Why Scottish votes will be decisive in the outcome of the UK general election

Rally for A Just Scotland. October 18, 2014.

By Alister Black, Edinburgh

May 4, 2015 -- Green Left Weekly, posted at Links International journal of Socialist Renewal -- Britain's May 7 general election is set to be the closest in living memory. In the polls, the two leading parties, Labour and the Conservatives (Tories), are within points of each other. The polls have not shifted despite the best efforts of Tory Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband to secure a breakthrough.

Why are the polls so close?

The Tories are facing a challenge from the far-right UK Independence Party (UKIP), which blames immigrants for all the ills of society and demands Britain's withdrawal from the European Union. But it is the rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP) that has been the big story in this election.

Scotland has traditionally been a stronghold for the Labour Party. In the 2010 election, it returned 41 seats compared to the SNP’s six.

This time, the polls are promising a shock. The SNP look set to win 41-52% of the vote.

In the Westminster first-past-the-post system, this could deliver 50 of Scotland’s 59 seats to the SNP. In this scenario, the SNP could be the third-largest party in the British parliament and could hold the balance of power.

Recent polls even point to Labour retaining just one MP in Scotland, with Labour insiders remarking that retaining between three and six MPs would be “champagne time”.

Labour may face the choice of either sharing power with the SNP or allowing another Tory government. Labour have ruled out a formal coalition with the SNP, but may depend on the votes of Scottish Nationalists to form government, with every policy being up for negotiation.

The SNP is pitching policies that are to the left of Labour and consistent with how it has governed in the Scottish parliament. It calls for an end to economic austerity and scrapping nuclear weapons, opposing the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system.

The televised leaders’ debates provided an effective platform for SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon to expose the austerity policies put forward by both the Tories and Labour. She was able to form an effective block with the women leading the Greens and Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru to challenge the austerity consensus.

The root of the remarkable shift in voter loyalty in Scotland lies in the independence referendum and the unprecedented politicisation of Scottish voters. The referendum mobilised a new mass movement for democracy. This movement was able to articulate the progressive demands of millions of Scots.

The establishment parties in Westminster had spent years telling ordinary people there was no alternative to their vision of a society organised around the needs of the market. In power, the Tories have implemented savage benefit cuts that hit the most vulnerable. More than a million Britons had relied on food banks in 2014.

The referendum allowed Scots to imagine a different, better nation free from poverty and war. Groups like the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and Scottish Greens organised effectively to push the debate to the left.

After the defeat of the pro-independence Yes campaign, which won 45% of the vote, those who had taken to the streets and hustings did not go back to their living rooms to watch TV. They became political.

SNP membership reached levels unprecedented in British politics. The SNP now has more than 100,000 members, up from 25,000 before the referendum. This makes the SNP the third-biggest party in Britain and capable of putting thousands of activists on the streets.

The Greens and the SSP also enjoyed large membership boosts.

Crucially, the 45% who voted Yes have decided to stick with the SNP, marking a large break with the Labour Party, which campaigned for a No vote.

The likely SNP landslide represents those Scots who want to see a more progressive nation. It has certainly worried the British establishment, just as the referendum did.

The right-wing Mail on Sunday has run a front page headline declaring this the “Biggest Crisis since the Abdication”. Tory MPs and tabloid editors are frothing at the mouth with rage and disbelief.

But how radical is the SNP? One of the key debates in the general election campaign has been around the SNP's demand for “full fiscal autonomy”. It says this would give them the economic levers to attract more capital to Scotland. By this, the SNP means generous tax breaks for corporations.

The SNP is certainly not an anti-capitalist party, nor has it ever claimed to be. During the referendum, the SNP argued that Scotland should retain the pound as its currency, stay in NATO and keep the monarchy.

There is no doubt that the SNP will sweep the board in Scotland at this election. Next year’s elections for the Scottish parliament will be the real challenge for the Scottish left.

With a more proportional electoral system for the Scottish parliament, instead of the winner-takes-all first-past-the-post system for Westminster, there is an opportunity for socialists to join together and present a credible challenge. The Scottish Left Project — launched by a broad array of activists from various campaigns and groups such as Labour for Independence, the RIC and the SSP — is aiming to do just that.

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

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From GLW issue 1051