Dogs Days and Dog Eats Dog

As the feelings of shock at the election of a Tory government subside and the sense of getting a handle on what needs to be done to resist this government (and the system of neo-liberal capitalism it supports and presides over) begins to grow, this issue of Scottish Left Review is themed upon employment and employment rights.

The choice of employment and employment rights is predicated on the forthcoming Trade Union Bill being an attempt to crush further dissent and opposition, unions being one of main centres of likely resistance to the government (especially given the parlous current organisational and ideological state of the Labour Party) and the class war being primarily out in the economic arena, hence the deregulation of the labour market ramping up levels of exploitation.

The well-attended demonstrations in Glasgow, Liverpool and London against austerity on 20 June were a sign that there is a basis from which to talk about a challenge to the dog days of this Tory government. Dog days are commonly understood as the hot summer months than drive dogs mad. In Scotland, this year at any rate, these types of dog days are not likely to exist in the meteorological sense.

But the less common meaning of dog days is one of a period of evil when great calamity happens. This calamity the Tories further want to visit upon us is a world of dog eat dog. Masked behind the rhetoric of aspiration for everyone, a deregulated (read unprotected) labour market means the continuation of insecure work, under-employment, in work poverty and so on for so many. In other words, a form of dog eats dog where employers have the whip hand to feed their addiction to profits out of the exploitation of workers.

That is why this edition of Scottish Left Review makes no apologies in giving such fulsome prominence in this edition’s pages to the recent victory by the Unite union in New Zealand over zero hour contracts. It is a victory of which we have not seen the likes in these isles. Unite in Britain along with the GMB, UNISON and a host of others unions like BFAWU could learn much here as New Zealand has an equally deregulated labour market to Britain. Arguably, the New Zealand case provides a better exemplar for Britain than the ‘Fight for $15’ in the USA because unions are far more centre stage and because of a greater similarity of employment laws.

Of the other articles on the theme of employment and employment rights, we cover the case for devolution of employment rights to Scotland, developing strategic leverage over employers, the changing contours of union influence in Labour, resisting the Tories’ new strike laws, and the role of the SNP Trade Union Group amongst others. Also as we approach the fifth anniversary of Jimmy Reid’s death on 10 August 2010, we celebrate and commemorate his contribution and legacy.

In her recent visit to the United States, and compared to her appearance on the The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the less reported of Nicola Sturgeon’s pronouncements was that Scotland should emulate ‘Rhineland capitalism’. This vision of an economic and social model is highly regarded by many progressive people because it – in the context of a growing world economy and massive state investment – was able to temporarily and productively reconcile the pursuit of economic competitiveness and social equality. If this is not to be any more than idle kite flying, the problems for Sturgeon and the SNP are several-fold in the pursuit of the their ‘one Scotland’ through German inspiration of a kind of ‘vorsprung durch (soziale) technik’.

First, if Sturgeon and the SNP have any more than a superficial understanding of ‘Rhineland capitalism’ as a particular expression of social democracy after the Second World War, it cannot fail to be impressed upon them that state intervention was the cornerstone of this system. State intervention regulated (but did not abolish) capital, and state intervention reorganised unions on industry lines (one industry, one union) and introduced a system of statutory co-determination (works councils, worker directors, sectorial collective bargaining).

These measures recalibrated the imbalance between labour and capital. Sturgeon and the SNP would recoil at being compelled by the logic of their vision to do this. Indeed, all their support for the ‘living wage’ and their new ‘Scottish business pledge’ are all purely voluntary matters. There is no legal compulsion upon employers – as a result of state intervention – to do adopt these. And, this is not because of what is still contained in reserved business. The Welsh Assembly Government has shown what can be done with far less powers than the Scottish Parliament in these areas.

Second, as Jim and Margaret Cuthbert eloquently but implicitly point out in their article in this edition and other of their writings on the Smith Commission (see Scottish Left Review 85), how can the economy in Scotland perform at the rate of economic activity needed to provide the revenue base for the taxation needed to fund the social welfare side of ‘Rhine capitalism’. Whether it’s the underperformance of Scottish Enterprise with regard to foreign direct investment or declining oil revenues, there is trouble ahead no matter whether its full fiscal autonomy, devo-max or independence. The lesson of history here is that when push comes to shove as it inevitably does under capitalism, the cuts to be made first are not in the subsidies to business but in the social welfare of citizens. Not only does business call for this but the logic of the policy taken by the SNP says this should happen too – suffer pain to get the economy back on track so that the tax base can be revitalised.

Returning to the SNP’s relationship to the union movement for a moment, while there have been early plaudits for the launching of the Fair Work Convention, there are already tensions. Criticisms were pronounced over the de facto privatisation of Northern Ferries (especially with regard to the implications for pensions) and now the same is happening over Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) where the RMT union has taken recent strike action. The Saturday before the late June strike, the SNP Trade Union Group held its first conference at the University of Stirling. With some 16,000 members, over 100 activists attended. Upon the SNP Trade Union Group releasing a press statement on the CalMac dispute (http://snp-tug.scot/2015/06/snp-trade-union-group-statement-on-the-rmt-calmac-dispute/ ), the RMT responded by saying:

This statement from a group claiming to represent trade unionists makes not a single mention of support for fellow trade unionists battling to defend jobs and services and instead hides behind a barrage of EU anti-worker legislation that has no relevance at all to this dispute and which could be challenged anyway with a united campaign.

RMT … appeal[s] to rank and file SNP members and supporters to reject this defeatist line and stand by a workforce fighting to defend jobs, conditions, safety and lifeline ferry services against this attack. You can’t claim to be anti-austerity, pro working class and pro public services and then duck the issue when jobs and services are under all-out attack like on CalMac. The question to the SNP Trade Union Group is ‘which side are you o‎n?’

The spat with the RMT and the fissures that will open up in the SNP’s grand vision indicate that the path ahead for the SNP will not exactly be a walk in the park. The SNP is extremely accomplished in presenting itself in a favourable light. Its spin here is not unpicked by what should be the scrutinising role of the media. Yet as we approach the critical May 2016 Holyrood elections this lack of scrutiny is unlikely to continue to the same extent. The SNP’s message that a Tory government and a Westminster system are the roots of Scotland’s problem will sound a lot less convincing as the SNP does not improve the material conditions of most Scots’ lives when it has the ability with existing powers to do a lot more. Banging on about up additional powers – or lack thereof – will not overcome this nor make the SNP’s argument for independence any more convincing. This is because a credibility gap will start opening up.

Developments in the Labour Party constitute a continuation of the ongoing crisis but not necessarily in the way many might have expected. For the first time in many years, Neil Findlay and Katy Clark put up a socialist challenge for the leadership election for Scottish Labour in 2014 – something John McDonnell had not been able to achieve in 2007 and 2010 for the leadership elections of the British Labour Party. But with the resignation of Jim Murphy, there is no left challenger for the position of either leader or deputy leader of Scottish Labour. Kezia Dugdale versus Ken Macintosh is a battle of the Blairites while Richard Baker, Alex Rowley and Gordon Matheson present another iteration of the old machine politics Labour has come to be so well known by. While Scottish Labour is expecting a drubbing in the Holyrood elections next year, the fight still has to be taken to the SNP.

With Dugdale expected to win, she is already lowering expectation of what can be achieved in the 2016 elections. That combined with the failsafe of the list constituencies top up, it is likely she will be the leader of Scottish Labour after 5 May 2016. But that does not mean the SNP is going to be attacked by Labour from the left any time soon. There is no chance that Scottish Labour will stand up and say ‘we are the real social democrats and this is what social democracy looks like’. On that basis at any rate and in this regard, the SNP will be given an easy ride.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn has managed to get onto the ballot this (being ably assisted by John McDonnell who decided someone else should have a go). Left affiliated unions like ASLEF, the BFAWU and Unite as well as left unaffiliated unions like the FBU and RMT are supporting his campaign. The result will be announced in early September. Corbyn is not likely to win but what impact will his candidacy and result have on the ‘stay in Labour and fight to reclaim it’ argument? Will it be the last throw of the dice when one of a reheated bunch of Blairites win represented by Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper or Liz Kendall win? Or will a good performance by Corbyn rekindle hopes that there is some prospect of some advance for the left? History awaits. Whatever the outcome, it will have major implications for the likes of the political position of Unite and left of labour projects south of the border like the Greens and TUSC.

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