The SNP’s reign as the dominant force in Scottish politics lost ground last year in both the council and general elections. In May they failed to gain outright control of any one council. In June their majority in the Scottish Parliament was reduced from 56 seats to 35.
The Tories saw their number of seats swell from one to 13. They consolidated the anti-independence vote, winning the support of “Tartan Tories” who voted against independence in 2014 and who wish to deny the nation the opportunity of a second referendum. Support for the Tories also appeared to be higher in areas which voted to leave the EU.
Labour had political hegemony in Scotland for decades but mass disillusionment set in with New Labour and the passing-on of Westminster austerity by Labour-led councils. Labour’s self-inflicted demise was complete when they allied themselves with the Tories during the independence campaign, something that was seen as an act of betrayal by the Scottish working class. This in turn allowed the SNP to take up the mantle as the only left wing alternative to Labour in Scotland.
However, if we look at the SNP government’s time in office, we can see that although they introduced more socially aware, progressive policies, such as rejecting tuition fees, maintaining free prescriptions and mitigating the bedroom tax, they have a poor track record when it comes to austerity – implementing the major cuts to local government funding demanded by Westminster.
Social care and mental health services have been decimated while the government has failed to use new tax-raising powers to ensure the wealthy pay for such vital services. Real-terms healthcare spending in England and Wales has increased by 4 percent since 2009, but fallen by 1 percent in Scotland. More than one in five children in Scotland now live in poverty and this is expected to rise.
The SNP want to hold on to their working class appeal while at the same time defending the interests of big business. They seek constitutional change within the framework of a bourgeois state, a Scottish Third Way. They have done little to tackle privatisation and are determined to remain in the EU, showing a commitment to the neoliberal ideology of single market economics in order to reassure big business.
Last year’s election results tell us this did not go unnoticed by the Scottish working class. In every seat the SNP was down by a few thousand votes, compared to its landslide victory in 2015. Labour did gain some ground, winning back six seats in the general election, but the “Corbyn effect” has been much more muted north of the border, in part because of Scottish Labour’s refusal to endorse him.
During last year’s election campaign then Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale channelled her energies into opposing independence rather than promoting Corbyn’s left wing, anti-austerity “For the Many” manifesto, even encouraging voters to support “better placed” Tories in order to defeat the SNP.
Had she openly and wholly backed Corbyn and his anti-austerity message, they would have undoubtedly made more gains. Of course, the position in Scotland has changed with the decisive victory of insurgent Corbyn ally Richard Leonard as leader of the Scottish party in November of last year, defeating the right wing candidate Anas Sarwar. He won with 51.8 percent, and gained three quarters of the trade union vote.
This demonstrates that there is a significant swing to the left and a renewed interest in the anti-austerity, anti-racism and anti-war politics that have defined Corbyn’s leadership. Leonard spoke at Scotland’s recent Stand Up to Racism conference, announcing his backing for the movement and commitment to being part of the fight against racism and Islamophobia.
Recent opinion polls show that the Conservatives are now in third place in Scotland, with Scottish Labour taking second place in both Westminster and Holyrood vote share. But much work still needs to be done. Support for independence has not diminished since 2014, yet the SNP has put the issue of a second referendum on the back burner after losing 21 seats last year.
The question of devolved powers being handed back to Westminster after Brexit is still unanswered and there is a great deal of uncertainty about what Brexit could mean for Scotland. Scottish Labour should take heed. They need to recognise that working class support for independence in 2014 and the swell in support for Corbyn and greater acceptance of socialist politics are driven by the same thing: a rejection of neoliberalism and the false politics of austerity that has destroyed thousands of lives.
Labour would do well to change their policy on independence and take a real stand against austerity by refusing to implement council cuts.
The same can also be said of the EU referendum result. While Scotland voted by 62 percent to remain, 38 percent voted to leave. The referendum allowed the working class across the UK to vent their anger and frustration with the status quo. Scotland should determine its own future and not be railroaded into staying as close to the EU as possible by the SNP.