By Bob Fotheringham
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Elections and the death of Labour in Scotland

This article is over 8 years, 8 months old
The political earthquake of the SNP's general election result proves that the anti-austerity message wins. But the lesson is lost on Scottish Labour.
Issue 403

The bemused look on the face of Jim Murphy, then leader of the Labour Party in Scotland, the day after the general election summed up the fate of Scottish Labour. His explanation for what had happened was an object lesson in delusion and denial. According to Murphy the almost total wipe-out of Labour at the hands of the Scottish National Party (SNP) was as a consequence of “two nationalisms — Scottish and English”.

He could not acknowledge that the years of cuts imposed on Scotland by Labour at a national and local level might have had an impact; there was no recognition that the lies Labour told over the Iraq war may have undermined people’s confidence in them; there was no understanding that doing the Tories’ dirty work during the referendum may have played a role; and finally there was no appreciation that when Ed Miliband let it be known that he would rather have a Tory government in power than do a deal with the SNP this may have caused a great deal of anger.

The mood can be summed up by the response of people to the question, why did you move your vote from Labour to the SNP? The answer was overwhelmingly, “It is not us who have left labour, but Labour that has left us.”

In many ways the general election in Scotland was like a second referendum. Freed from the difficult choice of deciding whether to vote yes or no to independence, people had an opportunity to make a more general judgement on how the British state operated and served their interests. The outcome was emphatic.

By contrast Nicola Sturgeon for the SNP played her hand perfectly. The campaign she ran did not contain a hint of nationalism but instead hammered away at an anti-Tory and anti-austerity message. As a consequence many people who voted No to independence voted for the SNP.

The move away from Labour in Scotland, which in truth has been going for some time, has now become a landslide. Sturgeon in many ways sounds like and says things which you would expect from a left Labour politician.

Make no mistake, the vote for the SNP at this election was largely working class and it was a demand for an end to the neoliberal free market economic policies that have done so much damage to working class communities.

The vote for the SNP also flies in the face of those that argue that the Labour Party’s message was too left wing. In Scotland, unlike in England, people were given a real choice.

Alex Salmond described the huge support for his party as a “Scottish roar”. It is now incumbent on the SNP to provide this with the necessary bite. They can start by settling the Dundee hospital porters’ strike by conceding the workers’ demand for back pay after years of underpayment. They have the power to do so as health is a devolved matter in Scotland.

Another dispute which they have the capacity to intervene in and settle is the homeless case worker strike in Glasgow which is now in its seventh week. The SNP should tell the Labour controlled Glasgow City Council that it no longer has a mandate, and must resolve the dispute in favour of the workers.

Beyond this they need to mobilise opposition to the Tories’ austerity policies. If David Cameron can say he has a mandate to govern with 37 percent of the popular vote then the SNP with a 51 percent share in Scotland has a much greater mandate to oppose them.

The SNP must refuse to pass on cuts initiated from London, do all in its power to oppose Trident as well as demand the immediate closure of the Dungavel immigration detention centre.

As expected, the parties to the left of the SNP received few votes. The radical left TUSC ran a good campaign and received a great deal of verbal support and sympathy. But ultimately people believed the best way of opposing the Tories and punishing Labour was to vote SNP.

The challenge for the left is how it can unite and play a more effective role. While support for the SNP at this moment is riding high, it remains at root a bourgeois nationalist party with some troubling policies, including lower taxes for business, reflecting its aim of a Scottish capitalism.

Recently the Scottish SNP government told the RMT rail workers’ union that either it accepts cuts to its pension scheme or it will be privatised and ended as a final salary scheme. This exposes the side of the SNP which was kept well hidden during the election campaign.

With 100,000 members, the growth in SNP membership has been spectacular. Many of the people who have joined will share opinions and political views common on the left — opposition to racism, the need to scrap Trident, opposition to benefit cuts, and so on.

There is plenty to unite around, and the left can play a constructive role in initiating campaigns, protests and action to pressurise the SNP to keep its promises.

Elections to the Scottish Parliament take place in 2016. As the voting process contains a degree of proportionality, the scope for smaller parties to win seats is better than at a UK general election.

In 2003 the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP)won six MSPs before it all fell apart in 2006. However, an important aspect of this success was the fact that the left was largely united in supporting the SSP in the election.

At this moment it looks as if there could be several different left groups in Scotland contesting for votes. It would be a disaster if this were to happen in practice. Precisely because it will be possible for the Scottish left to win seats in the Scottish Parliament, it is essential it presents a united challenge.

During the recent election there were some encouraging signs that things are moving forward. Before the election representatives of TUSC and the SSP met and agreed not run to against each other.

Another was the decision by Robin McAlpine, the director of the Common Weal and prominent supporter of the Radical Independence Campaign, to share a platform at a Hope Over Fear rally with former SSP MSP Tommy Sheridan.

He subsequently came in for a great deal of criticism for this, but strongly defended his actions by calling for “tolerance, accommodation and solidarity” in the pro-independence movement.

Whatever the criticisms which can be made of Tommy Sheridan, it cannot be denied that he remains a popular figure among working class communities in Scotland. He also played a major role in galvanising support for the Yes side in the referendum.

The SSP recently agreed that it would enter into talks with the Scottish Left Project, an outgrowth of the Radical Independence Campaign, but this formation (dubbed by some as the “Scottish Syriza”) would likely exclude Sheridan and TUSC.

There remains the question of what will the Labour left in Scotland do now, particularly those who campaigned for a Yes vote in the referendum.

If Labour is indeed finished as a force in Scotland surely now is the time for the main unions along with the RMT who supported the TUSC campaign and those members of the Labour Party in Scotland who genuinely believe in social justice and change to leave the Labour Party behind.

A united left including the Labour left in Scotland, TUSC, Sheridan, the SSP and the Scottish Left Project could provide a radical socialist alternative to the SNP.

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