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Does the SNP offer a way forward for the left in Scotland?

3 February 2015

The Scottish National Party claims it is a social democratic party and it is widely seen as an anti-austerity party to the left of Labour. What should socialists make of this, asks Andy Yorke

Since the 45 per cent “yes” vote in the independence referendum, the SNP’s membership has nearly quadrupled to 92,000, making it the biggest party in Scotland by far. The SNP’s skyrocketing ascent is matched only by the implosion of Scottish Labour.

Recent polls for the 2015 general election show the SNP’s support as double that of Labour, with up to 52 per cent of vote, leading to claims that it could sweep up 54 out of 59 Scottish Westminster seats, far surpassing its record of 11 MPs in 1974. But while an SNP landslide is a possibility, it remains to be seen if voters at the last minute shudder at the thought of another Tory government and switch back to Labour.

However, the SNP’s new leader Nicola Sturgeon claims it will hold the balance of power in Westminster, and pledged the SNP will not join a Conservative-led coalition, so a vote for the SNP would not necessarily mean “you wake up to the Tories” as Labour claims. She has however refused to commit the SNP to a coalition with Labour, instead possibly supporting it on an issue-by-issue basis for maximum leverage.

Left helps the nationalists

Now sections of the pro-independence left, after enabling the SNP’s leap forward by providing foot-soldiers and left cover for the Yes campaign in the referendum, are adding to the damage by calling for a vote for the SNP in 2015.  Tommy Sheridan, leader of Solidarity, has said, “in order to maximise the pro-independence vote in next May’s General Election I believe all Yes supporters should vote for the SNP”.

Solidarity itself has yet to decide its stance, though two of its components, the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party are against an alliance with the SNP. For the SP, the answer is the small electoral beer of TUSC.

The Scottish Socialist Party’s Colin Fox has also written an open letter urging, “the SNP and the Greens to join with the SSP in standing ‘Independence Alliance’ candidates in 2015, put our own individual interests to one side, and break the Labour Party’s historic stranglehold on Scottish politics”.

After a much-hyped build-up to its November conference and floating the idea of a Podemos-style, new Scottish left party, the Radical Independence Movement delivered a dud, launching nothing and agreeing no electoral strategy. Instead it has simply benefitted the SNP. Whether advocating a vote for the SNP or ducking the issue, the left’s promotion of a Yes vote has benefitted the nationalists, with 70,000 new members streaming into the SNP.

As SNP stalwart George Kerevan pointed out:

“Unfortunately for a Scottish Podemos, this revolutionary wave has flowed straight into the SNP, by-passing the far left. Tens of thousands of those new recruits are working class. SNP branch meetings now resemble in social composition and accent those of the Labour Party of a generation ago. The SNP’s trade union section now has more members than Labour has ordinary members in Scotland.” (The Scotsman 18.1.15)

This shows that the Yes vote was not a “class vote” in the double speak of the Yes socialists, but a straightforward nationalist vote.

A working class party?

With its 92,000 members, the SNP almost certainly does have more workers and trade unionists in it than Scottish Labour, which could now have less than 10,000 members. The SNP has won an unprecedented base in traditional Labour heartland areas as a reaction to the SNP’s limited defence of reforms and Ed Miliband’s commitment to austerity, be that austerity-lite or not. And with the right wing Blairite Jim Murphy in charge, Scottish Labour is very unlikely to change its spots.

But that doesn’t make the SNP a workers’ party.

The SNP has traditionally been a party of the middle class, managers, professionals and the “labour aristocracy” based in public services. Even assuming the proportion of working class members has risen, a contradiction remains: the trade unions are affiliated in their bulk to Labour and they will be directing their members to vote Labour.

On the other hand, workers in the SNP exist only as atomised individuals, mixed in with a mass of middle class members, who have flowed in… and who can flow back out again.

If Kerevan is right, no doubt a struggle will begin to break sections of the unions, possibly beginning with the more militant ones, from Labour to the SNP. However, this would be a struggle opposed to the formation of a new workers’ party, a party directed against capitalism as a system and united north and south of the border on a class basis.

And while Labour overwhelmingly relies on union donations, resources and activists at election time, the SNP’s funding is more reliant on alternative sources, including the billionaire Stagecoach mogul and homophobe Brian Souter, whose £500,000 donation meant the SNP “underdog” outspent Labour in the 2007 elections, helping it win extra seats.

One month later the SNP dropped its promise to re-regulate the bus network, proving the adage: he who pays the piper calls the tune. It also proves that the SNP is not a “capitalist workers’ party”, to borrow Lenin’s description of Labour, but an out-and-out capitalist party.

That is not to deny the SNP has grown among the working class or that many more workers now have leftwing illusions in nationalism, but it is to counter those on the left who deny this damage or want to deepen it, block criticisms of the SNP or fall for its “social-democratic” propaganda.

Left populism

The SNP’s overall strategy for an independent Scotland is a neoliberal dream of a pro-big business environment, centred on a 3 per cent cut in corporation tax to create one of “most competitive and attractive economies in Europe”.

Meanwhile, the SNP government in Holyrood and SNP-run local councils roll out the cuts and closures demanded by the crisis: 500,000 public sector jobs have been lost and another 600,000 are slated to go. The SNP’s 2015-16 budget includes £513 million in Westminster cuts; this follows the £3 billion already slashed from the Scottish budget since 2010. SNP councils pass on austerity cuts no less than the other parties. The SNP-led Dundee city council dishonestly held back the news of £8 million in cuts till after the referendum, and now plans £30 million cuts in total, leading up to 2017.

Even the reforms of the Salmond years – blocking tuition fees, abolishing prescription charges, neutralising the bedroom tax, extending free school meals and childcare – aimed at winning SNP votes and the referendum, have been largely shut off. Sturgeon’s legislative programme of 12 bills consists of tweaks, consultations, and minor changes.

Instead she boasts: “My job, as First Minister, will be to champion the interests of Scottish business at home and around the globe” since it is the “vibrant business base earning the wealth that makes that [redistribution] possible”. If independence had been won in September, this “social neoliberalism” would just become ever more naked neoliberalism. And independent or not, Scotland faces a sizeable deficit and debt, putting into question the durability of most of the SNP’s limited “reforms”.

The SNP’s proposal for independence also supported the monarchy, the pound and the Nato alliance with its nuclear first strike policy – hardly consistent with its commitment to a nuclear weapons free Scotland, its totemic policy since their introduction at Faslane in the 1960s.

No vote for the SNP

Rather than help deepen working class illusions (and membership) in the SNP, the left urgently needs to reorient to join with socialists south of the border in the project of building a new mass working class party. It should expose the SNP’s record and agenda at every turn, defending the working class from nationalist divisions and austerity, be it from Westminster or Holyrood.

And it needs to fight to win larger and larger layers of workers and youth away from the SNP and Labour and for revolution and socialism. It can start this process by standing candidates on clear anticuts platforms, urging workers from both the Yes and No camps to unite against the bosses, and by placing clear demands on the unions and Labour to resist the cuts and reverse the damage done by the Tories and Lib Dems.

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