By Ross Walker
After two years of utter humiliation following the 2014 referendum, 2017 saw a gradual improvement in Scottish Labour’s fortunes. In June they increased their seats from 1 to 7 in the snap Westminster election. In November, left-winger, Richard Leonard was elected after decades of right wing leadership. The party finished the year with some polls showing them having overtaken the Tories in popularity.
In the leadership race, Leonard beat right-winger Anas Sarwar on a programme of left-wing reforms mostly to the left of the current SNP policy. They included campaigning against the benefit freeze and cap, a Brexit deal that protects workers’ rights, EU citizens’ rights, and the environment, a “Mary Barbour Law” on controlling rents and limiting landlord powers, a “use it or lose it” approach to developers sitting on unused land, an extension of free school meals to primary years four to seven, the creation of a National Energy Corporation to cut bills and tackle fuel poverty and various others. As Marxists we must point out, like all left reformist programmes, his programme would be very difficult to implement and impossible to maintain unless it were combined with a full socialist programme breaking from capitalism altogether. However, we would of course support Leonard’s programme and appreciate that he can play an important role.
Since his election, Leonard has already been using his platform to pressure the SNP Holyrood government from the left on issues such the public sector cuts in the budget and job losses at Doosan Babcock. His appointment will also strengthen the authority of Corbyn and the left of the Labour Party throughout Britain in its fight against right-wing establishment and stooges in the media and Labour bureaucracy. For these reasons, Leonard’s victory should be welcomed and defended by all socialists and trade unionists.
However, despite sharing superficial similarities to Corbyn’s 2015 victory, Leonard’s victory has happened in very different objective conditions. The 2015 British Labour election wasn’t just an earthquake for the Labour Party but shook British society as a whole. Over 88,000 non-members registered as supporters to vote for Corbyn. In the 2016 Blairite coup against Corbyn, the Labour bureaucracy changed the rules in a failed bid to manoeuvre Corbyn out of leadership, but despite the £25 obstacle 130,000 signed up to vote. In comparison, the Scottish Labour leadership race saw only 79 register as supporters and there was a noticeable lack of mass rallies. The election failed to mobilise masses of previously politically alienated people like the Corbyn earthquake did and is still doing through England and Wales. The reasons for this are deep-rooted.
The Decline of Scottish Labour
For over 100 years, Scottish working class voters loyally sent Labour MPs to Westminster. Labour leaders took Labour heartlands like Scotland for granted. However, Labour’s inability to tackle de-industrialisation, which hit Scotland hard, and the coming to power of Tony Blair, with all his “middle way” Tory ideology, warmongering and chauvinism, began to seriously stretch the loyalties of the working class. In 1989, when the hated Poll Tax was implemented in Scotland as a testing ground before being implemented throughout the rest of Britain, a mass movement of non-payment arose. However, this resistance was not supported by the Labour Party. Also, the deeply unpopular trident nuclear missiles, stored in Scotland against the wishes of the Scottish people, have also never been seriously tackled by Labour. Despite Corbyn and Leonard’s anti-Trident stance, the UK party is and has always been in favour of the weapons.
However, the action of Labour leaders in climbing into bed with the Tories during the referendum campaign was the last straw. This revulsion against Labour resulted in the May 2015 destruction of its Westminster parliamentary representation. From more than 40 MPs, they were reduced to a single seat, alongside a Tory and Liberal Democrat. Labour’s 2017 successes have far from recovered it to its previous position. Richard Leonard has inherited a situation much more difficult than Corbyn took on. Scottish workers aren’t inherently anti-Labour and certainly not right-wing. On the contrary, as was shown by the anti-austerity, anti-establishment and anti-war slogans of the 2014 Independence mass campaign, there are high levels of class consciousness in Scotland. Instead, Scottish workers just don’t trust a party that has betrayed them so many times to carry out such aspirations and it’ll take more than Leonard’s leadership victory to change that.
The gradual disillusionment towards Labour saw a gradual increased support for the SNP, which shifted to the left. At first, this was merely opportunistic, but in time the party developed a significant left-wing base. After the referendum the Scottish working class shifted massively towards the SNP, which has become one of the biggest parties in the world in terms of votes and membership relative to the size of population. In the days after the referendum their membership tripled to over 90,000. The 2015 General Election saw SNP sweep the board, taking every single seat bar three. Although it did take a hit in the 2017 election, it still by far dominates Scotland and its overall membership is claimed to be 118,000, compared to the 21,500 in Scottish Labour. The STUC and even the TUC often address SNP conferences and its parliamentary group. Sturgeon addresses STUC conferences and there are a number of openly socialist and trade unionist MPs, MSPs and Councillors. Scottish Labour have an objectively more difficult task in posing as an alternative and opposing the SNP than Corbyn does in opposing the hated Tory government.
However, Leonard cannot escape all individual blame. In his response to the budget he boasted about Holyrood being a product of Labour Government and criticised the SNP for having failed the Scottish people. Many of his points were correct but he naively misses the crucial point that Labour were just as bad. Why should anyone believe he’ll be any different? Without publicly breaking from and denouncing all of Labour’s mistakes in Scotland, in particular their mistake on the national question and rotten role in Better Together, he will find it very difficult to convince workers that he is any different.
Labour and SNP Lefts
Despite the obstacles it is not ruled out that Leonard could at least strengthen Scottish Labour. The longer it rules and implements cuts, the more ‘establishment’ the SNP looks. If this continues it could benefit Labour under Leonard’s leadership. Also, another general election, which could happen very soon, would very likely boost the Corbyn movement and could see a bigger resonance in Scotland. Many Yes voters voted Labour in the last election, despite its unionist obsession, because they were inspired by Corbyn’s movement. This will likely increase in another election as people realise that a Corbyn government is within touching distance, and be something of a boost for Leonard and the left-wing.
However, this must be viewed with care. Despite Leonard’s victory, Blairism still has a huge presence in Scottish Labour. Whereas the influx in left-wing membership in England and Wales is leading to the rapid takeover of Labour at a local level by the left-wing, there is little prospect of this in Scotland. The statistics in Leonard’s leadership election indicate there are far fewer left-wing activists in the party in Scotland, and not many are joining. A recovery of Labour in its current state could actually weaken the movement by replacing SNP lefts with Blairites. This already happened in June when Labour’s Martin Whitfield became MP for East Lothian. Despite being elected due to Corbyn’s platform, Whitfield went on to support right wing Anas Sarwar in the leadership election. The SNP MP ousted in East Lothian was left wing George Kerevan who played a role in the SNP 2016 conference left fringe “Ideaspace” and the Catalan solidarity movement. Kerevan was very vocal about supporting Corbyn in government and would have likely been a much better ally than Whitfield.
This isn’t an isolated example but a common error in tactics shown by the Labour left. In his Scottish tour during the summer, Corbyn named 18 target seats as specific targets. None were Tory or Lib Dems and all of them were SNP seats, some of which are held by SNP left wingers. One target seat, Glasgow South West, is held by SNP TU group leader, Chris Stephens, who has used his platform as a consistent voice in favour of trade unions and workers’ rights and could play an important role in the future of the party. He has criticised the SNP campaign from the left and even said it should campaign for socialism. The MP for Glasgow South, another target seat, is Stewart McDonald who is currently campaigning against unpaid trial shifts, backed by the STUC and planning to forward a bill to parliament in March. By aggressively targeting these seats, Labour are putting the narrow party interests above the interests of the class as a whole and actually risk dividing the votes and letting in Tories.
Instead of dismissing the SNP as simply reactionary nationalists, Corbyn and Leonard should make clear that in a Labour victory, they would publicly call on the SNP to put its money where its mouth is and fully back Labour’s left-wing programme. This would push some SNP MPs to support his programme. The SNP right-wing would be unhappy at being put on the spot to support the anti-austerity and nationalisation measures of Labour, and would be exposed. But its left-wing base would enthusiastically support such a programme. This would open the door for a split in the SNP along class lines, which would be a hugely positive development for the working class in Scotland. To do this Corbyn and Leonard would have to resist anti-SNP pressure from within their party and also support a second independence referendum when Holyrood decides.
The National Question
Labour and its supporters often point to the danger of division and ideological nationalism associated with referendums. However, in standing against another referendum, Labour are aligning themselves with the British establishment. They are associating themselves with the mainstream media which dominates Scotland and plays a reactionary unionist role. In doing so, Labour will only promote more national division and resentment. Paradoxically, if Labour want to really tackle ideological nationalism, they must support another referendum and stand clearly against any media and establishment bias against a YES vote (repeats of the 2014 project fear) the ruling class tries to whip up.
A left-wing Labour government will come under extraordinary pressure from the ruling class. In order to carry out its programme, it would rely on mass mobilisations, strikes and appeals to solidarity from workers abroad for it to survive. As well as calling on the Labour rank-and-file to back him, Corbyn could call for support from the left in the SNP, including its trade unionist members. In doing so, he could gain the authority to call out to the Scottish working class for support and could possibly force SNP MPs and leaders to mobilise their members to support his programme – if they did not, they would be exposed as reactionary.
At the same time the SNP left should fight against the sectarian attitude prevalent within the party shown towards Corbyn. Corbyn’s stance on the national question should of course be criticised, but in a supportive way rather than being portrayed as an enemy of the Scottish workers which he clearly is not. Despite their wrong position on independence, Corbynites like Leonard and new MP Hugh Gaffney are genuine lefts and the SNP left must reach out, work with and defend them where possible. Where the SNP programme is to the left of Labour, for example in opposing migration controls and trident, they should call Corbyn out. They should make the point that a Scottish workers’ republic would have to reach out for the workers of the world to join them and the first natural ally would be a socialist Corbyn government.
Marxists have no arbitrary loyalty to any political party. We support what is best for the working class and we encourage the left within both Labour and the SNP to take this attitude in the fight for a Scottish Workers Republic and a World Socialist federation.