The 2019 General Election campaign in England captured the attention of Scotland. The Scottish result was in large part a fait accompli, with most expecting the SNP to gain seats and the other major parties clutch onto a handful. All eyes were on Jeremy Corbyn as he battled to kick the Tories from power after a decade of misery for the working class. Labour fought to climb the polls in the final weeks, hoping to achieve at least a hung parliament.
By Shaun Morris, Glasgow Marxists
Sadly, this was not to be. The hearts of working people both sides of the border skipped the same beat as the results read a crushing defeat for Labour and a solid majority for Boris Johnson. Brexit had deeply divided the working class and the labour movement, throwing Corbynism off course and delivering the Conservatives victory in key areas.
Scotland stands as an exception to this. The voters were clearly polarised too, not on the problem of Brexit but on the question of independence. Examining the results, we see not a divided working class, but one fairly united behind the demand for national self-determination; for a second independence referendum. This has big implications for the period ahead.
SNP VICTORY AT THE POLLS
The SNP had a good election night with the exit poll predicting them a high of 55 seats. Nicola Sturgeon called on her party not to count their chickens before they hatch, aware that many marginal seats were too close to call. Over the night the SNP picked up 14 seats, losing only one. With 48 out of 59 Scottish MPs, the SNP clearly won the election in Scotland.
As well as being the only other major party in Westminster to gain seats besides the Tories, the SNP took a number of other victories on the night. Liberal Democrats leader Jo Swinson was unseated by Amy Callaghan, a 27-year old self-described socialist. The SNP also saw off Labour’s challenge in seats around Glasgow, consolidating their support in the working-class towns and neighbourhoods of Scotland’s central belt.
The main thing the SNP will take away from this election, however, is that 48 nationalist MPs stand against only 11 unionists, including 6 Tories.
It was easy to predict a Scottish Conservative collapse in this election. After the departure of Ruth Davidson – the modern, detoxifying image of the Scottish Tories – and the election of Boris Johnson as Tory leader, many pro-Remain, “moderate” Unionist voters would have been put off. Some will have naturally supported the Liberal Democrats at the ballot box.
The Scottish Tory vote did fall in December as predicted but held on enough to drop by only 3.5%. Johnson gathered 25% of the vote in Scotland, with his main election slogan and central policy being “no to indyref2”. This support was concentrated in the Borders and the Northeast, resulting in the Conservatives losing more than half their seats in Scotland.
The Scottish Liberal Democrats increased their votes by almost 3% in the election, clearly gaining from the Tories and being the only party to gain a seat from the SNP in North East Fife. The SNP narrowly held the seat in 2017, beating the LibDems by just 2 votes. In that election, the SNP vote had dropped with Lib Dems, Labour and particularly the Tories gaining. In 2019 an anti-SNP vote clearly rallied around the LibDems, with the Tory vote dropping off.
The 2019 results show the electoral base of unionism in Scotland at around 35%, measured by the Conservative and LibDem votes. This is a backwards and petit-bourgeois layer that can be indifferent to Leave or Remain, insofar as the SNP are defeated and the Union is maintained
It could be said as well that in North East Fife a section of the SNP vote that lent their votes to Labour in 2017 stuck with the SNP. All across Scotland, the swing away from Labour to the SNP almost mirrors what Labour had gained in 2017. Coming in below 20% and some key defeats have sent a shock through Scottish Labour, with multiple figures recognising that traditional Labour support in Scotland has been won round to the SNP.
LABOUR AND INDEPENDENCE
One of Labour key targets in Scotland was Glasgow South West. Matt Kerr had come only 60 votes short of taking the seat from the SNP in 2017, being one of the strongest challengers from Labour and experiencing the boost that Corbyn’s campaign generated. Despite an energetic campaign in 2019, Labour’s vote fell and Chris Stephens won with a more comfortable majority of 13%. In a direct choice between two reputable left-wing candidates from both Labour and the SNP, we see the working class in Govan and southwest Glasgow choose the SNP.
In the wake of the Labour defeat Corbyn has promised a period of reflection in the party, with Scottish leader Richard Leonard following suit. Immediately, the question has been raised of Labour’s position on the SNP demand for a second independence referendum, which won a decisive democratic mandate in this election.
Ged Killen, who lost his Rutherglen seat to the SNP, said most clearly that while he stood on a mandate opposing indyref2, the SNP won on the basis of standing for indyref2, a fact that Scottish Labour “must accept”. Echoing this position, former Scottish Labour General Secretary Brian Roy commented, “If there is a mandate and the Scottish parliament votes for it, we should accept it”.
Roy even went further to criticise Scottish Labour’s failed strategy to compete with the Tories for the unionist vote by emphasising Labour’s opposition to independence. If only Roy and other Labour figures had realised sooner that this just looks like, in his words, “cosying up” with the Tories to frustrate Scotland’s democratic will, they may be in a better position.
Neil Findlay, a leading figure of the Scottish Labour left, stated in principle, “As a democrat first and foremost I accept that the people of Scotland have the right to choose their own future”. Similar statements have been made by health spokesperson Monica Lennon, COSLA president Alison Evison and unseated Glasgow North East MP Paul Sweeney.
Will Scottish Labour change its position on Scottish independence, or at the very least whether there should be a second independence referendum? That remains to be seen, but clearly many in the party are drawing conclusions. The massive SNP vote was not simply a rejection of Labour’s left-wing manifesto, as the SNP share many policies with Labour and in the event of a hung parliament, were clearly prepared to support a Labour government. According to an Ashcroft poll, 51% of SNP voters even favoured Jeremy Corbyn for Prime Minister. No doubt there will be even more who would have supported and defended Corbyn as PM if they were forced to choose between him and Boris Johnson.
It is mainly those on the left of the Labour party, allies of Corbyn who have begun to recognise that their hostility towards independence has done them no favours. Dozens of CLP members and trade unionists have signed an open letter calling on the party to change its position and fight for the right of self-determination for Scotland against Johnson’s intransigent opposition.
The right-wing have largely been silent in this debate so far. Only Kezia Dugdale, from the armchair of political retirement, has chimed in to honestly state that much of the argument against independence that Labour relied on is now defunct. Britain is leaving the EU and taking Scotland with it, and Labour has been defeated, resulting in yet another Tory government that Scotland did not vote for.
The temperature of the struggle between left and right in Scottish Labour has always been cooler than that at the national level. Compared to the civil war waged by the Blairites in the Westminster PLP, the Holyrood group and most CLPs have lived in relative harmony. One of the things that ensured this was unity between left and right on the national question, and its central importance to the party’s message. With differences emerging over this major question, and not even the hope of getting into government to hold things together, there could be a struggle within Scottish Labour.
For now, Richard Leonard has bluntly reiterated the current policy on an indyref, saying it has not changed. Those who have shown more openness to the idea are not yet convinced to actively support independence either. The campaign group ‘Labour for Independence’, which was formed for the last referendum, has reported being “inundated” with requests to join from Labour members, however. This could put pressure on MSPs to declare for or against an indyref, launching a serious debate within the party.
Ian Blackford MP has welcomed the reconsideration coming from Labour figures and invited the party to join with the SNP in demanding that Boris Johnson grants the Scottish Government’s request to hold a referendum in 2020. Naturally, for as long as the SNP leadership are going to base their strategy on moral and legalistic appeals to Johnson to allow a referendum, they want to demonstrate broad cross-party support.
The broader Independence movement should welcome Labour supporters too. The Tory Government merely needs to do nothing to block another indyref, and if Boris Johnson should be unwilling to listen to the diplomatic arguments of Nicola Sturgeon, then only the methods and strategy of class struggle will succeed. This will require the broadest unity of the working class, with the most class conscious and determined elements to the fore. Labour supporters, especially young people, will prove themselves.
The struggle in Catalonia showed the world the hypocrisy of the Spanish democratic “transition”, and the monster of reaction that lay just below the surface, awoken by the October 2017 independence vote. Only revolutionary means and the direct power of the working class could defend Catalonia’s democratic rights then, through the street demonstrations, barricades, occupations and Committees for the Defence of the Republic.
These methods will be needed in Scotland as well, should the Union prove to not to be based in consent. Coupled with a programme for the overthrow of capitalism, for a Scottish Workers’ Republic and international socialist revolution, a revolutionary struggle can carry the support of the working class and win not just independence, but begin the socialist transformation of society.
The Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) has already seen a new lease of life after the election. People know what to do and are anxious to join the fight. We fight in the ranks of this struggle, building the consistently revolutionary political tendency that is necessary for complete victory. If you wish to build the forces of Marxism with us, then join the International Marxist Tendency.