WITH 17 SOCIALIST, Green, health campaigners and left independents elected to the Scottish parliament the political establishment was rocked by the results of the recent Scottish elections.
Before 1 May only 2% of the Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) were from outside the four main political parties. Now that has risen to 13%. In particular the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), who increased their representation from one to six MSPs, and the Greens, who went from one to seven, were the main winners from an election that was a body blow to the political establishment.
New Labour lost six seats and the Scottish National Party (SNP) lost eight. The Liberals lost one and the Tories stood still. Labour’s vote fell by 4% in the vote for the 73 local constituency seats and 5% in the second ballot for 56 proportionately elected regional MSPs. The SNP vote fell by 5% and 7% respectively, causing them to lose over one fifth of their parliamentary representation.
The benefits of proportional representation (PR) voting meant that, although not winning any first-past-the-post constituency seats, the smaller parties did capitalize on the PR-based second vote in the eight regions. Both the SSP and the Greens won their seats on the party list.
The SSP gained a second MSP in Glasgow where Rosie Kane has joined Tommy Sheridan in parliament. The SSP vote in Glasgow increased from 18,581 (7.2%) in 1999 to 31,116 (15.2%) this time round. In the Glasgow constituency seats Tommy Sheridan won 6,016 votes (27.9%) in Pollok, the highest SSP constituency vote in Scotland. (Tommy Sheridan had previously polled 6,000 votes in Pollok – 6,287, 19.3% – in 1992 when he stood as the Scottish Militant Labour candidate for Westminster from his prison cell). Overall the SSP stood in 70 of the 73 constituencies polling 6.2% across Scotland as a whole. In 43 of these seats the SSP polled 5% or more.
On the second vote the SSP vote increased slightly to around 6.6%. 128,026 people voted SSP on the second vote – up from 46,635 in 1999 – which was enough to elect six MSPs. Apart from the two seats in Glasgow the SSP also won one seat each in the Lothians, Central Scotland, West of Scotland and the South of Scotland. In the other three regions the SSP only narrowly failed to get someone elected.
The Greens only stood in the regional lists, polling 132,138 (6.8%). They won two seats in the Lothians and one each in Glasgow, Mid Scotland and Fife, North East Scotland, and the Highlands and Islands.
The overall left anti-establishment vote including the SSP, Greens, the health campaigners and left independents, was 380,000 on the second vote – almost 20% of the poll.
There were also some stunning defeats for New Labour in the constituencies. Dr Jean Turner, who was standing as a save Stobhill Hospital campaigner, defeated the sitting New Labour MSP in Strathkelvin and Bearsden. Dennis Canavan MSP, who was undemocratically deselected by the New Labour leadership and won the Falkirk West seat as an independent in 1999, increased his majority to 10,000 – the largest in the parliament.
John McAllion, the socialist Labour MSP from Dundee East, lost out by just 90 votes to the SNP. John was a victim of a big swing in the affluent Broughty Ferry area of his constituency. Although they had backed New Labour in 1999, John McAllion’s anti-war and anti-New Labour stance (he called for the overthrow of Tony Blair in the run up to the elections) led to a big swing against him in that area. The SSP, after a proposal from the International Socialists (the CWI section in Scotland), agreed to stand down in order to maximize the socialist vote. (This was against the advice of Tommy Sheridan and other leading members of the SSP who argued we should stand unless John McAllion was prepared to call for a second vote for the SSP.) However, the decision to stand down did find support among fire-fighters and local government workers who saw McAllion as a fighting opponent of privatisation and a supporter of trade union rights. The SSP’s second vote in Dundee trebled to 3,300, more than 6.5% of the city-wide vote. International Socialist member Jim McFarlane won 1,501 votes in Dundee West – 6% of the total.
The new Scottish Executive arising from these elections will almost certainly once again be a coalition of New Labour and the Liberal Democrats. With a majority of five it could be in for a difficult time. Labour has had to agree to the introduction of PR for local government, which the party membership is opposed to as it will lead to the loss of scores of Labour councillors. The fire-fighters dispute is still ongoing and Jack MConnell, the First Minister, now faces a decision on whether to follow John Prescott and pass legislation to impose a pay deal on the FBU. It is possible this would be defeated in the parliament.
The Greens have refused to formally join the new executive, deciding not to follow their counterparts in a number of European countries who have entered so-called Red-Green coalitions. They could however be prepared to back the coalition from the outside. The Greens across Europe have proved to be an appendage to the social democracy and they have very few genuine anti-capitalist, never mind socialist policies. The Greens future development will be undermined by their inability to orientate to the radical anti-capitalist youth and the wider working class movement.
The SNP have come out of the election in a battered and bewildered state. Their low tax, pro-business policies, including opposition to public ownership, made them largely indistinguishable from the other capitalist parties. Support for independence was again relegated to a promise to hold a referendum within four years of the SNP winning a majority in the parliament. The initial reaction to this defeat has been to prepare a further shift to the right. It is possible they could water down even further the SNP’s position on independence, increasingly replacing Scottish independence with the ‘gradualist’ position of an incremental accumulation of powers to the Scottish parliament or the ‘Quebec’ road, that is, an autonomous region or a federal solution short of full independence.
The International Socialists welcome the success of the SSP in these elections, and will strive to build on them to further increase the influence of the party. But the election campaign has also been accompanied by a significant shift by the party leadership in a reformist direction in the last few months. Prior to the election we argued that some of the ideas contained in the SSP’s election manifesto, for example, could foster illusions that on the basis of capitalism a more equitable form of society can be sustained (See Socialism Today, No.74)
Since then, and especially under intense media questioning during the election campaign, there have been repeated references by Tommy Sheridan to the SSP’s support for a mixed economy. Pressed in a BBC Scotland interview about the viability of nationalisation, for example, Tommy responded by referring to the "number of countries which have a successful mix of public ownership and high taxation… like Norway and Denmark they manage to combine high levels of public ownership with high taxation for the wealthy". (21 April) Yet the Scandinavian countries are carrying out significant attacks on public spending and the past gains of the working class. They are doing so because the post-war model has broken down under the impact of capitalist economic recession.
Tommy went even further in a major interview with The Herald newspaper, when challenged that big business would disinvest from a ‘free, socialist republic of Scotland’. "What we’re saying", he responded, "is that in a future independent, socialist Scotland, we want to work on training, on skills. We want to offer a very high-skilled economy, a motivated workforce for big business. If that can work in places like Germany and France, where they have higher wages, better standards, and produce better products, why can’t that work here in Scotland?" (The Herald, 30 April).
At time when the Schröder government is launching an unprecedented attack on the German working class, and successive French governments have been cutting pension rights, carrying through cuts in spending and privatisations – bringing millions of workers onto the streets in protest – socialists should be using those examples to prove that on a capitalist basis there is no solution to the problems facing the working class in Scotland.
The International Socialists will be countering these ideas with a defence of a consistent socialist and Marxist programme within the SSP. Unless the SSP is prepared to adopt a fighting socialist programme that struggles for every reform but links that to the need to end capitalism and build a international socialist alternative, it will fail to build a movement that can really transform society.
This article was taken from the May edition of Socialism Today, journal of the Socialist Party in England and Wales.