Whither the Scottish left?

George Kerevan surveys the scene, suggesting the SNP’s dominance results from a lack of choices.

How often have you heard someone say: ‘The Scottish left has never been so weak or divided’? But how true is this in actuality? Indeed, what does the question mean? And, who counts as left-wing these days? We might look for some concrete answers in the results of the May local elections in Scotland. Voter turnout was a modest 44.8%. However, this was up on 2017 (46.9%) and on 2012 (39.7%) – which suggests that voter apathy, while high, is not the reason the left might be losing ground.

The obvious winner in these elections was the ruling SNP under Nicola Sturgeon. The party won convincingly, increasing both its vote share and seat numbers, compared to the 2017 council elections – despite being in power at Holyrood for 15 consecutive years. The SNP captured 34.1% of first preference votes, a full 12 points ahead of its nearest rival (Labour). The avowedly anti-capitalist parties (SSP, TUSC, Communist, Socialist Labour) did not register at all on the political Richter scale. True, the pro-independence Greens scored 12% and increased their seat numbers. But their de facto coalition with the SNP at Holyrood suggests they are enjoying the same favourable political wind as Sturgeon.

For some on the anti-capitalist left, the hegemonic hold of the SNP on Scottish politics is explained by mechanistic factors. Principally, the clientelism the Sturgeon administration has pursued, providing direct financial subsidy for much of Scottish civil society including the STUC. In 2018, official statistics showed the SNP government had provided no less than 63% of the union body’s overall finances. But explaining the political dominance of the SNP this way is too crude.

It is certainly the case that the SNP has used its political dominance to penetrate deep into civil society and this raises serious questions about the independence of that civil society, especially as the Sturgeon government moves to the right. But the local election results show – if anything – an increased enthusiasm by working-class voters to back the SNP. Note that the party won outright control of Dundee City Council, a key working-class district, under an STV voting system specifically designed to stop such monopolies.

A better explanation of the SNP’s political longevity and hegemony over the Scottish working-class lies in the simple fact that working-class voters are pragmatic. Faced with an incompetent, rampaging Tory government at Westminster, plus a looming cost-of-living crisis, Scottish working-class electors chose the only show in town that might offer a scintilla of protection – the SNP under Nicola Sturgeon. A national election is a mass event. The workers voted en masse for the SNP when offered a binary choice between Nicola and Boris. With the avowed anti-capitalist parties remaining miniscule and irrelevant, what alternative did the working-class have?

Here we need to consider Scottish Labour. The other big difference ushered in by the 2022 local elections was the fact that Scottish Labour under new leader, Anas Sarwar, knocked the Tories into third place and won an extra 20 council seats. The party also won outright control of West Dumbarton council and took minority control of Edinburgh from the SNP. We can exaggerate the extent of the Labour revival – the party was still a quarter of a million votes behind the SNP. But there are certainly signs here of a return to class politics. Polls continue to show that at least 40% of Labour voters in Scotland support independence. We might interpret the local election results as showing some working-class independence voters are willing to return to Labour in order to express disgust with the Tories at a UK level.

The SNP still considers itself on the social democratic left. If we add the SNP, Scottish Labour and Green votes in May, they total 62% of the entire poll. That is the largest social democratic bloc in Europe. By contrast, Melenchon’s NUPES alliance won only 31.6% of the vote in the second round of the French legislative elections in June. The combined Socialist, Green and Die Linke vote in last year’s Federal election in Germany was a good 46 per cent, but still less than half.

Of course, the class nature of the SNP remains a contentious question on the Scottish left. Some refuse to see it as a party of the left, claiming it is either bourgeois nationalist, social liberal or even on the populist right. Such a characterisation risks suggesting that a majority of the Scottish working-class now vote for a party of the right, which seems unduly apocalyptic. The SNP and the majority of its membership consider it to be centre left. It is hard to deny that most working-class voters agree with that subjective viewpoint. And this is why – on the electoral terrain at least – the Scottish working-class continues to vote SNP as a bulwark (if an inadequate one) against the Tories.

The other big story from the local elections is that the Alba Party – which sees itself to the left of the SNP – failed to make any gains and lost all of its sitting councillors, even after fielding around one hundred candidates. Alba’s combined vote was 12,335 – a mere 0.7% of the total. It is possible to explain this as a rejection of Alba’s leader, Alex Salmond; or due to the lack of media coverage of the party during the campaign; or a bit of both. Salmond views Alba as a way of keeping pressure on the SNP leadership to deliver an independence referendum and there is evidence that the First Minister is sensitive to criticism from that direction. But with these results it is hard to see Alba becoming a significant force any time soon, despite its recruitment of some thousands of old SNP party cadres and avowed leftists such as Tommy Sheridan (whose remaining supporters also joined) and former Labour MEP, Hugh Kerr.

Meanwhile, the anti-capitalist left in Scotland remains in disarray. Back in the heady days of 2003, the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) won six seats at Holyrood. Since then, schism and disorientation have weakened the SSP considerably. Yet it managed to stand eight candidates across Scotland, mounting a modest propaganda campaign. However, with a total vote of 1,058, it can hardly have been said to register in working-class consciousness. The Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), which is associated with descendants of the old Militant group, also ran a few candidates, garnering a negligible 1,022 votes. The Communist Party, which is showing a modest revival in Scotland among young folk, might have had a campaign in Glasgow but for a technical foul-up which saw it get wrong the date for registering candidates.

What is curious in this saga of left-wing ineffectiveness is that local politics in Scotland are actually the locus of significant working-class resistance – to the SNP government, to council cuts, to assaults on local communities, and to excess capitalist development. Witness the Living Rent Campaign in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Arguably, local popular campaigns against rising bus fares have forced the SNP government to introduce free fares for the young. It is surprising that this growing grassroots anger was not channelled into some form of community electoral campaigning or candidates, in the May local contests. This suggests that the Scottish anti-capitalist left lacks the vision to move beyond its secure ideological laagers and give some sort of collective political voice to the existing popular and grassroots resistance.

This is far from being an abstract question. The anti-capitalist left has embedded itself deeply in the independence movement over the past decade, successfully providing the campaign energy that the bureaucratic SNP leadership lacked. For instance, it was the original Radical Independence Campaign – associated with the group who now run the Conter website, of which the author is a member – that helped launch and prosecute the popular campaign for independence that was so effective in Glasgow and Dundee. And in the couple of years before Covid, All Under One Banner organised mass demonstrations that kept the movement alive in the face of passivity from the conservative Sturgeon leadership.

However, we are in a new conjuncture when inflation and the crisis-of-living standards are increasingly central to working-class resistance. Witness the RMT strikes. As a result, the Scottish anti-capitalist left seems even more becalmed than usual, unable to find a way of linking the national question to prosecuting the new economic demands. It is not just that the left is organisationally fragmented. Rather, it lacks a coherent political strategy to link the national movement and the economic struggle.

This stasis is only likely to increase. In the aftermath of her local election success, Sturgeon has launched a campaign for a supposed second referendum in October 2023. Few people think this vote will actually transpire but, in the meantime, it will serve as a political cover to keep the pro-independence left in line while the SNP government imposes swinging real pay cuts in the public sector. For how can the independence left attack Nicola when she is demanding Boris grant a Section 30 order?

We can expect increasing industrial action on the pay front over the next 18 months. This will return a certain amount of agency to the Scottish working-class – agency which was lost after the demise of the All Under One Banner mass demonstrations with the onset of the pandemic. The Scottish left needs to relearn the lessons of how to do solidarity with striking workers – lessons that we knew so well a generation ago. This will bring an inevitable confrontation with the SNP. It is important that the pro-independence left does not capitulate to calls to ‘go soft’ on the SNP leadership. Instead, we need to demand that the SNP government breaks with Treasury rules and pays Scottish workers what is needed to protect living standards.

In Scotland, the existence of the national movement (combined with the failure of Scottish Labour to back self-determination) understandably reduced the impact of the Corbyn upsurge and the popular influence of organisations such as the People’s Assembly Against Austerity. We probably need the equivalent of the People’s Assembly north of the Border, especially in today’s conditions. It might serve as a bridge between the nationalist left and grassroots Scottish Labour.

Here we come back to the electoral support that the Scottish working-class has traditionally lent the SNP. The May local elections showed that the Scottish working-class expects the Sturgeon government to protect its immediate interests. Instead, SNP Finance Secretary, Kate Forbes, has talked about ‘responsible’ wage demands and the need to ‘modernise’ the public sector – code for more spending cuts. The Scottish left now has a duty to oppose such cuts while demanding real action on independence. We are not the ‘loyal opposition’ – we are the opposition.

George Kerevan is a writer, journalist and former SNP MP.