Since the referendum all eyes have been on Scotland. Anti-austerity and anti-Trident rhetoric has won over Project Fear because pro-independence social movements and political parties managed to create a successful counter-narrative to the neo-liberal Westminster consensus. This was evidenced not only in the incredible voter registration and turnout of the referendum, but also in the results of the election.
The next five years are going to be defining for Scottish politics. In order to ensure a left-wing agenda, the vehicles we need are: a social movement, a strong union movement, and an electoral alternative that can challenge the SNP from the left.
After the ConDem government seized power in 2010, there was a rise in anti-austerity, anti-cuts campaigning but, for various reasons, this waned. In 2012, the pro-independence framework was created in Scotland which became the most successful anti-austerity social movement in Britain. Along with the official ‘Yes’ campaign, groups like the Radical Independence Campaign, Women for Independence, and Common Weal generated a politicisation of Scottish society and historic levels of political engagement, pushing the SNP to formulate a generally anti-austerity, anti-Trident narrative.
We are now facing a Tory government which will strengthen the anti-union laws; yet the TUC and affiliated British unions have not made a coherent plan of counter-attack. On the other hand, the STUC, which has a much more open relationship with the Scottish Government than the TUC has with Westminster, has advocated breaking Tory anti-union laws.
The union movement in Scotland has the potential to call upon the support of a pre-existing, and growing in confidence, social movement which the TUC does not have. This has borne out in the organising of the 20 June anti-austerity demonstration. In England, this is organised by the anti-cuts campaign group, Peoples Assembly. In Scotland, it is being organised by the STUC with the support, resources, and people coming from the social movements, including Peoples Assembly and the Radical Independence Campaign.
In the next five years, we need to link action and strategy in order to ensure that the labour movement has a future. Everything from direct action and strikes, to breaking anti-strike laws, to preparing a consistent strategy focussed on young workers, women and migrant workers needs to be done by the union leadership in conjunction with the social movement.
In the months between the referendum and the election, Scottish Labour simply failed to recognise any errors it had made in the past – particularly throughout the referendum campaign. That is why it returned only one MP and its vote was down by almost 18% on the previous five years. That is why there wasn’t a social movement to save Labour. That is why it was predicted that up to 70% of all young voters in Scotland would be voting SNP on 7 May.
The terminal decline of Scottish Labour brings with it huge challenges for the unions. The labour movement’s resources (including people, money, and values) need somewhere to go in terms of electoral representation. It is up to the labour movement to ensure that those resources are properly directed, through open, honest, democratic debate and decision-making, but that does not mean Labour is the entitled keepers of these resources. That sense of entitlement was the single biggest error Scottish Labour made in the past few years.
Neither the SNP nor the Greens can fully articulate and represent the workers’ movement. Neither have roots in the labour movement in terms of labour/working class history. Despite the SNP trade union group having more members than Scottish Labour, the unions cannot disaffiliate from Labour simply to jump into affiliation with the SNP. Scotland needs a ‘third estate’ that can form a permanent political force representing working people and socialism.
We know the socialist left polls extremely poorly in general elections and partly that results from the first-past-the-post. However, across Europe ‘the left’ polls an average of 15% – even in social democratic countries. It’s not that left-wing, socialist politics don’t resonate with people in Scotland, but we need a combined and long-term approach and strategy to articulate that sentiment successfully in elections. It is possible that, despite a real squeeze from the SNP, socialists can mount a big electoral challenge and become a part of the political mainstream.
In Scotland, the independence movement has changed the context we are operating in and there is only one direction of travel: independence. It is likely that the Holyrood elections next year will reflect this. The stakes could not be higher, and there is an urgent need to keep driving politics in Scotland leftwards. Not only because the SNP is currently in a hegemonic position, but also as a leftwards pull to the movement in the rest of Britain.
The Scottish Left Project is meeting with activists, campaigners and political organisations with the aim of making the space for this to happen. We want to become a hub of ideas and debate for taking the left forward, and play a role in developing a big radical left challenge in 2016. If you want to ensure that the labour movement is not left without political representation; or if you want play a part in developing a vibrant and diverse left in Scotland, then please get involved and stay tuned for further developments.
Sarah Collins is supporter of the Scottish Left Project, a UNISON activist and former Chair of the STUC youth committee (2013-2014)