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Victory of Scottish nationalists exposes Labour’s failures

The Scottish National Party (SNP) wiped the floor in last weeks Scottish Parliament elections, gaining 23 seats at the expense of Labour, Lib Dems, and the Tories, writes John Bowman

The SNP now has an overall majority in Holyrood. It’s the first time in the history of devolution that any party has been able to claim an outright majority. In itself, this would be historic, but it is particularly remarkable for the Scottish nationalists, not Labour who traditionally dominate elections north of the border, to have achieved this milestone.

Among the constituencies won was the former birthplace of Keir Hardie, founder of the Labour Party adding insult to injury.

In these elections, Labour were looking to dramatically increase their standing as voters rebelled against the ruling Tory-Liberal coalition, a government that no-one voted for, carrying out historic cuts to jobs and services. Just two months ago, opinion polls showed a clear Labour victory, as voters were set to express their disillusionment with four years of the SNP in Holyrood and vote against the Tory cuts in Westminster.

But they failed miserably, and the scale of defeat was so bad that Iain Gray, Scottish Labour Party leader has had to resign.

The Labour Party failed to engage its traditional voters by putting forward a convincing message that it would protect them from the cuts.

A key point of embarrassment for the Labour campaign was when a handful of anti-cuts protesters turned up for one of Gray’s photo-shoots.

Worried about the implications, Gray dived into a nearby Subway shop to escape the demonstrators who then simply confronted him in inside.

When interviewers said he looked nervous after the event, Gray’s response was beyond bizarre. “I spent two years working in a civil war in Mozambique… I’ve walked the killing fields in Cambodia…No – it wasn’t that shaking.”

With the Labour leader so flummoxed by a routine heckle, it is little surprise that SNP leader Alex Salmond came across as a more convincing opposition figurehead.

And the SNP managed to pick up the votes from estranged Liberal Democrats too, fed up with broken promises, angry at the betrayals over the NHS and tuition fees. Through populist rhetoric aiming to be all things to all Scots, the SNP managed to steal votes from both working class and middle class areas, from both Labour and the Lib Dems.

The SNP describes its self as a “left of centre” party, and has spoken out against tuition fees, for free NHS prescriptions, and against the war on Iraq. But its economic model is liberal, and it is committed to cuts and privatisation, just as the Tories and Liberals are.

It is committed to cutting business taxes, making “efficiency savings” (cuts) and despite promising to avoid compulsory redundancies in local councils, it has kicked hundreds out of work by force. Whilst refusing to allow the rises in higher education tuition fees, it passed on the teaching grant cuts, which are ripping apart university courses across Scotland.

Now a party of power, the SNP’s contradictions and allegiance to cuts and austerity measures will be more visible than ever, and those expecting a Holyrood-led fightback against cuts will be disappointed.

But what has frightened the main three parties is the prospect of a referendum on full independence.

Scottish people have a right to decide on whether separation is the way forward, and despite being the crowning slogan of the SNP, Alex Salmond may wait till he feels the time is right to take the vote – which could run into many years. But why should they wait for him? The Scottish people should be given their say now.

Socialists should be clear though, that cuts and high unemployment in Scotland won’t be solved through independence, and that an SNP governed independent country will cut just as hard and just as fast as any other – if not harder given Scotland’s reliance on Edinburgh’s banking and financial services sector. So whilst we call for a vote on independence, and that its outcome should be respected, we would campaign for a “no” vote.

Scottish workers won’t be stronger if they are divided across two different states – we need to fight together against the British state and ruling class, in both its Scottish and English forms, that want to make us pay for the crisis.

The rise of the SNP is a punishment for the left’s failures in Scotland, and in Britain generally, to provide a serious socialist challenge to the pro-cuts, pro-big business agenda of the other parties. Nationalism – a false solution – is now filling that gap.

The SNP was able to win because it put forward tangible policies that made it different to both Labour and the Tories.

Labour in contrast didn’t present a set of policies that really distinguished them from the Tories or the Liberals, except beyond criticising cuts as “too fast, too soon”.

At the moment Labour’s whole strategy appears to be designed to not formulate a tangible policy and hope anger with the cuts will be enough to sweep them to power.

But the lesson of Scotland is that this isn’t going to work. The trade union movement (and specifically the official leaderships) who put Ed Miliband in power should be demanding real movement from this Labour leadership in terms of policy.

It’s not enough to say New Labour is dead. Miliband needs to make clear commitments like withdrawing from Afghanistan, dumping the anti-union laws for good, bringing back universal, free higher education for all.

Of course, this will mean standing up to the right wing of his parliamentary party, but he could easily ‘stand them down’ as his policies would resonate with the millions of people furious with the cuts, and looking for a real alternative to the Tories.

The elections are also another indication of the sharp decline of the splintered Scottish far left after the high point in the Holyrood elections of eight years ago. But the situation and the tasks they now have are similar to the left across Britain.

We need to develop a strategy and set of tactics to lever the working class into a campaign of mass resistance that means putting all the official leaderships, from Labour, the TUC, through to the trade union lefts, under pressure to fight, but also being prepared to fight without them from below too.

Although Labour can gain support and rebuild its link to the working class when out of office, and though we need tactics that really put them on the spot and try to break apart the official leaderships to the working class base, it’s still the case that there is large constituency of radical anti-cuts activists, young people and trade unionists who are looking for a political alternative.

And the Scottish elections illustrate that established parties, with real roots presenting what appears in the minds of the electorate to be a clear alternative to cuts, can strike a chord with the great mass of working people.

That’s why the far left need to think about what steps we can take to build a fighting, anticapitalist party in the months and years ahead.

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