An analysis of the vote for the left and the way forward
The following is a statement of the International Socialists platform (CWI) analysing the vote for the SSP in the recent Westminster elections.
The 2005 General Election and the Scottish Socialist Party
SSP members will have been disappointed by the poor results achieved in the recent general election. There have been various opinions expressed in the SSP about the main reasons for the result. A dangerously one-sided analysis, which attempted to explain the result, has appeared in the Voice. The party EC is producing a paper for discussion to the next National Council in June. This statement from the Committee for a Workers International platform is a contribution to this debate and an effort to point to a way forward for the SSP.
The recent General Election illustrated, to a limited extent, the mood of opposition to the New Labour government across Scotland and Britain. There was a swing against New Labour, whose majority was slashed from 161 to 67 in the Westminster parliament. New Labour’s vote fell by 1.1 million across the UK. Not since 1832 has a government been elected with a lower share of the popular vote than Blair’s third term government. This has led to increasing concern among some sections of the ruling class that the illegitimacy of the government could undermine “parliamentary democracy”. Some, including former Labour leader Neil Kinnock and Tory Chris Patten have called for a new look at PR for Westminster elections.
The anti-Labour vote went in the main, towards the Liberal Democrats who had attempted to position themselves, falsely, as a radical alternative to Blair on issues like Iraq, tuition fees, immigration and asylum and on taxation. An even larger haemorrhaging in the Labour vote, which fell by 4.5% in Scotland and 5.5% across the UK as a whole, was avoided by the constant refrain from New Labour that anything other than a Labour vote would let the Tories back in. This had an effect of reluctantly convincing a layer of mainly older workers to vote Labour.
The Tories however, were never seen as a genuine alternative to the government. The memory of the crimes of Thatcherism are still too vivid in the minds of million of workers. Having arch-Thatcherite and instigator of the poll tax, Michael Howard, as Tory leader helped ensure the Tories could only hang to their core vote.
The Tories increased their share of the vote by 0.6% across the UK and 0.2% in Scotland winning 31 more MP’s than four years ago. There is still only one Tory MP in Scotland based on a 15% share of the vote, which is less than half of their UK vote. However, the Tories did out poll Labour in England.
The increased vote for the Lib Dems, who while being seen as a radical alternative to New Labour are on some policy issues to the right of New Labour, underlines the huge political vacuum that exists for a genuine mass working class party in Scotland and the UK. In the absence of such a force many young people, ethnic minority communities, workers and sections of the middle class looked for a way to hit back at New Labour over Iraq, and many other issues. The Lib Dems benefited from that desire to kick the government hard.
It should not be forgotten that the Liberals opposed the introduction of the minimum wage, support the banning of strikes in parts of the public sector, and have been enthusiastic supporters of privatisation including in the Scottish Executive where the Lib Dems form the ruling coalition with New Labour. The Lib Dem advance is not an entirely new phenomenon. In England they have overturned right-wing Labour councils in cities like London, Liverpool, Sheffield and Leeds. In power, either at a local level, or in the Scottish parliament they have proved to be an enthusiastically pro-business and privatisation party. The experience of the Liberals in power at a local level and in the Scottish executive means there is no possibility of the Liberals being able to maintain their appeal of even that thin veneer of radicalism. This will especially be the case if a new wave of struggle by the trade unions and the wider working class erupts against the policies of a third-term Labour government.
There was, however, an even bigger swing to the Lib Dems in Scotland (6.2%) than in the UK (3.8%) as a whole. Why was this the case? A section of workers, young people, students etc voted for the Lib Dems on top of their traditional support. The main electoral base for the Liberals in Scotland has been the rural areas of Scotland. This has included Inverness, Ross and Cromarty, Orkney and Shetland, Argyll and Bute and Aberdeenshire.
As the Tory vote declined in Scotland during the 1980’s and 90’s they also picked up seats in some of the more affluent middle –class dominated constituencies in Edinburgh West and Aberdeen South and in this election the seat of East Dunbartonshire, which includes the affluent areas of Bearsden and Milngavie.
However, this election also saw the Lib Dems increase their vote significantly in the central-belt of Scotland as well. For example in Glasgow they polled 18% of the vote in the six out of seven seats they contested. Four years ago their share of the vote in Glasgow was 10.6% in the seats they stood in. In Edinburgh the Lib Dem vote was 31%. They won 11 MP’s in Scotland altogether.
Undoubtedly, the fact that this election was being fought out by three main parties at a UK level, with the Lib Dems posing as a “we’re not them” alternative to the Tories and New Labour helped their cause. For a significant number of people the LibDems were seen as the party to vote for in protest at the war and occupation of Iraq. Nevertheless, there was widespread media coverage in Scotland for the SNP, who in the past have been seen as the main “left” alternative to Labour in Scotland. The SNP also formerly stood to the left of New Labour at least on some policies: they opposed the war in Iraq, supported the scrapping of the council tax, called for the return of free education for students and advocated an increase in pensions. With the Lib Dems in coalition government with Labour in Scotland, the SNP should have been able to make some advances in this election. It was very significant that the SNP failed to tap into the anti-Labour mood that then allowed the Lib Dems capture that vote.
Support for the SNP fell by 2.4% to 17.7% compared to the 2001 election. The Lib Dems pushed the SNP into third place in share of the vote. Although, the SNP did manage to increase their number of MP’s to 6, this was the lowest vote for the SNP in a general election since 1987. It was also the fourth election in a row since 1999 that the nationalists have lost support in an election.
The SNP had hoped for a much better result following the return of the more radical populist Alex Salmond to the leadership compared to their previous leader, John Swinney. That the hoped for “Salmon (d) leap” did not happen is linked to the move to the right and a more distinct neo-liberal economic policy by the SNP over the last few years. But in the main it reflects the fact that the national question and support for independence has lessened in intensity since the formation of the Scottish parliament.
There were three polls during the election that attempted to gauge the support for independence in Scotland. The Scotsman ICM poll showed 29% backing independence. The BBC poll 33%, and an SNP sponsored poll by TNS/system 3 46%. The first two polls are a more reliable indication of the level of support for independence at this stage. But as, if not more, importantly these polls do not take the temperature of the intensity of feeling on the issue. For many of those who back the idea of an independent Scotland it is more of a general aspiration rather than a struggle to engage in now.
For example a recent investigation found the numbers of those expecting to see an independent Scotland within the next 20 years had fallen from 51% in 1999 to 29% today (John Curtice – Strathclyde University). This underlines the analysis the CWI has made that the national question in Scotland has, in general, ebbed over the past seven years. While this can change in the future, the SNP’s electoral fortunes have been on the decline as this process, alongside their shift to the right, has deepened.
The increasing political divergence of Scotland from the rest of Britain – that was a strong feature of the late 80’s and 90’s as a result of the strengthening of the national question – has, to some extent, been checked. That is in no way to argue that there is not a clear and distinct national consciousness in Scotland which has political ramifications or that the national question in Scotland cannot erupt in the future. But at this stage it is interesting to note that while there are clear differences, there are also a number of common features in Scotland that also apply across the rest of Britain. One of the common features in this election was the increase in support for the Lib Dems as a way of protesting against the New Labour government. We therefore strongly disagree with the conclusions drawn by the SSP’s policy coordinator, Alan McCombes, in his analysis of the election which stated that the results of the general election in Scotland did not correlate to a change of mood around the national question in Scotland.
The CWI platform has argued that the programme of the SSP has increasingly emphasised the need to “break apart the UK state” and achieve an “independent republic”. We have warned of the dangers of this approach clashing with the consciousness of sections of the working class who are not in favour of such a policy at this stage. Instead the potential for a struggle over pensions, and in opposition to other attacks by the New Labour government on the working class across Britain, can be one factor that can lead to the undermining of support for independence for a period. The wording of the Calton Hill declaration, drawn up by the SSP leadership (which omitted any reference to socialism), and the justification for the “independence convention” we have described as a left nationalist turn by sections of the SSP leadership (see previous articles by the CWI). This turn coincides with a lessening of support for independence among a layer of the working class, including of public sector workers, in Scotland.
While the SNP vote fell, the Scottish Socialist Party also suffered a setback in the election. The left in England, including the vote for the Socialist Party, was checked to an extent as a result of the swing to the LibDems and a fear of the Tories being re-elected. The votes achieved by Respect have been interpreted by some as signifying the emergence of a new left force in England. However, as we have explained Respect’s electoral success in parts of London and Birmingham were achieved in constituencies with a high Muslim population. It is of course correct to build support among the Muslim community many of who have been to the fore in the anti-war movement and many of who suffer dire poverty combined with racism and discrimination, but it would be wrong to appeal, as Respect have consciously done, to only one-section of the community. Respect’s opportunist approach, which was not on a class but instead on a religious basis to the Muslim community, does not represent the beginnings of a genuine left or socialist alternative. The election of George Galloway in Bethnal Green and Bow and the defeat of New Labour’s pro-war candidate was a victory for the anti-war movement, but it seems unlikely that neither he, nor the SWP leadership of Respect have any intention of using that result as a basis to launch a genuine inclusive and democratic socialist formation. If Respect continues its current policy of appealing to only one section of the community on a non-class and religious basis it could instead become a barrier to building a working class force that could unite Muslim workers and youth with the white working class and those of other ethnic minorities.
Given the factors that produced the national swing to the LibDems it was to be expected that the SSP vote could have been squeezed to an extent. But there is a difference between the SSP, which has a national profile in Scotland, six MSP’s and the affiliation of the rail workers union and the situation in England where there does not yet exist a national electoral left force.
It is also correct to argue that in an first-past-the-post election some of those who have voted for the SSP in a PR based election will have decided to back a party that could have more of an impact in this type of election. But the scale of the fall in support for the SSP, from 72,500(3.1%) in 2001 to 43,500(1.9%), a loss of 40%, was more that could have been expected if only these factors were in play.
This is because the 2001 election was by no means the high point in support for the SSP in an election. It is important to remember that in 2001 the SSP only had 1 MSP, Tommy Sheridan. The big breakthrough for the SSP was in 2003 when 6 MSP’s were elected and 128,000(6.8%) people voted SSP on the PR party list section while 104,000(6.5%) voted SSP in the first-past-the post constituency section of the election. Even at the 2004 European election, conducted on a PR basis, the SSP won 61,000 (5.2%) on a 30% turnout.
The fall in support for the SSP has to seen against that background. Four years ago the SSP stood in all 72 Westminster seats in Scotland and held 10 deposits, nine of those were in Glasgow. This time the SSP stood in 58 of the 59 seats and held only two deposits, one of those was in Glasgow. The SSP vote in Glasgow fell from 6.8% to 4%, a 41% drop. Compared to the SSP vote in the first-past-the-post section of the Scottish Parliament election in 2003 it was a drop of more than 60%.
The Greens stood in four of the seven Glasgow seats and defeated the SSP in all four. While in Edinburgh the SSP vote was 1.48% while the Greens polled 4.88%. In all 19 constituencies that the Greens contested (they have never stood so widely before) they out-polled the SSP.
Reasons for electoral setback
Alongside the national factors dealt with previously, the impact of the resignation of Tommy Sheridan as SSP convenor by the party executive last November also played a significant part in the fall in support for the SSP in this election. Despite political differences with the ideas put forward by Tommy Sheridan, among others, which we have opposed in the SSP on a number of occasions, we recognised that Tommy Sheridan retained a big reservoir of support and sympathy among the working class in Scotland. This was based on his role in the mass anti-poll tax movement, which catapulted him to national prominence and his impact on Scottish politics since then. At that time he was a member of the CWII who as Militant led a mass movement in Scotland and throughout Britain that was instrumental in defeating the poll tax and ending the career of Margaret Thatcher. Tommy Sheridan, along with other leaders of the SSP, has since broken with the CWI and Marxism. Nevertheless, the CWI did not agree with the decisions and actions of the SSP EC, which led directly to Tommy Sheridan’s resignation. By taking this action SSP leadership had seriously weakened the ability of the SSP to withstand the national trends that were evident in this election.
The effect of Tommy Sheridan’s resignation among the working class, including on many of the SSP’s own supporters, has been to raise questions about whether the SSP could have the same impact without him. It also gave a generally hostile and cynical media in Scotland a field day at the time, describing how the SSP removed its best asset and effectively committed political suicide. There was virtually no media coverage of the SSP in this election campaign. Much of the press believe the SSP cannot be considered a serious force without Tommy Sheridan.
The events surrounding Tommy Sheridan’s resignation and then the damaging, divisive and unnecessary leadership contest has been a blow to the morale and confidence of a number of SSP activists. This has been accompanied by damaging conflicts and divisions between sections of the party, including among SSP public representatives, which have not been over clear political differences. If this continues it will make it more difficult for the SSP to move forward and rebuild its support.
The disappointing result for the SSP in this election pales when compared to the morale of the activists at the present time. A poor electoral result in an off itself can be overcome through an honest discussion about the factors involved and above all by mapping out a strategy to take the party forward. But the confidence of the SSP members before the election was already low.
The turnout at the election rallies is an indication of the weakening active base of the SSP at this stage. In 2001 there were a number of well-attended rallies including 250 in Glasgow, 150 in Edinburgh and 140 in Dundee. The equivalent turnouts in this election was: 70, 50 and 30 respectively.
In 2001 it was reported that 1,500 people applied to join or asked for more information after receiving the national leaflet delivered to all homes in Scotland or seeing the TV broadcast. This year the national office received around 1/10th of that.
The response of the leadership to these events will be decisive in deciding whether the SSP can come through this crisis. That means drawing all the necessary political conclusions for the reasons for this setback. In turn, that requires a full discussion around the programme and direction of the party. There already have been hints by some leading members of the SSP that we should; “find new ways of explaining what we mean by socialism.” This could lead to a further watering down of an already watered down emphasis on socialism by the SSP leadership
The CWI has opposed the tendency among the SSP leadership to downplay socialism in favour of “practical things we can achieve in the short term.” The CWI fully supports the fight for every reform and advance the working class can make through struggle. At the same time we have to link the fight for reforms that can be wrung from the capitalists and the government through mass pressure to the need to break decisively with capitalism if these reforms are to be of a long-lasting character. We therefore have a responsibility to explain in a clear way the need to build a democratic socialist economy based on public ownership and democratic control of the economy.
The SSP has to be absolutely clear on the need to build a mass movement to achieve these aims. We need to put forward a day – to – day fighting programme of action to resist the avalanche of attacks the working class will face as a result of the election of a third term Labour government. The economic conditions under which Blair and Brown will govern will by radically different from the first eight years of New Labour. It is far more likely to be a government beset by economic crisis and the unleashing of vicious attacks of the working class as a result.
The relatively low levels of struggle that have existed in Scotland and throughout Britain will not last. If we turn to these movements the SSP can establish deep roots in working class communities, workplaces and amongst young people. Being part of the day-to-day battles that will increasingly take place can assist in this. But the logic of capitalism which aims to make the working class pay the costs of the failure of their economic system, will also lead to a new generation seeking out a socialist alternative. The biggest mistake the SSP leadership could make would be to be facing in the wrong direction by drawing the conclusion that a clear socialist programme is not viable. This would lead to the SSP missing out on opportunities to re-establish itself and move forward.
The purpose of this contribution to the debate in the SSP on the way forward is to recognise the factors behind the election setback and the urgent challenges facing the SSP. If the SSP were to fail it would be a blow to the socialist movement in general in Scotland. It would complicate the situation even further and would raise questions in the minds of workers who have looked to the SSP as to whether a viable socialist force could be built.
A strategy to rebuild and deepen the influence of the SSP must include recognising the need to return to a class programme and clear socialist ideas. Above all it also means seizing on the opportunities that will open up as a result of a third-term Labour government against the background of a rapidly worsening economic position. This is the direction that the CWI will be advocating the SSP should take.