When voters in Scotland abandoned the Labour Party, it looked like things could not get any worse for Scottish Labour. However, nearly 20 months after the disastrous General Election, where the party was nearly wiped out North of the Border, Labour continues to decline in Scotland.
The direction and the leadership of the party have been vocally criticised also by its most crucial financial backers, namely trade union leaders. Many trade union members are SNP voters and had previously been YES voters at the Independence Referendum, but their leaders’ criticism of the LP is a rather novel development. Len McCluskey, leader of Unite, went as far as praising the SNP and suggested that the party led by Sturgeon could be the key to getting Labour into government in Westminster. Are Scottish Trade Unions about to desert Scottish Labour and affiliate to the SNP? Will this tactic pay off? Is the SNP able to pander to the interest of both big business and trade unions?
In recent weeks, the Leadership of Scottish Labour has been criticised by some of its most important donors – trade union leaders. The General Secretary of Unite, Len McCluskey, claimed that Kezia Dugdale had done a disservice to the party by openly backing Owen Smith as Labour leader during last summer’s leadership elections. Her Welsh counterpart – Carwyn Jones – had stayed neutral despite potentially having a good reason to back Owen Smith, who is a Welsh MP. McCluskey went further and claimed that the SNP could be the key to getting Labour into power after the next general election.
Gary Smith, the leader of GMB in Scotland, has been consistently critical of Kezia Dugdale. He defined Scottish Labour as a “middle class protest party” far from the issues of working class people. Earlier on this year the union, which is affiliated to Labour, did not carry out a consultation with its members in Scotland over which candidate to back in the party’s leadership contest, due to the perceived irrelevance of Scottish Labour.
These criticisms do not come out of the blue and are a consequence of a shifting Scottish landscape, where the Labour party is not able to retain the support of its most traditional backers.
The Scottish Trade Union Council (STUC) leader addressed the SNP conference in Aberdeen in 2015 . This was watershed event, in that it was the first time that the ‘leader’ of the trade union movement was invited to address the SNP conference. In turn, Nicola Sturgeon spoke at the STUC congress last year, and used her speech to stress her commitment to workers’ right and the positive influence the ‘critical friends’ in the unions had on her party’s policies.
Although the STUC is not affiliated to the Labour Party, around 10 of its constituent unions are, and these recent developments may suggest that some of the big trade unions could reaffiliate to the SNP. At the rank-and-file level, the shift has already taken place. The SNP Trade Unions Group has over 15,000 members according to the information the group itself provides. This is about the same size as the whole membership of Scottish Labour, which recent estimates place at 18,000.
Many union members voted YES in the Independence Referendum and gave their support to the SNP in the following year’s general elections. SNP Socialists, a new left-wing group within the party, was set up in 2016 and generated some interest. Although its meetings are not public, this confirms a shift in the membership of the SNP, which has been joined by many left-wing voters.
This influx of left-wing and trade union forces poses an existential question to the SNP. So far, and with far more limited powers, the SNP tried to appease to both big business and workers with their vision for a low-tax, high-earning independent Scotland. This has won them the trust of both business and working people, but anyone versed in the ideas of Marx knows this honeymoon period cannot last forever. The first cracks have started to appear. The interests of workers and capital are inherently opposed, and any party trying to champion both causes will only last in power as long as it manages to delay answering the fundamental questions of economics. The SNP has so far done brilliantly, focusing on the two constitutional questions, but they can only put off the question of austerity, privatisation and workers rights for so long.
Since the referendum, new powers have been given to Holyrood, but the executive has been very careful in using them as little as possible. Although Holyrood was given new responsibilities regarding the administration of 11 benefits, the government decided to hand the new powers back to the DWP until 2020. The Scottish Government also gained new tax powers but again used as little as possible of them, and their greatest progressive measure was that of failing to implement a Tory tax cut for the highest earners.
As long as the party leadership wants to appeal to big business, its claim to be a party for Scottish workers will necessarily remain fictitious and awaits exposure. If anything, this influx of socialists and trade unionists will expose the bourgeois nature of the SNP leadership sooner, and possibly lead to a left-right split in the party.