Indy Movement Must Learn Lessons from General Election: For a Workers’ Republic!

The beginning of 2020 will be shadowed by December’s election results. New Years Day hangovers pale in comparison to the Friday the 13th feeling of waking up to a Tory majority. However 2020 will not simply be defined by this but will be an extremely eventful year. A new phase of class struggle will open up in Scotland, the rest of these islands and the world over.

By Ross Walker, Issue 31 Editorial

As Marxists we believe in the revolutionary potential of the working class. However this does not mean we do not share the anger and disappointment at the general election results, of which many will suffer. Earlier last year, the Institute for Public Policy Research estimated that 130,000 have been killed through austerity. However, even this statistic, as dramatic as it is, only shows part of the effects of austerity implemented by Tory governments over the last 9 years.

Boris Johnson’s government will mean more insecurity in terms of jobs and housing and further privatisation of the NHS and other vital public services. In many ways we’re only just seeing the results of the previous ten years of austerity with a new generation of people having grown up in overfilled classrooms, decreased social support, food banks and communities with no safe centres. This situation can only get more desperate under this government.

Many workers are understandably demoralised. Conservatives have had a boost of confidence and have used it to attack left wing ideas. In this they have been joined by liberals, who blame the defeat on “Corbynism”.

The only thing that class conscious workers have looked at with any positivity is the results in Scotland. With the SNP having won 48 out of 59 seats, this was a clear rejection of the Tory Party and has been seen by many as a mandate for independence. As Marxists we share this hope and see the revolutionary potential of the independence movement, but we pose the questions of how we would actually get independence, and of what type of independence this would be. A good start here would be to look at the General election, what went wrong and what we can learn.

Lessons from The Election

Firstly, its necessary to state what didn’t go wrong. Despite the accusations of conservatives and liberals, Labour did not lose because they were too left wing. In fact, Labour won more votes than in 2005 whilst the party was headed by the pro capitalist liberal, Tony Blair. In an Opinium poll that asked people why they didn’t vote Labour, only 12% said it was due to their economic policies. In 2017, Labour ran on a left wing programme got almost 12.9million votes.

In 2019, they lost over 2.5 million of these votes.The fundamental thing that changed in that time was the party’s position on Brexit. In 2015 the party vowed to respect the Brexit vote but fight for their own softer Brexit which protected workers rights etc. This position was far from perfect but it rang closer to the mood of the electorate.

In 2019, Labour had the position of having a second referendum on the final deal. This allowed the Tories to attack them and accuse them of being undemocratic and holding the process back. Meanwhile the Tory Party message of “Get Brexit Done” was clear and tempting.

It should be said that a significant amount of workers want Brexit for reactionary reasons. In many of the poorest communities, several decades after de-industrialisation and 11 years after the crash, there is immense alienation and anger. For years Tory and New Labour governments, assisted by the capitalist media, have played on this by blaming immigrants for housing shortages, crime, public service strain and job shortages. 

This is of course all nonsense. The fault of each one of those problems lies at the feet of the capitalist system. However if lies are told consistently enough to people who are demoralised and alienated, and when no clear alternative explanation or policy is fought for by any party for a sustained period,it will have an affect. This was seen in this election. This poses the challenge before socialists  of convincing those with these beliefs that their enemy isn’t workers of different nationalities, but the capitalist class.

However there is a tendency on the left to exaggerate this phenomenon. Wanting Brexit Done does not automatically make someone a xenophobe. Reports from Labour canvassers spoke of how many voters did not want to talk about Brexit and this is completely understandable. For the last 3 and a half years the Brexit debate has completely dominated British politics. Both sides of the debate – leave and remain – have nothing to offer in resolving the real problems the working class face. In fact the debate is a distraction.

The Brexit process is a source of instability for workers who are already facing worrying futures. It’s not a surprise the message of “Get Brexit Done” would be more tempting than “a second referendum”. People know that a second referendum wouldn’t solve anything but would only have dragged the debate on longer. 

Labour’s stance was particularly unconvincing given that Corbyn has historically been very critical of the EU, for good reasons, but was pushed into this position mostly by right wingers in the party. 

Obviously Marxists stand against the Tory Brexiteers with their divisive and backward ideas. However, we also firmly stand against the EU, a bosses’ club which has been used to implement brutal austerity, particularly in Southern Europe, and would have been used against a Labour government. Labour needed to stand on an independent class programme, which would mean leaving the EU in order to start the socialist transformation of society, something the EU would never tolerate. Instead its leadership caved to pressure from Blairite liberals.

At the heart of Labour’s loss is the fact that the party is very divided between the left wing who make up the overwhelming majority of party members and the right wing who still make up a good number MPs and other powerful party positions. Early in 2019 a group of right wing MPs left the party to form “the independent Group” with a group of Tory defectors. This group was very clear – remaining within the EU was top priority. The insistence on such a position has been one of the main weapons the right wing of the party has used against the left. Eventually, this pressure produced the desired result – a pro-remain, second referendum position, and a weakened, discredited Jeremy Corbyn to boot.

This wasn’t the only thing, the left of the party compromised on. They also did so on other issues such as Trident, freedom of movement and denying Scotland another referendum. On all these questions confused compromise positions were put forward in order to appease the right wing, but ended up just confusing the electorate.

On top of this, Corbyn’s programme of taxing the rich and borrowing money to fund public spending, despite being popular, left a lot of unanswered questions. As welcome as such moves would be, the limits are clear. When Labour’s John McDonnell outlined what the Labour government would do in its first 100 days, the billionaire founder of Phones 4U, John Caudwell, responded in a very telling way. 

“When I hear words like, or phrases like, ‘nobody deserves to be a billionaire’ and phrases like ‘we’re going to tax high technology companies’, it frightens the living daylights out of me”. In a face-to-face meeting between the two he said “nearly every wealthy person I know is thinking of leaving the UK, including me, if Labour get in.” 

These dramatic words were a reflection of the mindset of Caudwell’s class and showed exactly how they would have responded. In this we see the limits of left reformist politics. Such threats will be made against any campaign that threatens the interests of the rich, including the Scottish independence campaign. The only way to combat them is to boldly fight back with a programme of nationalisation of the main pillars of the economy under workers control, without compensation to the bosses.

An opportunity was lost between 2017 and 2019 to deselect right wing MPs and replace them with left wingers. Many workers saw a divided and weak party, and in such an unstable time, preferred to give their vote to a party which at least on the surface seemed much more united and stable.

The Tories had money on their side. They had the billionaire press and every slur possible was thrown at Corbyn. A terrorist sympathiser, an antisemite, a Russian stooge. This really does expose the limits of democracy under capitalism and shows the need for a media that is completely taken out the hands of capitalists, publicly owned and democratically run. 

As unfair as it is, it is an unfortunate truth which we must constantly fight, so long as capitalism exists. Anything that threatens private property, the establishment and its right to rule will have everything thrown at it. In 2014 the Scottish independence campaign also suffered many media smears and will likely suffer more intense smear campaigns in future. Only boldness, a thick skin and disciplined organisation can combat this.

The Beginning of a Fightback

As much as the media campaign will have had an affect on the vote, it also angered many class conscious workers and youth and strengthened their resolve to fight the establishment. The BBC has been further discredited. The media has always been one of the main tools of rule for the british ruling class. Its weakening authority will have big implications.

Anger has already been shown with militant protests in cities such as London and Glasgow and we will see more of this as time goes on. In 2018 in Brazil, the far right reactionary Bolsonaro was elected. Within less than a year, mass protests and strikes were organized with the main slogan “Fora Bolsonaro” (Bolsonaro Out). We should expect similar movements here.

Corbyn vowed to reverse anti trade union laws and the trade union movement suffered a blow with Corbyn’s defeat. Johnson has already threatened to ban all out transport strikes. However, this will not be met by silence. Under Johnson’s reactionary, aggressive regime, more workers will draw the conclusion that they need to defy anti-trade union laws to defend themselves. The court ruling against the Royal Mail strike last month is foretaste of what is to come.

The last year has seen the growth of an international mass movement around climate strikes. Led by the youth, this is a movement which is naturally beginning to draw anti-capitalist conclusions. The youth overwhelmingly voted against the Tories and this government clearly has no intention to tackle the climate crisis. We can expect a much more radical climate change movement in 2020

Scottish Independence?

In Scotland the subject of independence has been put firmly back on the table. In 2014 this movement became a focal point for radicalised workers and youth, who saw it as an opportunity to rid themselves of Westminster rule forever. Even several Scottish Labour figures have come out in favour of a new referendum.

The independence movement must learn the lessons of the General election. In the wake of Corbyn’s defeat the conclusion that we must moderate ourselves and “avoid leftist ideas” must be combatted.

Nicola Sturgeon has some sizeable obstacles to overcome. There’s very little chance that Johnson will allow a second referendum. However Sturgeon’s supporters are quite militantly in favour of another referendum. This feeling will only strengthen as Johnson’s premiership, and the crisis of Brexit, drags on. Pressure to defy the British government will increase and this will in turn pressurise the SNP leadership, who remain wedded to bourgeois legality.

The independence movement could become much more radical in the next year. Marxists support this movement but we do so on a socialist and an internationalist basis. An independent capitalist Scotland will not solve any problems of the working classes. The crisis of capitalism is world wide. The capitalists who dictate the economy would call for cuts, privatisations, low wages, low corporation tax and weak trade unions in order to make it a profitable investment. The SNP leadership, as popular as they are just now, are pro-capitalist liberals and do not have the ideas or methods to combat such bourgeois pressures.

The SNP is a party filled with class contradictions. Its membership and voters are overwhelmingly working class and on the left. There’s a constant battle around the Growth Commision plans for an independent Scotland. This vision, developed by SNP bureaucrats and city financiers, has proven to be very unpopular among the membership and the wider independence movement, leading to the leadership being defeated on the currency debate at the April conference. This battle may be overshadowed by the SNP Westminster victory for the time being, but it will be back. Over time, the class contradictions evident in the independence movement will widen.

Marxists campaign for a Scottish Workers Republic where all the banks and big businesses are nationalised and taken under workers control, Trident is abolished and money put to productive use and the vast areas of land nationalised. Such a programme would of course come up against legal constraints from the UK, the EU, the IMF and all sorts. This could only be done via revolutionary methods and the independence movement must educate and prepare itself for this.

A Scottish Workers Republic would be part of a stepping stone towards an international socialist revolution. The only ally we have is the international working class, our closest ally being our comrades south of the border. 

Given the shameful role of the Blairites in the election, the Labour Party are unlikely to make much headway. The party is likely to shift further to the left and angry members will push for the introduction of mandatory reselection of MPs. The call will go out to kick out the Blairites, who act as a Fifth Column in the party. The Labour Party will attract more workers looking to change society. It will be transformed and re-transformed in the period that lies ahead. The Scottish independence movement must ally itself with this movement.

The new Boris Johnson government will be a government of crisis. The economy is in bad shape, with investment falling and growth stagnant. He will have little room for manoeuvre. Now they have a big parliamentary majority, which provides them with no excuses.

The more Johnson’s lies are exposed for what they really are, the more hatred will build towards the Tories. He has promised more spending, but as the economy declines, he will be forced to introduce more austerity. The Tories have been in power for the last decade – a decade of austerity and falling living standards. It will be more of the same. As a consequence, there will be a deep feeling of betrayal.

Mervyn King, the former governor of the Bank of England, said the world economy was stuck in a low growth trap and that the recovery from the slump of 2008-09 was weaker than that after the Great Depression. “Following the Great Inflation, the Great Stability and the Great Recession, we have entered the Great Stagnation,”. He then went on to say that the world faces a new “financial Armageddon”.

The coming downturn will have dramatic consequences, laying the basis for revolutionary convulsions internationally, as well as in Scotland. In the political and economic storms that are coming, the Johnson government will be cast to the side, preparing the way for a convulsive shift to the left.

Events will rapidly transform consciousness. There is no possibility of stability here or internationally, as we see with revolutions breaking out from Chile to Sudan to Lebanon. 

What we need are clear ideas and perspectives. Capitalism cannot be reformed, it must be overthrown. Marxism, which is the generalised historical experience of the working class, will play an essential role in pointing the way forward.

Theory is a guide to action. To prevent backsliding and setbacks, we urgently need to build the forces of Marxism so as to provide backbone to the movement; to provide determination and a clear perspective of how to change society. We urgently need to build a powerful Marxist tendency in Scotland, the rest of these islands and internationally.