Scotland: Socialists and elections – a response to the SWP

Scottish TUSC campaigning in Paisley, Scotland

The importance of building a socialist alternative in elections has long been recognised by Socialist Party Scotland. We are currently helping to pioneer the Scottish Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition’s challenge for the Scottish parliamentary elections on May 6.

Since 2010 we have played a leading role in Scottish TUSC, which includes the RMT transport workers’ union and many prominent trade unionists and anti-austerity campaigners.

Over the past decade, Scottish TUSC has stood in elections on a 100% anti-austerity and socialist platform, including for Holyrood, Westminster and local councils.

We did not contest the 2017 and 2019 Westminster elections, recognising that Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party opened an opportunity to build a new workers’ party.

However, the refusal of Corbyn to take on the Blairites, including the mistakes made on Scottish self-determination, opened the door for a return of the Labour right.

With Anas Sarwar and Sir Keir Starmer leading Scottish and UK Labour respectively, the need for a political voice for the working class is more urgent than ever before.

This is many times more the case given the experience of the Covid pandemic, the failures of capitalism and the need for a socialist recovery for the working class.

In Scotland, the dominant SNP has moved to the right, carried out austerity and are baulking at the need to build a mass movement for indyref2.

Against this backdrop and in the context of the Scottish election large parts of the socialist left in Scotland have gone into hiding. This is despite Scottish TUSC inviting a number of socialist organisations in Scotland to take part in a unified election challenge.

The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) which at one time had six MSPs announced they would not stand. Their leader Colin Fox cited the difficult political conditions for socialists and the cost of standing.

Solidarity, led by former socialist MSP Tommy Sheridan, has joined Alba, the split off from the Scottish National Party (SNP), created by the former first minister Alex Salmond. Tommy Sheridan is championing the slogans: Scotland Before Party. Both Votes Independence. SNP 1 – Alba 2.

Rise, the electoral vehicle created by the SSP and the former SWP members who led the Radical Independence Campaign, has been disbanded.

Some sections of the left have even resorted to supporting the Scottish Greens in this election.

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which had stood candidates as part of Scottish TUSC in the 2015 Westminster election, are no longer part of Scottish TUSC.

Vote Labour?

In a recent editorial on the SWP website; Who should socialists vote for on 6 May?, they say: “in most places, socialists will have to vote Labour.”

Incredibly, at a time when Starmer is driving Labour to the right and excluding Jeremy Corbyn as a Labour MP, they are advocating for a Labour vote with little or no qualification. This is despite the almost uniform carrying out of cuts by Labour councils in England, Wales and Scotland.

The SWP’s support for a Labour vote applies in England and Wales with a caveat. “The exception is where a small number of credible socialist candidates are standing. For example, in the Liverpool mayor election Roger Bannister of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition has consistently won respectable votes. He is confronting’s Labour’s capitulation to the Tories in the city.” So far so better.

Opening the door to at least supporting a vote for all TUSC candidates they stop dead in their tracks. Nowhere do they say that TUSC, who are standing over 300 candidates (its largest socialist challenge since 2015), in the council elections, the London regional assembly, Welsh and Scottish parliaments, should be supported.

Instead, by calling for a Labour vote the SWP are, in a majority of cases, advocating electoral support for right-wing Labour candidates with a record of carrying out cuts. Contrast that with TUSC and the Socialist Party in England and Wales who have made a point of not standing against left Labour candidates but have made clear that a minimum requirement is opposition to all cuts.

This is not 2017 nor the 2019 general elections when Corbyn led the Labour Party. The right is in the ascendency and the left is being routed. That’s why as part of our election campaign we call for a conference to build a new workers’ party and for the trade unions to lead such a step.

In Scotland, the SWP’s position is no better. Scottish TUSC is standing to offer a socialist vote to more than 1.5 million voters. Our candidates include those who helped lead the Glasgow equal pay struggle, a member of the NEC of Unison the union, and a branch secretary of the EIS, the biggest teachers’ union in Scotland.

Yet of that they say not a word. Instead, the following is put forward: “In Scotland, we can’t call for a Labour vote [a unionist party]…. we say vote left and fight for independence.”

What does vote “left” mean? They do not explain. Does voting left mean supporting candidates who oppose in words and deeds all cuts, who are in favour of public ownership and an independent socialist Scotland?

We assume that Scottish TUSC is included in the “vote left” slogan but nowhere is that actually stated. Does voting left include backing SNP candidates or some of them? If so, what criteria defines a “left”?

Moreover, the SWP echo Tommy Sheridan and those who argue that the key question in this election is to get a majority of MSPs elected who back indyref2. They say: “a central issue before voters is whether the Scottish parliament will have a majority for an independence referendum”.

Of course, it’s true that electing a parliament with a majority for independence is a big motivation for many workers and young people. Indeed Scottish TUSC is standing on a platform for a second referendum and an independent socialist Scotland.

However, unless socialists explain that the SNP and Green leaders are an obstacle to independence, that a mass movement, socialist policies and a new workers’ party is essential to winning the struggle for real self-determination, it can reinforce illusions in the SNP leadership.


The SWP, like many on the left during Covid, seemed to have drawn pessimistic conclusions about the potential to build a mass socialist alternative to capitalism. This is reflected in their refusal to stand as part of TUSC in these crucial elections and they have adopted instead a passive, abstentionist position. The SWP were invited to take part in TUSC when it was relaunched in the summer of 2020.

They say towards the end of their editorial that: “The poverty of choice at the ballot box reflects a deeper crisis of the left…..socialist forces have not yet emerged on a mass scale to challenge the system. Filling that gap through struggle and socialist politics is far more important than any vote.”

Yet the current SWP policy on elections does nothing to help resolve this “crisis’. Indeed the SWP position is a symptom of that crisis.

The ‘waiting for better times’ approach is just another reflection of the disorientation that has impacted much of the left, not just the SWP.

Capitulation to ‘national unity’ by the trade union leaderships during Covid, passivity and abstentionism in elections, alongside support for ideas that emphasise identity – including nationalism – rather than working-class unity, all reflect an ideological retreat in the face of an unprecedented capitalist turmoil.

In contrast, Socialist Party Scotland believes the task of Marxists is to use every possible avenue of struggle, including elections, to advocate socialist solutions and mass working-class struggle to defeat capitalism.

See also The struggle needs an electoral arm, from Socialism Today, the monthly magazine of the Socialist Party England and Wales.

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April 2021