What are the prospects for Scottish Labour?

06 March 2016

By Sandy McBurney

ALL commentators are agreed that the governing party, the Scottish National Party (SNP), is going to win the 2016 Scottish parliamentary elections. They are on 50 per cent plus in the opinion polls. Their membership stands at 115,000, which is the equivalent of over a million members on a British scale.

This is despite the SNP’s record in government over the last eight years of implementing austerity and attacking workers’ living standards, including a recent £500 million cut to local government funding, which will cause thousands of redundancies and cuts to local services and facilities.

Why then are the SNP heading for victory? Two main reasons. First, Scottish nationalism has become the main political discourse in Scotland over the last 20 years, as working class socialist politics have declined and all the main parties frame their arguments on what is “best for Scotland”.

This reached its peak in the referendum campaign, where working class politics were almost completely sidelined. The ex-far left organisations, grouped under the banner of the Radical Independence Campaign, boosted the independence vote and had a significant effect in the working class areas of Glasgow and Dundee, etc. by providing left cover for the call for an independent capitalist Scotland.

Secondly, the decline of working class support for the Labour Party, a UK-wide phenomenon due to the betrayals of Blairism, helped create a nationalist movement with real support in working class areas. In effect the Scottish nationalists stepped in to fill the vacuum created by the betrayals of New Labour and the far left’s abandonment of socialist politics for a left form of Scottish nationalism.

New Labour was in no position to combat the “social democratic” pretence of the SNP. Under the leadership of Jim Murphy, Scottish Labour even changed its constitution to say it was a “patriotic Scottish party”. But you can’t “out-nat” the nationalists, and Labour was all but wiped out by the SNP in the general election.

Although an SNP vote is now a default position for many working class voters, there is little enthusiasm on the ground for the SNP government, given its record and its refusal to use the powers that it has to implement any pro-working class reform. However, in the absence of large-scale British-wide working class resistance to austerity, the SNP rhetoric about being “Strong for Scotland” still strikes a chord with workers.

Labour’s campaign

The Labour Party in Scotland has moved to the left both because of the influx of new members, enthused by Jeremy Corbyn, and because it has been necessary to attack the SNP from the left.

Kezia Dugdale, the Scottish Labour Party leader, has attacked the SNP as a party of austerity. She does not come from the left of the party, but she is wise enough to know that the only way Labour can be rebuilt is by standing to the left of the SNP.

Labour’s call for a penny on income tax to stop the cuts in local government should be viewed in this light. It is certainly not class struggle politics, but it has highlighted that the SNP will side with the Tories to protect the better off despite its claims to be a social democratic party.

The influx of new members is much weaker than in England, but it is real and it has had an effect: for instance, the overwhelming vote at the Scottish Labour Party conference for scrapping Trident. However it came too late to effect the selection of Labour candidates for the Scottish parliamentary elections.

Thus the old Blairite faces still top the lists, particularly in Glasgow and other bastions of the Party bureaucracy. There are a few more Corbyn supporting candidates, but it is very limited. If the pro-Corbyn forces do manage to organise themselves and help sideline the right and win socialist policies, we could see a Labour revival. But May 2016 is too soon for any major breakthrough.

The left

The main force in the Labour left in Scotland is the Campaign for Socialism (CfS), which recently held its AGM, where John McDonnell spoke on the prospect of a left Labour government. The CfS has grown considerably since Corbyn’s win, particularly among students and youth. Approximately 100 attended its AGM, and the mood was generally upbeat. In Glasgow, CfS members have tried to push the Labour council to organise a labour movement conference, to help organise the fightback against local government cuts made by the SNP government. Motions have been passed to this effect at CLP level, but so far the Councillors, who are on the right, have done little to organise resistance.

Momentum in Scotland is also organising branches in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee, and has the active support of many CfS members. In Glasgow, the plan is to hold regular public meetings on building a socialist alternative to austerity, and to hold city centre stalls on Saturdays in order to reach out to the public and win them for the fight for socialist policies in the Labour Party – and to build campaigns that promote the interests of the working class. A series of meetings on socialist theory is also planned.

In Scotland, as in the rest of Britain, what is needed is a Labour Party that fights for interests of the class. If the socialist left succeeds in democratising the party and winning it to socialist policies, then working class support for the SNP will, to use an old Scottish expression, disappear like snow off a dyke.

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