2018: here we go!

Scottish Left Review wholeheartedly welcomes the election of Richard Leonard to the leadership of Scottish Labour. As outlined in the last editorial, his election was argued to be a benefit to all of the left in the age of the hegemony of austerity and neo-liberalism. How much worse off the left would have been without his election can be gleaned when one considers not just his competitor’s personal behaviour and past voting record but also his opportunism in trying to move to the left during the course of the leadership campaign in order to outflank him. We hope to be able to work with him in further advancing a radical left agenda as per his manifesto for his leadership campaign. That is why we approached him to conduct an interview for this edition, and are delighted that he accepted.

That said, it is not Scottish Left Review’s job to be an uncritical cheerleader for any leader, party or cause. And to that extent this editorial notes a number of important points. These are laid out in the spirit of a fraternal and comradely exchange. It is also why, alongside the interview with Richard, we have asked others to lay out their perspectives on what difference his election makes and what difference he may make in future.

He won by a sizable margin (57% to 43%) overall but not amongst individual party members (52% to 48%) or registered supporters (48% to 52%), indicating that despite progress being made the right is still a considerable force within Scottish Labour. Where he won handsomely was amongst affiliated (union) supporters (77% to 23%). Membership rose in the run up to the election but one should not assume these were all Leonard supporters. For example, in Glasgow Southside, Anas Sarwar’s own Constituency Labour Party, the membership nearly doubled with a 600 increase. Of the electorate for the vote, only 64% voted and party membership of some 35,000 is still way down on the SNP’s membership of just under 100,000 – it has fallen from its peak of 125,000 – and is considerably less than the 50,000 it should be given that the population of Scotland is about a twelfth of that of the rest of Britain and Labour membership in Britain is 600,000. Moreover, during the campaign, it became clear that Leonard did not command a majority of support from his parliamentary colleagues in the 24 strong Labour group at Holyrood. Indeed, the composition of his front bench team reflects this, with the likes of Jackie Ballie, Sarwar and Iain Gray in its ranks.

What this all means is that the task of Scottish Labour under Leonard’s leadership to move to the left and to gain popular credibility is going to be difficult to say the least because Scottish Labour faces something of a Catch-22 situation. It needs to grow more (members, elected representatives etc) in order to exert more influence but that can only be done when it becomes more credible and it will not become more credible until it grows more. Not talking of becoming First Minister in on 7 May 2021 would have been an own goal but outside the election campaign, this is a tall order from the now third party of Scotland.

Slow and steady progress against resurgent Toryism in Scotland and a more politically adept and stable Holyrood (than Westminster) government is more on the cards. For example, two Survation polls in early December indicated the Labour could put the Tories back into third place in Holyrood. But that requires a party that is not disunited and where the leader’s mandate is respected and effectively prosecuted.

If Scottish Labour is to break out of its decline, then it will need to address the constitutional question in a more fulsome way than Richard has. In a tweet right at the beginning of the leadership campaign, he stated: ‘For the avoidance of doubt, let me make it clear. There will be no ground ceded to nationalism at the expense of progressive socialism under my leadership. No coalition, pacts or deals with the SNP. And no second independence referendum’. This suggests that Leonard believes that Corbyn entering Downing Street, with his own arrival in Bute House, will extinguish the remaining flames of independence. This calculation seems somewhat faulty on at least several counts. First, the Tories are determined to hang on with the help of their natural DUP allies until 2022 so the damage they wreck will continue. Second, a hard Brexit or even a no deal Brexit will only make the sense of political grievance in Scotland against the Tories greater. Labour’s position on seeking to a job-protecting Brexit hasn’t made much difference here. Polls show voters are not clear what Labour’s position on Brexit is. And, third, there is no sense that a return of Britain-wide class struggle will make a dent in austerity or neo-liberalism.

But there are other issues Scottish Labour urgently needs to address. The local government elections last year resulted in Labour being in a coalition of governing parties in 9 councils and in majority or minority administrations in another seven of the 32 councils. The Westminster budget settlement was not kind to Scotland but with the new Scotland Act now in, the SNP Scottish Government can raise taxes on the rich and better off.  Now the SNP Scottish Government is set to pass on more cuts to local authorities. So whilst Scottish Labour will attack this at Holyrood, in all these 16 councils Labour must adopt a ‘no cuts’ stance but especially in the seven it must implement ‘no cuts’ budgets. Leonard must make sure this happens.

This then leads on to the issue of Labour’s relationship with the SNP. Labour can, with the Greens, push the SNP to the left over various issues like renationalisation and taxation but that will take the establishment of some kind of working relationship with the SNP. A party with just 24 MSPs cannot just hold a gun to the SNP’s head and keep threatening to pull the trigger. Risks come with cooperation in terms of inter-party competition but maintaining tribal contestation will not do Labour any favours either. We should recall here that John McDonnell has made clear Labour’s support for Chris Stephens’ Westminster Bill (see his article in this issue). At the same time as this, Labour needs to become the voice not just for radicalism but for the working class so that ‘class’ becomes Labour’s lexicon. That will allow ample room for differentiation from the SNP with mantra of the (classless) ‘nation’. This point is important as Kevin McKenna (Sunday Herald 24 December 2017) forcibly argued that Scottish Labour should spend at least as much time and energy attacking the Tories as it does the SNP.

This approach is a quite a different one from others, where not all on the left have enthusiastically welcomed the Labour left’s recent advance. Writing on the new radical left website, Conter, in early December 2017 in a piece entitled ‘The Challenge For Young Radicals’, Róisín McLaren and Hugh Cullen, both SSP members, opined:  

Having a socialist as leader of the opposition in Westminster is not enough. … Corbyn is hamstrung by a party that is wedded to the establishment. The same is true for … Leonard, who has been at the top of corrupted, unionist politics for decades and does not represent the radical force that many new Scottish Labour members hope for. … Aside from the small number of far-left entryists in … Labour … most new Corbynistas support his liberal values or social democratic reforms. He’s not building the class-conscious support needed to implement socialist change in Government. Socialists who are swept up in Corbynism are perhaps guilty of looking for shortcuts – understandable after decades out in the cold.

By contrast, an earlier contributor to Conter, Alasdair Clark, argued ‘maybe it’s time for … young radicals to look again at Scottish Labour’ given the demise of RISE, that ‘many socialists have never quite felt comfortable in the SNP’ and because ‘Scottish Labour will be the home for socialists who want to achieve the political aims so many of us spoke about in 2014 – a radically altered Scotland’.  

The last edition of Scottish Left Review led on the forthcoming battle to break the 1% public sector pay cap. As we now know, the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union’s consultative ballot of members on breaking the cap gained, on a 49% turnout, a 79% vote to take industrial action if the government refuses to scrap the cap. PCS states it is now moving towards being ‘strike ready’ as it looks at the areas of weakness in the ballot to make sure it gets over the 50% turnout threshold under the Tories’ Trade Union Act.

In his Budget in November, the Chancellor promised only to provide new, additional funding for nurses if a pay review body for their pay recommends it. Before the Budget, police and prison officers were told they will receive a pay rise above the public sector pay cap (although that will still represent a cut in the real value of their wages when set against inflation and has to be paid for through efficiency savings aka job cuts).  In the documentation released for the Budget, Hammond made clear that the only other public sector workers that might get a pay rise above the current 1% cap are those whose pay is set by a Pay Review Body and that would be for 2018-2019. This meant that for civil servants, teachers, firefighters, local government workers and the like (covered by Westminster) there will be no change whatsoever.

The challenge facing PCS is to coordinate with other unions so that each strike delivers a bigger punch. The CWU looks like it will reach a deal with Royal Mail so it will be out of the frame. Meantime, the UCU union is balloting for national strike action over an attack on members’ USS pensions and the UNISON, UNITE and the GMB unions are considering a 2% per annum offer for local government for 2018-20 for England, Wales and Northern Ireland (where there is more for lower paid) after the government released more cash to the local authority employers. The TUC has named 12 May 2018 as the day for a national demonstration against the pay cap. This should be a massive demonstration if various unions called strike action for that day and this was the beginning of a concerted fight and not the effective end point of any campaign.

Lastly, the SNP Scottish Government presented its first Draft Budget under the new Scotland Act. The final vote on it will take place on 19 February 2018. Superficially, it looks good in terms of lower taxation for low earners, and higher taxation for higher earners. But scratch beneath the surface and it is a timid budget, with just 1p less per pound for the lowest earners and only 1p more for highest two bands. The latter will only raise £164m, highlighting that this is an income tax and not a wealth tax. In these regards, it is like the SNP’s ‘A Penny for Scotland’ policy of 1999-2002 and Dugdale’s policy in 2016. But worse still is that although Scottish Government civil servants will receive an average 2%-3% pay increase (which is still less than inflation), there is no funding for a pay increase for local government workers in Scotland and there will still be massive council cuts with no real increase in council funding.

  • We will address the situation in Catalonia in the next edition once this becomes clearer. Suffice it to say that while Rajoy did not gain the outcome he, his Popular Party and the Spanish state wanted, the cause of independence did not advance that much either. The result shows the complexity of politics on the right-left and unionist-independence spectrums.

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