The Scottish Socialist Party’s (SSP) token appearance on the BBC during the General Election was a three-minute interview on the ‘Daily Politics’ programme on 24 April 2015. Andrew Neil wanted me to knock lumps out of Arthur Scargill’s party. I declined. Instead, I urged him and ‘the London metropolitan media to acknowledge the ‘political revolution’ underway in Scotland’. I awaited his sneering dismissal of this but to my surprise he entirely accepted my description of the change engulfing Scotland.
When the results emerged two weeks later, Scotland’s representation at Westminster was, indeed, transformed. We now have fewer Labour MPs than giant pandas. But for 250 votes in Berwickshire, we might have had twice as many Tory MPs as Labour ones. How the comedians at the Edinburgh Festival this summer will feast on these results!
Scotland’s ‘political revolution’ saw the SNP take 95% of the seats as Labour, Tory and Liberal-Democrat MP’s sank under a ‘tsunami’ driven by economic insecurity as voters saw their living standards plunge. Allied to the sense of alienation from Westminster, the SNP’s campaign was able to reflect Scotland’s social democratic ‘centre of gravity’. It triumphed because it promised to fight austerity in favour of a living wage, an end to zero hour contracts, building affordable housing and economic growth.
It also benefited from the huge momentum the ‘Yes’ campaign provided and which the independence supporting left did so much to build. We are, therefore, entitled to remind the SNP what we contributed and, notwithstanding their stunning success on May 7, the fact remains it cannot achieve independence without the support of the rest of us.
The political mood in Scotland reminded me of 1997 when the Scottish Socialist Alliance, as we were then, stood against New Labour. Back then the overriding priority for voters was ‘to get rid of the Tories’. After twenty years of Conservative governments nothing else mattered. No criticism of ‘new’ Labour was permitted. No other votes were considered. ‘Things could only get better’. Illusions in Tony Blair were widespread.
The same can be said about Nicola Sturgeon’s party today. For if ‘Standing up for Scotland’ was the SNP election slogan, few were prepared to ask ‘which Scotland’ did the SNP mean? Working class voters covered their ears when any criticism of the SNP was voiced. They buried their heads in the sand when the SNP’s privatisation of Edinburgh’s Sick Children’s Hospital was highlighted for example, from a party apparently committed ‘to protecting the NHS’.
They turned a blind eye to the £30m cuts made by the ‘anti-austerity’ party in running Edinburgh City Council. They wanted to believe a mere 0.5% increase in public spending proposed would be adequate to turn around the 14% cuts made since 2010. The ambiguities at the heart of the SNP’s manifesto were ignored (for now).
SSP canvassers were met with sympathy and respect for the work we did in the referendum but we invariably went away with the message ‘This is not your turn. We need to get rid of XX [the local Labour MP]. Your turn will come next year with the Holyrood elections’.
Writing about the UK result Will Hutton in The Observer (10 may 2015) rightly concluded: ‘This election will solve nothing. Inequality will grow in Britain. Low wages and insecure jobs will proliferate. The housing crisis will deepen. Public services will become even more threadbare.’
The Tories plan to cut another £30bn from government spending, promote further casualisation of the workforce, oversee widening inequality and curtail what’s left of union rights. The SNP, however, promised to fight all this. But will it? Will it oppose the economic policies of the Tories wholeheartedly when as economists Jim and Margaret Cuthbert have pointed out the SNP’s own programme is essentially ‘neo-liberalism with a heart’.
And perhaps the biggest mixed message from Nicola Sturgeon was that ‘Voting SNP is not a vote for independence’. In arguing this point, she acknowledged defeat last September but risked demobilising the ‘Yes’ movement by insisting there can be no referendum until after the 2017 EU vote and then only if England votes to leave and Scotland to stay. The SSP, by contrast, will continue to argue for independence as soon as possible. The timing of IndyRef2 depends on winning a majority of those who did not vote for it last time.
The left’s role must be to expose ambiguities in the SNP’s programme and force it to keep the promises made on May 7. Moreover, the 2016 Holyrood elections now loom and are a crucial contest for the left. We need to get MSPs elected to confront the illusions in the SNP effectively and show that social democracy and socialism are not the same thing. The SSP will consider proposals to participate in a left alliance for Holyrood at our annual conference before the end of May.
Colin Fox is the Scottish Socialist Party joint national spokesman