Scottish Perspectives 2024 | A New Era of Working Class Struggle and Capitalist Crisis

UNISON members protesting at the Scottish parliament. Photo: Philip Stott

The following document was discussed and adopted by the Socialist Party Scotland congress in March 2024.


International backdrop

The tumultuous and increasingly overwhelming crises facing the global capitalist system is the backdrop to any serious analysis of perspectives for Scotland. And it is not only the backdrop, the main international features also have a direct impact on the economic, political and social trends domestically. It is therefore essential that some of these factors are, albeit briefly, included in any Scottish perspectives document.

Wars, global economic turmoil, rising class struggle and the environmental crisis are all examples of international factors that directly impinge and shape the situation in Scotland. The growing conflict in the Middle East has dominated since October 7 2023. The horrific slaughter that has been carried out by the Israeli capitalist state and the Netanyahu-led government has mobilised a large worldwide movement in support of the Palestinian people. Increasingly, the war is becoming regionalised with new fronts of conflict opening up in Lebanon, Yemen, Iran, Syria and Iraq to name just some of the areas now directly impacted. While all the major players wish to avoid a full-blown regional war, a prolonged series of clashes are likely to continue.

The general support for the Israeli action by Biden and US imperialism, and the Tory government in Britain, has further weakened the standing of the US in particular internationally. The possibility or even likelihood of Trump returning to the presidency in November is also posed. This would be a further nightmare for the overall geopolitical interests of US capitalism. An outcome they are desperate to avoid if they can. Coming on the back of the defeat of the US-led forces in Afghanistan, and the increasing quagmire facing the US-backed Zelensky regime in Ukraine, US imperialism is a weakened entity, albeit still the strongest global military power.

At the same time as underlining the limits of US power, these events have strengthened the reality of the ‘multi-polar’ world balance of forces. Geopolitically, the rise of China remains the biggest headache facing US capitalism. China is now the largest producer of electric vehicles and batteries in the world. The rapid turn by the CCP-led state to forms of renewable energies – it is still the largest emitter of CO2 in the world – has further added to the strains in world relations as Chinese exports undercut western multinationals in these key industries. These drives to protectionism to stop China exporting renewable energy technologies also expose that utterly bankrupt efforts of other capitalist governments – not least the US – to respond to the climate crisis.

The unique character of Chinese state capitalism has allowed for unparalleled investment – compared to other capitalist states internationally – into higher value sectors of the economy. As the former head of the WTO commented: “We have come to the realisation that this is a structural problem and that it stems from the fact that part of the Chinese production system is not driven by market behaviour, but by Chinese Communist Party-directed investment.”

At the same time, the Chinese economy is slowing significantly compared to the high points of double-digit economic growth of the past. A property slump, deflation and the limits of an ‘internal market’ have led to more emphasis towards manufacturing exports. The response of the US and others has been protectionism, trade barriers and bans on exports of advanced semiconductors to try and limit China’s advance. Yet, at the same time, there can be no possibility of de-coupling China from the US in particular and the world economy generally given the reliance of world capitalism on Chinese commodities. There is in reality a symbiotic relationship on each other as well as being major geopolitical rivals.


Economic stagnation 

The state of the world economy is another key factor that impacts Scotland and Britain. There has not been any sustained recovery since the Great Recession of 2008. That crisis marked a definite end to the period of ‘hyper globalisation’ that began following the collapse of Stalinism in 1990/91. More than 1 billion new workers were brought into the world economy in the years that followed, not least in China but also across eastern Europe and Asia as capitalism found new profitable sources of production through exploitation at lower wages.

Today, the world economy is beset with almost permanently lower growth rates. Europe is stagnant. The US has seen some growth following the pandemic but for most workers it feels like the opposite. Projections for economic growth have fallen year-on-year since the pandemic – with most analysts today predicting world growth of just over 2%. The years that followed the 2008 crash saw the major powers internationally turn to low interest rates, borrowing and massive state intervention including quantitative easing to save the system. The lack of significant economic growth since then, and now rising rates of interest, has meant state, corporate and household debts have remained at record highs. Only now the cost of servicing those debts have become another crisis factor in the world economy.

Banking collapses, national state defaults, particularity in the neocolonial world, and even in parts of Europe can be posed in the next period. A new recession in the global economy is only a question of timing. What is certain is that there will be no return to even the modest growth of the 1990s/2000s. We are living in a new era today, one that is marked by an organic tendency towards economic stagnation and low growth. Any economic growth that does takes place is not enough to allow for improvements in workers’ living standards or significant investment in public services.

This reality for the working class and increasing sections of the middle class was brought home recently by a report from the Centre for Cities think tank. Looking at economic growth in terms of income per household in the twelve years from 1998 to 2010, the study then analysed the period from 2010 to 2022 and found huge drops in expected incomes had growth continued to match that of the first twelve years of the study. Reflecting the post 2010 period, total expected disposable income per head in Glasgow was £23,500 lower. Dundee was found to be £17,730 down while the figure for Edinburgh was £16,030. Aberdeen was the worst performing city in the UK with a drop of £45,240, reflecting the crisis in the oil and gas industry. UK productivity has grown by just 1.7% since 2008, compared to 27% in the previous 16 years.

This and numerous other statistical analyses serve to underline the real situation facing the working class in the era that followed the 2008 financial crash. The decade-plus of austerity, low growth, the pandemic and the inflationary spiral that came in its wake have all served to deepen massively the levels of inequality and poverty. It was also a key factor in driving the strike wave that erupted in the summer of 2022. And it forms the crucial backdrop to the economic conditions facing a likely incoming Starmer-led government this year.


General election 

The crisis facing the Tory party deepens by the day. Opinion polling has been consistent now for over a year, the Tories are facing an electoral hammering whenever the election takes place. Whether there is a majority Labour government – and current polling indicates that will be the case – or a minority government led by Starmer or even a coalition, the Tories are going to lose the election. Yet, even if Labour achieve a majority along the lines of Blair’s victory in 1997, the enthusiasm towards a Starmer government will be minimal. Indeed it is possible that Labour could win the election with fewer votes that Jeremy Corbyn got as Labour leader in 2017 and 2019, given the likely high levels of abstentionism and the votes for smaller parties.

The economic conjuncture during which a Starmer government will be elected will leave it little room to manoeuvre between the different class pressures in society. It will be from day one a government allied to the interests of capitalism. Starmer and his shadow cabinet have been clear that they will be ruthless in pursuing ‘fiscal responsibility’ and bowing to the diktats of the markets. Shadow Labour chancellor Rachel Reeves, in abandoning Starmer’s pledge to deliver £28 billion a year in green investment, recently said: “I think what people need to know is that the fiscal rules are the most important thing for me … I know the importance of economic and fiscal stability and that will always come first.” Reeves also confirmed that Labour would not reinstate any caps on bankers’ bonuses or increase corporation tax on big business.

Nevertheless, the class pressure on his government from a working class beginning to rediscover its potential power will be immense. In large part this is because Starmer has no authority among workers, and little in the way of expectations that a Labour government will be prepared to act for the working class. Any residual hope that Starmer will deliver some improvements will quickly be burnt away by experience. And this will particularly be the case in Scotland.

Starmer is currently pledging to do away with the anti-union minimum service legislation. No doubt this will be used by the trade union leaders to advocate a vote for Labour in the run-up to the general election, including the leaders of the now invisible Enough is Enough campaign. But there will be very little that these same trade union leaders can use to hold the line as workers learn from the experience of a Labour government and the pressure grows for action and also increased demands for the creation of a new party for the working class.


Workers’ struggles 

In Scotland, the strike wave has largely subsided for now. A balance sheet of the action that has been taken since 2022 underlines a point we have continually made, that we are only at the opening stages of a revival of the class struggle. Moreover, many workers who have taken strike action – for example in local government, teachers etc. – were experiencing their first strikes. Learning new methods of how to organise, what is the purpose of a picket line and the need for strikes that last for more than just one day are being assimilated. Confidence has grown that action can deliver results, as was shown in the various strikes against the Scottish government. There is a feeling that strike action works and is the best way to secure improvements. However, in the main, most pay deals have still been below inflation, albeit with improved offers being made.

The fact that in many of these strikes women workers were the majority of those taking action also added further dimensions to the militant mood of dynamic determination that has been present in all these strikes.

There have also been some setbacks, for example in Royal Mail where the CWU suffered a partial defeat, albeit the union was able to secure the reinstatement of the vast majority of suspended reps and members victimised during the strike action. Another key feature is the number of new reps and activists who have stepped forward during the strike wave, as well as tens of thousands joining the trade unions. Workers are going into a period of a Labour government with their confidence enhanced and capacity to take action intact.

Action before the general election is also possible, not least over the Tory’s MSL legislation. It was again highly significant that the trade drivers unions Aslef was able to inflict a defeat on the use of the legislation recently in their dispute with LNER. The Tories may well come back and try again against another group of workers, but this weak government and its shrinking social base can be defeated if they over extend themselves. Further strike action in the public and private sector over pay is also possible in the run-up to an election.

While inflation has fallen recently and may continue to do so this year, average pay is nowhere near matching the cost of living. It should be remembered that average incomes continue to decline and pay offers are generally always below inflation. This reality can still force the issue of pay to the top of the agenda, including under a Labour government. Cuts to local government and attacks on local services can also be explosive flashpoints in the coming year.

Perspectives for the role of the trade union leaderships under a Starmer government is a vital issue. Efforts to prevent action taking place are inevitable. Whether they can be successful is another question, given the acute nature of the need to recover lost incomes and the lack of a base for Starmerism – reheated Blairism – among trade unionists generally. An essential component of our work under a Labour government at Westminster – and whoever forms the new Scottish government in 2026 – will be to fight for a militant industrial strategy to confront the attacks of the governments and the bosses generally. As well as building broad left-type organisations in the unions. The scope for this work will grown dramatically under these new conditions.


SNP crisis deepens

Alongside the likely prospects for a Starmer government, the dominant issue over the past year has been the ongoing crisis engulfing the SNP. As we pointed out in the Scottish perspectives document in February 2023, just after Sturgeon’s resignation: “The crisis facing the SNP is rooted in their implementation of austerity and anti-working class policies generally. The recent strikes have played a decisive role in exposing and undermining Sturgeon’s government.” The erosion of working class support for an SNP leadership that had filled part of the vacuum that existed for a new mass workers’ party in Scotland over the last decade is an extremely important development. It also completely confirms our perspective – alone on the left – that the SNP’s pro-capitalist policies would prove to be their undoing.

The election of Humza Yousaf as first minister has done nothing to stop the rot. It is not even certain that Yousaf will lead the party into the general election. Its not ruled out that Kate Forbes or some other alternative could replace Yousaf in the run-up to the election or immediately afterwards. Current polling shows Labour poised to emerge as the biggest party in Scotland after the election. If this was to be the case it would most likely result in another leadership contest and another crisis. The undermining of the electoral base of the SNP was underlined by an analysis by John Curtice, in January 2024, that found: “Whereas at the end of 2022 80 per cent of current yes supporters were saying that they would vote SNP in a UK general election, now that figure has fallen to a new low of just 63 per cent.”

From being one of the moist successful capitalist governments in Europe – in power at Holyrood for seventeen years now – the chickens have now come home to roost for the SNP. Even a defeat at the 2026 Scottish parliament election is now possible. The one factor that can limit the decline is the use of the national question to try and put a floor under the exodus of working-class support from the nationalists. Support for independence has remained unaffected by the SNP crisis at around 50%. With Yousaf promising that “line one of the manifesto” will be vote SNP to deliver an independent Scotland, the hope is that can persuade enough pro-independence supporters to stick with the party at the general election.

The SNP MP Tommy Sheppard summed up this strategy and appeal to pro-indy supporters when he wrote: “We need to be very clear with the electorate, this year’s vote is about whether the journey continues, whether we can create circumstances to move towards our independence….If the SNP lose the election in Scotland, the debate on independence stops.” With the Westminster election likely to be seen as a chance to be rid of the Tories, Scottish Labour under its neo-Blairite leadership is hoping to pick up the support of at least one fifth of the pro-independence voters. If they succeed, Scottish Labour could defeat the SNP. However, in no way would this signify a ringing endorsement of Starmer or Sarwar. On the contrary, there is little to no enthusiasm or expectation that Labour will deliver for the working class. That’s why record levels of abstentionism, especially among independence supporting voters, is very likely to be a major feature of the election. Alongside a certain uptick in support for the Scottish Greens and Alba – this will be limited if it happens at all.

The mood of utter disregard for all the main parties was expressed in the Sunday Times poll at the end of January 2024 which found an overwhelming lack of trust for all the main party leaders. The collapse in authority towards the SNP leadership was stark. Nicola Sturgeon’s trust levels stood at -19%, with Humza Yousaf on -25%. Keir Starmer was -24% and Anas Sarwar on -17%. The lack of a mass working-class political alternative is one of the main issues that can only be overcome through the building of mass workers’ party with a socialist programme.


National question 

The collapsing support for the SNP, which currently stands at just over 30%, is also linked to their utter failure to offer a viable fighting strategy on independence. We have dealt in detail with this question over the years; in summary that the pro-capitalist SNP leadership has never had any intention of seeking to mobilise a mass movement to try to overcome the entrenched opposition of the capitalist class to the break-up of the UK. This has led them into a quagmire following a series of retreats that followed the UK Supreme Court ruling that Holyrood did not have the competence to organise a referendum on independence. Currently, the SNP leadership now say if they emerge as the biggest party in Scotland in terms of MPs, this will give them a mandate to negotiate with a Starmer government over the transfer of powers to Edinburgh to allow the Scottish government to organise indyref2 in the future. Starmer has already made clear this will not happen under a Labour government.

While support for independence has remained consistent, the movement on the streets has shrunk significantly. This fact reflects the complete lack of trust in the SNP leadership on the one hand, and the fact that no viable force has arisen to offer a fighting leadership on the other. In that sense, today, there exists largely passive support for independence. The emergence of the class struggle over the past period and the focus on the fight against the cost of living crisis has dominated working-class consciousness. The fact that many of these strikes have pitted the workers’ movement against SNP politicians has only added to the sense that the nationalist leadership ‘does not fight for us’.

What are the likely perspectives for the national question under a Starmer government? As commented already, Starmer will lead a government laser-focused on delivering for the capitalist class. With little to no honeymoon period, working-class opposition to Labour will grow quickly, given the crisis-ridden economic backdrop. While that opposition will be reflected in strikes, the growth of opposition forces in the trade unions and increasing support for the idea of a new workers’ party, the re-emergence of the national question in a sharper form can also be posed. Struggle can break out on a range of issues. In Scotland it is inevitable that the rule of the neo-Blairites will ignite further eruptions in demands for Scottish independence.

“The days of independence being umbilically linked to the SNP are over. The child has left the parent. We’re in the moment of decoupling. That’s a historic shift politically, leaving power wide open.” Neil MacKay – Herald columnist February 1, 2024.

The character of the independence movement will not simply be a repeat of the events that marked the 2012 – 2020 period. During that time the SNP were accepted as the de-facto leadership, reinforced by the experience of the first indyref in 2014 when the SNP emerged enormously strengthened. Even then, and especially in the run up to September 2014 and immediately after, there was a big layer of the pro-independence working class that stood to the left of the SNP and were attracted to socialist ideas. Under a Starmer government it is likely that a more combative mass movement could emerge around the national question. It would be essential that socialists, Marxists and the workers’ movement generally offer a fighting leadership on the national question linked to the struggle against capitalism and for a socialist way forward.


Social crisis 

As it is the deepening crisis facing working class communities in Scotland has become an acute nightmare. The consequences of the capitalist crisis and the inflationary spiral have massively added to the searing inequality that scars society. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report released in early 2024 underlined the fact that in Scotland 1-in-4 children now live in poverty, with 21% of the population as a whole impacted by poverty. Bad enough as that is, the report also revealed that poverty is deepening across the UK. “Between 2019/20 and 2021/22, the average person in poverty had an income 29% below the poverty line, with the gap up from 23% between 1994/95 and 1996/97. The poorest families – those living in very deep poverty – had an average income that was 59% below the poverty line, with this gap increasing by around two-thirds over the past 25 years.” To bridge the poverty gap, according to the report, would require a family with two children under-14 to increase their income by £6,200 a year just to reach the poverty line. For those in deep poverty, it would require £12,800 to get up to the poverty line. An absolute pipe-dream given the impact of inflation.

On all fronts, rent and mortgage arrears, energy bills, credit card and loan debt, the accumulation of indebtedness is spiralling. Alongside the shocking levels of poverty and inequality can be added a housing crisis that has become unprecedented. Three councils in Scotland – including the two largest, Edinburgh and Glasgow – have declared housing emergencies. Record levels of homelessness and spiralling waiting lists for social housing are being exacerbated by Scottish government and local council cuts to housing budgets. Aggregated to this is the unaffordability of housing – both in the rented and the owner-occupier sectors.

The coming round of council budgets will heap further devastation to facilities and services as well as jobs. The same applies to the NHS and social care budgets. All of which are going to create and exacerbate already existing crisis conditions. Our demand for councils to set no cuts/needs budgets, using a combination of reserves, borrowing powers, capitalisation and other financial mechanisms, is more important that ever. That must, however, be linked to the building of mass struggle, mobilising the power of the working class for the full funding of services. At some stage, and especially if we had a socialist majority in a council, the setting of a deficit budget can also be posed, again predicated on building mass struggle to win the necessary funding to deliver the budget in full.


New workers’ party 

We have been advocating for the building of a new workers’ party of a mass character as part of the dual task since the late 1990s. That this has been a protracted and delayed process is self-evident, as it has internationally. The capitulation of the left forces that emerged in the wake of the 2008 crisis. Corbynism, Syriza. Podemos, Sanders – all based on variants of left populism/mild forms of left reformism that failed to confront capitalism with a socialist programme to deal with the crisis has complicated the situation even further. There was a betrayal of the hopes of those who were mobilised around them – primarily layers of middle class youth and a small section of workers. The fact that these forces were not in any sense workers’ parties added to their weaknesses.

Nevertheless, in the view of the NC, the dual task central demand retains its validity in the period we are moving into. To be clear our primary task, at all times, is to build our revolutionary party, develop our cadre and use our strength as a lever to mobilise and organise the working class politically and industrially in the struggle to overthrow capitalism. However, this primary task does not take place in a vacuum. It is constrained or advanced by the overall political consciousness of the working class and its advanced layers in particular. Which in turn is conditioned by the objective conditions, including the class struggle, which are beginning to change as we have explained.

The experience of a Starmer-led government and the ongoing capitalist crisis will likely accelerate the process towards the development of a new party over time. At the very least, there is likely to be a much wider constituency in the trade unions who, through the experience of a Starmer government, move in the direction of the need for a new workers’ party. For us not its not just the coming into being of a new party, but even significant steps in that direction and broader layers who can be organised to fight for such a party that can assist our growth.

The demand for mass working-class political representation is part of our transitional method – as is the building of fighting trade union organisations – which is linked to building our base among the working class. By fighting for the development of a mass workers’ party – even before such a party emerges – we can attract workers and youth to our ranks who want to fight for socialism and develop them as Marxists.

A new workers’ party, when one develops, will be a party of ideological turmoil from the start and it would give Marxists a major arena to test out our ideas and win new forces. It is most likely that such a party would not initially adopt a rounded-out socialist programme. Nevertheless, it would represent a mighty step forward in strengthening the cohesion and driving forward the political consciousness of the working class. Our role would be to argue for the necessary steps and programme that such a party would need to take to confront capitalism and overcome its opposition to even minimal encroachments into the wealth and power of the bourgeois. In other words a programme to break with capitalism and implement socialism.

In the context of the coming general election we will advocate the standing of socialist and workers’ candidates to make the case for a new party, as well as socialist policies to deal with the cost of living crisis etc. While we can have a limited impact at this stage, what we are doing is helping to prepare the ground for new mass workers’ party in the future. The undermining of the SNP leadership and pro-capitalist nationalism, and the exposing of a Starmer-led government, will also assist in this process. Above all, the work we do in the trade unions will be crucial under a Labour government in developing the idea of the need to launch a new workers’ party.


Reaction and the far right 

The delay in the formation of mass left forces based on the working class has aided the electoral rise of the populist/far right in a number of countries. This includes, among others, recent election wins for the far right in Italy, the Netherlands and Argentina. However, these are not stable forces and are also a distorted reflection of class anger at the devastating impact of the capitalist crisis. The fact that Javier Milei in Argentina has within weeks of being elected faced a general strike over his attacks on labour laws shows how quickly such governments can face mass working class opposition.

In Scotland and Britain such a development of right wing populism has not yet emerged as a significant factor. Reform UK is polling at around 8% for the general election, but the Tories have adopted much of the right populist, anti-immigrant rhetoric. A defeat of the Tories at the next general election could see the civil war accelerate inside the traditional party of British capitalism. Two developments are possible; a split away from the Tories to form a new party of the right, or that the Tory party itself evolves into a party of right populism.

For Scotland, what is certain is that any right wing formation will use the national question and opposition to Scottish independence as a key issue to build its support on, alongside anti-LGBTQ propaganda and racism. There is already a layer of the working class in Scotland alienated by the actions of the cuts-making SNP-Scottish Green actions on issues like green taxes, gender policies and other issues which right wing populism will try to exploit. The emergence of a mass workers’ party with a class approach to these and other issues, including the national question, will be essential to cut across the potential of the far right to build a base.


Youth anger

For young people in Scotland the capitalist crisis is having a major impact that is shaping their consciousness. Youth in Scotland are at the brunt of a developing social crisis, which is the most bleak situation since devolution. Gone are the days when the SNP could point to not charging Scottish students tuition fees and the maintaining of EMA and expect anger of those in schools, colleges and universities to be directed solely at the Tories or New Labour.

For the first time since Holyrood was created Scottish university student places are being cut. Students are in mountains of debt, the SNP’s promise to scrap this is also long gone. and Repeated NUS surveys show university students from all backgrounds, Scottish, rest of UK and international are in frantic struggle to find affordable accommodation with rents sky high and living space scarce as cash hungry universities over enrol. Many have experienced homelessness and are using food banks. At the same time there are massive cuts to courses, jobs and facilities in universities and colleges across Scotland that are likely to see protests and moods to act. Anger is mounting not just towards the SNP but also the Scottish Greens, historically more popular with youth, who have responsibility for areas of education in the coalition.

There are still residual illusions among layers of youth in the pro-independence SNP and Scottish Greens who can be seen as more progressive on issues like oppression than the Tories who are whipping up a culture war. Some may also see voting for Scottish Labour as a way to try and get the Tories. The majority of youth, however, are thoroughly disillusioned with the main parties, large numbers may not vote. There has been dramatic shift away from the position of a decade ago when during the independence campaign the SNP were seen as anti-establishment. Even if support for independence is still highest among youth, the SNP are no longer seen as viably fighting for it.

There are therefore a range of issues that can see revolts over, including movements on Scottish independence, against war, women’s oppression, BLM protests, student struggles and protests on environmental issues. Probably for the first time in thirty years, wide layers of youth, even those from a middle class background, have begun to see the trade unions as a powerful force in society that can win victories or defend workers and communities from attacks by the government and the bosses. This will mean more youth are more receptive to the key idea the organised working class is the key revolutionary force in society.



The political and ideological aftershocks that followed the collapse of Stalinism, when socialist ideas were extremely marginalised, are still being felt today. Unlike every other socialist force on the left, we had a clear understanding of both the complications that arose from that period and that the working class would return to the road of struggle and over time find a road to socialist ideas. This was only possible because of our balanced perspectives, our transitional method and an unerring orientation to the working class, then youth and the trade unions. We are still at the beginning of the process of the working class starting to put its stamp on events and being conscious of its collective power. At the same time there is a searching for an alternative to this rotten system, among millions of young people particularly.

In the new period we are in now we will be the most determined fighters for a militant fighting strategy in the trade unions which will offer up a chance to increase our weight and influence in these mass working-class organisations. While at the same time making the case for mass political representation in the shape of a new workers’ party. The building of our Marxist forces in Scotland will remain the crucial question to which we must turn all our energies to in the next year.

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March 2024