Is the time right for a new Scottish workers’ party?

Labour’s vote fell further in Scotland, proportionately, than in England and Wales in December’s general election. What conclusions should be drawn for how working class political representation will be secured now?

December 2019 saw Scottish Labour suffer the worst general election result in its 119-year history. Once again the party has been reduced to a solitary Westminster MP. What makes the outcome more catastrophic for Labour than even four years ago was the loss of a further 196,000 votes even compared to the near wipe-out of 2015 – an election which was widely thought to be the very worst it could possibly get. Scottish Labour’s vote fell to 511,838 (18.6%) in December from 707,147 (24.3%) in 2015.

Following in the wake of the previous year’s independence referendum, the collapse of Labour support in working class areas in 2015 was dramatically illustrated by the loss of 40 of their 41 MPs elected in 2010. Open collaboration with the Tories and the capitalist establishment in the anti-independence ‘Better Together’ campaign had sealed the fate of the Blairite-dominated Scottish Labour Party. Its then leader Jim Murphy boldly declared in the wake of the evisceration that saw the SNP secure 56 of the 59 available MPs: “The Scottish Labour Party has been around for more than a century. A hundred years from tonight we will still be around”. Murphy hastily resigned after a short-lived six months as Scottish leader and is now a well-paid advisor to the Tony Blair Institute.

Today, in the aftermath of the most recent election debacle and with the national question set to explode again following Johnson’s victory, is the building of new Scottish workers’ party now essential? Has the potential to turn Labour in Scotland into a genuine workers’ party been squandered? And if so, why did it fail? What are the tasks facing trade unionists and socialists in the battle to secure genuine political representation for the working class?

Drawing out the lessons of the failures, thus far, to transform Labour into a genuine workers’ party are an essential element of the discussion on a way forward. As is outlining the programme needed on how to fight destructive, austerity-laden capitalism. And, crucially, the need for a socialist and class approach towards Scottish independence and the right to self-determination.

Corbynism’s potential

Socialist Party Scotland and our sister party in England and Wales welcomed Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership victory in 2015. However, as the editorial in the Socialist (England and Wales) pointed out in October 2015: “The Corbyn surge is a potential new mass party in formation. It is not at all guaranteed it will succeed if the resistance from the right is not fought and defeated”.

We stood with Corbyn against the attempted coup by the Blairites in 2016 and the unending attacks he has faced from the out-and-out capitalist wing of the Labour Party that dominates the Parliamentary Labour Party. We also campaigned for a Corbyn victory on socialist policies in both the 2017 and 2019 general elections.

After Richard Leonard’s election as Scottish Labour leader in 2017, Socialist Party Scotland commented: “Leonard needs to put forward a clear and unambiguous case for the transformation of Scottish Labour into a democratic and socialist party. Central to this is that full rights must be given to party members and the trade unions to be able to deselect MPs, Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) and councillors who fail to fight cuts and refuse to defend left policies and seek to undermine Corbyn. He should support the opening up of the Labour Party for affiliation and membership rights for all left, socialist and anti-austerity forces, including those previously expelled like Socialist Party Scotland, formerly Militant, for their socialist policies”.

None of this was done. The Blairites in Scotland and the rest of the UK Labour Party remain in-situ. The Corbyn-supporting left have, mistakenly, continued to try to secure a mythical, peaceful co-existence with the right wing and its pro-capitalist policies.

Corbyn and John McDonnell gave one of the first concessions to capitalist interests in the Labour Party as far back as December 2015, when they wrote to Labour councillors calling on them not to set no cuts budgets which they incorrectly described as “illegal”. They implicitly rejected taking the ‘Liverpool road’, forged by the heroic socialist council of that city and led by Militant supporters in the 1980s, who refused to make cuts and built a mass movement that defeated Thatcher and secured resources for houses, sports centres, nurseries and a job creation programme. While it was not their intention to do so, Corbyn and McDonnell gave a green light to right-wing Labour councils across Britain to continue to inflict Tory austerity on working-class communities. This was an important factor that allowed Boris Johnson and the Tories to win ex-Labour seats in parts of England and Wales in December 2019.

As we have pointed out consistently, Corbyn’s manifestoes in 2017, and then in 2019, were a step forward in contrast to years of Blairite neoliberalism. Nevertheless, they were timid in terms of their commitments on public ownership, compared even to the programme of the Labour left that Corbyn was part of in the 1970s and 1980s, which pledged to nationalise the top 25 monopolies.

While supporting all of Corbyn’s progressive pledges, we warned that a left Labour government would face the wrath and hostility of big business which would do everything possible to prevent encroachments upon its power and wealth. “That is why a crucial step towards solving the economic crisis would be to take into democratic public ownership the 125 or so big corporations that control around 80% of the economy across Britain”, we wrote in the Socialist Party Scotland 2019 general election manifesto. “This would provide the possibility of developing a democratic, socialist plan of production that could very quickly transform the lives of millions”.

The limited reformist nature of Corbyn’s manifesto was itself a reflection of the character of the movement around him and its ideology. Emerging as it did following three decades of neoliberalism and the throwing back of socialist consciousness following the collapse of Stalinism, it did not see itself as representing the independent interests of the working class in the struggle against capitalism. But rather it limited itself to achieving a fairer economic system still based on, in the main, private ownership of the economy.

The class character of Corbynism, Momentum et al – largely made up of a radicalised middle class layer – added further to this tendency to adapt to ‘official opinion’. Nor did it base itself on the potential power of the workers’ movement. At no time, for example, did Corbyn or that wing of the party advocate the independent mobilisation of the working class and the trade unions to force a general election during the Brexit crisis, as we advocated. This is an international failing of some of the newer left formations, including Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, and the Left Bloc in Portugal.

Rebuilding workers’ political representation

A new mass party, which the Socialist Party has been advocating for since the 1990s, would, in contrast, be a genuine workers’ party rooted in the trade unions. Not necessarily from its inception having a Marxist programme, but certainly a class-struggle based party with a broad socialist outlook within which the forces of the Socialist Party would seek to be a powerful Marxist influence.

However, the battle for the future the Labour Party at a UK level is not fully exhausted – in reality it has been a one-sided civil war conducted by the right against the left. The Socialist Party in England and Wales is rightly calling for the refounding of the party based on trade unionists, young people inspired by Corbyn and socialists, on a clear left and anti-austerity basis. Nevertheless, it is now overwhelmingly likely that in Scotland building a new party of the working class will become a necessary and urgent task facing the trade union movement, socialists and anti-austerity fighters.

There are two main reasons for drawing this conclusion, aside from the missed opportunities by the Corbyn-left to create such a party. Firstly, the extremely limited surge into the Labour Party in Scotland has meant that the social basis for transforming Labour to the left is not sufficient. Labour’s membership in Scotland is currently around 20,000 and mostly inactive. Reflecting the political and social character of the membership, Scotland was the only country in the UK where Owen Smith defeated Jeremy Corbyn in the 2016 leadership contest. Even then, only 13,000 Scottish Labour members voted, 2.5% of the UK total, compared to just under 500,000 in England and Wales. Even at the height of Corbyn’s electoral appeal in the 2017 general election, with Labour winning an extra 3.5 million votes in England and Wales, Scottish Labour put on a mere 10,000 votes compared to the 2015 post-indyref annihilation.

The right wing dominates what is left of the Labour group in the Scottish parliament, as they do in the Scottish councils Labour still influence. Arch-Blairite Jackie Baillie is the current frontrunner for the vacant deputy leader’s position. Baillie led the charge against John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn last summer when they declared that a Labour government “would not block a future independence referendum backed by the Scottish parliament”. Baillie, on behalf of a majority of the Scottish Labour MSPs, responded: “We deplore any attempts to undermine the official policy position of the Scottish Labour Party and we express serious concerns about an apparent change in Labour’s position on a matter of vital importance to the future of Scotland and of the Scottish Labour Party itself. Scottish party policy is very clear – that is opposition to a second independence referendum”.

Scottish independence

The second key factor in Labour’s demise in Scotland, apart from decades of right-wing control and their implementation of austerity, has precisely been the record on the national question and self-determination. Even under Corbyn and Leonard the position remained largely unchanged. As we pointed out in 2017: “A major obstacle to Labour’s recovery in Scotland is still their outright blanket opposition to independence. Continuing to oppose independence and a second referendum is a huge barrier to winning over the many anti-austerity workers and young people who are attracted to Corbyn’s left policies”.

Moreover, Leonard comes from that wing of the Labour left who believe that Scottish independence must be opposed as a point of principle. In essence they see the national question as a binary choice, class or nation. But this is a complete misreading of the reasons why 1.6 million people, overwhelmingly working class, voted for independence in 2014.

The eruption of class anger around independence was just that: a working class revolt against the establishment and austerity through the prism of the national question. It is incumbent on the left to understand this and to defend the right to a second referendum and independence while at the same time linking it to the struggle for socialism.

And yet the Scottish Labour leadership, and to a large extent the Labour left in Scotland, have set their face against the democratic aspirations of large sections of the working class. Even the limited attempts by Corbyn to broach the issue of a Labour government allowing a referendum in a more sensitive way came across as unclear and half-hearted. They were also attacked and undermined at every turn by the Blairites in Scotland and across the UK. In contrast, the pro-capitalist Scottish National Party (SNP) adopted clear slogans: ‘Vote SNP to stop Brexit’, and ‘Give us a mandate for a second independence referendum’.

Following the sweeping gains made by the SNP in December, sections of the Labour left have called for a review of Scottish Labour’s opposition to a second independence referendum. MSPs Neil Findlay and Monica Lennon broke the Labour whip in December by refusing to vote against the SNP motion calling for the right to hold indyref2. Findlay commented that he could no longer oppose a second referendum and that continued “hard, oppositionalist Unionism is the road to oblivion”. Lennon has now proposed that Scottish Labour be re-founded as a separate political party from UK Labour.

These moves among sections of the Labour left in Scotland reflect a dawning reality that the mood in favour of Scottish independence is likely to grow significantly in the next period. Even the tone-deaf Communist Party of Britain and the Morning Star newspaper, which opposed independence in the 2014 referendum, have declared they are in favour of a second referendum as a “democratic right”, although they will still campaign for a No vote in any future indyref2.

SNP shift rightwards

The conditions for the building of a principled working class left opposition to the SNP are growing, despite the electoral gains made by the nationalists recently. With the SNP in control of the Scottish government and in ruling administrations in many local councils, they have become the main conveyer belt for the implementation of austerity in Scotland. From the national teachers’ pay dispute in 2018, to the equal pay strikers in Glasgow in 2017, to the growing mood of anger among NHS workers, SNP politicians are increasingly clashing with the workers’ movement in Scotland.

Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP’s evolution to the right and in a pro-big business direction has continued throughout the Brexit crisis. The 2018 SNP’s ‘Sustainable Growth Commission’ report marked a passionate embrace of cuts in an independent Scotland. As we commented at the time: “The SNP’s ‘blueprint’ for an independent Scotland, out today, is titled ‘A new case for optimism’. In truth, it’s nothing more than a ‘tired old case for capitalism’, which also marks a shift rightwards compared even to the 2014 independence blueprint”.

“An independent Scotland would seek to slash the budget deficit by holding down public spending below the rate of economic growth for up to ten years, according to the report. Specifically, seeking to drive down the deficit from the current 8.3% of GDP to 3%. The outcome would be savage cuts to public spending for years after independence. Nor could there be any possibility of a reversal in the decade of austerity already suffered by working class and middle class communities in Scotland”.

Robin McAlpine, the director of the pro-independence Common Weal project, rightly condemned the Commission report as “the narrative world of Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and George Osborne. This is sheer McMacron – and if you’re going to go around proposing the French president’s approach, you kind of need to look at his appallingly low approval ratings”. We can add to this the recently unleashed mass movement in opposition to Macron’s attacks on the pensions and rights of French workers.

A significant space has therefore opened up to the left of the SNP in Scotland. The Scottish Labour leadership have proven to be unable to respond, implicated in austerity policies and seen as a major obstacle to the right of self-determination. A new, Scottish workers’ party offering a fighting socialist opposition is essential. One that has to be based on the trade unions and the working class.

The way forward

The trade unions, the socialist left – inside and outside of Scottish Labour – environmental campaigners, pro-independence and anti-austerity fighters should discuss convening a conference to debate out the necessary steps towards the founding of a new Scottish workers’ party. With the Scottish parliament elections due to take place in less than 18 months’ time, the need for a socialist challenge to the SNP and the parties of capitalism is urgent.

Socialist Party Scotland has a long record of working on a united front basis to secure all genuine steps towards building a fighting socialist electoral alternative. From 2010 until 2018 we were active participants in the Scottish Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) alongside the RMT transport union and other socialists and trade unionists. Scottish TUSC stood candidates at Westminster, Scottish parliament and local council elections. As a minimum a coalition of a similar type is needed as a step to a new party, if not the reactivation of TUSC itself.

A debate is now going to open up in the trade unions in Scotland on whether to back a second referendum and independence. Graeme Smith, the Scottish TUC general secretary, commented in January 2020: “The democratic wishes of the people of Scotland need to be acknowledged. The Scottish labour movement should support IndyRef2”. Writing in the Morning Star newspaper on January 7, Steven Smellie, Unison Scotland’s deputy convener, said: “It is now time for the trade union movement to develop a discussion and seek to influence the independence movement in a search for an alternative to austerity, whether that is a union jack or saltire austerity”.

Socialist Party Scotland will be outlining the case for the trade union movement to not just stand clearly in defence of self-determination, but to put itself at the head of a mass struggle for indyref2 and for an independent socialist Scotland.

In some cases this will require rule changes to allow for autonomy for Scottish areas of UK unions to take decisions on issues like indyref2 while being allowed to debate the issue of political affiliation and the building of a new workers’ party. It may also bring Scottish trade unions who are looking to support independence and who want to debate the building of a new workers’ party into collision with the union bureaucracy and the Labour leadership.

In 2003, the rail workers’ union RMT defied a diktat from the New Labour hierarchy which forbid the union from using its political funds to support any party other than New Labour. At its annual delegate conference in Glasgow of that year, RMT delegates voted to allow its branches to affiliate to the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and give money to SSP candidates, who at that time had six MSPs. The response of the Blairite Labour leadership was to expel the union from the Labour Party. While the RMT withdrew from the SSP in 2006, following the split and crisis in the party at that time, the union went on to play a key role in TUSC and to this day has still not re-affiliated to Labour – which has not prevented it from supporting Corbyn and left Labour candidates. The Scotland No.2 branch of the Communications Workers Union (CWU), representing 3,500 members, also affiliated to the SSP for two years, without any sanction from the union leadership.

In 2015, the Fire Brigades Union voted to re-affiliate to Labour following Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader. At the same time the resolution passed by the FBU special conference also agreed that the union had to take into “account of differences in the political situation across the UK and will not use political fund money from Scotland or Northern Ireland to support affiliation”. Such a position, but developed to enable unions in Scotland to positively support a party and candidates standing independently of the Scottish Labour Party, can also develop quite rapidly in other unions in Scotland as the pressure to create a new political vehicle for the working class grows.

There can also be clashes inside the trade unions over the right of Scottish members to take decisions on independence. In 2014, some Labour-affiliated unions refused to organise a democratic debate among branches and members on what position to adopt on the referendum. In the case of the CWU, the shop workers’ union USDAW and the GMB, there was real anger among their respective union members in Scotland as a No position was effectively imposed without genuine consultation. Most unions, including the STUC, Unison, Unite, the PCS civil servants union and others adopted a neutral stance. The RMT backed a Yes vote after a ballot of its Scottish membership. This time around there will be growing demands for genuine democratic discussion over a campaign for indyref2 and independence.

It is not at all ruled out that, given the largely unchanged Labour rulebook, unions could face the threat of expulsion, even if an open Blairite does not win the leadership of the UK Labour Party, for taking decisions to support a new workers’ party or Scottish independence. Under the explosive conditions that exist this could accelerate moves to a split away by affiliated unions and others to support a new Scottish workers’ party.

However, there must also be total opposition to any attempts to split the trade unions on national lines. As the current CWU dispute with Royal Mail has underlined, united struggle across the nations of the UK is a vital and essential weapon for the battles that will emerge against this new Tory government. A new workers’ party in Scotland should seek, from day one, to build links with socialists and trade unionists in England, Wales and Ireland who are seeking to build independent working class and socialist representation.

We have entered a volatile and explosive situation globally but also in Scotland and Britain. A Catalonia-style confrontation could now develop over Scottish independence, as the Johnson government refuses demands from the Scottish government for the power to hold indyerf2. Under these conditions, Socialist Party Scotland will advocate the building of a mass campaign of defiance, general strike action, mass protests and occupations to demand the right to choose, including demanding that the Scottish government organise the referendum in defiance of Johnson and the Tories.

The SNP leadership, because they defend capitalism, are organically opposed to such methods. They naively believe that an agreement could be made with a Tory government that would allow a ‘legal’ referendum to take place. They fear unleashing the power of the workers’ movement but only mass struggle by the organised working class for democratic rights linked to a determined movement against austerity by the trade unions can offer a way forward.

We fight for an independent socialist Scotland as the only way out of the crisis facing the working class on jobs, pay, public services and poverty. Central to this is the burning need to build a new, mass working-class party that would fight for the powers of independence to be used in the interests of the majority.

An independent socialist Scotland would need to seek to build a united movement with the working class in the other nations – England, Wales and Ireland, across Europe and internationally. It would lay the basis for a genuinely free and voluntary socialist confederation of states and an international plan of production.

Above all, the potential power of the working class must now be marshalled in Scotland and across the UK to fight this reactionary Tory government and the wave of attacks they will try to implement. Mighty class battles will open up, including over Scottish independence. Socialist Party Scotland will be at the forefront of these struggles, advocating a socialist programme and the building of a mass workers’ party to end capitalism and the rule of the billionaires.

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February 2020