Missing the Corbyn bounce

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Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour leader

It looks like a racing certainty that the SNP will regain a majority in the Scottish Parliament after the Scottish elections in May 2016. Recent opinion polls suggest 70 of the 129 seats could be held by SNP members. This is not surprising given the lack of a coherent challenge by the Labour Party.

The Labour Party’s fortunes have failed to recover in Scotland since the referendum collapse, despite Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader. The Tories, much derided for having fewer MPs than there are pandas in Edinburgh Zoo, are currently neck and neck with Labour in the polls. The SNP has succeeded because it has presented itself as the party that will stand up against Tory cuts and austerity. As a result 73 percent of those participating in the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey “trust” the Scottish government, compared with just 23 percent for the UK government.

This is despite the fact that the Scottish government is implementing the Tory austerity agenda, cutting £279 million from budgets over the next 12 months. Local authorities where the SNP is the majority in the council, or in coalition with other parties, have not acted any differently to other councils and 15,000 job cuts are threatened across Scotland.

Two factors are key to understanding the continued electoral dominance of the SNP and the failure of the Labour Party. The first is the ease with which the SNP has been able to adopt policies that were previously the domain of the Labour left; the second, the limited extent to which class conflict has emerged to challenge the cuts.

John McDonnell MP has set out a Keynesian alternative economic agenda to address the lack of jobs, based on investment in infrastructure and democracy for workers, in the form of a state investment bank and greater worker participation. These are changes which are far beyond anything previously proposed by the Scottish Labour Party. Yet, while McDonnell is setting out a Corbynite agenda the SNP can claim to have already implemented it. The SNP government has introduced an investment bank to coordinate and facilitate public sector infrastructure investment, in the form of the Scottish Futures Trust (SFT).

However, the outcome of the SFT has been to give control over £2 billion worth of lucrative government contracts to a small number of large construction companies. These companies now control the major building projects in Scotland through their linkages to SFT’s regional “hub companies” (Hubco). They are the same firms which were running the blacklisting campaign against trade unionists and which continue to try to keep trade unions out of the construction industry.

Similarly, the SNP government has introduced legislation purportedly to empower communities and enhance workplace democracy. The 2016 Scottish Higher Education Governance Bill has legislated for a limited increase in the democratic control of universities by imposing elections for the post of chair of the University Courts, the most important governance body in universities, and for trade union representatives to be members of court. However, these moves will have little or no effect in universities where £35 million of cuts are being imposed.

So far there has been limited resistance from workers, but cuts in local government are leading to increasing pressures to strike to defend services and jobs. In 2015 important strikes by care workers in Glasgow and hospital porters in Dundee highlighted the divisions between working class interests and those of the SNP. In further education strikes by the lecturers’ union EIS have forced the Scottish government to accept the union’s demands for equal pay through a national pay scale across Scotland and a return to national bargaining over pay.

Token representation from the SNP will not be sufficient to protect public services and jobs. Only organised working class resistance, strike action and protest will be able to overturn austerity.