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.
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’
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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%.
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.
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.
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.
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
Scottish National Party
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.
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
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.
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”
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.
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.
this scenario the left will be best served by having the most credible, united
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Prospects for Scottish left
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Black is a member of the Scottish Socialist Party.]