Scotland: A new world for Scottish politics after the referendum

The Radical Independence Campaign conference after the referendum, on November 22, 2014, drew 3000 and demonstrated that spirits had not dimmed since the vote.

For more on Scotland and independence, click HERE.

By Alister Black

January 25, 2015 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- As Scots gathered together at Christmas and Hogmanay last year conversations turned inevitably to politics. Most were agreed that the year ahead would be a very interesting one. The impact of the independence referendum vote on September 18, 2014, is still being felt throughout Scottish society, and that impact is reverberating across the UK state as well.

This change has hit all of the political parties in Scotland but it is the Labour Party that has faced the biggest crisis. Labour was, of course, on the winning side. But it saw a significant percentage of its voters turning their back on the party line to vote "Yes" to Scottish independence. Traditional Labour-voting working-class bastions such as Glasgow and North Lanarkshire voted Yes. This was despite a massive campaign that saw all available Labour MP’s invading Glasgow (one wit followed them on a bicycle playing the death march from Star Wars.) Labour pushed the rather cold establishment-friendly former Chancellor and Edinburgh MP Alistair Darling aside and instead turned to former prime minister Gordon Brown. Brown, despite not being in government, promised to deliver greater powers to the Scottish Parliament if only Scots would vote No.

‘As popular as Ebola’

It is perhaps significant that it was not until the last two weeks of the campaign that Labour began to take matters seriously. This reflected a party that is highly centralised and obsessed with the Westminster village and the London media. Scottish Labour leader Johanna Lamont expressed these frustrations when she unexpectedly handed in her resignation shortly after the referendum. Lamont complained that Scottish Labour was not listened to and was treated as a “branch office” by the party in London. The picture of Labour as a remote elite, with no understanding or interest in the lives of working-class Scots could not have been reinforced more strongly.

The other problem for Labour is that many now saw it as having chosen the wrong side in the referendum. Labour was seen to line up with “Project Fear” and the belief that it was naïve idiocy to dream of a better and more equal society where the horrors of child poverty, food banks and nuclear weapons could be eliminated. Labour sided with the conservative and the comfortable, while it was the areas with highest unemployment that were most likely to vote Yes.

Crucially, Labour sat side by side with the class enemy, the Tories [Conservative Party]. As the results came in Labour activists were pictured hugging their new Tory pals in celebration.

The Conservative Party could not be less popular among working-class Scots. From the miners’ strike to the deindustrialisation of industry to introduction of the Poll Tax a year early in Scotland the party is about as popular as Ebola. This was a photo opportunity that Labour should have dodged.

Labour leadership

Scottish Labour now had a vacancy. Three candidates put themselves forward, but it was Westminster MP Jim Murphy who was tipped for the win and who clearly had the backing of the London party. Murphy however is not what you would call universally popular, even among Labour politicians. He has a reputation as a ruthless machine politician who never let his principles stand in the way of his career. His record in government is as a relentless Blairite. Murphy was a strong backer of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he is a member, and former chair, of Labour Friends of Israel, and as shadow defence secretary was a keen advocate of replacing the Trident nuclear submarines.

Many trade unions, local parties and members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) preferred to vote for one of his rivals. In particular, Neil Findlay, seen as from the “hard left” of the party and therefore something of an endangered species gained a very respectable vote – 34.99% to Murphy’s 55.77%.

But within a few weeks of his victory it became clear that Labour was facing a very tough year indeed. Several polls have been released for the 2015 Westminster elections. These are first-past-the-post elections and have always favoured Labour in Scotland. Labour currently holds 40 of Scotland’s 59 seats, followed by the Liberal Democrats with 11 and the Scottish National Party (SNP) coming in third with six.

The polls now consistently show the SNP as likely to supplant Scottish Labour as the top party. In the 2015 Westminster elections the latest poll shows that the SNP could win 45 out of 59 seats and Labour could be down to four seats. If this was to come about it would be an unprecedented earthquake in Scottish politics. Labour’s post-war domination of all levels of the Scottish political scene would be over.

The polls also show that trust ratings for all the Westminster leaders are very low, but Labour’s national leader Ed Miliband is even more distrusted than Tory leader David Cameron. Nicola Sturgeon, the new first minister and SNP leader, is trusted by more than 50% of respondents by contrast.[1]

The Tories have tried to capitalise on this with a campaign that says, “Vote Labour – Get SNP” and features a photoshopped picture of Miliband with his arm around former SNP leader Alex Salmond (Salmond is standing for Westminster). But maybe some Labour voters would quite like the kind of social policies on offer from the SNP.

Scottish National Party

These results also reflect the reaction against austerity and the Westminster elite by growing numbers of voters throughout the UK. This takes a reactionary form with support for the UK Independence Party (UKIP) challenging both the Tory and Labour parties from the right. In Scotland it is the social-democratic nationalism of the SNP that provides the alternative.

With over 90,000 members now since the post-referendum surge, the SNP has a powerful army of campaigners. That figure is very significant in a country of only 5 million people and represents a move by the grassroots of the Yes campaign into the SNP.

How should the left respond to this? The SNP are nationalists who can appeal to the left and right. The SNP has enacted undoubtedly positive reforms, such as free prescriptions (a policy borrowed from the Scottish Socialist Party), free care for the elderly and free tuition for higher and further education. The SNP has protected the Scottish National Health Service (a devolved power) from the free-market reforms brought in south of the border and frozen redundancies amongst NHS workers. But at the same time it is capable of being very “business friendly” – it advocates lower rates of corporation tax. Before the banking crisis the SNP was very close to the Scottish financial industry, Salmond himself being a former Royal Bank of Scotland economist.

The SNP poll boost has come from those Labour voters who voted Yes, many of whom have decided to stick with the SNP for now. In the Westminster elections the SNP will be their choice. First-past-the-post makes it very difficult for any smaller parties to get elected and voters for the most part don’t like to “waste” their vote.

The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and Greens are standing in selected constituencies and smaller left groups, such as the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (backed by the RMT transport union), have indicated that they will too. It will be interesting to see what impact they can make, but the chances are that the SNP will swallow up the bulk of the left-of-Labour vote.

Holyrood election

The general election for the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood is a potentially different scenario and gives the left the chance to win back some of those voters. The Holyrood election has two parts, a constituency vote and a vote for a “top-up” party list. If enough SNP voters want to push the party to the left then they could use their proportional list vote to back a left list.

In this scenario the left will be best served by having the most credible, united list possible.

There are a number of positive aspects around this. First, the experience of the referendum caused many on the left to work together in a positive way for the first time for maybe a decade. The Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) was the main arena for this.

RIC was an informal group that organised a series of large conferences, built local groups and, crucially, campaigned in working-class areas for a Yes vote. RIC played a significant role in registering the thousands of voters who had either disappeared from the voters’ roll (often since the days of the poll tax) or had simply never voted.

Local RIC groups also regularly discussed political ideas, policy and strategy. RIC involved to varying extents the existing left groups, such as the SSP and Greens, as well as some individual SNP members and many, especially young people, who were members of no party.

The RIC conference after the referendum, on November 22, 2014, drew 3000 and demonstrated that spirits had not dimmed since the vote. It also hosted a meeting to discuss the Scottish Left Project[2], which aims to begin to look at the how to build a credible united left. The meeting was addressed by Cat Boyd, a young trade unionist and one of the founders of RIC, and Frances Curran, national chair of the SSP.

At the meeting the positive examples from around Europe were often brought up. Podemos in Spain, the Front de Gauche in France and of course SYRIZA in Greece, which have taken the most fragmented and sectarian left in Europe to the brink of power.

Prospects for Scottish left

The recent history of the Scottish left has resulted in some bitter divisions. The saga around former SSP leader Tommy Sheridan’s trial and ultimate conviction for perjury has acted not just against left unity but has also made the left a less credible force in the eyes of the electorate. The recruitment of several thousand new members illustrates that the SSP has begun to overcome these obstacles but a bigger more united socialist force in Scotland could begin to really challenge the established parties again.

The Scottish Left Project is a discussion at this stage, and it will require careful steps at first. The opening statement of the project states: “There is a need for something truly new and original to be born out of the independence movement that can manifest itself at the ballot box in 2016 and beyond. We do not presume to have all of the answers, but we intend to start a conversation around certain core principles that must be represented in politics once more.”

A well-attended meeting has already been held in Edinburgh, hosted by RIC and held in the new Leith social centre of Common Weal, the pro-independence and left policy group. Jim Sillars, a former MP and a senior figure among forces to the left of the SNP, attended and spoke, as did many Greens and socialists from a variety of groups.

The SSP is discussing the Scottish Left Project in more detail this year. The Scottish Left Project itself is launching a national tour of public meetings to bring the debate to a wider audience.

Momentum is undoubtedly with the SNP for now but the referendum campaign has heightened the political consciousness of a new layer of activists. Many young people have no interest in the disagreements of the past but have their eyes firmly fixed on the future. This is an opportunity for the Scottish left to rise to the occasion, to emulate their European comrades and bring socialist ideas to a mass audience once again.

[Alister Black is a member of the Scottish Socialist Party.]

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