Comment – All change & all stay the same

The tectonic plates of Scottish politics have moved again. But the third part of the tartan trilogy did not end as was expected. After the referendum in 2014 came the SNP landslide in the Westminster general election. This trend was then expected to deliver a majority SNP government at Holyrood, giving Nicola Sturgeon her own personal mandate. It was not so much that the polls were wrong as in 2015 (with regard to Labour) but that the little cognisance was taken off the late polls suggesting the SNP lead was slipping.

Either the tactics of #bothvotessnp did not do the trick (given 5% less voted for it on the list) and/or the gloss is coming off the SNP and Sturgeon. The Westminster election last year was a highpoint and Salmond’s landslide of 2011 was not replicated. The Holyrood election was a boring campaign by and large, with not the same sense of the Westminster bogeyman to set the heather alight. Turnout was down compared to the referendum (85%) and last year’s Westminster election (71%) at 56%. So much for the new 16-17 year old voters and ‘generation independence’ of engaged voters making a big, positive difference.

The beneficiary of the SNP stumbling was not the left but the Tories. Now clearly ahead of Labour as the second largest party (in seats and votes), the Tories appear – compared to Labour – to have triumphed because of their stance on not taxing the rich, their stauncher defence of the Union and Ruth Davidson being a more able leader than Kezia Dugdale. If this is the case, the other side of the coin concerns Labour itself. The continued decline of Scottish Labour started with its domination by ‘new’ Labourism and working with the Tories in Better Together. But it has continued with a leader that voters don’t trust despite moving to the left on policy issues. The fact that Dugdale was allied to Jim Murphy and opposed to Corbyn before he was elected Labour leader has been part of this. Indeed, one unnamed Labour activist quoted in the Sunday Herald (8 May 2016) said: ‘She is a New Labour politician who backed an Old Labour agenda’.

The Greens did not do as well as expected (at least one list seat in each region) and did not surpass their highpoint of 2003. But with six MSPs rather than two, they may wield greater influence with a minority SNP government than before. For RISE and Solidarity, the election was yet another disaster. While Solidarity outpolled RISE, their combined Scotland-wide vote was a miserable and puny 25,000 (with the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition gaining 3,500 votes from six constituency seats), being well behind UKIP in meltdown’s 46,000. Neither Tommy Sheridan nor Cat Boyd, the candidates with the so-called ‘best chance’, came anywhere close to being elected on the Glasgow list.

For those that aspire to something more radical than the mainstream can offer, it shows not just that a disunited left is not credible but that a pre-existing party (Solidarity) remained soiled goods and a credible new electoral outfit (RISE) cannot be created in a mere nine months. Moreover, both Solidarity and RISE exaggerated their chances of success because they misunderstood the ramifications of the independence campaign. As it was a political and ideological campaign and not a struggle over material grievances (like the poll tax), it concerned making propaganda and not agitation or mass action. Consequently, what long term left radicalisation could come out of it was, unfortunately, limited. Lessons from the success of the Anti-Austerity Alliance and People Before Profit in the north and south of Ireland urgently need to be learnt – most obviously that being a local councillor is a good springboard to national office.

So where does this leave us in parliamentary terms until the next Scottish elections in 2021? If Labour is to regain its credibility, it must show that its turn leftwards is genuine, long-term and more extensive. Along with the Greens, it must drag the SNP to the left so that the SNP does not seek to rely on de facto Tory support over a host of issues like tax. For the Greens, progress on tax, fracking and land reform will be paramount. But Labour must go further and provide the resolve to organise resistance to austerity (which will now come in a different form given the fiscal settlement). In other words, it must become Corbynised. Only by doing so can Labour shed its skin of ‘new’ Labourism, a variant of neo-liberalism called social liberalism. Its dismissal of further movement on the constitution was a big mistake taking into account that the figures show that a majority of traditional Labour supporters voted ‘yes’ in the referendum.

The issue of unspoken issue of social liberalism will remain central. The worldview of the SNP is that the economy in Scotland needs to be more efficient and productive in order to generate more employment, private wealth, and the public tax revenues to pay for its social programme. In other words, the SNP has a social liberal approach to economy and society. Its approach is not entirely neo-liberal for the state in Scotland does seek to act to promote some elements of social justice and social equality – but it is not social democratic either for its does not seek to redistribute wealth or use the state to act to change market outcomes by way of public ownership, regulation and intervention. A Corbynised Scottish Labour could, thus, present a genuine social democratic challenge to the SNP.

Has the issue of independence been parked for the moment? Yes must be the answer in terms of any foreseeable referendum (should ‘Bremain’ win out). While there is a still a majority for independence in the parliament, the Greens are less ideologically attached supporters and Sturgeon is more cautious than Salmond was. But so long as Labour under Corbyn shows itself as making insufficient headway against the Tories (with the elections results across Britain neither pushing him back nor forward), then independence for many on the left will remain the way to crack the nut of escaping from austerity and neo-liberalism. Whether a re-invigorated federalism or confederalism can alter the contours here remains to be seen.

Scottish Left Review would like pay its respects to Ken Cameron (1942-2016). Ken was the FBU general secretary from 1980 to 2000 and helped Jimmy Reid and Bob Thomson in gaining the support of the FBU for the magazine when it was launched in 2000. Bob Thomson commented: ‘He was a good trade union negotiator, always seeing the bigger picture as well as maintaining himself as an international socialist’.

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