Can Labour Overturn the Nationalists and Win Back Scotland?

08 November 2015

The Scottish Nationalist Party is still riding high after its almost total wipe out of Labour in the May general election. The SNP has a lot of support among the electorate. Currently in the opinion polls they have about 50 per cent of the vote and look set to win a sweeping victory in the Scottish parliamentary elections of May 2016. Labour are presently on 24 per cent and have a mountain to climb by May.

The message out in the referendum and again in the General Election was that the SNP is “Strong for Scotland”, and that message still has allure for many people. The SNP may take all the constituency seats in Glasgow in the Holyrood elections next year.

Obviously the SNP overtook Labour in working class areas by posing to the left of them, particularly by playing the anti-austerity card. But in the Scottish Parliament and in councils where they have a majority, they have been making significant cuts in social services and jobs. And recent scandals involving property deals by their business spokesperson at Westminster and regarding murky payments to business connected to the SNP by the Scottish government have started to remove some of their shine.

In terms of anti-austerity rhetoric Labour is now playing very much the same game: claiming to oppose austerity but refusing to organise any real resistance. They are talking more left, while still carrying out the Tory cuts at local level, for example in Glasgow. In Edinburgh, where there is an SNP-Labour coalition, there are a lot of redundancies going through, around 2,000 at the last count I think.

Scottish Labour shifts left

Jeremy Corbyn’s victory has certainly had an effect in Scotland. Take the Scottish Labour Party conference [which was due to take place just after this article was written], for example. One of the biggest issues on the conference agenda will be Trident. There has been a heavy vote to prioritise the motion on nuclear weapons, so there will be a debate – and the conference could call for dumping Trident. Before Corbyn’s victory they wouldn’t have even had the debate.

It will be interesting to see if conference backs Trident or adopts an anti-nuclear weapons stance. From what I understand, Unite could come out against Trident, though the GMB is likely to remain in favour of keeping it. It will be interesting to see what happens.

I will be hoping to attend on Sunday, the second day of the conference, which is a “members day” open to all. Again, that is a sign of more democracy in the party, at least on the surface. I expect Corbyn to emphasise that Labour is a socialist party when he speaks to the conference.

Kezia Dugdale, the new leader of Scottish Labour, voted for Yvette Cooper in the leadership election. She was very dismissive of Jeremy Corbyn, suggesting he would lead the party into the wilderness.

But since Corbyn’s victory she has moved to the left, saying now that the party must unite behind Corbyn 100 per cent, and attacking the SNP over NHS waiting lists, growing social inequality and poor educational results in state schools. This is partly accommodating to the change in leadership, but also you have to remember that Labour lost all bar one seat here in May. Even the Labour right wing understand that the Labour Party in Scotland has to move to the left if they’re not going to be annihilated next May.

The SNP has made a lot of headway by criticising Trident and claiming to be anti-austerity, while in reality carrying out austerity. You could say that Labour now is talking left but not yet actually leading a fight against austerity.

The other big factor pushing the party here to the left is the new influx of members. The latest available figures put members and supporters at around 29,000, up from around 13,000 a year ago.

In my constituency, Kelvin Glasgow, there were 500 new members in the run-up to, and immediately after Corbyn’s election. There are 900 members in the constituency now; 50-60 attend meetings. This month we voted by 40-4 in favour of abolishing Trident. Though you have to remember that we are a branch that includes many university students so are to the left of some other Glasgow constituencies who are still dominated by the Blairites and the right.

Although Labour membership still lags a long way behind the SNP’s at over 100,000, the Nationalists do not do a lot of campaigning. They are not very visible on the streets, whereas Labour is now out there, for example recently campaigning against the Trade Union Bill and in support of voter registration. Some Labour councils say they won’t implement the cut in trade union facility time.

The move to the left in the Scottish Labour Party is not universal or overwhelming. Cathcart CLP in Glasgow, for example, remains very small and is still controlled by the right wing. Its former MP, Tom Harris, is very anti-Corbyn and outspoken. So it recently voted 12-10 in favour of Trident – I give the numbers just to show how small that CLP still is. And there are quite a few like that. The danger is that if the left does not organise the new members joining because of Corbyn’s win, they will drift off, having being disillusioned by the domination of the old right wing forces in some CLPs.

Labour was for so long the dominant party in Scotland that it became the political establishment and provided careers to generations of Labour bureaucrats; they controlled parliamentary and council positions and gave each other seats on numerous quangos, etc. There was a lot of mileage to be made by careerists in the Scottish Labour Party. Some of the constituency parties are still very small in terms of active members; some are even run by families who have a material interest in preventing an upsurge of new, active left wing members who may upset the gravy train.

There is still a hard right in Scottish Labour and it won’t be removed without a real fight. The old councillors are still in place. Unless the new Labour left organise to deselect them and move to promote left candidates who will support socialist politics, a fightback against austerity and back Corbyn, the danger is that the right will reassert control and the left upsurge will be dissipated.

For a while, under Jim Murphy, the former Blairite leader, Scottish Labour tried to out-nationalist the Nationalists. It didn’t work of course and he had to resign after the debacle in May. Under Murphy the party even changed its constitution to say that the party is now a “Scottish patriotic party”. That needs to be reversed and the socialist internationalist nature of party restated.

Of course there has to be a bit of national autonomy because of devolution – but a totally separate Scottish Labour Party is not the way forward. We have to defeat austerity across Britain and build a united socialist alternative to a declining British capitalism.

As for the left, they are not very well organised. The Momentum launch will be significant, I expect, on 21 November in Glasgow. It has been planned by the Campaign for Socialism, which is the main Labour left organisation here. Neil Finlay, who stood unsuccessfully against Murphy (I bet he could win now), is involved, as is former left Labour MP Katy Clark.

The nationalist left

It has to be said, however, that Scottish nationalism now has some roots in the working class post referendum – the nationalist perspective has gained traction at the expense of working class socialist politics, which always looked to the British labour movement as the agent for social advance for working class people. Lots of the left went over to nationalism during the decade leading up to the referendum as the Labour Party became discredited under the neoliberal leadership of Blair and Brown. This will still colour the results in the elections to the Scottish Parliament next year.

Rise, the new left nationalist coalition set up recently with the support of the Scottish Socialist Party, aims for a situation where there is a pro-independence government and a pro-independence opposition. They are not standing candidates in the constituency section, only in the top-up list. So they’re not openly calling for an SNP vote in the constituencies, but they’re implying that is the way to go.

Tommy Sheridan’s Solidarity party – which seems to be rebranding as Hope Over Fear – has explicitly called for a vote for SNP in the constituencies, then Hope Over Fear in the party list section. Three weeks ago he called a demo in George Square in Glasgow and 4,000, solidly working class people showed up. He still has significant support within working class communities who remember his leading role in the anti-poll tax struggle and the fact that he has been jailed by the establishment for his political activity.

The event was heavily dominated by the Saltire and Scottish nationalist politics. The staunchly nationalist Scottish Resistance spoke at the rally, where they claimed to be continuing a 1,000-year struggle for Scottish independence, which apparently started with the struggle against the Vikings! A banner calling for the Red Tories (the Labour Party) to be driven out of Scotland was again prominently on display.

There are also monthly demos, called by rank and file members of the SNP, trying to keep Scottish independence in people’s consciousness. The SWP, at least until recently, supported these demos, though the one last Saturday was quite small.

Both Hope Over Fear and the SNP independents are a block to the growth of Rise, who now seem be caught between Sheridan on the right and Corbyn on the left. Corbyn has been strong in his message that we have to have working class unity across Britain in order to beat austerity. I think most leftists know that a British labour movement seriously fighting for socialism would lead to the quick demise of support for Scottish independence among Scottish workers. That is why the Corbyn movement is such a threat to the left nationalists and the SNP.

The forerunner of Rise, the Radical Independence Campaign, had a slogan in the referendum: “Britain is for the rich. Scotland can be ours.” Corbyn’s victory has undermined this nationalist and defeatist perspective, though Rise are trying to claim that the Corbyn effect is really only relevant in England. But this is obviously not the case.

Support for Scottish independence has grown in the working class in Scotland because of workers’ despair at the prospect of social advance coming through the British labour movement. The victory of Corbyn has begun to dispel that despair and the new forces coming into the Labour Party provide grounds for hope that the British labour movement can rediscover its socialist roots and win some victories for working class people on both sides of the border.

Next year’s elections may come too soon for the left to change Labour policy and get left candidates in place. But socialists are certainly in a better place than we were a year ago.

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