SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 196 March 2016

Scotland’s deceptive political calm

The SNP looks set to triumph in May’s Scottish government elections – seemingly free from the stigma of establishment politics and immune from the Corbyn bounce. This calm is deceptive, however, as the storms of savage cut-backs and chill winds of economic crisis begin to bite. PHILIP STOTT, of Socialist Party Scotland, writes.

The political landscape in Scotland has undergone seismic changes since the independence referendum of September 2014. The stunning collapse of the Labour Party has been one of the most dramatic features of this political earthquake. Despite Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent to the leadership of the UK party on an anti-austerity tidal wave, Scottish Labour’s support has continued to fall. Currently, opinion polls show Labour neck-and-neck with the Scottish Tories at around 19% – a lamentable position for the former mass party of the Scottish working class.

The surge in Labour membership seen in parts of England, Wales and even Northern Ireland has not been replicated in Scotland. A recent survey in the Financial Times found only 4,000 people had joined Labour in Scotland as part of the Corbyn influx, increasing the party membership from 15,000 to 19,000. Today, Scottish Labour membership has fallen from 9% of the UK total to just 4%.

Labour has also been hampered by the lack of a left figure. Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour’s leader, opposed Corbyn during his leadership campaign and is widely seen as being on the right-wing of the party. Another key factor is that Corbyn is perceived as being in an embattled Labour front bench, unable to hold sway over key shadow cabinet members. For example, the vote on whether the UK should take part in the bombing of Syria saw Labour divided, while the Scottish National Party (SNP) voted as a bloc to oppose military action. Unless Jeremy Corbyn decisively comes out against the Blairite saboteurs inside his party – who are preparing the ground for his removal – he will not be able to make decisive steps forward. In stark contrast to Labour’s travails, the SNP added 100,000 new members in just over twelve months by posing as an anti-austerity alternative.

Nor is Labour offering a clear left alternative to the SNP over cuts. Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell, speaking at a Momentum meeting in Glasgow in February, said: "It’s clear we cannot go down the road we took in the ’80s in some places of defiance of cuts. The powers they have to take measures against councils including commissioners coming in are even more severe now than they were then. We have to explain to people what’s really going on otherwise all our Labour councillors who are just doing their best will get the blame. We have to say the real culprits are the Tories and up here the SNP, that’s why we need to be in government in 2020".

The refusal to take a fighting stand over austerity under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s leadership will undermine the possibility of a recovery in Labour support in Scotland. Scottish Labour’s ‘solution’ to the cuts crisis in local government has been to call for income tax increases and council tax rises. This policy would hit working-class people and has allowed the SNP to portray Labour as being prepared to shift the burden of austerity onto low-paid working families.

Riding high on an anti-establishment and anti-austerity consciousness, the tidal wave of support towards the SNP, especially pronounced in working-class communities, has swept away much of the electoral base of the Labour Party. With just eight weeks to go until the Scottish parliament elections, the SNP is on course to win an increased majority. Polling indicates it will take around 73 of the 129 seats available. Labour, in contrast, is expected to lose all of its constituency MSPs and will likely only win seats from the regional lists, which are elected through a form of proportional representation.

Labour’s crisis in Scotland is a consequence of its transformation into a right-wing, Blairite, pro-capitalist party. From the early 1990s on, this weakened its base among the working class in Scotland. But it was the decision to form a bloc with the Tories in opposition to Scottish independence that has shattered Labour’s electoral base. As the Socialist Party Scotland anticipated long in advance of the indyref, and as it subsequently proved, the referendum became a lightning rod for the mass anger of broad sections of the working class and the young. Like the rise of Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Corbyn in England and Wales, and the spectacular advance of Bernie Sanders’ ‘revolution against the billionaire class’ in the US, the referendum was a mass expression of accumulated anger at austerity and the rotten political elite.

Weakened position

Project Fear’s No campaign, spearheaded by Labour and the Tories, was designed to defeat the insurgency but was a spectacular failure. Despite the No side ‘winning’ the referendum by 55% to 45%, the pro-union capitalist establishment has emerged in a far more weakened position. The triumvirate of the Better Together campaign – Labour, Tories and the Lib Dems – have been reduced to a parliamentary rump of just three Westminster MPs elected in Scotland. In the 2015 general election Labour suffered its worst result since 1918, losing an incredible 40 of its 41 MPs. In contrast, the SNP swept to an unprecedented 56 seats.

In addition to the lack of a social base for the establishment parties, extensive new powers for the Scottish parliament have had to be conceded by David Cameron. These still fall well short of satisfying the demands of a parliament with full powers over the economy. Therefore, the SNP will continue to use the threat of a new independence referendum to attempt to wrest further concessions from Cameron.

None of the issues around the national question in Scotland, a major destabilising factor for British capitalism, have been resolved. It is very likely, given the turbulent economic and social crisis that exists, that demands for a second referendum will grow. Rather than a ‘once in a lifetime’ event, as envisaged by the SNP leadership, Scotland could see another vote over independence quite soon. The so-called ‘Quebec scenario’, where two referenda on separation from Canada took place over a relatively short timescale, is a strong possibility.

No-one was more surprised by the explosion in SNP membership following the referendum than the SNP leaders themselves. Alex Salmond stood down as leader in the hours following the result, a defeated general falling on his sword, and seemed completely unaware of the events that were to follow. Within hours of the defeat, tens of thousands of Yes supporters and campaigners began to flood towards pro-independence parties. Defeated on the plane of the referendum there was no mood to simply accept the outcome and go home.

The overwhelming instinct among this layer – predominately young people, the energised working class and sections of the middle class – was to seek a way to continue the struggle for independence but also against the austerity-wielding elite. The SNP leadership was widely perceived to have stood up against the tidal wave of attacks from the Project Fear campaign. The daily threats from big business, the media and pro-union politicians as to the consequences of independence had hugely polarised the mood in Scotland. However, it was primarily a polarisation to the left of the establishment, and indeed to the left of the SNP leadership.

There was widespread support expressed during the campaign for left-wing ideas such as public ownership, increased taxes on the rich and big business, and an end to privatisation. The SNP leadership, in contrast, advocated lowering corporation tax on the multinationals and rejected nationalisation of the energy companies, etc.

The left’s missed opportunity

In the days following the indyref the Socialist Party Scotland called for the launching of a new socialist party to offer a political home to young people and the working class. Tommy Sheridan, the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and also the leadership of groups like the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) rejected such an approach. This section of the left effectively fell in behind the idea that the interests of the working class and socialism should play second fiddle to the task of achieving independence.

Tommy Sheridan called, and still is calling, for a vote for the SNP. The SSP proposed a Yes alliance with the SNP and the Greens to contest the 2015 Westminster election. It argued that between them they should agree that "a single pro-independence candidate should contest the seats". The SSP even argued this would be an ‘anti-austerity’ bloc. Of course, this was rejected by the SNP.

The RIC leadership said it was too early to challenge the SNP and delayed the launch of the RISE coalition (Respect, Independence, Socialism, Environmentalism) for a year – to August 2015. Only Socialist Party Scotland and the Scottish Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) advocated the need to act urgently and launch an independent political voice and organisation for the working class. The failure to take these necessary steps in a timely manner, alongside the enhanced standing of the SNP leadership, led to a mass influx into the party of over 80,000 people.

As bad, if not worse, were those sections of the left that backed a No vote believing that the pro-independence mood was reactionary and not, at its root, an uprising against austerity and the political elite. Unfortunately, this included Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters in Scotland. The Communist Party of Britain and the Morning Star newspaper, and small groups like Socialist Appeal, openly campaigned for a No vote.

An important factor in the continuing fall of support for Labour in Scotland and the absence of a Corbyn bounce is the completely one-sided position on the national question still held by the Labour leadership. Its opposition to independence under all circumstances is a mistake, and a huge barrier to regaining support among the working class in Scotland. Why not, as Socialist Party Scotland does, advocate support for the idea of an independent socialist Scotland as part of a voluntary socialist confederation of nations, alongside England, Wales and Ireland? This would allow Jeremy Corbyn to maintain the vitally important question of defending the unity of the working-class movement across Britain while supporting the national aspirations of a huge section of the working class in Scotland.

SNP’s establishment politics

The burgeoning growth in its membership has not led to any significant shift to the left by the SNP. Reports from SNP branches indicate that the wave of new members coming into the party has not been reflected in sustained attendance and participation at meetings. There is little, if any, political discussion. Many new members have simply dropped away from active participation and the ‘old guard’ still dominate the structures of the party. The bureaucratic methods of the SNP have not been changed. According to the National, an independence supporting daily newspaper: "The Coatbridge and Chryston branch has lost around 150 members since the referendum, while the Uddingston and Bellshill branch has lost an astonishing 380 members. The main conflict is seemingly between the old guard, known locally as the Monklands McMafia, and members who have joined more recently".

It is very likely that many thousands who joined the SNP in the aftermath of the referendum will not renew their membership. Nicola Sturgeon, who replaced Alex Salmond as SNP leader, is widely seen as effective and commands significant support. However, there has not been a left turn under her leadership. Above all, there is no change to the SNP’s imposition of Tory austerity. Despite an unprecedented electoral mandate and securing 50% of the popular vote in May on an ‘anti-austerity’ platform, the SNP is continuing to implement Tory cuts at council and Scottish government level.

In addition, many of the SNP’s elected representatives are exhibiting behaviour more in common with a traditional establishment pro-capitalist party, with lifestyles and incomes completely removed from the reality of life for the majority in Scotland. A recent investigation found that almost one-third of the SNP’s recently elected Westminster MPs have additional incomes from renting-out property, on top of their £74,000 parliamentary salary. Much media attention has rightly been focused on SNP MP, Michelle Thomson, a property dealer whose company has been accused of involvement in buying homes from people in financial distress and selling them on for a profit. She was described by SNP leaders in election literature as having a "commitment to how business can be used to support social justice"!

Sixteen SNP MPs – almost a third of its 55-strong Westminster group – receive income from the rental market. These include several who have multiple properties. The MP for East Kilbride, Lisa Cameron, rents out a house and five flats. Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, a former Tory party member, rents out three flats in Glasgow and a house in the Highlands. The former treasurer of the SNP, Ian Blackford, owns two cottages on Skye which he rents out as part of his holiday property company.

A recent survey of SNP MPs, MSPs and MEPs found that 90% of them were drawn from the top three occupational groupings. Those from a trade union activist and working-class background are in a minority. Moreover, none of the SNP councillors or Scottish parliamentarians have, so far, refused to vote against budget cuts. Significantly, Alex Bell, the former special advisor to Salmond, commented: "Our politicians are in or very near the one per cent. Alex Salmond and those who served in the SNP cabinet since 2007 have been paid a million each over eight years. On top of pension savings, previous earnings and a lifetime of being in work, these must be rich people". He went on to say that the recent financial scandals around SNP MPs had revealed the SNP to be "just like other British parties – composed of self-starting entrepreneurial types, Thatcher’s children to a person".

Privatisation and big business

In recent months the Scottish government has privatised part of Scottish Water. The contract for supplying water to council buildings, the Scottish parliament, hospitals and prisons was handed to a privatised English water company, Anglian Water, which paid no corporation tax in the last year. When the contract for ScotRail came up last year it was given to the Dutch rail company, Abellio. A Scottish public franchise, had one been set up by the Scottish government, could have been given the contract. In addition, there is the ongoing campaign by the RMT trade union to defend the public service provided by ferry company CalMac, which runs the Western Isles routes and which is in danger of losing the contract to the private company Serco.

The SNP claims it had no option but to put out to tender these services under the pro-big business EU rules. Yet it could have defied these regulations and also used the issue of lifeline services to keep services in the public sector and under public control. The SNP leaders are long-term opponents of even the nationalisation of the profiteering privatised energy companies. In response to the North Sea oil crisis they have demanded tax cuts for the multinationals which have made billions from oil while axing tens of thousands of oil workers’ jobs, and attacking wages and conditions over the last year.

These facts underline the chasm that separates many of the policies and actions of the SNP’s public representatives from the majority of the working class in Scotland, including many of the party’s own members. It is still the task, therefore, to build a new workers’ party that will stand candidates committed to representing the working class, not least by living on a skilled worker,s wage and pledging to vote and campaign against all cuts, and for public ownership and socialist policies. It is another reason why all sections of the socialist left in Scotland should be taking a stand and helping to expose the policy and record of the SNP leadership, and supporting a fighting no-cuts policy by all councillors and MPs.

A second referendum?

Today, the issue is not so much whether there will be another referendum but rather its timing and the circumstances that could trigger it. Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP leadership are attempting to reconcile the demands of a large section of their new membership who want a commitment to a relatively quick referendum, with her own ‘gradualist’ approach. Sturgeon has made it clear that there will not be another vote unless "we were confident that we could win it by a large majority".

The SNP leaders are in the process of drawing up their 2016 manifesto. In it they are likely to refer to a number of scenarios that could trigger a second independence referendum. These include the possibility of Britain voting to leave the EU while Scotland votes to stay in. Opinion polls indicate that the majority in Scotland will vote to stay in Europe. If a majority across the UK voted to leave, Sturgeon has said that this would be the pretext for a second referendum.

A failure to deliver the enhanced powers agreed by the Smith Commission, far less the ‘near federalism’ promised in ‘the vow’ – a pledge by the Westminster establishment in the last days of the referendum campaign – and a continuation of Tory austerity will also be included as ‘material changes of circumstance’ that would trigger a possible second referendum. In all likelihood there will not be a date or a definite commitment in the manifesto. However, there will be the option to call a referendum if the conditions of an upsurge in support for independence existed. The fall in the oil price has led to 6,000 job losses from the North Sea. In addition, a further 60,000 jobs have been cut from oil related industries. The weakening economy can also undermine support for independence based on the SNP’s pro-business model.

Westminster still has the powers over whether a ‘legal’ referendum can take place in Scotland – not the Scottish parliament. It is not ruled out that a Westminster government, reflecting the interests of British capitalism, could refuse another indyref, particularly if support for independence had risen markedly in the meantime. Under this scenario, an ‘illegal’ referendum could be organised by the Scottish government, creating a new flashpoint that would ratchet up the national question still further.

What the SNP leadership will do increasingly is use the national question to try to divert attention away from its own role in the implementation of Tory austerity. The SNP is now the main delivery mechanism for Tory cuts in Scotland. The scale of the cuts will be ratcheted up significantly over the next two or three years. Primarily, it will be SNP MSPs and councillors, alongside Labour, who will be carrying them through, leading to an increasing exposure of the pro-business SNP leadership. These actions will drive a wedge between the SNP’s public representatives and the party’s new members.

Campaign against the cuts

Despite being elected on an ‘anti-austerity’ platform, SNP leaders and public representatives are being found wanting when it comes to fighting the cuts and standing up for the working-class communities they are supposed to represent. The SNP-led Scottish government has implemented every penny of Tory cuts since the austerity offensive began in 2010. In councils across Scotland, SNP and Labour administrations have voted through devastating attacks on jobs and public services in the last few years.

A further £1 billion in local government cuts is planned in the next two years, and will have desperate consequences for council workers and communities. Yet, John Swinney, SNP finance minister in the Scottish government, has described the budget he gave councils as a "challenging but fair settlement". The finance convener of SNP-led Dundee city council lauded the fact that "the council had delivered a balanced and sensible budget for the city". This ‘sensible’ budget has been achieved by axing £23 million from jobs and services across the city. He went on to make the incredible claim that "there will be a minimal impact upon front-line services and most people will not notice the difference". These comments aptly sum-up the outlook of the leading SNP politicians – and are a million miles removed from a fighting anti-austerity policy.

The Scottish government in Holyrood and local councils have the ability to set legal, no-cuts budgets. Such a stand would win massive public support, given the huge rejection of austerity both in last year’s indyref and the May 2015 general election. It would also provide a major springboard for a mass campaign involving trade unionists, communities and politicians to fight for a return of the billions stolen from public services since 2010 by the Tories. This is the policy that Socialist Party Scotland and the Scottish Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) is fighting for. The local government trade unions in Dundee and Glasgow, representing almost 30,000 workers, are also calling for their councils to refuse to make the cuts and to set a no-cuts budget.

The earthquake that produced the seismic political shift to the SNP will not be the last. Further aftershocks and upheavals are inevitable as the pro-capitalist SNP leadership is exposed in the eyes of the working class, not least by its implementation of cuts. This will prepare the ground for the emergence of a genuine anti-austerity and socialist alternative as a mass force over time. Socialist Party Scotland members will be standing as TUSC candidates in the Scottish parliament election in May to assist in this necessary process.

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