A new terrain for socialists in Scotland

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Scottish party leaders Willie Rennie (LibDem), Ruth Davidson (Tory), Nicola Sturgeon (SNP) and Kezia Dugdale (Labour)

The outcome of the 2017 general election in Scotland was altogether more complex and contradictory than in England and Wales. The election result saw the forward march of the SNP — in power in Scotland since 2007 — not just halted but thrown sharply into reverse. The party went from 56 to 35 MPs, with leading figures such as Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson losing their seats to the Tories.

The success of the Tories in Scotland was the other big shock of the night. In contrast to the fortunes of their counterparts south of the border, Ruth Davidson’s party managed to take nearly 30 percent of the popular vote (a swing of almost 14 percent since 2015) and increased their Westminster representation from one MP to 13.

Meanwhile Scottish Labour, whose representation at Westminster had plummeted from 40 MPs to one in 2015, managed to increase their numbers to seven — hardly a massive recovery but still a cause for relief.

One reason for the SNP’s losses was a fall in support for independence, with recent opinion polls showing those in favour down to 40 percent with those against at 60 percent.

But it would be wrong to exaggerate this. Only a week before the election, a demonstration called by the tiny umbrella group All Under One Banner saw more than 20,000 people marching through the streets of Glasgow in support of independence. The SNP leadership failed to back it — had it done so, it could have been one of the biggest marches in Scotland for years.

But that failure was a symptom of a much bigger problem. The huge movement for a Yes vote in the independence referendum of 2014 was driven not by narrow nationalism but by opposition to austerity and hatred for the coalition government. In the wake of the referendum the SNP was able to gather in much of that movement, gaining more than 100,000 new members with anti-austerity rhetoric.

Since then, however, the party’s record in office in Scotland at both national and local level has been abysmal.

SNP-controlled councils in Dundee and elsewhere have implemented Tory cuts in exactly the same way as Labour councils elsewhere; the proportion of children living in poverty in Scotland rose last year from 22 percent to 26 percent in one year, according to the Scottish government’s own figures; and education secretary John Swinney disgracefully refused to support further education lecturers fighting for fair pay in May of this year against college employers, several of whom earn more than the prime minister.

Small wonder then that people have begun to look for change elsewhere. But while the UK election result should skewer once and for all the long-standing myth that people in Scotland are innately more left wing than their working class sisters and brothers south of the border, it was far from inevitable that the discontent would flow to the right.

Responsibility for that lies not only with the SNP but also with the failure of Scottish Labour to offer any real alternative. Recent industrial disputes have highlighted differing workers’ views to politicians: hostility to the SNP government was evident on EIS-FELA college lecturers’ picket lines while Labour’s refusal to concede the long-running Glasgow janitors regrading claim was a factor in the party recently losing control of the council.

Mirroring their mistakes of the 2014 referendum campaign when they shared platforms with Tories to defend the unity of the British state, the main plank of Scottish Labour’s campaign this time round was defence of the union and opposition to a second independence referendum (to the extent of leader Kezia Dugdale even appearing to suggest in an interview with Sky TV that in some constituencies people should consider voting Tory to keep out the SNP!).

Not surprisingly, the Scottish Tories under Ruth Davidson proved themselves to be much better defenders of the British state and all that it stands for than Scottish Labour could ever be. As Observer journalist Kevin McKenna rightly argued, the fact that there was any increase in the number of Labour MPs in Scotland owed much more to a belated Corbyn effect and enthusiasm for Labour’s manifesto than to the efforts of Dugdale and her allies.

At the height of the referendum campaign in 2014, when tens of thousands of working class people filled George Square in Glasgow demanding a different kind of society, Socialist Review argued that the mood of workers in England and Wales was no different from that of those in Scotland. The only difference was that the possibility of independence and the existence of a left-leaning party in the SNP provided an outlet for that desire for change.

In a way that no one could have foreseen, the Labour Party under Corbyn is now providing a similar outlet for thousands of workers south of the border. In our view, the experience of the SNP in Scotland and, much more importantly, that of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, highlights the limitations of even the most committed left reformist projects.

But the fact that for the first time in decades the left is moving forward while the Tories are in meltdown provides all socialists with an infinitely better terrain on which to have these debates.