By Bruce Wallace
Socialists in Scotland will be campaigning for the defeat of the Tories in the General Election on 8th June. Theresa May’s decision to announce the election is an attempt to bolster her majority by riding the anti-EU Brexit mood in England and Wales. Convinced by the polls, which gave up to a 21 percent lead for the Tories over the Labour Party (LP), May thinks she will decisively crush Jeremy Corbyn’s resurgent party. This is a major political gamble by May which could well backfire disastrously.
Corbyn faces an uphill struggle for a host of reasons. The entire political establishment is opposed to Corbyn and his programme, and that probably includes the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party itself. The commentariat and the Tory press pump out anti-Corbyn rhetoric by the minute, but perhaps the biggest barrier to an outright Labour victory in June is the situation in Scotland.
Scottish socialists want to see an end to Tory government, but at the moment the LP in Scotland has been reduced to a rump in terms of its electoral base and MPs. Ian Murray is the sole Labour Westminster MP for Edinburgh South following the virtual wipe out at the hands of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in 2015. The joke used to be that there were fewer Scottish Tory MPs than Giant Pandas in Edinburgh Zoo (two). This old joke now applies to the Scottish LP!
Scottish Labour a toxic brand
The LP in Scotland has become a toxic brand for many working class voters. The main reason for this was the infamous role played by Labour in opposing Scottish independence in the 2014 referendum (where the pro-indy vote was overwhelmingly working class), their continued opposition to a second independence referendum and their vocal support for the Union. The LP was the main political party that campaigned against independence and were the mainstay of the project fear ‘Better Together’ campaign, uniting with the Tories and Liberal Democrats to oppose the democratic demand for Scottish independence. Labour’s working class electoral base has been hollowed out. Amazingly, the LP in Scotland poll only 15 percent support which is ten percent below the Scottish Tories! Historically this is unprecedented; The LP are now reduced to the third party in the Scottish Parliament, behind Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservatives. The collapse in support and representation is akin to the meltdowns suffered by other social democratic parties in Europe, like PASOK in Greece or the Spanish and French Socialist Parties.
Unlike the grass roots transformation of the LP in England and Wales during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, its Scottish wing has stayed firmly under right wing control. The LP leader in Scotland, Kezia Dugdale, was hand in glove with the right-wing traitors at Westminster who staged a coup against Corbyn in 2016 and was a supporter of weasel worded Owen Smith in the last leadership battle. Despite this, the pro-Corbyn Left in Scotland have failed to challenge Dugdale’s leadership, while Corbyn has sadly echoed her position on independence.
This is a mistake by Corbyn which dooms any possibility of a LP resurgence in Scotland. Corbyn has uncritically backed Dugdale’s total opposition to a second independence referendum and rejects any form of independence. This has merely reinforced the process of disintegration of the Scottish LP and handed the political initiative over to the SNP on the national question, who now portray themselves as the only democratic pro-independence party.
Politically, the LP in Scotland are identified with the failed policies of Blair and Brown and their austerity programme of cuts in social services. Dugdale is an unreconstructed Blairite of ‘New’ Labour, with the total rejection of ‘socialistic’ ideas, social democracy and instead adaptation to pro-capitalist policies. The outcome of these policies at local level was Labour losing overall control of Glasgow City Council in the May local elections, after having run Glasgow council for eighty years!
The rapid decline in Labour’s vote has not just been to the benefit of the SNP. As the SNP has massacred Labour MPs in the major urban centres, a significant portion of right-wing Labour voters have switched to the Scottish Tories. Up to 27 percent of Labour voters have stated their intention to vote Tory on 8th June. The reason for this is that a layer of older right-wing Labour supporters, who voted against independence in 2014, see the Tory Party as more effective in opposing the SNP and independence. At the opposite pole, young people in Scotland no longer regard Labour as a progressive radical party. Only 10 percent of under 50’s identify themselves as LP supporters! This is the opposite of the support Corbyn is gathering from the young in England and Wales.
For Corbyn to turn things around for Labour in Scotland it would be necessary for him to critically support independence from a left socialist position and to decisively reject the right-wing leadership of the Scottish Party. Unfortunately Corbyn has avoided this course of action and is tied to a misguided posture on the national question and has retreated on a number of his more radical policy measures to placate his own right wing. The Labour manifesto is very clear on this issue: ‘Labour opposes a second Scottish independence referendum. It is unwanted and unnecessary, and we will campaign tirelessly to ensure Scotland remains part of the UK’.
Although socialists in Scotland support the positive aspects of the Labour Manifesto, the failure to take a position in support of Scottish independence displays a complete lack of understanding of the class forces involved in the indyref struggle in 2014, where it was the working class who were to the forefront in fighting for independence. Corbyn’s programme of limited renationalisation, ending cuts in social spending and opposing austerity could gain traction in Scotland if it was underpinned by critical support for independence. Corbyn’s compromise with his own right wing in maintaining a commitment to Trident, for example, is overwhelmingly unpopular in Scotland (the SNP stand for a nuclear free Scotland), while on the national question Labour is indistinguishable from Theresa May and Ruth Davidson.
As Corbyn has publicly stated: ‘I think that independence would be catastrophic for many people in Scotland. It would lead to turbo-charged austerity … because there’s a very low oil price and the high dependency on oil tax revenue’. This shows just how out of touch Corbyn is of the situation on the ground in Scotland, and there is no sign of him being prepared to change his outlook.
SNP move right
Since the close run indyref in 2014, the SNP’s success has been dizzying. But despite their massive victory in the 2015 General Election and win in the Scottish Parliamentary elections in 2016, enthusiasm for the Nats is beginning to fade. On her coronation as SNP leader shortly after the indyref, Nicola Sturgeon was overwhelmingly popular in Scotland, getting an approval rating of 54 percent as First Minister. After two years in charge, Sturgeon’s popularity has plummeted to as low as 11 per cent, and even Tory leader Ruth Davidson is rated higher!
The reality of government has turned the SNP into the party of the establishment, despite all their anti-austerity rhetoric. They have moved significantly to the right and their surge in support shortly after indyref has dissipated, with many working class ‘yes’ voters losing their enthusiasm in the idea that the SNP can either deliver independence or combat the attacks of the Tory government. This has opened up a significant vacuum to the left of the SNP which Scottish Labour has failed to capitalise on.
Sturgeon has been rattling her sabre since the Brexit result, stating that this represented a material change in Scotland’s circumstances and that a second referendum on independence was ‘on the table’. This poses Sturgeon with a problem, since support for independence post-indyref has hardly changed, with polls showing only 45 percent still in favour of independence, and it is very uncertain that a referendum could be won. Hence Sturgeon has been less than forceful in pushing the referendum question, although she may be forced into calling a second referendum.
Brexit has also complicated the situation as the SNP are tied to a position of attempting to retain Scotland’s membership of the EU. In this sense the SNP are almost the Remainers last hope of salvaging something from their referendum defeat in June 2016, despite this meaning that the SNP have shown themselves to be acting in the interests of a section of the British capitalist class who seek to block Brexit. It also shows how the SNP are completely subservient to the neo-liberal agenda of the EU. This has begun to alienate them from sustainable working class support.
The true nature of the SNP has been exposed by the Brexit result. They say they want independence for Scotland, but state that if independence were won Scotland would seek to re-join the EU immediately, thus giving up that independence to the Brussels bureaucracy. While only 38 percent of Scots voted for Brexit this included a significant layer who also voted for independence in 2014.
The Brexit referendum result in Scotland hardly showed national enthusiasm for the EU. While the result of the poll was that 62 percent of Scots voted remain, the turnout was much lower than in England and Wales. Less Scots voted to remain than voted for independence in 2014.
The global fall in the price of oil has undermined the economic case for independence and Scotland now has a fiscal deficit of 9.5 percent of GDP. This undercuts the SNP support for remaining in the EU as the limit allowed for members is a fiscal deficit of 3 percent. Were Scotland to achieve independence and apply to join the EU it would be on terms of fiscal tightening and austerity. The SNP’s slavish adherence to the neoliberal EU capitalist project betrays the class nature of the party. They are a capitalist party which represents the interests of Scottish big business and, to a lesser extent, the capitalist class as a whole. The SNP is no ally of the working class.
Who do we support?
Unfortunately elements of the Left in Scotland have been unclear on where they stand. Generally, they have called for support for Corbyn in England and Wales but are calling for an ‘anti-Tory pro-independence’ vote in Scotland. Effectively this means they’ve called for an SNP vote since no significant forces are standing from the left who support independence.
Socialists need to be clear. Under no circumstances should we call for a vote for the SNP and should explicitly warn against it. Neither should we call for a Labour vote in Scotland as this would alienate the best elements of the working class from our message. What is required is for socialists in Scotland to take an independent class position which calls for an independent socialist Scotland as part of a voluntary socialist federation of the British Isles. We can have no truck with an electoral alliance (formal or otherwise) with any pro-independence party that is capitalist.