Elections are important but radical social change comes from the bottom up

Surveying the political landscape, Linda Somerville asks: what will it mean for workers and the working-class?

Hailed by the media as the most important election yet for the Scottish Parliament, the 6 May plebiscite will, indeed, go down in history. Holding a national election while mainland Scotland was still living under significant restrictions was certainly a first. Voters also delivered the most diverse range of MSPs in the Parliament’s history – the first and second women of colour, a group of MSPs with disabilities including the first permanent wheelchair user, and an increase in the number of women, now totalling 45%.

Democracy was also reported to be a winner with record turnouts. This was even more remarkable since the outcome – the SNP remaining the largest party and forming the next Government – was not in doubt. There was no mention of those still not registered to vote nor those who did not make the rainy journey to vote. No one seemed interested in why they did not take part or who will represent their views. But, as the MSPs start their term of office, one question remains unanswered: Does this ‘historical’ election really make any difference to workers across Scotland?

As usual, on paper, all the parties had something to offer ranging from the LibDems’ proposal for £5,000 training bonds to reskill workers and their change career to Scottish Labour’s pledge to ensure no publicly procured contract uses zero-hour contracts. However, most of these manifesto commitments may never see the light of the debating chamber. The SNP held the headlines with populist promises of free kid bikes and free dental treatment. While welcome, these give-aways will not tackle the issues facing workers and their families who experience increasing job insecurity, rising living costs and declining public services. And, all the parties focused on the need for economic recovery, setting out varying investment plans for green jobs. Yet there was a lack of ambition on tax to radically alter the current arrangements as they adhered to the longstanding narrative that tax hikes loose votes.

The SNP’s green recovery promised a range of low-carbon funding pots but their scale fell far short of the £13bn stimulus package the STUC argued for in its ‘‘People’s Recovery’’ plan. SNP plans for £1.5bn investment in its National Infrastructure Mission looks unlikely to tackle the looming jobs crisis. We need a transformative plan to tackle climate change and invest in green jobs. The Scottish Greens hope to deliver their pledge to invest £3bn in warm and zero-carbon homes and buildings. But their plans for 75,000 jobs relied on leveraging £7.5bn in private investment rather than a publicly-funded programme. What we need is a street-by street home retrofitting programme, funded nationally but directly delivered by local authorities and a publicly-owned energy company that designs, builds and generates renewable energy.

Young workers face huge challenges in the months ahead as furlough ends. With 13% of young people unemployed, many more have no idea if their jobs will return as large parts of hospitality and retail close permanently. The SNP pledge to provide free bus travel for under 22s is welcome for apprentices and young workers if public transport is a viable option for them. But the SNP manifesto has nothing to say on public transport ownership. Our call to support all workers and their families in a ‘People’s Recovery’ would ensure our buses were taken back into public control with free bus travel piloted in our major cities.

For those in work there are worrying trends as employers introduce insidious ‘fire-and-rehire’ to push workers into signing new contracts on inferior terms and conditions or pushed out the door. We welcome the SNP’s pledge to back our call for the devolution of employment law to Scotland and review its Fair Work criteria to include specific reference to ‘fire-and-rehire’. But we demand the practice is stamped-out of the public sector where colleges have used it.

One area of consensus across the parties was the need to focus on care as the pandemic laid bare the challenges of underfunding, staff shortages, complex contracting and low pay. The SNP’s pledge to deliver a National Care Service is a test of its commitment to public investment, worker representation and Fair Work. Our ‘People’s Recovery’ calls for removing the profit motive and the standardisation of workers’ terms and conditions, delivered through union-led collective bargaining. The Scottish Greens are committed to a publicly-owned national care service and have shifted their policy to support calls for care workers to be paid at least £15 per hour.

While issues of importance to workers were raised by unions throughout the election during hustings and online campaigns, Scotland’s mainstream media, pollsters, pundits and twitterati focused upon the constitution, often to the exclusion of other key issues. Analysis is not yet complete but we can be confident that part of the increased turnout was driven by voters’ determination to cast their ballot either for or against parties based on their stance on independence. The Parliamentary majority for independence cannot be ignored and we believe that the power to hold a referendum should rest with Holyrood, not Westminster, Government.

As we move beyond the pandemic, we can guarantee that the ruling class will use its representatives in Westminster to embolden rogue employers, attack workers’ terms and conditions, divide our communities with their phoney culture war and suppress resistance. The introduction of voter identification, the new policing bill, and the higher education freedom of speech law testify to this.

The next five years will be more important to workers than this election. We know that radical change is driven from the bottom up by collective action of working-class people not political parties, as evidenced by Glasgow’s community response to the forced removal of their neighbours by immigration officers. As always, we will not see the transformative change needed with bold and ambitious policies that materially improve the lives of working-class people in Scotland unless we organise to demand it.

Linda Somerville is a Deputy General Secretary at the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC). She tweets @lindasomervill. A summary of the STUC’ People’s Recovery’ can be found in the Nov-Dec 2020 issue of Scottish Left Review (see https://scottishleftreview.scot/stucs-response-to-the-covid-calamity/)