Scotland: Political climate changes utterly; Voters bring break up of Britain closer?
Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond.
By Colin Fox, Scottish Socialist Party spokesperson
May 10, 2011 -- As landslides go the 2011 Holyrood election was huge. Scotland has been shaken to its political foundations as voters again voiced their contempt for the Conservative Party [Tories], its coalition partner the Liberal Democratic Party [Lib Dems], and also the Labour Party. The Scotsman newspaper described the result of the May 5 Scottish election as a "victory of hitherto unthinkable proportions" for the Scottish National Party (SNP). Even The Scotsman can be right some of the time!
In truth the extent of the victory surprised even the SNP. It emerged with 45% of the vote [its largest ever], 69 seats [out of 129] and the first overall majority in Holyrood’s history. At counts across the country, SNP candidates arrived expecting third or fourth place and walked out hours later "as the newly elected MSP for the said constituency". The front page of Saturday's Edinburgh Evening News said it all. It led with a photograph of the newly elected MSP for Edinburgh Southern emerging from a bookmakers with his £750 winnings after he put £50 on himself to win at 14-1 just a fortnight ago. That former Lib-Dem seat was, according to all received wisdom, Labour’s for the taking.
It is impossible to underplay the scale of the SNP victory. Even the "certainties" of the D’Hont PR system employed to distribute Holyrood seats were swept aside. So many people voted for the SNP that after winning all the constituency seats in some regions they also got MSPs on the same regional list! Legends are made of this. The SNP’s message, albeit deceitful, that "the list vote elects the First Minister" brought them huge dividends.
The SNP’s sophisticated, multimillion pound election campaign, with its navigational tools for activists and social networking operations, completely outstripped the once powerful Labour machine. Pollsters YouGov reported that 80,000 Labour voters across Scotland switched to the SNP in the final 36 hours, in disgust at its increasingly negative campaign and incessant targeted mail shots. When they had constituency activists on the ground Labour knew when to leave people well alone!
Beleaguered and belaboured
Can it really only be a year since every Labour MP in Scotland increased their majority? This time the all-conquering Labour Party of Lowland Scotland fell to pieces like a Laurel and Hardy car. If definitive and final proof were needed that people vote one way in Westminster elections and another for Holyrood this is it.
In Labour’s central belt "heartlands" its seats toppled like nine pins. And comparing the May 5 results with the notional results from 2007 [itself a bad night for Labour] does not sufficiently explain the scale of its collapse. A better comparison would be to look at how Labour’s five-figure majorities from last year poured into the SNP corner.
Labour imagined the protest vote against the Lib-Dem's participation in the Conservative British government would go to it, so why didn’t it? The answer is that Labour, like the Con-Dem Coalition, also support public spending cuts and tuition fees. Labour offered no real alternative. Former Lib-Dem voters were also seduced by SNP leader Alex Salmond’s claims of managerial competency at Holyrood. These SNP achievements in wooing disenchanted Liberals should not be regarded lightly. There is little love lost between the two parties, but on this occasion the support the SNP won from the Lib-Dem voters was the difference between winning and winning an overall majority.
As it turned out even the so-called "rogue" poll of April 2, which first suggested the SNP had an overall majority, underestimated its support. And let’s not forget that Labour started this election campaign with a 15% lead!
The fact is Salmond attracted votes not just from disaffected Lib Dems, but also Labour, Green, Tory and SSP supporters too.
Ephemeral of earth shattering?
The central question is how much of this change is ephemeral, a one-off, a freak result, and how much of it has broken the political mould?
Those who tentatively suggest the former must reckon with the five-year term the SNP majority now has in this Scottish Parliament. That’s certainly not superficial. Neither is the scale of Labour’s collapse.
On the other hand those who suggest we are now in permanent new territory must ask how can the SNP keep seats like Edinburgh Pentlands and Edinburgh West when they have virtually no activists there and little natural support as its political opponents wait to pounce? And what will be the consequences in next year's council elections after a year of public spending cuts?
There are those of course who argue that the result on May 5 illustrates a certain "political promiscuity" by voters who voted for Labour in huge numbers last year and opted for the SNP equally emphatically this time. This demonstrates, so it is argued, an inherent volatility in politics because there are no ideological differences between the four establishment parties. And this is certainly true if you examine Alex Salmond’s economic program, his business plan or international policy in regards to say Libya or Afghanistan. And the public spending cuts which he delayed until after this election sit in his in-tray awaiting his scissors.
Above all it is the issue of the cuts which will now test Salmond’s popularity most. Popularity levels like his can only go one way. Ask Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg! And the SNP has very difficult choices now to make during continued economic stagnation. It faces making severe public spending cuts. And it has as a party no compunction in voting for them, unlike the SSP. It votes through cuts every day in councils across Scotland and it will do so again at Holyrood. Of course Salmond will try valiantly to pin the blame on Prime Minsiter David Cameron and Clegg. And rightly so, but in the end he will not fight the cuts, he will make them. That brings huge public opposition and with it huge opportunities for the left.
Salmond must make £3 billion of cuts over five years and these will be severe and unpopular. A shrewd and cunning political operator he might be -- look at the way he announced his five-year council tax freeze for example at the same time as he unceremoniously and largely unnoticed dumped the SNP’s commitment to an income-based alternative -- but he will make them nonetheless.
Neither will an SNP government confront the employing classes or redistribute the great wealth of Scotland. Salmond may be a populist but he will defend the interests of big business in Scotland as mercilessly as anyone else.
The message from the people of Scotland to Alex Salmond however remains unequivocal -- these cuts are utterly unnecessary and indefensible and he must fight them! The economic crisis wasn’t caused by the greed and recklessness of working people and the poor after all.
"The SNP has been good for Scotland" boasted Salmond defending his four-year record at Holyrood. But which Scotland does he mean? The 200 businesspeople who endorsed him on polling day? Sir David Murray? Sir Jackie Stewart? Sir Tom Farmer? The Scottish Sun and News of the World whom also blessed him with an endorsement? The Scottish Sunday Express? They all believe the SNP has been good for them and that’s why they backed Salmond on May 5!
"Alex Salmond has been good for Scotland",they said in unison. "That’s why we support his re-election as First Minister." John Swinney welcomed their backing and said, "Captains of Industry have benefited from the SNP."
The Sunday Times Rich List came out at the weekend and what’s remarkable about the table of Scots billionaires and millionaires is the number who came out last week in support of the SNP. As New Labour found to its cost, you can support the millionaires or you can support the millions. Getting it wrong has devastating consequences electorally.
So there’s the rub. Millions of Scots voted for the SNP to fight the cuts and to stand up to the Tories but the SNP now supports a regressive council tax freeze, cutting corporation tax and imposing cuts in public services, jobs, pay and £3.3 billionn off the budget over the next five years.
Undoubtedly the most profound impact of the astonishing May 5 result is the likelihood of a referendum on Scottish independence. The SNP said it did not present the bill in the last parliament because it had no majority. Now it does. Independence just took a great leap forward as Mao might have said.
There is no doubt that the case for independence took a battering during the election campaign itself as the SNP leadership barely rose to its defence while the [pro-British] parties, sensing a weakness in the SNP’s armour, poured endless cold water on it. In these circumstance it is little wonder the polls show support for independence now below 30%.
Supporters of independence like the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) therefore have a huge task on our hands to win the argument for independence outside Holyrood in the pubs, clubs, community centres and workplaces across the land. But it can and must be done. The case for independence must be won before the referendum is called.
This offers an unprecedented opportunity for the left. The SNP is incapable of delivering a majority for independence on its own and to be fair it has acknowledged this frequently in the Independence Convention which the SSP joined.
It remains our job on the left to outline the alternative vision for independence. The alternative to neoliberalism, warmongering, privatisation and profiteering. How many of the 69 SNP MSPs for example will protest at having to swear the oath of allegiance to the Queen? The party favours independence with the Queen as head of state.
Alex Salmond is undoubtedly a shrewd politician who closely courts popularity, but he also supports the NATO attacks on Libya and the British occupation of Afghanistan. He also supports the monarchy and cutting corporation tax for employers and retaining the unfair council tax. The SSP is better able to persuade progressive Scotland of the case for independence.
Given the huge swing to the SNP, which swept all before it, taking dozens of seats from Labour, Liberals, Tories and Greens [polls suggested the Greens could get eight seats] alike it is hardly surprising the left’s vote was squeezed. We were also entirely eclipsed in the way the media covers this big money election.
The left was never at the races. In Glasgow, George Galloway got 6500 votes but never looked like winning and he has gone back to where he came from leaving nothing behind pretty much as usual. The Socialist Labour Party got the biggest left vote with 10,000 but it has been unable to coalesce the left in Scotland up to now and that will not change. The SSP vote  was also disappointing and down from 2007. This was inevitable after the fiasco of the Tommy Sheridan trial in January. Sheridan's organisation Solidarity, as expected, were the biggest losers given its disgraced leader's incarceration for lying.
It is also true that nowadays the left’s resources are minuscule compared to the millions spent by Labour and the SNP and this disparity makes an uneven contest all but impossible.
For the Scottish Socialist Party and the left as a whole the task must be to build up support for the socialist case again and to act with others to establish new fresh ideas and a potent political base of support in communities, workplaces and among those fighting the cuts. There will be many opportunities presented to us in the weeks, months and years to come. We need to roll up our sleeves and take the socialist case to new generations of political activists.
The 2012 council elections offer an opportunity for a breakthrough. But as SSP councillor Jim Bollan put it to me during the election, you have to lay foundations before you put up the walls and take your seat. This time last year I met the team behind Green MP Caroline Lucas’s success in Brighton and asked them what they put their victory in getting Britain's first Green MP elected down to. They each said "25 years hard work at ground level". After May 5, the Greens are the biggest party on Brighton and Hove Council.
Voters bring break up of Britain closer?
By Raphie de Santos
May 7, 2011 -- Socialist Resistance -- Voters in the May 5, 2011, Holyrood election in Scotland swung from parties right across the political spectrum to the Scottish National Party (SNP) to give it a majority in the next Scottish parliament. The primary reason was that they saw as large as possible SNP representation in the Scottish parliament as the best way of protecting Scotland against the British Conservative Party-Liberal Demcrat coalition government's £111 billion austerity program of cuts and tax rises.
The secondary reason was to give the SNP the option if life became so unbearable under London’s austere winter term of five years to go for an independence referendum and set Scotland up as an independent country based on a different set of principles which value public services and care of all in society.
Not everyone thought this of course and only just over half of the electorate voted in the election with many believing no matter what party you have in Holyrood they would be unable to significantly stop the cuts.
But when the Scottish electorate looked to see who would be their bulwark against British Prime Minister David Cameron's assault on them they looked at Labour and what did they find? A party that had been partly responsible for the financial bubble and crisis and recession that has led to the cuts. A party whose solution to the debt crisis was to have its own austerity programme of £72 billion cuts and tax rises.
When they looked at the Lib-Dems they saw a partner in the ruling coalition that said there was no alternative to the debt burden but cuts in services and tax rises. When they looked at the small socialist parties they saw a fragmented left that has remained partly paralysed since November 2004 by the events surrounding Tommy Sheridan News of the World case and resulting trials. This was not helped by the appearance of George Galloway’s Respect party in Glasgow, which was backed by sections of the left. His [anti-independence] stance, pledge to back Labour and opportunist exploitation of the sectarian issue in Scotland fell on deaf ears and he failed to even get half the votes he needed to get elected.
Even Tory supporters deserted their party, albeit in smaller numbers than the Lib-Dems, for the SNP.
Only the Green Party held on to its seats and increased its vote as the Greens offered the only coherent unified alternative to the cuts, with promises of wealth redistribution and taking control of the banks.
The SNP offered no real alternative to the cuts either but talked blandly about defending Scotland’s interests. The cuts were in effect the elephant in the room for the major parties in these elections. They all talked of job creation when they all knew that jobs were already being lost and up to 100,000 public sector and many tens of thousands of private jobs would go in Scotland over the course of the Coalition’s five year term of austerity.
Instead the SNP focused on extending its five-year council tax freeze which has already cost the public sector about £240 million in cuts – and it dropped its alternative to it a progressive local income tax. The SNP made no mention of its up and coming two-year public sector wage freeze – in effect a 10% pay cut with inflation running at 5% a year. There was no mention of its administering and managing of the British government’s £1.3 billion cut to the block grant for 2011/212.
Of course there is much worse to come in the way of cuts for Scotland. By the end of British government’s term in May 2015 the annual cut to the block grant will be in the region of £6.4 billion – 20% or 25% adjusted for inflation. On top of that £1.6 billion will have to be cut off the National Health Service budget to match the efficiency savings that are being made in England. Interesting Scotland's deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon is already openly talking about the need for the NHS in Scotland to make efficiency savings.
Here in the British government’s cuts program lies the SNP’s strategy. It will be five years until the next Scottish election because a four-year cycle would mean it would clash with the next Westminster one in 2015. By then the cuts will have gone deep and may have to be even deeper under the British government’s or possibly the IMF’s auspices. Under the British government’s best-case scenario – which is likely to prove too optimistic – public debt is set to grow to 105% of real GDP by 2015 and the annual interest payments alone will eat up 20% of our annual tax revenues.
With the SNP saying it is not to blame for the cuts – they are the Conservative-LibDem Coalition’s brainchild to solve Labour’s mess – it will call a referendum on independence saying that the only way out of this mess is if Scotland has full independence and fiscal powers. The SNP is about to start a fight with the Coalition over the Scotland bill which is shortly to have its third reading in Westminster and has had legislative approval by the Scottish parliament at the start of 2011. It cuts basic and higher taxation by half while at the same time cutting the central grant by £11 billion a year to Scotland.
Restoring the tax rates to their original level will only bring in an additional £6 billion in revenue leaving a £5 billion shortfall to the block grant. The Scottish Parliament can raise the tax rates higher than in the rest of UK to avoid the shortfall. But the aim of the whole bill is to open up the door to implement the cuts the British government needs to make in Scotland while shifting the blame for them onto the Scottish Parliament – you can have cuts or tax rises.
There are two dangers to this strategy. One the Scottish people rise up against this austerity program and say to the SNP: do something now about these cuts and tax rises. Two, the SNP have no program to fill the £8 billion gap (£10 billion in real terms) in public spending by the time of possible independence in 2016 apart from a Celtic Tiger mark II economy. A solution to the spending gap would require among other thing taking North Sea Oil and the banks under public control and ownership, a rich tax on the super wealthy and progressive local and national taxation where the better off pay considerably more than the less well off. Of course the SNP is not prepared to do this and upset its corporate friends or wealthy and better-off voters.
This gives the best opportunity for the left in Scotland to argue that there should be no cuts, not just under independence but now. Second to put forward a program that makes the rich and wealthy pay for this crisis and takes the wealth and power under peoples’ control in Scotland.
That way we can push the march towards the break of the British capitalist state not just into independence for Scotland but a Scottish Socialist Workers Republic that will inspire and be copied by others on these islands.
[Raphie de Santos is a member of the Scottish Socialist Party. The views expressed are his own and of no other person or organisation.]