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Sunrise on the Scottish Left

Recent political shifts in Scotland present a real opening for socialists.

A woman at a rally for Scottish independence last year. Derec Thompson / Flickr

The British general election in May told two different stories. The first concerns the United Kingdom as a whole. Despite last-minute conflicting polls and speculation about hung parliaments, minority governments, and new coalitions, the Conservatives received 37 percent of the vote (24 percent of those eligible to vote), meaning this government has been elected with one of the lowest voting shares in history.

While there certainly hasn’t been a massive swing to the dominant party of British capital, the vagaries of the UK electoral system mean the Conservatives can now extend the previous coalition’s savage austerity program. Over a third of the electorate did not vote, and perhaps the most striking feature of the election was the total failure of the Labour Party to convince them to do so.

The second story of the election concerns Scotland. The scale of the earthquake that has just occurred is demonstrated below. There are 59 Scottish seats in the British House of Commons (out of a total of 650).

2010 2015
Conservative and Unionist 1 1
Labour 41 1
Liberal Democrat 11 1
Scottish National Party 6 56

This is not a misprint. From having only 6 seats 5 years ago, the Scottish National Party (SNP) now holds 56, with the other main parties reduced to 1 each. The SNP was supported by 50 percent of voters (36 percent of those eligible to vote).

The SNP’s current hegemony is not totally unprecedented. The Conservatives also achieved over 50 percent of the vote in 1955, although this only delivered them 36 out of what were then 71 Scottish seats. And, although Labour had taken over from the Conservatives as the party with the largest share of the vote by 1959, it took until 1987 to attain absolute electoral dominance — and even then with 6 fewer seats than the SNP has now.

What is unprecedented is the speed with which the SNP has achieved its position and the fact that it has been accompanied by a vast increase in membership, now numbering around 110,000 — something like 2 percent of the Scottish population.

Most of these new members are both working class and on the Left. The SNP trade union group had 800 members at a September 2014 referendum; nine months later, it has 16,000 — larger than the entire membership of the Scottish Labour Party. At the June 20 anti-austerity rally of around 5,000 in George Square, Glasgow was addressed by, among others, Kirsteen Fraser, the SNP Trade Union Group’s secretary, while Nicola Sturgeon, SNP leader and Scottish first minister, was herself addressing the group’s first congress in Stirling.

The Rise of the SNP

As these results suggest, the secular decline of the Scottish Labour Party has now reached crisis point. To be reduced from 41 seats to 1 seat is perhaps the greatest collapse in Scottish electoral history since the First Extinction of the Conservatives back in 1834 (the Second Extinction occurred in 1997, when the party lost all its seats). Needless to say, this has not been an overnight process.

Labour’s working-class membership base has been declining since the 1960s and especially since the mid-1980s, overtaken by members of the new middle class. There used to be a layer of Labour activists in most working-class communities — often quite right-wing activists — who would lobby the local council, organize petitions, and generally act as a focus for local community reformism. This layer is greatly diminished, and while these activities still get done, Labour members no longer initiate them as a matter of course.

Most of Labour’s working-class membership now comes from the affiliated trade unions, whose role is therefore decisively important. The structural link to the organized working class through affiliated trade unions and, more distantly, the Trade Union Congress and its subnational equivalents, acted as channels for the expression of organized working-class views within the Labour Party.

Although always heavily mediated by the bureaucracy, these views did influence Labour policy, a process that reached its peak around 1974. In theory, this could still take place, but in practice the union leaders have exercised a self-denying ordinance since the advent of New Labour that has led to the marginalization of working-class influence over the party. This process is now being taken still further by a leadership desperate to distance the party from organized labor — perceived to be unpopular with the “aspirational” middle-class voters whose support Labour seeks.

As this suggests, Labour has not done much for the working class lately. Historically, of course, it has a number of important achievements to its credit, but socialists tend to be quite dismissive of these, concentrating instead — for obvious and usually entirely justified reasons — on the record of Labour betrayal.

This approach makes it difficult to explain why anyone ever believed in or voted for Labour in the first place, but unfortunately Labour’s achievements are also all in the past — in some cases the very distant past. Its recent record includes backing the Iraq War, drumming up tabloid racism against migrants, and refusing to repeal anti–trade union legislation or reverse Tory (and New Labour) privatizations, all the while lecturing Scots on the evils of nationalism — except, of course, British nationalism.

Like similar organizations in Europe and Australasia, Labour has moved extraordinarily far to the right. Reformism remains the dominant form of consciousness within the working class, but there is no necessary connection between reformism in general and the specific form taken by Labourism.

The combination of Labour’s own behavior in office — above all its acceptance of neoliberalism — together with structural changes in the nature of the working class and the current diminution of trade union consciousness, means that for many working-class people, Labour appears fundamentally similar to other parties, simply providing “the least bad” choice on offer. In these circumstances, if new parties appear, offering reforms, sounding as if they actually believe in them, and invoking the social-democratic tradition, it is no mystery why working-class voters would support them.

All that I have described until now is true for Labour at a UK level, but there are specifically Scottish aspects of its decline. The SNP is not in the slightest like Syriza or Podemos in terms of its structures or politics, but it has grown for similar reasons at the Labour Party’s expense, in a way that no party is in a position to do in England.

Twelve years ago, perhaps even twelve months ago, even the most optimistic of the SNP’s tacticians would not have predicted capturing so much of Labour’s former support, even though this has been their goal for several decades now. The transformative element was the independence referendum campaign and the emergence in its latter stages of what was effectively a mass social movement comparable to those of Greece or Spain.

In previous eras a massive left-wing, overwhelmingly working-class, and mainly young movement would, potentially at least, have been a vast recruiting ground for Labour Party members and voters. In the present moment this outcome was impossible — not only because of Labour’s enthusiastic embrace of neoliberalism at home and imperialist war abroad, not only because the SNP had carefully positioned itself as the defender of the social-democratic tradition, but also because Labour activists were simply incapable of speaking to the tens of thousands mobilized by the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) and the Yes campaign more generally.

But they were prepared to ally with the Conservatives for over two years in the Better Together campaign. For Labour, anyone who supported independence was, by definition, a “nationalist” and therefore worthy only of the unhinged sectarianism that it has always shown towards the SNP.

This uncomprehending blindness to the real nature of the Yes campaign has affected even the standard-bearers of the Labour left in Scotland: Neil Findlay, a former candidate for the leadership in Scotland, describes politics in Scotland as now being “post-rational” because of the failure of the working class to vote for his party. The sense of thwarted entitlement here is tragic: one wonders just how you begin to appeal to erstwhile supporters whom you regard as having gone collectively insane.

In fact electoral support for the SNP is perfectly rational. Two trends have brought the SNP closer to left-wing activists.

First, socialists and nationalists converged on the importance of key policies, including rejection of Trident and austerity, and support for universal benefits. The leadership’s transition from Alex Salmond to Nicola Sturgeon also allowed the SNP to jettison the toxic remainder of the “Celtic Tiger” bubble, the policy of turning Scotland into a low-corporation tax market utopia on the Irish model. Second, a majority of left-wing Scots outside the Labour Party now agree there is no “British road to socialism,” meaning that independence has become a programmatic demand.

Beyond the self-identified left, the SNP was also able to reach out to voters who had previously been suspicious of it, or who had perhaps only been prepared to vote for it at a Scottish parliamentary level, by opposing austerity and nuclear weapons and welcoming immigrants. Importantly, its success demolishes the claim that people will no longer vote for left policies — a lie currently being cultivated by all contenders for the British Labour leadership but the sole left candidate, Jeremy Corbyn.

A Left Opposition to the SNP

In the face of this enormous upheaval and the hope it awakens in the Scottish left — not unreasonably given the nightmare vista of untrammelled Conservative rule across the UK as a whole — the temptation to stand to one side and gaze admiringly at the SNP juggernaut, or even to join it, can be overwhelming. However, it should be resisted.

There are important differences between a socialist agenda and the SNP’s agenda, some of which were on display during Sturgeon’s recent triumphal visit to the United States. At one point she joked with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show about the US propensity for invading oil-producing countries, but at another she told the US Council on Foreign Relations: “Do not think that the SNP and the Scottish government takes a markedly different position from the UK government on the vast majority of international issues” and pledged to remain a “key ally” of the US if Scotland achieved independence. On Bloomberg TV she announced that Scotland was “open for business.”

Sturgeon has some room for maneuver. One reason why the SNP has been able to move left is because (unlike Catalonia) there is not a big independence-supporting bourgeoisie exercising pressure on it: there is no longer an indigenous Scottish capitalist class of any size — most large-scale capital in Scotland is externally owned and deeply opposed to Scotland gaining independence. Nevertheless, she and the rest of the SNP leadership have been perfectly honest in defining its current position as moderately social democratic: in effect it is on the extreme left of the social neoliberal spectrum.

It is only because politics has moved so far to the right over the last forty years that SNP could be mistaken for a party of radical leftists. It remains pro-monarchy, pro-NATO, and pro-Sterling. In the Scottish Parliament itself, where it has been in power for the last eight years, the SNP has piloted policies that clash with a socialist agenda, from college cuts to arming the police to criminalizing “sectarian” displays of Irish nationalism at football matches.

Above all, it has not resisted cuts in service provision at the local council level, except rhetorically. An independence movement dominated by the SNP will be forced to defend this legacy. This not only weakens the case for independence, it also sets a poor precedent for governing Scotland after independence is achieved.

There is therefore a contradiction at the heart of the SNP. Its new members think that it is considerably more left wing than it actually is. This has already begun to affect the inner life of the party branches, and may well find expression in motions to its national conference later this year.

Once these new members find out exactly how tightly controlled the party is (the May 2016 Manifesto for the Scottish parliamentary elections will be written by Sturgeon and her deputy John Swinney) and how far it is prepared to compromise with capital, at least some of them may realize that it is not the organization they had imagined it to be. But is there an alternative?

I wrote earlier that the temptation to go with the flow of the SNP surge is very strong. What is the point of trying to establish a political alternative when it exercises such dominance? There would certainly be none if it simply involved another party-building attempt to create “the” party out of the pure, elected few. But we have been part of one the greatest mass movements in Scottish history. Its energies have not all been absorbed by the SNP, and its new membership and support are still on a highly conditional basis.

The responsibility of socialists is therefore very great. If the SNP is to face an opposition from the Left — rather than the racist, xenophobic right — unity of purpose and organization will be required. The Scottish Left Project, which emerged out of the non-party activists involved in RIC, is seeking to create this unity; the Scottish Socialist Party has already agreed to take part with a view to standing together in the first-ever alliance in next May’s Scottish parliamentary elections.

It is understandable why even people unwilling to surrender their critical faculties in the face of the SNP behemoth might have their doubts about the possibility of building a credible left-wing alternative to both the SNP and Labour. The Left’s record hardly gives grounds for confidence. But the recent success of the RIC shows signs of a new maturity in the Scottish left — a recognition that unity and boldness in reaching out to working-class communities made a huge difference. And we would not be starting from a blank slate, but from one of the biggest popular mobilizations in decades. These are similar circumstances which led to the birth of Podemos in Spain.

Although the new formation will seek to win seats in the May elections and form part of a “left opposition” to the SNP along with the Greens, the movement cannot be focused solely, or even primarily, on electoral politics. It has to be an organizational project that seeks to engage with the working-class majority of the Scottish population. In doing so it should apply some of the lessons of the Yes campaign, above all that while it is important to reach out to people in the communities where they live, it is even more important to do so where they work.

The collapse of the Labour Party in Scotland would have been catastrophic for the Left if it had taken place on a right-wing basis, as it has in those parts of England where the UK Independence Party gathered support. That it has not means the radical left has a real opportunity to build a strong formation for a new politics.