have been reduced to a rump of a rump. They could hold their parliamentary group meetings in a phone box.

After the 2010 election the standing joke was that there were more giant pandas in Edinburgh zoo than Tory MPs in Scotland. Now this also applies to the former mass party of the Scottish working class. The Lib Dems also lost ten of their eleven Scottish MPs. The SNP now holds 95% of the Scottish seats, the largest ever for any party in a UK general election. It has even eclipsed the 90% of MPs won by the parties of the ‘national government’ in 1931.

Hatred of the political establishment and mass anger at austerity dominated the mood of wide sections of the working class. Yes voters overwhelmingly backed the SNP, many motivated by a desire to eliminate the ‘red Tories’ (Labour) as punishment for their crimes during the referendum. But it was clear that the SNP had also won over a section of working-class No voters as well.

Anti-austerity stance

Nicola Sturgeon, the new SNP leader who replaced Alex Salmond, was a skilful advocate of the SNP’s ‘anti-austerity’ manifesto. Under Sturgeon’s leadership the SNP dropped, very quietly, its pledge to cut corporation tax by 3%. She promised that a large group of nationalist MPs would work with Labour to "lock the Tories out of No.10 Downing Street".

Unlike the then Labour leader, Ed Miliband, and his sidekick, Ed Balls, who offered to continue with Tory austerity, the SNP pledged ‘modest’ public spending increases of 0.5% a year. It also promised a higher minimum wage, an end to spending on the Trident nuclear weapons system – which is based in Scotland – and opposition to privatisation.

By standing to the left of Labour and insisting that it would "give a Miliband government some backbone", the SNP was able to make sweeping gains in working-class communities across Scotland. Its highest votes were in working-class dominated cities like Dundee and Glasgow. In Labour’s ‘safest’ seat of Glasgow North East the swing to the SNP candidate was a colossal 39%. Dundee West saw a 33% swing and a total share of the vote for the SNP candidate of 62%.

Sturgeon also performed well during the TV leaders’ debates. The SNP’s general anti-austerity platform, alongside the Greens and Plaid Cymru (the Party of Wales), offered a refreshing alternative to the largely discredited political establishment. Indeed, the SNP received thousands of applications to join the party from England following these debates. One opinion poll found that 9% of the electorate in England would have voted for the SNP if it had been on the ballot paper.

The response to the SNP’s rhetoric on austerity gave a glimpse of the colossal potential that exists for a genuine mass workers’ party. Its growth in membership to over 100,000 is a distorted reflection of such potential. It is also a key reason why the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) has been subject to a conspiracy of silence by the BBC and the big-business media generally. There is a growing realisation that a real working-class alternative, based on a fighting, anti-austerity alternative, would grow exponentially under these conditions of capitalist crisis.

Will the SNP fight the cuts?

With the nightmare return of a new Tory government, the attention of the working class will increasingly be focused on building a fightback against five more years of savage austerity. This will place the SNP under scrutiny like never before, particularly as David Cameron and co will be seen in Scotland as yet another illegitimate Tory government.

Sturgeon and the SNP in the Scottish parliament in Holyrood, Edinburgh, have an unprecedented electoral mandate to refuse to implement a penny in further cuts. All socialists, trade unionists and anti-cuts campaigners should demand that they do just that. In Westminster, their 56 MPs are most likely to vote against Tory austerity budgets. However, for the last five years the SNP has implemented all the Con-Dem coalition’s cuts in Scotland. Were it to continue with this balance-the-books strategy, it will undoubtedly face growing opposition.

A socialist government at Holyrood would not implement the Tories’ cuts. It would set a no-cuts budget and play a lead role in building a mass movement against austerity and for the return of the billions stolen from public services in Scotland since 2010. It would also link up with the working class across England, Wales and Northern Ireland in a united movement to bring the Tories down.

This is the strategy that the SNP should adopt. However, it is extremely unlikely to do so. Because its leadership is tied completely to capitalism, and to the limits of what the capitalist economic system can deliver, the tendency is to accept the need to make cuts in practice. No matter what the SNP’s anti-austerity rhetoric might indicate, its starting point has been the need to prove itself as a ‘competent government’ and make the required cuts. At the same time, the SNP blames Westminster for the austerity it says it has ‘no choice’ but to inflict.

Brian Taylor, BBC Scotland’s political editor, made the following, largely correct analysis of the SNP leadership: "Gradualism is now ingrained in SNP thinking. It has not been to provoke conflict with the UK government… did they refuse to set a budget? Did their MPs pursue Parnellite tactics in the Commons? [Parnell led the Irish Parliamentary Party in the 1880s which sought to disrupt business at Westminster in pursuit of Irish Home Rule.] Was the entire SNP endeavour transformed into a sustained protest campaign? No, no, and no again".

However, it would be a mistake to rule out the SNP being pushed by mass working-class pressure into refusing to implement some of the cuts. We saw in 2013/14 that the Scottish government was forced to do a U-turn on the bedroom tax and ended up providing full 100% mitigation for all those affected in Scotland. This was only achieved as a result of the anti-bedroom tax campaign that Socialist Party Scotland, along with others, helped lead and organise.

The new round of savage welfare cuts could be an issue that the SNP is forced to make a stand on. Also, faced with mass strike action by trade unions and community protests, it may take partial measures in defiance of the Tories. Either that or face an undermining of its electoral base and a haemorrhaging of its new, largely working-class membership. Nevertheless, the main tendency of the SNP leadership, initially, will be to pass on the cuts, citing a lack of powers, and that it does not want to carry out ‘illegal actions’. At the same time, it will seek to use nationalism and the threat of a new independence referendum to try and sustain its popularity.

Although the SNP relies largely on a working-class base of support, its leadership and elected representatives are overwhelmingly drawn from the middle and professional layers. A recent survey by the GMB trade union found that SNP Westminster candidates and elected MSPs and MEPs were drawn overwhelmingly from the top three occupational groups. Ninety percent of them had employment backgrounds as managers, senior officials, professionals or associate professionals. Even accounting for the fact the GMB was using this to attack the SNP – and, ironically, to claim that only Labour would represent workers – this survey underlines that the SNP leadership is dominated by middle-class professional politicians with a pro-business ideology.

Avoiding another indyref

"The fate of two unions – with Scotland and with Europe – will be the towering concerns of the new parliament", Simon Jenkins wrote in the Guardian newspaper. Cameron will be satisfied that he has managed to secure a Tory majority hell-bent on a brutal onslaught against the working-class majority. However, his will be a weak government threatened on a number of fronts, not least of which is the danger of igniting a mass revolt against its plan for a further five years of austerity. Overreach, one too many attacks, is another. Cameron could suffer the same fate as Margaret Thatcher who made the fatal error post-1987, puffed-up by her election victory, of introducing the poll tax. Within three years she had been broken by the mass non-payment campaign.

Alongside these elephant traps sits Europe and an in-out referendum, as well as the need to offer major concessions on more powers to Scotland or face another indyref. Prior to the general election all the pro-union parties campaigning for a No vote had signed up to the package known as the Smith commission. This promises the transfer of all income tax to Scotland – except the setting of rates and bands, and around 30% of welfare – plus some other revenue raising powers.

Following the SNP’s breakthrough, Sturgeon has called for more devolution on top of Smith’s recommendations. These include powers over employment and the minimum wage, full control over income tax and welfare, and some business taxes. If significant new powers are not conceded, the SNP is likely to include in its manifesto a commitment to a new referendum at some point between 2016 and 2020.

However, the SNP leadership is not at all keen on pushing quickly towards another referendum. Its immediate priority is to secure more powers for Holyrood. In fact, the SNP has effectively adopted a three-stages approach. Firstly, it is looking for the immediate devolution of Smith-plus then, at some point in the future, full fiscal autonomy which would include all powers being transferred to Edinburgh except defence and foreign affairs. The SNP also holds out the ultimate goal of full independence. Even so, as was clear from the referendum last year, the SNP wants to maintain a shared currency and the monarchy – in a so-called ‘independent’ capitalist Scotland.

The likelihood is that the Tory government, urged on by a majority of the ruling class in Britain, will concede more powers to Scotland. After the near-death experience of last September, the Tories are very conscious that a refusal to grant concessions could provoke a new referendum. Moreover, one they are much less likely to win. However, there are counter-pressures on Cameron, including the need to combat UKIP and a growing section of the Tory party based on English nationalism.

These forces will exert influence not to concede too much to the SNP. As was evident during the election campaign, leading Tory strategists and their media friends were quite prepared to try and stoke up anti-Scottish sentiment, under the guise of the so-called threat of the SNP calling the shots in an alliance with Labour at Westminster. At the same time, a form of English votes for English laws is also likely to be introduced. Moves towards a quasi-federal structure for the UK will be an ongoing feature of the new situation as the capitalist class attempts to avoid the breakup of the British state.

The forthcoming referendum on membership of the EU can also be a trigger for a new constitutional crisis. Were there to be a majority for leaving the EU across the UK, but a majority in Scotland in favour of remaining, the SNP could use this as a pretext, alongside mass anger at further austerity, for a new vote on independence. Not least to try and divert attention away from the SNP leaders’ own role in carrying out Tory cuts.

In a referendum on EU membership, Socialist Party Scotland will call for a vote to leave the pro-capitalist, bosses’ EU that serves in the interests of the corporations and the elite 1%. At the same time, we will put forward the alternative of a Europe based on the common interests of the working class and young people, a socialist confederation of nations to plan the economy democratically and end austerity for the 99%.

The need for a united approach and a common international policy by the working class is essential. While defending the democratic rights of the Scottish people, including the right to independence, we stand implacably for working-class unity across the nations that make up the UK and beyond. Socialists should oppose any and all attempts to divide the working class and its organisations. It is correct to call for autonomy for the trade unions in Scotland while also arguing for the maintenance of united structures across Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This makes it easier to call and organise coordinated strike action against the government and employers, as well as helping to cut across the dangers of national divisions among the working class.

Can Labour recover?

Labour’s annihilation in Scotland has left the party on a life-support machine. Its real membership stands at around 7,000, less than half that of the 15,000-strong SNP Trade Union Group. The decimation of Scottish Labour, an event long in the preparation, is a historic turning point. It marks the culmination of two decades of Blairite, anti-working class and pro-war polices.

With the cracks and fissures clearly visible, the indyref largely shattered what was left of Scottish Labour. It will not be possible to remake what has been broken. Labour no longer has a social base of support among the working class in Scotland that can sustain it. Ironically, the only sliver of hope for Scottish Labour is that it moves decisively to the left and takes on the SNP for its implementation of Tory austerity and its pro-business policies. There is negligible hope of that taking place.

Instead, following the resignation of Blairite Jim Murphy, Scottish Labour is likely to choose another right-wing candidate, almost certainly the current deputy leader, Kezia Dugdale. The right-wing trade union leaders and some on the left will argue that Labour can be reclaimed for workers’ interests. But this is a dead-end of a strategy, as the experience of Falkirk and the Unite trade union clearly shows. (In 2013, the Unite branch in Falkirk actively campaigned in the selection process of a Labour candidate and Miliband called in the police against the union!)

Sections of the trade union bureaucracy will also respond to the seismic outcome of the general election by seeking to build a relationship between the trade unions and the SNP. However, the SNP does not offer a vehicle to advance working-class political representation. In power it has imposed spending cuts leading to tens of thousands of job losses, wage caps for public-sector workers, and cuts and closures at local council level.

Moreover, the Scottish government is seeking to tie the unions into a form of partnership with employers and the government through the Fair Work Commission. This is simply a rehash of previous attempts to bind the workers’ organisations to agreeing concession bargaining and accepting cuts in the interests of big business and the capitalist economy. The ruinous experience in Ireland is a warning. Decades of partnership deals have left the majority of the union leaders as nothing more than conveyer belts for austerity.

A new workers’ party

There will now be a period of debate and discussion in the trade unions on the way forward. Unite is holding a rules conference in July and the issue of devolving its political fund to Scotland will be discussed. A similar debate will inevitably take place at some stage in the Unison public-sector trade union. Across the Scottish union movement there will be unprecedented openings for socialists to make the case for building a new workers’ party.

At the very least, the political funds of Unite, Unison and other Labour-affiliated unions should be opened up to allow them to fund pro-trade union and socialist candidates. This should include TUSC, which is backed by the RMT transport union and stands for public ownership, a living wage and the scrapping of all anti-union laws. But it is necessary to go much further than this. Socialist Party Scotland calls for the convening of a conference of trade unions, socialist organisations and anti-austerity campaigners to discuss the launching of a new, 100% anti-austerity political party to fight for a socialist solution to the capitalist crisis.

In the meantime, we are prioritising, along with TUSC, the building of the widest possible socialist challenge to the parties of cuts, including the SNP. Scottish TUSC has called a conference for 27 June in Glasgow to begin preparation for a 100% anti-austerity and socialist challenge for the 2016 Scottish parliament election. It has invited all organisations, trade unionists and individuals who are interested in such a platform to attend.

Scottish TUSC put up ten candidates in the general election. Although the votes were modest given the tsunami towards the SNP, TUSC received the two highest votes on the left in Dundee West and Glasgow South. In Dundee West we also received the backing of many of the hospital porters who are on all-out strike. By standing widely, despite the objective difficulties, we also laid the basis for a much stronger challenge in 2016.

A completely unprecedented situation has now opened up in Scotland. Colossal anger against Tory austerity will erupt among the working class, leading to a mass revolt and the emergence of socialist ideas as a powerful force. Socialist Party Scotland is well placed to play a leading role in many of these struggles.

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