Scotland: Is the SNP: a threat to the political establishment?

The SNP (Scottish National Party) looks set to win the majority of Scottish seats in the general election

The SNP looks set to win the majority of Scottish seats in the general election. It would then be a key player in any coalition horse-trading. With its eyes firmly on that prize, it is positioning itself as part of a ‘progressive alliance’, in opposition to Con-Dem austerity. But does that claim stack up? PHILIP STOTT reports.

In the wake of the independence referendum the political terrain has radically changed in Scotland. Pushed by the mass working-class rebellion last September, the shifting tectonic plates look set to produce a political earthquake at the general election in May. The formerly dominant Scottish Labour Party, now widely derided as the ‘red Tories’, is set to see its already withered social base decimated. Labour in Scotland is paying the ultimate price for decades of pro-business, pro-war and anti-working class policies. The independence referendum, and Labour’s lash-up with big business and the hated Tories in Project Fear, has been the catalyst for its likely electoral annihilation.

The scale of the political fallout facing Scottish Labour in the general election was graphically illustrated by the What Scotland Thinks website on 12 March. In polling conducted between January and mid-March, its poll of polls predicted that Labour would be reduced from 41 MPs to ten after 7 May. The Scottish National Party (SNP), in contrast, would increase its Westminster parliamentary representation from six to 47 seats.

Constituencies currently held by Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling – both of whom are standing down – are likely to go to the SNP. Eighty-one percent of those who voted Yes in the referendum say they will vote SNP in May. As a result, cities like Glasgow, Dundee and other Labour-held seats across Scotland will fall to the SNP. But the SNP is also likely to win almost all of the current eleven Lib Dem seats in Scotland as well. They include those of Lib Dem hatchet man, Danny Alexander, who has been the chancellor George Osborne’s right-hand man in inflicting brutal austerity since 2010.

While a certain, limited narrowing of the polls might salvage a few Scottish Labour MPs – known as the ‘walking dead’ at Westminster – the overwhelming

odds are on the SNP winning a majority of the 59 Scottish seats. An Observer newspaper columnist quoted a conversation with an MP who has a 10,000-plus majority, who colourfully summed up the mood among Scottish Labour parliamentarians: “‘I’m fucked’, he declared. He was only fighting the seat ‘to get the redundancy’.”

The old saying that, if you ask the wrong question you’ll get the wrong answer, was never more applicable than when Labour elected Jim Murphy as its new leader in Scotland. An ultra-Blairite and supporter of the Iraq war, unsurprisingly, he has been unable to stem the haemorrhage. Murphy has promised to turn Scottish Labour into a ‘patriotic party’ to rival the SNP. Indeed, the new Clause Four of the party constitution describes the party in these terms. What is ruled out is any attempt to return to the original socialist Clause Four of the Labour Party and to challenge the SNP on the left.

The fact that Murphy could win the election for leader underlines the completely changed character of the party. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Labour was a workers’ party at its base, many constituency Labour parties were strongholds for the left. In contrast, 30 constituencies nominated Murphy as leader, as did the youth and the student wing of the party. He won over 60% of the membership section, as well as 65% support among the parliamentarians. The majority of the affiliated trade unionists that voted in the election backed the left candidate. Murphy’s election underlines the need for the unions to build a new workers’ party.

One of Murphy’s first acts was to appoint John McTernan as chief of staff. McTernan, a former advisor to Tony Blair and right-wing Australian Labour Party leader, Julia Gillard, is a creature of the right. In a recent speech to a Tory think-tank he said: “There’s a far wider range of assets that are currently owned by the government which I would privatise. I would have privatised London Underground if I could have done”.

Surge in SNP membership

In addition to Labour’s existential crisis in Scotland, it faces the problem of the huge influx of new members into the SNP since the referendum. SNP membership has quadrupled from 25,000 to 100,000, making it the third largest political party in the UK. It is also providing the SNP with thousands of activists prepared to campaign to drive out the ‘red Tories’ from large parts of Scotland.

Socialist Party Scotland recognises that many who have joined the SNP are seeking a way to fight against austerity, as well as for independence. Indeed, the huge growth in the membership of the SNP reflects the desire for a party of struggle – a genuine mass workers’ party – among a broad swathe of radicalised working-class people. The SNP leadership was widely seen to have stood up against the onslaught of Project Fear and the capitalist establishment in Britain. The narrow No victory and the desperate promises by the Unionist parties of more powers for Scotland, albeit limited, have bolstered the SNP even further. The SNP was largely credited with having shaken-up the political elite and, through the indyref, provided an outlet for anger against the crisis and austerity.

However, there has not been any significant shift to the left in the SNP’s economic programme and nor is there likely to be. In response to the oil price collapse, for example, the SNP policy is to call for urgent tax cuts for the big oil companies. This echoes its longstanding neo-liberal policy in favour of the reduction of corporation tax in an independent Scotland. Both the Scottish government and SNP-led councils are carrying out the cuts with barely a murmur of opposition.

Nor have there been any moves by the new leadership under Nicola Sturgeon towards support for even limited public ownership of the economy, not even of the hated energy companies. The tranche of SNP Westminster candidates are dominated by the ‘safe and secure’ as far as the SNP leadership is concerned. The vast majority of the new and working-class SNP membership, over time, will be bitterly disappointed by the actions of the SNP leaders who have absolutely no intention of doing anything other than continuing to make the cuts and defending the interests of capitalism.

Jostling for position

Labour’s collapse in Scotland – only the scale of its defeat is being debated – is having major repercussions for politics across Britain. Opinion polls consistently show that neither Labour nor the Tories are likely to win an overall majority on 7 May. The widespread alienation from the capitalist establishment is leading to an increasing tendency to seek out a political alternative. Most UK-wide polls indicate that 30% or more intend to vote for parties outside of the traditional Tory, Labour, Lib Dem triumvirate. While the Greens and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) can win some seats, it is the SNP that will likely return the largest bloc of MPs outside of the three traditional parties. Indeed, it could easily surpass the total of the Lib Dems who are likely to lose a majority of their seats as payback for their austerity coalition with the Tories.

Political commentator, Andrew Rawnsley, expressed the problem facing British capitalism in the Observer: “There is little point in trying to predict the winner of this election, because there won’t be one. There will only be a best loser”. He went on to say: “The Blue Emperor and the Red Emperor campaign as if the old duopoly were still intact. Yet everyone can see they have no clothes”.

Against the backdrop of the increasing fragmentation of British politics, the SNP leadership has been making strident efforts to position itself to play a major role at Westminster following the election. Nicola Sturgeon, the successor to Alex Salmond, has ruled out a deal with the toxic Tories. In contrast, however, she has enthusiastically talked up an agreement with Labour to “keep the Tories out of power”. The SNP leadership has described this as the “most popular option among voters in Scotland”.

Under pressure from David Cameron and the right-wing press – and sections of the Labour Party – Ed Miliband has publicly ruled out a coalition with the SNP. However, neither he nor Ed Balls have gone as far as to exclude an informal agreement with the SNP. This could take the form of issue-by-issue support or a more structured ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement, which would see the SNP agree to vote for Labour budgets and key legislative bills as well as any votes of confidence.

Sturgeon has made a series of speeches offering just that type of post-election arrangement, while also calling for electoral support for the Greens in England and Plaid Cymru in Wales. She has set out the SNP’s ‘red lines’ which, initially, included the scrapping of the Trident submarine nuclear missile system, based in Scotland, an end to austerity and more powers for the Scottish parliament. Yet, speaking to the Guardian newspaper in March, Sturgeon said that non-renewal of Trident would not be a deal-breaker for the SNP.

‘Light touch’ austerity

The SNP has unveiled an anti-austerity proposal for Westminster that is anything but an end to the savage cuts agenda. Despite the comments from Sturgeon that “austerity economics are morally unjustifiable and economically unsustainable”, she proceeded to pledge that the SNP would support a mere 0.5% increase in total UK departmental public spending each year between 2016 and 2020. This would equate to £36 billion more that the current Tory-led coalition has planned.

To place this in context, by 2018 the reduction in the Scottish government resource budget will have been almost 17%. Under the SNP’s ‘anti-austerity’ alternative, therefore, more than 80% of the cuts will remain in place. Cuts to local government spending in England are now over 25% compared to 2009-10. The SNP’s proposal would leave 90% of these cuts in place by 2020.

The reality of the timid nature of the SNP’s proposals was underlined following the speech when, under questioning, Sturgeon said she was “not wedded” to the 0.5% figure, which she said was merely “illustrative”. The SNP leadership’s outlook was exposed further by her comment that “fiscal discipline is good for governments”. Her deputy, Steward Hosie, has called for “a longer trajectory to fiscal consolidation”. “The SNP is used to taking tough decisions to balance the books”, he said.

As Socialist Party Scotland has consistently pointed out, the SNP’s pro-capitalist policies have led them into accepting the logic of austerity – even it if is the diet version, rather than the full-fat brand being brutally carried out by the Con-Dems. As Douglas Fraser, BBC Scotland’s economy editor, pointed out: “Neither Nicola Sturgeon nor her deputy are saying austerity can be avoided. Instead, it’s being re-badged and re-profiled, or spread out longer”. Fraser added: “The defiant refusal to accept more austerity, which won power for Syriza in Greece last month, is not being offered here”.

The SNP leadership is sending out a message that it is prepared to work in the interests of British capitalism, which means carrying through cuts. In practice, the gap between Miliband’s economic plan and that of the SNP is not wide. Depending on the parliamentary arithmetic, therefore, a deal between Labour and the SNP is possible after the election. This could see SNP MPs vote in favour of yet more cuts and austerity on the pretext that these are less bad than would have been the case had the Tories been re-elected. Or, they could vote for cuts if minor concessions by Labour were made to the SNP’s demands for ‘light touch’ austerity. Either way, the outcome of this scenario would be to undermine the electoral base of the SNP in Scotland among its own supporters and will expose its pro-capitalist programme even further.

A federal UK?

A key SNP demand is for more powers for the Edinburgh-based Scottish parliament. A catastrophic defeat for the British ruling class was avoided in the independence referendum, in part by promises of more powers for Scotland. All the main parties have signed up to the Smith commission proposals that will transfer all income tax and around a quarter of welfare spending to Scotland following the election. If the SNP wins a majority of Scottish MPs in May, and there is no overall majority for Labour or the Tories, further concessions on powers are even more likely.

The SNP leadership has temporarily parked demands for a new referendum. It is now calling for full fiscal autonomy for Scotland, but has left open the threat of running on a manifesto commitment for a new indyref in 2016 at the Scottish general election. This is designed to apply political pressure to win further concessions on powers after May. A majority Tory government, or a Tory/Lib Dem coalition mark II, would make a new independence referendum almost certain.

The undermining of the social base of the traditional parties of British capitalism is leading to a section of the ruling class discussing new scenarios. This can include a form of national government involving Labour and the Tories, but also an acceptance that a party like the SNP will need to be incorporated into the new political architecture.

Linked to this is the issue of the pulling apart of the UK entity, which last year’s referendum narrowly avoided but has not resolved. If anything, the referendum and its aftermath have ushered in a new unstable situation for British capitalism. A recent BBC poll found that 69% of people in Scotland believed that the country would become independent. The figures for those who believed Scotland would leave the UK in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were 59%, 54% and 59% respectively.

This is leading to serious discussions about a form of federalism involving the creation of an English parliament, alongside the existing parliaments and assemblies in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. In addition, a federal UK parliamentary chamber could be created, perhaps involving the abolition of the House of Lords and its replacement with an elected tier from across Britain.

For socialists and Marxists the central issue, while defending the right of nations and minorities to self-determination – including the right to independence – is the burning need to build new mass working-class parties with socialist policies and fighting trade unions across all parts of the UK and beyond. There is no solution to the problems facing the working class under capitalism. The unity of the working class is even more crucial in this volatile and changing situation and is summed up in our demand for an independent socialist Scotland as part of a voluntary socialist confederation with England, Wales and Ireland as a step to a socialist Europe.

A real anti-austerity challenge

Socialist Party Scotland is helping to lead the challenge of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) in Scotland. As across England and Wales, TUSC is standing to offer a real alternative to cuts, for public ownership and a fighting opposition to austerity. There is an understandably powerful mood to rid Scotland of Labour MPs. However, we have to explain that the SNP does not represent a step forward in the struggle for working-class representation and against austerity.

The SNP in power, at council and Scottish government level, has carried through brutal cuts. In Dundee, the city that returned the largest Yes vote in the referendum, the SNP administration is making £30 million in cuts over the next three years. This includes the closure of a local high school which has provoked an important campaign of opposition among working-class people in the community – and the resignation of many who had joined the SNP in the aftermath of the indyref.

This mood of anger against the SNP was summed up by messages sent to the Socialist Party Scotland Facebook page when we posted an article in opposition to Tommy Sheridan’s call to vote SNP: “I’ve already cancelled my SNP membership. I voted Yes for Scotland, not for these pocket liners. I’m back on the socialist team, think Tommy might have lost the plot”. Another commented: “Agreed. I’m a yes voter but was abandoned by my local SNP councillors and MPs. I’m glad I couldn’t afford to sign up as a member [of the SNP] as it saves me cancelling my membership as many of my friends have begun to do”.

While electoral support for TUSC in Scotland will, of course, be squeezed it is vital that we put a marker down and reach as many working-class people as possible with a real anti-cuts and socialist alternative. In Scotland there are three major electoral contests in the next 24 months: the general election in May, Scottish parliament elections in 2016, and then, in 2017, all Scottish council seats are up for election under a single transferable vote system. The campaign of Scottish TUSC is vital in preparing the ground for potential significant gains for socialist representation by 2017.

Under these conditions, the role played by Tommy Sheridan in calling for and campaigning for support for the SNP, rather than building a fighting anti-austerity alternative, is all the more mistaken. Socialist Party Scotland has now left Solidarity, the party we co-founded with Tommy Sheridan in 2006, after it voted to support Tommy’s position. (See the Socialist Party Scotland website:

More than 30,000 working-class people came to hear Tommy Sheridan speak during the Hope Over Fear – Socialist Campaign for Independence tour, which was co-founded by Socialist Party Scotland. It was a reflection of a searching for ideas to the left of the SNP leadership among a large section of the working class. Had Tommy been prepared to appeal to those layers to join a real socialist and anti-austerity political movement, rather than back the SNP, thousands could have been won to that alternative. The recent Solidarity conference, attended by barely 60 people, reflected this lost opportunity.

The current popularity of the SNP is a distorted expression of the potential for a new mass working-class party in Scotland. However, the tens of thousands who have joined the party will not find a leadership prepared to fight for their interests and will seek out an alternative. The task of socialists is to provide that pole of attraction with a clear programme for socialist change and a mass movement to end austerity permanently.

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April 2015