Scotland, the SNP and the future of socialist politics

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The SNP’s dramatic rise in membership and electoral popularity between the referendum in September 2014 and the general election in May 2015 has had a remarkable effect on UK politics. It is an effect the left in Scotland and the UK will have to understand in the months ahead, especially so since in just 12 months elections to the Scottish Parliament take place, followed in 2017 by UK-wide council elections.

While the outcome of the general election is unknown at the time of writing, we can confidently predict that in Scotland there will be a landslide majority in favour of the SNP, a party which explicitly rejects austerity and calls for a set of reforms that is far to the left of anything the Labour Party, Tories or Lib Dems have on offer. If the Tories were to emerge as the leaders of a government this would in all likelihood be met in Scotland with open revolt. While if Labour were to emerge as the leaders of a government the SNP would wield real power over government policy.

A crucial point for socialists to recognise is that the SNP’s influence within the Scottish working class is unlikely to be immediately undermined by either a Labour or Tory government. The SNP have successfully galvanised the electoral support of large sections of the working class vote in opposition to the ideological attacks from both Labour and the Tories.

As a result attacks on the SNP from the right by Labour or the Tories will further entrench support for the party within a working class already hostile to austerity. The response to the SNP by the Tories is encapsulated by the ranting of the Financial Times neoliberal journalist Martin Wolf writing that, “If Scotland has permanently shifted its loyalty to the SNP, the best thing for the rest to say may be nothing more than a polite, albeit sad, goodbye.”

That the break-up of the British state can now be envisaged from a desire to retain neoliberalism within the rest of the UK indicates both the fragility of British capitalism and the class hostility of the British ruling class to any reforms that may benefit the working class. The SNP, unlike the Lib Dems in coalition with the Tories, will be unlikely to immediately destroy the political influence it has built up since the referendum, even if there is an official or unofficial coalition with the Labour Party. Instead it will seek to further consolidate its new membership and electoral base in the run up to the Scottish parliamentary elections in 2016.

Only a challenge from the left of the SNP has any prospect of undermining its influence within working class communities. It is for this reason, more than any other, that the standing of socialist candidates in Scotland during the general election has been such an important decision. Calls for a vote for the SNP by many on the left in Scotland makes the task of challenging the neoliberal policies of the SNP much harder.

In the city of Dundee where the SNP hold political dominance, the continued all-out strike by hospital porters over the banding of their jobs is highly instructive. The SNP are widely recognised as a tactically astute party capable of manoeuvring around the pitfalls of parliamentary politics. However, would such an astute organisation not notice, or move to minimise, the impact of a strike by low paid hospital porters in the constituency of the Scottish Health Minister, Shona Robison MSP, an SNP member?

Shona Robison has not, as the porters have demanded, ordered the Tayside NHS Trust to settle their pay dispute. Such abstention demonstrates both an unwillingness to intervene in defence of the low paid, despite their rhetoric on low pay, and a desire to demonstrate to employers across Scotland that the SNP in government will not seek to strengthen trade union bargaining power. The impact in the city is that while the SNP continues to dominate the electoral environment socialist critics within the trade unions and campaign groups gain a significant hearing. Symbolically, not one single saltire flag flew during the trade union demonstration in support of the porters in April.

All this has important implications for the left in Scotland. Scottish politics will be dominated by a widely held left version of social democracy. However, as the SNP’s pro-business agenda becomes clearer, right wing, racist anti-immigration and scapegoating far-right politics can also prosper from disillusionment. The need for a socialist alternative to the SNP will become of greater importance. However with the Labour Party potentially in terminal decline in Scotland many members, supporters and trade unionists are questioning where a working class party can emerge from.

While there is demonstrably a desire for a united left to emerge it will not develop unless the divisions of the past are put aside. None of the Scottish Socialist Party, Solidarity or the proposed Scottish Left Project will yet accept an unconditional merging of the organisations or electoral agreement and instead each demands that everyone join their own organisation. Such an approach risks being unable to appeal to the level of support that exists for a socialist critique of the SNP’s version of social democracy, leaving the SNP unchallenged in 2016.

The debates that have emerged on the left cannot be curtailed by organisational conditions. Instead the openness and plurality of the left that develops in Scotland will be a key indicator of its willingness to challenge capitalist interest where it gains electoral influence. The Socialist Workers Party continues to call for a united electoral left. The left that emerges needs to be based upon the struggles of the working class in our trade unions and communities and be prepared to challenge the dominance of capitalist interests.

The decision of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition to seek a joint campaign of candidates from different socialist parties in the UK with the backing of an important trade union in the form of the RMT has proven to be an important step forward in shaping the debate over the future of the left in Scotland.