Scottish National Party leadership contest: A new space for a workers’ alternative has opened up

Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: First Minister of Scotland/CC

Voting in the contest for the new leader of the Scottish National Party, and therefore First Minister of Scotland, starts Monday 13 March. The outcome will be known two weeks later. Realistically, there are only two candidates in the running; Kate Forbes and Humza Yousef.

“Whichever of the parliamentarians becomes the new leader of the SNP, the party will never again have the same authority among the working class in Scotland as was the case in the post-2014 period. Sturgeon’s resignation, therefore, marks a definite end to that conjuncture.”

Socialist Party Scotland Scottish perspectives draft document February 2023.

In power since 2007, the SNP government in Scotland was regarded to be among the most stable and popular capitalist governments in Europe. Seemingly coming out of the blue, Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement on February 15 that she was resigning as SNP leader and first minister of Scotland, therefore, rocked Scottish politics. On closer examination, her decision is less of a surprise and hinges on two essential factors.

The first of those is the evident erosion in support for the Scottish government and the SNP in the wake of the cost of living crisis, a decade and a half of cuts, and the NHS debacle. All are rooted in their implementation of austerity and anti-working class policies, generally.

Asked in a recent poll about the performance of the Scottish government on a range of issues since the SNP-Scottish Greens formed their coalition in 2021, the results were overwhelmingly negative. On the NHS, 53% said the government had done a bad job while just 22% say it has done a good job. In education, it was 44% bad and 24% good. On improving living standards of those on low incomes: 45% to 29% and on managing the economy it was 47% to 28%.

The strike wave has also played a decisive role in exposing and undermining Sturgeon’s government. Local government workers, teachers and civil servants have all taken strike action in the last nine months, with the SNP on the other side of the barricades. NHS workers voted overwhelmingly for strike action. John Swinney, SNP deputy first minister, recently described teachers’ strike action that targeted his and other government ministers’ constituencies as “indefensible.”

The illusion that the SNP were a party generally supportive of the interests of the working class has been fatally undermined – notwithstanding the significant pay concessions they have made to unions when faced with strike action.

This is despite the strenuous efforts of the leadership of the Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC) to paint the Scottish government in a different light. On the day of Sturgeon’s resignation, they mistakenly released a statement that eulogised how “we deeply valued our working relationship, working collaboratively on behalf of Scotland’s workers.” Collaborative working would not be a phrase remotely recognisable for those who have been forced into taking strike action recently.

The second key factor in Sturgeon’s resignation has been the incapacity of her leadership to overcome the entrenched opposition of the Tory government at Westminster, and British capitalism, generally, to a second independence referendum. Wedded to a ‘legal referendum’, that is an agreement between the UK and Scottish governments that indyref 2 can take place, Sturgeon set her face against any other strategy, including a mass mobilisation of the working class to demand the right to self-determination.

This supine approach was to a large extent guided by one of the SNP’s central policies – a desire to re-enter the EU post-independence. Of course, this requires an acceptance by international capitalist institutions that any referendum was fully within ‘international law’. The fact that the EU lined up behind the Spanish capitalist state in opposition to Catalonia’s ‘wildcat referendum’ on October 1 2017 served to reinforce Sturgeon’s position even more firmly.

At root, the SNP are a capitalist party seeking to maintain that self-same economic and social system in an independent Scotland. It is true that they have very little support among the capitalist class, even in Scotland, for the breakup of the UK. However, the last thing the mind of Nicola Sturgeon was to pose any threat to the continued rule of big business.

Yet, the irony is that to win independence precisely means confronting and overcoming the resistance of British capitalism whose economic and geopolitical interests are significantly threatened by a potential break-up of the UK. Capitalist rule is something that the SNP will not challenge, which massively weakens the independence movement.

“Unfortunately, the SNP has no clue how to even achieve its ultimate goal…and is incapable of achieving independence. So what is the point of the SNP?” 

Neil Mackay, Herald columnist

Both under Sturgeon’s and her predecessor Alex Salmond’s leadership the SNP went out of their way to assuage the fears of the ruling class. Even today, the nationalists still argue that after independence Scotland would continue to use Sterling, the Bank of England would set interest rates, the monarchy would remain intact and the pursuit of profit by Scottish, British and international capital would remain unmolested. Business as usual for capitalism would be a useful description of the SNP’s economic policy.

It is that dialectical contradiction – the desires, even if inchoate for now, of the working class to seek an end to capitalist oppression on the one hand, versus the iron-like determination of the SNP leadership to maintain the profit system, on the other hand. The result of this clash of aspirations has been the weakening of the social base of the SNP.

It also adds further evidence to Socialist Party Scotland’s consistent case that the SNP’s pro-capitalist policies are a barrier to winning a majority for independence. The recent drop in support for the SNP, and for independence generally, underlines that fact.

For a period of time after 2014, when the SNP leadership were seen to have stood up against the onslaught of a capitalist establishment, that fought tooth and nail to defeat the threat of the break-up of the UK, the SNP deepened its social base. They were widely assumed by large sections of the working class to be an anti-establishment and combative entity. Not a workers’ party for sure – that conception was generally absent. But they did partially fill some of the vacuum that was present for a genuine new mass political party of the working class.

Yet the political capital that the SNP leadership accumulated during that period has now to a significant degree been spent. It has withered against the backdrop of economic crisis and austerity and the role of the nationalist leadership in its implementation, as well as being unable to overcome the resistance of the bourgeois to the break-up of the UK. These are the central reasons for Sturgeon’s resignation.

But the problems for the SNP are only beginning. The leadership contest, with the result due on March 27, has the potential to enormously weaken them even further.

SNP divisions grow

“Leadership contests are often messy affairs but this one is fast becoming a calamity for Scotland’s dominant political party.”  

Alex Massie, Sunday Times columnist.

Nicola Sturgeon was widely seen as an adept and competent capitalist politician. Both she and Alex Salmond led the SNP unchallenged for the last two decades to the most successful period in its 90-year history. However, whoever wins the leadership contest will now inherit a seriously weakened political organisation with a shrinking base of support. Moreover, the leadership contest itself is likely to accelerate further instability, and division and lead to potential splits.

Three candidates are contesting the election. The ‘continuity’ candidate is health secretary Humza Yousef, the preferred option among the party leadership. Kate Forbes, the current finance secretary, is also in the running. The third candidate is Ash Regan, who resigned as a government minister in protest over the gender recognition legislation. Regan is very unlikely to be in contention.

The early stages of the leadership contest were dominated by Kate Forbes’s views on social issues. As a member of the small Presbyterian Free Church of Scotland, Forbes admitted her religious beliefs meant she opposed marriage equality and having children outside of wedlock. She also defended her opinion from 2014 when she wrote: “God’s plan for women” did not “permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man.” The Free Church does not allow women to be ministers.

Less commented on is her equally damaging, from a working-class perspective, ideological position on the economy. Formerly a chartered account at Barclays, Forbes has been the finance secretary for two years. Speaking in the Scottish parliament in June 2022 while setting out the spending review she said: “We do need to reshape and refocus the public sector post-Covid”. She claimed that the public sector had grown for years but now needed to “reset” and become more efficient.

Her plan was to axe tens of thousands of public sector jobs to “return the total size of the devolved public sector workforce to around pre-Covid-19 levels by 2026/27”. As the co-author of the ‘National Strategy for Economic Transformation’ produced by the SNP-Green government, Forbes’s proposals included a plan to “establish Scotland as a world-class entrepreneurial nation founded on a culture that encourages, promotes and celebrates entrepreneurial activity in every sector of our economy”.

Despite the backlash against her among SNP parliamentarians over her long-held reactionary views, Forbes was brought into cabinet and given the key finance portfolio by the current leadership regardless.

Humza Yousef or ‘Humza Useless’ – as he is widely known among Scottish NHS staff – was the early favourite and styled himself as the legacy candidate of Nicola Sturgeon. As either a Scottish government minister or cabinet secretary for a decade, Yousef is very much part of the SNP establishment. He has presided over a catastrophe as health secretary and supported all of the cuts to Holyrood budgets over his time in government.

Kate Forbes, in a recent hustings debate, said of Yousef: “When you were transport minister the trains were never on time, when you were justice minister the police were strained to breaking point and now as health minister, we’ve got record high waiting times.”

Ash Regan, the other leadership candidate, at one time worked for the Common Weal project – a mildly reformist think tank that is supportive of Scottish independence. She did not join the SNP until after the 2014 independence referendum. She has been criticised for sending her children to a fee-paying elite school in Edinburgh. Her campaign advisor is a former candidate of Alba – the party led by Alex Salmond. She is also openly supportive of Salmond and wants the SNP to work more closely with Alba.

It’s not ruled out that Kate Forbes could win the election. She is polling neck and neck with Yousef among SNP supporters and is by far in the lead among the general public who indicate a preference. The SNP leadership, in the shape of the deputy first minister John Swinney and a long list of leading SNP parliamentarians, have made clear their preference for Humza Yousef.

A win for Forbes would almost certainly lead to a fracturing of the coalition with the Scottish Greens, given her opposition to equality rights and neoliberal economic policies. It could also lead to further splits from the SNP.

In fact, the deputy SNP leader at Westminster, Mhari Black, was explicit when asked about a fracturing of the SNP in the event of Forbes winning she said: “Honestly I don’t know, to tell you the truth. It’s very much a ‘wait and see’ what happens. I wouldn’t even want to risk that, that’s why I’m backing Humza.”

Shrinking membership

A claimed 100,000 members of the SNP will have a vote in the contest but significantly fewer will take part. Press reports are indicating that only 78,000 ballot papers are being sent out to SNP members. This underlines the fact that despite the huge influx of new members, including many from a working-class background following the indyref of 2014, the activist base of the SNP has shrunk significantly since. The post-2014 intake is generally not involved in the party.

A university study in 2019 which analysed the makeup of the SNP membership found that 71% of were over the age of 50. One in four was aged 25 to 49, while just 3% were 18 to 24-year-olds. Three-quarters of members were thought to be in the ABC1 employment bracket – considered to be professional, middle class – while less than 30% were estimated to be working-class. Half of all SNP members had a university degree.

These statistics underline the dominant middle-class makeup of SNP members. Their parliamentarians are overwhelmingly drawn from the ranks of the petty-bourgeois, which acts to reinforce their pro-capitalist nationalism.

Traditionally the SNP’s base was to be found primarily in the rural areas of Scotland. Only over the last 15 years and particularly since 2014 did they secure a major working-class base of electoral support. The demographic makeup of the electorate, therefore, makes the outcome unpredictable.

Indeed, whoever wins the SNP contest, a fracturing of the party is very likely. The establishment of Alba by Alex Salmond in 2021, which now has around 5,000 members and two MPs, was not only a reflection of the divisions between him and Nicola Sturgeon over his personal conduct. It also represented tensions over how to overcome the refusal of the Westminster government to allow a second referendum.

Alba argues for a more combative approach with “civil disobedience” having a role to play. They have also been critical of selling offshore wind farm contracts to big energy companies by the SNP and Scottish Greens. Even this ‘radicalism’ has its limits, though, as Alba is still very much a pro-capitalist party and is also vocal opponent of the gender recognition legislation. Nevertheless, they could emerge strengthened from the SNP crisis if Yousef wins.

There are no left candidates standing in the election – reflecting the pro-capitalist nature of the SNP itself. Neither do any of the candidates explicitly support Sturgeon’s policy of turning the next Westminster election into a de facto referendum on independence, which now seems to be dead in the water. With support for the SNP falling to below 45% and a leadership election likely to impact that support further, achieving a 50% vote at the next election seems a very difficult challenge indeed.

Regan’s proposal is that any future parliamentary election – at Westminster or Holyrood – that sees a 50%-plus vote for pro-independence parties would be a mandate to immediately negotiate with Westminster the terms of independence. This is a pipe dream. Unless such an outcome was backed up with a call for a mass mobilisation of the working class, including generalised strike action and the building of committees of struggle to deliver self-determination, then it is completely undeliverable.

This latter point is entirely missing from Regan’s proposal – and by extension that of the Alba leadership, as well. Regan instead has insisted that the “international community”, presumably the EU and the UN, would rally behind Scotland’s right to independence in the event of such an election result. But the capitalist elites internationally often have their own national questions to contend with and would be loath to encourage Scotland in its independence aims.

Yousef, in contrast, has come forward with no position other than to await a consultation and the special SNP conference on the constitution late in 2023. He said: “If ultimately that is where they land, on a de facto referendum, which I’m not saying is absolutely off the table, I’ve said I’m not wedded to the idea, but if it is a de facto referendum, if that is what comes from the membership, then that is obviously the option that we would consider.” Both Yousef and Forbes are arguing that sustained majority support for independence will be needed before another referendum is possible, effectively kicking the can down the road for a period of years.

The evident strain on the SNP – Green coalition would likely lead to its fracturing in the event of Forbes. Not only are Forbes’s socially conservative opinions anathema to the Greens, but she also wants to slow the pace of the transition away from fossil fuels and would take the SNP in an even more explicit pro-business direction. Regan explicitly wants the coalition with the Greens to end. Yousef, in contrast, is standing as the self-styled only candidate who can save the SNP-Green deal.

A number of the key SNP platforms are being jettisoned by the leadership contest. The gender recognition reform is opposed by Forbes and Regan. The appetite for challenging Sunak and the Tories over the blocking of the legislation is at least waning. All three contenders want to pause or scale back the deposit return scheme, driven by the Scottish Greens. Both Forbes and Regan support a slowing down of the transition away from North Sea fossil fuels. None of the wannabe first ministers supports Sturgeon’s central policy of turning the next Westminster election into a de facto referendum.

This bonfire of previous positions of the Sturgeon government reflects deep fissures that are becoming more and more acute as the leadership contest unfolds. For a party that was seen as an oasis of successful unity, these divisions mark a decisive end to the previous almost two decades of SNP ascendency. The Greens and Alba could both make gains from a fracturing of the SNP.

Independence undermined

It is necessary for socialists to state clearly that the capitalist policies implemented by the SNP are undermining support for independence.

Polling evidence from February 2023 by the Lord Ashcroft polling organisation was pretty unequivocal: there is a complete absence of confidence that independence would deliver improved outcomes for the working class and the population generally. Twenty per cent thought their standard of living would increase under independence, double that figure, 40%, thought it would get worse and 26% thought it would stay the same. A figure of 39% thought NHS waiting times would rise with only 26% believing they would improve and 21% believed it remains as bad as it is now. And 41% thought unemployment would increase compared to 23% who thought it would fall in an independent Scotland, while 19% thought it would stay the same.

In other words, the SNP leadership have failed to answer the questions on jobs, the economy and the standard of living in an independent Scotland. Their record on the implementation of austerity allied to their own Growth Commission prospectus that under capitalist independence public spending would have to be held down for a decade has had a huge impact.

Only socialist policies that point clearly to the need to take over the major sectors of the economy through public ownership under democratic working-class control and management can viable answers be given. An independent socialist Scotland would precisely lay the basis for the elimination of poverty and low pay, as well as provide the resources to be able to fully fund the NHS, education and public services.

None of the candidates standing for SNP leader and the first minister is remotely on the left, never mind socialists. While there are differences on a range of issues, they all agree on one thing: the capitalist market is the most effective way to deliver goods and services in the economy. Leading a mass working-class movement for the right to self-determination is also about as far from their minds as the struggle for socialism is.

Yet it is clear from all the evidence that for SNP supporters generally it is the class issues that are the key questions. Tackling the cost of the living crisis was identified by 65% in a recent poll as the top priority for the new leader, with 58% regarding the NHS as a priority, jobs and the economy on 31% and independence 30%. And it is only fighting socialist policies that can resolve these issues.

A new opening

“Whatever the outcome of the leadership contest in the SNP, an even greater space for a socialist and working-class electoral alternative will open up.”

Socialist Party Scotland statement following Sturgeon’s resignation

For the working class, the central issue arising from the crisis engulfing the SNP is the new opening that now exists for independent working-class politics. The workers’ movement, in particular, must grasp this opportunity with both hands. If a section of the trade union movement were now to take the necessary initial steps to at least stand workers’ candidates for the next election this would represent a big step forward.

Scottish Labour has shifted even further to the right under Anas Sarwar’s leadership, in tandem with that of Labour, at a UK level, under Starmer. Scottish Labour’s improved poll ratings – to around 30% – are overwhelmingly coming from pro-union Tory voters switching to Labour rather than from working-class SNP supporters.

It is not ruled out that a section of SNP voters could back Labour to get the Tories out at the next general election. However, the national question – pro or anti-independence – is still a huge factor in how people vote. Starmer’s stated position is to refuse a second referendum under a Labour government while offering more powers to Holyrood. This position will be used by the SNP leadership to try and shore up its support.

A Starmer Labour government will be brutal in carrying out its policies in the interests of capitalism. Very quickly any hopes for some respite after 14 years of Tory governments will be quickly dashed. A combination of a weakened SNP and a neo-Blairite Labour government will create fertile conditions for the building of a new mass working-class party.

Socialist Party Scotland has advocated the building of a new workers’ party throughout the period of SNP electoral dominance. Even in 2015, when the SNP was sweeping all before it, we stood in the general election as part of the Scottish Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, as we did in the 2016 and 2021 Scottish parliament elections, putting forward the case for fighting socialist policies and for an independent socialist Scotland. Many other left and socialist groups when faced with the SNP juggernaut buckled under the pressure and opposed standing socialist candidates.

We appeal to trade unionists and all those who want to see a working-class political alternative to work with us to build a workers’ list of candidates to contest the general election in Scotland. A sizeable election challenge would put on the agenda the building of a new workers’ party to lead the mass struggle in the fight to win the right to self-determination and socialist policies to end the capitalist cost of living crisis. An independent socialist Scotland as part of a voluntary socialist confederation with England, Wales and Ireland as a step toward a socialist Europe, would end the nightmare of capitalist rule permanently.


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March 2023