Challenges for the left in Scotland

By Frieda Park

The Scottish National Party (SNP) bulldozer continues to roll on in Scotland, flattening the once dominant Labour Party, which it seeks to permanently replace as the party of government. Although the SNP actually lost a seat and its overall majority in the Scottish Parliament at the elections in May 2016, nevertheless Labour fared worse. It lost 14 seats and the Tories gained 16, beating Labour into third place and becoming the official opposition. The Tories gained ground by positioning themselves clearly as the party of the Union, their relative growth being a predictable and undesirable effect of the divisive politics generated by the independence referendum.

Labour’s problems

Labour’s prospects were not helped by the Scottish leader, Kezia Dugdale, who made contradictory statements about Scottish independence during the campaign.

Labour actually fought the election on a platform to the left of the SNP, pressing it on using tax raising powers to fund services. One could make criticisms of the policies, the presentation and the vision, however, there was probably little that could have been done to close the credibility gap that had opened up between Scottish voters and the party that once held sway. Over many years in local government, Labour councils have administered cuts to services and have lost the trust of voters and staff. The Party is now paying the price for that and for disenchantment with New Labour. Nor do people currently see a Labour Party in Scotland with the strategy, policies or personnel that demonstrate it has learned lessons and has changed.

The SNP is a well-spun political machine paying close attention to the presentation of issues and the image of Sturgeon herself. It does not allow dissent among its elected members and its leadership is tight-knit and capable.

The Labour leadership election further exposed weaknesses in the Labour Party in Scotland. It was reportedly the only part of the UK where Owen Smith beat Jeremy Corbyn in the ballot with 6,042 votes for Corbyn and 6,856 for Smith. Even in Wales, Smith’s home territory, Corbyn won convincingly. Having said that a majority of constituencies backed Corbyn in Scotland, as did the Party’s deputy leader Alex Rowley. Dugdale again made contradictory statements denting her own and Labour’s credibility. Although she did not support him the first time around, once elected she did not overtly attack Corbyn and gained new powers for the Party in Scotland to run its own affairs. Then when the second leadership election was underway she vociferously joined the anti-Corbyn camp. When he was re-elected she tried to go back on some of the negative statements she had made about him and then the next week was on the attack again over Scottish representation on the NEC. Ian Murray, Scotland’s only Labour MP, joined the failed anti-Corbyn Parliamentary Labour Party coup, but at least has remained consistent in his continued hostility to the leader since his landslide re-election.

Home Rule Labour lobbyists

In addition, there is a strong lobby from some in Labour for yet more “Home Rule”, with greater powers for the Parliament at Holyrood, and more autonomy for the Scottish Party. Unhelpfully some individuals south of the border, such as Paul Mason, have promoted the idea of a “progressive alliance” and support for independence. Advocates of these positions seem not to have learned the lessons of history. Scottish Labour prides itself on being the party which established the Scottish Parliament and yet all that has achieved is to give politics in Scotland an increasingly insular focus and to fuel support for nationalism and the SNP. How more of the same would help Labour and working-class politics is a mystery. Such demands also risk making Labour look as though it is opportunistically trying to woo voters from the SNP.

If voters want a nationalist party then they have a much more effective one in the SNP. If there was a “progressive alliance” with the SNP and others at a British level then there would be even less reason for voters in Scotland to back Labour. Were such arguments to gain the upper-hand, then Labour in Scotland would be further marginalised. 

Part of the problem is that, while Corbyn has enthused people hungry for an alternative to join the Labour Party in huge numbers, many of their equivalents in Scotland had already decided that the SNP and independence was the way to get such change. Whilst there have been new members joining this is not on the scale experienced in other places. The forces for socialist renewal in the Labour Party in Scotland are somewhat weaker, but the right is hardly in an unassailable position.

Nationalism subverts class politics

This is an object lesson in how nationalism can subvert class politics. At a critical time, the left in Scotland is not playing a full part in changing the Labour Party or in returning a future Labour government with Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister. For many on the left in Scotland and generally among the electorate, there is a sense that Jeremy Corbyn is happening somewhere else. Whilst they might be sympathetic they do not see the seismic upheaval in the Labour Party as relevant to them. We have the SNP and no longer need Labour. A whole reservoir of support that could have been there for Corbyn is not. Worse than that among a minority there is even negativity.

Swathes of the left were won over to the SNP by it posing as anti-austerity; in fact as the only authentically anti-austerity party. Not only that it went on the offensive against Labour, branding it “Tory-lite”. Many on the left decried Labour as “Red Tories” and irredeemably neo-liberal. Corbyn’s victory completely demolishes that narrative, however, those committed to the nationalist route have shifted the goalposts. It is now said that Corbyn cannot win in Tory England and his capability as a leader is attacked. (Precisely the arguments of the right.) If Corbyn cannot win, the argument goes, then the only way for Scots to get rid of the Tory Government remains independence. It was another clever move by the SNP to identify the problem as the “Tories” and “Westminster”. This simplistic formulation omits any critique of capitalism.

Corbyn is a Socialist. Sturgeon is not

Jeremy Corbyn is a socialist, Nicola Sturgeon is not. When she says that she wants what is best for Scotland her primary interest is in securing a sound base for capitalism. Would the interests of the people of Scotland be best served by voting Labour and returning a Corbyn government or by voting SNP and undermining that possibility?

Whilst Corbyn stormed to victory again in the leadership battle in the Labour Party, the left-wing candidate for deputy leader of the SNP, MP Tommy Shepherd gained 25.5% of the vote, with Angus Robertson MP, Leader of the SNP in the House of Commons winning outright in the first round with 52.5%. It was Angus Robertson who led the SNP’s policy change to abandon their policy to leave NATO.

Prospects for Labour in forthcoming council elections look grim, however, should the SNP be as successful as most people expect then their monolithic party management may begin to be challenged. The Scottish Government has imposed disproportionately high levels of cuts on local authorities, in particular on places like Glasgow. If the SNP were returned in the city then we could expect that to ease up and more cash to be made available, however, it will fall far short of the expectations of the electorate and council employees. More divisions will inevitably emerge in the party, fuelled also by the differing opinions on when to go for a second independence referendum.

A second Independence Referendum?

The SNP is no respecter of referenda results. They wish to re-run, if possible, both the Scottish independence referendum and the EU one till they get the result that suits them. Or perhaps not even have another EU referendum, but just vote down Brexit in the House of Commons. But when to go for another referendum on independence is a thorny question. Nicola Sturgeon has indicated that she wishes to be sure of victory before calling for one. Others are less sanguine wanting an early vote. This includes the former First Minister, Alex Salmon now a Westminster MP. The mass membership of the Party also want to see progress towards independence.

To try deflect criticism that the SNP would be ignoring the wishes of the Scottish people by advocating another referendum but to simultaneously keep the hopes of Party member alight, Sturgeon came up with the formula that there would be grounds for another referendum if there was a material change in circumstances such as a Brexit vote with Scotland voting to remain. Did she expect a Brexit vote when she said this? Not many did so. It is possible that she banked on not having to deal with the problem. However, the Brexit vote did happen and Scottish voters also voted to Remain. The pressure is now on from SNP supporters to make good and use this pretext to go for another independence referendum. The outcome of any second referendum remains uncertain, in fact recent experience tells us that any referendum result can be unpredictable regardless of what the polls say.

If Teresa May goes ahead and triggers the Article 50 process for Brexit negotiations to commence in March next year, then the timetable for a Scottish independence referendum becomes problematic. Given that there would need to be time to hold the referendum and negotiate Scoxit it may be impossible for Scotland to leave the UK before the UK leaves the EU.

The UK Government will be very reluctant to agree to an independence referendum while attempting to also negotiate Brexit. Of course, that might suit Sturgeon quite well. In any case, regardless of whether Scotland leaves the UK before or after Brexit it would still have to apply to join the EU. It would not, as the SNP like to suggest, inherit EU membership from its former status as part of the UK. This could prove difficult as the collapse in the oil price means that Scotland’s likely budget deficit will be much higher than is allowed under EU rules. To become eligible for membership there would need to be the imposition of swingeing austerity. There also remains significant opposition within the EU to admitting an independent Scotland, particularly from countries who have their own separatist movements. A ”yes” vote for independence would probably find Scotland outside not only the UK, but the EU as well for quite some time.

To deflect attention from these difficulties a Consultation on a Draft Referendum Bill has been published by the Scottish Government. This offers the illusion of progress towards another referendum without saying anything definite about timing. Sturgeon is also in overdrive demanding that some special arrangement be made so that Scotland can continue to have access to the single market in the event of a hard Brexit. She knows this is a non-starter, but it helps delay having to set a date.

So where stands Scotland now?

Left in Scotland divided and weak

Politics is overwhelmingly dominated by the SNP, a fundamentally capitalist party, lacking Labour’s historic roots in the trades unions and other sections of the Labour movement. It has won ground by offering some social democratic policies whilst not pursuing any radical structural change. The Tories are now their official opposition in Holyrood.

The left remains divided and as such diminished. In the SNP it is difficult to discern it making progress at a national level in the Party. The fringe of small left parties is making even less impact on the political landscape than it did during the independence referendum. The Labour Party remains confused about its identity and purpose and still suffers a major credibility gap with voters. Corbyn supporters who can revitalise the Party and take it in a different direction are proportionately fewer. They have a harder, but an achievable and necessary, task ahead of them.

The hopes of many for change are still unrealistically invested in the SNP and diverted into nationalism. To renew itself Labour needs to make a break with the failed politics that allowed the SNP to steal its clothes. It certainly does not need to promote greater Home Rule, devolution or autonomy. It does need to win back those in trades unions, on the left and in communities who have become disillusioned. It can do this best by ceasing to be a conveyer belt for cuts and privatisation and focusing on fighting for the interests of the working people of Scotland.

"The SNP is no respecter of referenda results. they wish to re-run, if possible, both the Scottish independence referendum and the EU one till they get the result that suits them."
"The hopes of many for change are still unrealistically invested in the SNP and diverted into nationalism. to renew itself Labour needs to make a break with the failed politics that allowed the SNP to steal its clothes. It certainly does not need to promote greater Home Rule, devolution or autonomy."

Scottish Labour's Deputy Leader, Alex Rowley MSP who backed Jeremy Corbyn