But majority government of savage cuts will meet working class resistance
The Scottish National Party (SNP) has won the elections to the Scottish parliament by securing an unprecedented 69 MSPs, an increase of 23 on 2007, gaining an overall majority. This is the first time any party has been able to hold more than half the 129 seats in the Scottish parliament since its establishment in 1999.
The SNP’s share of the vote was 45.4% (+12.5%) in the constituencies and 44.1% (+13%) in the regional lists. This is the biggest vote ever for the nationalists and was achieved largely due to the collapse of the votes of the Con-Dem parties in Scotland. Between them, the Tories (-3%) and LibDems (-8%) lost 11% of their constituency vote, almost all of this went to the SNP. The Lib Dems in particular were mauled, losing 11 MSPs and ending-up with just 5.
The swing to the SNP meant that although the Labour vote did not collapse, the SNP won scores of seats in former safe Labour areas. For the first time ever, the SNP won a majority of seats in Glasgow, Lanarkshire and across the central belt of Scotland. Every seat in north east Scotland, including those in Dundee and Aberdeen, were won by the SNP. The SNP won five of the six Edinburgh seats, as well. While in the past, the nationalists were restricted to wining first-past-the-post seats in the more rural parts of Scotland, the now hold 53 of the 73 local constituencies – a huge gain of 32 seats from the 21 they won in 2007. They also picked up 16 seats on the PR-based regional lists.
The SNP’s historic victory was a result of a number of factors. The SNP leader, Alex Salmond’s minority last government postponed the bulk of the spending cuts until after the election to try to avoid being fully exposed as a government of cuts. The £600 million cuts to the Scottish budget, as a result of the June 2010 emergency Con-Dem, were put-off and wrapped up in the £1.3 billion cuts for 2011-12 voted through by the SNP, the Lib Dems and the Tories, in February. This meant that a majority of these cuts have still to be fully felt. The SNP will now, however, attempt to use their parliamentary majority to attempt to carry through the deepest and most savage spending cuts in decades. Their plan is to pass on the Westminster government Con-Dem austerity package and axe £3.3 billion from jobs and public services in Scotland over the next four years.
Ironically, with a Con-Dem government in power in Westminster, many people will have voted SNP as a protection from the cuts that are looming like a tsunami over the jobs, benefits and wages of millions of people in Scotland. In reality, this new SNP government will arouse mass opposition if they attempt to implement the Tory cuts on the working class communities across Scotland.
The SNP re-built a significant electoral base in Scotland from the late 1980’s onwards, as a radical, nationalist party positioned to the left of Labour. While they moved to the right and in a more neo-liberal economic direction during the nineties and the noughties, they have still maintained the veneer of radicalism.
To an extent, the support for the SNP in this election was based on the carrying through of some relatively progressive policies from 2007 – 2011, including the freezing of council tax, the ending of prescription charges, the abolition of the back-loaded tuition fees and the reversal of plans to close A and E services at hospitals. For a layer of people, the SNP are still seen as a more radical alternative to Labour. This reflects the potential for the development of a new mass workers party, especially as the SNP will now be exposed in a way that did not happen in their first 4 year term.
If the election was a triumph for the SNP, it was a catastrophe for Labour. Bad enough was the overall loss of 7 seats, but worse, and more significant, was the loss of 20 first-past-the-post seats, leaving Labour with only 15 MSPs from a possible 73 available constituency seats. It was only the top-up section of the regional vote that allowed Labour to retain a total of 37 MSPs overall.
It is an open question as to whether they can ever recover from their worst result in Scotland in 80 years. Added to a pitiful campaign, which began by stealing the SNP policies on the freezing of the council tax, opposition to any form of graduate tax or tuition fees and prescription charges, Labour were undermined again and again by the weakness of their leader, Iain Gray, compared to the populist oratory and debating skills of the SNP leader, Alex Salmond. With virtually no policy differences, except on independence and a referendum, the outcome of the election came down for many between a choice between Gray and Salmond as First Ministerm – a contest that could have only one winner. This was reinforced by Labour’s incapability of exposing the SNP over their spinelessness over the cuts – because Labour support austerity and are making deep cuts, as well. In the run-up to the 2010 Westminster elections, Labour promised to make cuts even deeper than Thatcher’s.
Iain Gray has indicated he will resign as Labour leader after the summer. Who replaces him is unclear. Labour also lost many of their “leading” MSPs. The new crop of Labour MSPs are widely seen as the “third eleven” – totally inexperienced and devoid of any real connection with the trade unions and the working class. As such, they will also reinforce Labour’s long term decline as a political force in Scotland. The outcome of the election underlines the analysis of the Socialist Party Scotland (CWI) that Labour is no longer seen as a party of the working class by big sections, especially of younger people, although it can still maintain an electoral base, as a “lesser evil” as we saw in the Westminster elections in 2010.
SNP and big business
Following the election, Alex Salmond said: “We are now the national party of Scotland – acting in the interests of all of Scotland.” But, in reality, Salmond and the new SNP government will be a party acting in the interests of big business and carrying out savage cuts. It was no accident that a series of leading business figures backed and bankrolled their campaign. This included Brian Souter, head of the Stagecoach company, who donated £500,000 to the SNPs election funds, Tom Farmer, millionaire founder of Kwik-Fit, and a long-term donor, George Mathewson, former Chair of the Royal Bank of Scotland and many others. The SNP have proved again and again that they are prepared to defend the priorities of capitalism – which is to unload the costs of the economic crisis onto the backs of the working class. The widespread support for the SNP by the billionaire-owned press, including Murdoch’s Sun and the News of the World, as well as the Scotsman, the Herald and Express groups and others, are also a clear signpost to the political direction of the new SNP government.
One of the most important consequences of the outcome of the election is the inevitability of a referendum on independence. At this stage, the SNP have only said that the referendum will be held “at some time over the next 5 years.” Moreover, in the last parliament, the SNP advocated a bill for a multi-option referendum, including a vote for more powers, as well as full independence. They are likely to want to adopt a similar approach towards a new referendum bill.
It is also likely that in the first instance the SNP will use their election victory to wrestle concessions on the Scotland bill that is currently being debated at Westminster. This bill proposes extending, in a limited way, the powers available to the Scottish parliament. But this election outcome will apply extra pressure on the ruling class and the Con-Dem government to concede further powers, possibly over borrowing and even control over corporation tax.
The SNP have been very careful not to “antagonise” the interests of the majority of the capitalists who are opposed to independence, at this stage. Opinion polls indicate a minority of people back full independence, with a big majority for stronger powers. For the SNP, a multi-option referendum would still be their preferable course of action – which, even if the independence option was defeated, would deliver extra economic levers to the Scottish government. As one of their MSPs, Kenny Gibson, commented, “more powers are an important staging post on the journey towards independence.”
Socialist and anti-cuts candidates
While no socialist/anti-cuts candidates were elected, the highest left vote on the regional lists was achieved by the George Galloway – Coalition Against Cuts list in Glasgow, which also involved Solidarity, Socialist Party Scotland and the Socialist Workers Party. This campaign, which stood on a platform of opposing all cuts, supporting the setting of needs budgets and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with trade unionists and communities fighting the cuts, polled a very respectable 6,972 (3.3%) of the vote. This was 5,600 votes short of seeing George Galloway elected, although it did defeat the Lib Dem’s list and came 5th out of 15 parties.
Alongside the Coalition Against Cuts, Solidarity also stood on its own in the other seven Scottish regions. As expected, Solidarity’s votes were very low and averaged around 0.2% – a total of 2,837 votes in the seven regions. The jailing of the Solidarity leader, Tommy Sheridan, earlier this year, after being found “guilty” of perjury, was a major factor. Many people, even those who supported Tommy, felt that it was a wasted vote to back Solidarity, with Tommy in jail and unable to take part in the election. There is also no doubt that the public standing of Solidarity has been affected by the unrelenting campaign by the Murdoch press, the police and the legal establishment against Tommy Sheridan and other members of Solidarity. Also, without a presence in the parliament, the profile of Solidarity has dipped considerably since its high point in 2007. Nevertheless, the Solidarity vote added to the Coalition Against Cuts list in Glasgow (which also involved Solidarity) polled more than 9,000 votes for clear and principled anti-cuts platform.
The votes for the Scottish Socialist Party, who had six MSPs as recently as 2006, fell even further compared to their 2007 result, when they lost 90% of their vote and all their MSPs. The SSP polled 0.4% of the national vote with 8,200 votes. Nevertheless, these votes also reflected support for a fighting anti-cuts platform. However, for the SSP leadership, who were instrumental in the state’s prosecution and jailing of Tommy Sheridan, and who believed they would gain electorally from having “told the truth,” this result was a damning public verdict on their criminal role and actions. An indication of their deluded belief that they would gain significantly in this election was the SSP’s boast that they would “push the Lib Dems into 6th place in Scotland.” In addition, the Socialist Labour Party achieved a vote of 16,847 (0.8%).
Urgent task to build an alternative
The results for the socialist left were undeniably poor, with the exception of the George Galloway – Coalition Against Cuts list in Glasgow. The primary responsibility for having thrown away an important electoral position for socialists with parliamentary representation from 1999 until 2007, lies with the political mistakes and actions of the leadership of the SSP. It is a vital task now to work to rebuild a viable socialist and anti-cuts movement in Scotland.
With the election of an SNP government prepared to make huge cuts to jobs and public spending, this task is urgent. Alex Salmond and his new government are demanding public sector workers accept year-on-year wages freezes – pay cuts, in reality – as well as attacks on their terms and conditions. Tens of thousands of jobs in the public sector will be lost if these cuts go through. Services that communities rely on will be butchered unless a struggle is built to oppose them. The trade unions must organise national and coordinated strike action and quickly against the cuts, rather than accept the cuts. Working class communities need to be organised in the local anti-cuts campaigns and through the Scottish Anti-Cuts Alliance to oppose all cuts and fight for the return of the money stolen from us to pay for the bail-outs of the bankers and capitalism.
As part of this anti-cuts struggle, that can spread like wildfire in the months ahead, a political alternative to cuts and capitalism must be built. Socialist Party Scotland will be advocating that the anti-cuts movement, socialists, trade unionists and communities all work to build a fighting coalition against cuts that will stand in the council elections next year – to elect councillors who will refuse to make cuts and will stand up to the Con-Dem government in London, the SNP in Edinburgh and the councils who are wielding the axe across Scotland. This can be an important platform to help build a powerful socialist alternative to the parties of cuts in the year ahead.