In the surprising political dawn after the referendum whirlwind, the old order is upside down. The referendum winners appear to be the losers and the so-called losers are grinning from ear-to-ear with a massively growing cadre of positive and determined new activists dancing along the yellow brick road towards a different future Scotland.
Unrestrained by affiliation to any political party, PCS in post-referendum Scotland seeks merely to advance the interests of our members, our movement and our class. Much to the disgruntlement of some in both the Yes-left and the No-left camps, PCS did not take a campaigning side on independence. It was of course, for us, the correct thing to do. In promoting ‘Our Scotland, our services, our future’, never for one minute did we declare our robust union policies or approach to be ‘neutral’. Instead, we set the same challenge to all political parties of whatever hue, against our PCS alternative to austerity. Proper investment in public services, the necessary challenge to the wealthy and corporate elite that is tax justice and the social solidarity required through welfare policies to eradicate poverty and support people when they need it, not blame the poor.
In 2013, our extensive membership survey for ‘Our Scotland, our services, our future’ found adequate funding, accountability and quality of public services to be the most influential factor in how PCS members might vote in the referendum. At the start of 2014, we consulted our members in Scotland, all 28,000 of them, on whether PCS should take a side on independence. Their input mandated delegates to a special consultative conference, in which Nicola Sturgeon moved the case for supporting independence and Neil Findlay the case against. However, it was a third option – ‘PCS informs – you decide’ that received overwhelming support with over 18,000 votes. The pro-independence proposition gained almost 6,000 votes, but most remarkably, there was not a single vote in favour of campaigning against independence.
With such an authoritative mandate, endorsed by our annual delegate conference of reps from all over England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, our union was able to pursue with power, deep and genuine scrutiny of what was on offer, continue engaging with our members and to test and challenge both sides when they failed to come up to the mark. We held hustings throughout the country and sent out a ‘PCS informs – you decide’ booklet to every member with the responses of political parties and both campaign sides to our 20 key economic and industrial demands.
From the outset, the independence debate was an opportunity for PCS give our members the confidence as trade unionists, as civil and public service workers and as citizens of Scotland that whatever the outcome of the referendum, the PCS alternative to austerity would be at the heart of the debate, and this remains the case. Our strategy has been an historic exemplar amongst unions, and PCS members responding positively to the call from their leadership to engage. Such political investment has allowed us as a trade union to define the debate for ourselves.
The curtain lifted on the road in the Wizard of Oz when Salmond stepped down immediately after the vote. It could no longer be cast that there was just one egotistical man determined to have his way over the people of Scotland. It never was thus – the alliance of non-nationalist political parties, campaigners and new groups that emerged on the Yes side of the debate calling for an alternative to Westminster austerity can never be written off. There remain too many in the No Left for whom that curtain has not yet swept open.
So enter, the Good Witch Nicola with a clear run, gathering up an extraordinary number of new SNP members. She is now set to rule for a very long time. The SNP with 88,000 members is now the third biggest party in the UK – a massively important beast with which the Scottish union movement must engage with. Watching all of this in horror from the ‘branch office’ tower, Johann, the castigated Wicked Witch of the West, in her exit leaves London Labour monkeys with a once-mighty Scottish Labour Party in meltdown. It must now be apparent that the challenge now for Scottish unions is no longer about who we campaign for or against, but how we campaign for our members interests and with an invigorated registered electorate and a new politicised generation demanding change from the mainstream political solutions. In my opinion, neither the newly buoyant SNP nor the deflated Labour Party quite realise yet how different the landscape has become.
While Nicola seeks to spread stardust across her victory tour of Scotland, a three-way contest for the ruby slippers prize of the Scottish Labour leadership has unfolded. It will not be as simple as clicking your heels, and making things go back to normal however. There is no likelihood of going home to Kansas anytime soon. Only if Neil Findlay wins on Scottish Labour on a socialist alternative ticket then is there a chance of Labour renewal in Scotland in this generation.
In the meantime, as a union not affiliated to any political party, PCS can afford a clear-sighted approach on how we engage with all political parties. For some years now, PCS has conducted at every election – Westminster, Scottish, European and by-elections, a ‘Make Your Vote Count’ strategy, encouraging our members to seek candidate engagement and sign up to PCS pledges around jobs, services and pay. In preparing for the Westminster election through robust campaigning in target seats of high profile UK government ministers, our Inverness members are set to play a considerable role in Danny Alexander’s seat.
Of course, in pursuing Danny, we cannot ignore the coming crisis of political representation faced by Scottish Labour against the challenge of a megalithic SNP advance into those ‘yes’ voting Labour heartlands – Glasgow, Dundee and much of the industrial West of Scotland. With some notable exceptions within in both parties, neither Scottish Labour nor the SNP elected representatives or policies, under scrutiny would stand up to the challenge of the PCS alternative. As the Scottish political landscape changes, many other unions, activists and campaigners may join PCS in critical engagement and members demands at the heart of the campaign, rather than uncritical allegiance to one failing party. But it might all be a dream with Dorothy waking up sometime soon back in the austerity laden black and white world where her political heroes and demons are just once again ordinary mainstream politicians bickering over the mildly social democratic differences. I hope not.
Lynn Henderson is the Scottish Secretary and National Officer for Northern Ireland for the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) Union