by Emanuele de Vito, October 2017
Although the SNP still retains an overall majority of 35 Scottish MPs out of 59, nine of their seats have a majority of less than 1,000 votes, leaving their domination of Scottish politics tenuous. This strong decline in support is something the SNP wants to stop but it has to decide where it wants to go and what it wants to become.
Commentators tend to agree that the cause of the worse than expected result in June was an unappealing election campaign, whose main message was “more of the same” of the last 9 years of SNP. Furthermore, there was an unwelcomed stress on the benefits of EU membership, which a sizeable minority of working class SNP voters oppose. This led many of the party’s 2015 voters to either stay at home on polling day or switch back to parties they had previously supported. On top of that, many first time voters who do not have any recollection of ‘New Labour’ voted for a seemingly untarnished brand when they put their faith in Labour. Corbyn managed to break through North of the Border, despite many Scottish Labour Party candidates being openly anti-Corbyn, and where in general the Scottish Labour machinery has been much less supportive of their leader than its UK counterpart.
As long as the Labour Party offered a light version of Tory austerity, as it did under Ed Miliband’s leadership, it was easy for the SNP to stand as the only anti-austerity party and argue only they would stand up for working people against the Tories. The success of Corbyn as Labour leader threw a spanner in the works. The left of the SNP should welcome this challenge and this alarm call, and take the opportunity to rethink the party’s strategy and priorities.
The party is under increased pressure from Corbyn, who is openly targeting 16 marginal seats North of the border with a 5 day tour of Scotland. It is increasingly clear that the SNP offering more of the same is not enough for working class Scots, as voters will be won over to Corbyn’s agenda.
The SNP decision makers are aware this is an important turning point and there has been some discussion over the direction of travel the party should take. Chris Stephens, MP for Glasgow South West, talked openly of the need for Socialist policies to reboot the case for Independence. Tommy Sheppard, MP for Edinburgh East, stood for the depute leader position last year and for Westminster leader last month before announcing his withdrawal due to lack of support. In both cases, he spoke of the need for the SNP to turn left. Iain Blackford, the new Westminster Leader, penned an article on the Sunday Herald where he talked about the need to reboot the case for independence and base it on “social justice and equality”. Unfortunately, Blackford offered no further insight on what this reboot will look like and his left wing credentials have been questioned by journalists who brought up his past as an investment banker in the City.
Even this timid attempt of switching the SNP to the left was criticised by the leader of Business for Scotland, Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp, who admitted the group he chairs would not be slow to criticise the SNP if the party’s balance between “fairness and creation of wealth” was to be lost. This toned down argument epitomises the political turning point the SNP finds itself in.
We welcome the results of the election, which have shifted the political landscape to the left. The recent announcement that the Scottish Government will lift the 1% pay cap for public sector workers is a sign that the alarm bells have been heard at SNP Headquarters, but this is not enough. With employment figures at a record high, the SNP would need to show leadership in tackling new problems posed by the gig economy, like underemployment, minimum wages, and the use of bogus self-employment by more companies to offer fewer rights to them, to mention a few.
The main messages of the 2014 Yes campaign – which was the reason the SNP’s mass growth – was that of social justice and an end to welfare cuts, epitomised by pro-NHS and anti-Trident slogans. This led to tens of thousands of people taking to the streets to voice their discontent at the Tories and at Westminster in what became a mass movement. Only these class based issues can revive the party. Crucially, that success was achieved because the SNP did not have the same control on the YES movement as it has on its rigid party structures, with activists and campaigners able to argue for their vision of an Independent Scotland which did not necessarily look like the SNP’s white paper. For instance, the Standing Order and Agenda Committee decides which motions and policy proposals from the branches will go ahead and be discussed at the party conference. This body is not accountable to members and currently it does not release figures in terms of how many and which motions it witholds from conference for discussions.
There is no doubt that in Scotland, the SNP is still the largest party. The most recent membership figures show the SNP has over 120,000 members, making it the largest political party in the West compared to the size of the population, while Labour members North of the Border add up to 30,000. However, things change and a comeback of Labour does not look unlikely in the same way it did one year ago.
SNP branches often exist even in small towns with a wealth of active members for campaigns and day-to-day running of the branch. At the moment though, it still remains unclear what powers normal members have to influence policy and the party’s overall direction of travel. Only time will tell whether the overwhelming majority of SNP members will become disillusioned with the party leadership, if it doesn’t act on this wake up call. Corbyn’s Labour have effectively thrown down the gauntlett – asking if the party is based on the Scottish working class or its capitalist class? The SNP faces a stark choice. Capitalism offers no future, in Scotland, in the UK and in the world. The only way forward is to unashamedly break with it and openly fight for the independent interests of the working class.