The election in Scotland: the Labour win, and the left's slump

Submitted by cathy n on 11 May, 2010 - 3:35 Author: Dale Street

In terms of which parties won how many seats – a pretty basic criterion for judging the outcome of a general election – 2010 in Scotland was a re-run of 2005.

This is a longer version of this article than in the printed paper.
In both general elections Labour won 41 seats, the Liberal Democrats 11, the SNP six, and the Tories just one.

But Labour did regain two seats last week which it had lost in by-elections after the last general election: Dunfermline and Fife West (won by the Lib-Dems in 2006) and Glasgow East (the third-safest Labour seat in Scotland, won by the SNP in 2008).

In both constituencies the number of votes cast for the Labour candidate in this general election was higher than the number cast for the Labour candidates in the 2005 general election.

In terms of the popular vote, Labour scored 42% (an increase of 2.5%), the SNP 19.9% (up 2.3%), the Liberal Democrats 18.9% (down 3.7%) and the Tories 16.7% (up by just 0.9%).

The increase in Labour’s share of the vote was higher than the increase in the SNP’s share of the vote, and at an all-Scottish level there was a swing of 0.1% from the SNP to Labour.

But this masks a large number of swings from Labour to the SNP in individual constituencies. The SNP also managed to overtake, albeit narrowly, the Liberal Democrats in terms of its share of the popular vote.

Only in terms of their own preposterous predictions could the SNP be said to have done badly in the elections: Salmond claimed that the SNP would win 20 seats and oblige the Westminster Parliament to “dance to a Scottish jig”. In the event, the SNP began the election with seven seats, and ended it with six.

Labour’s election campaign in Scotland, as in the rest of the country, was based on the theme of, “it’s a two-horse race – a Labour government or a Tory government.” Even though the outcome of the general election was never going to be decided in Scotland – given the absence of any Labour-Tory marginals – Labour’s tactics paid off, both in terms of seats and its share of the popular vote.

The SNP’s campaign was silent on independence for Scotland. Instead, it campaigned on the basis of its record as the minority government at Holyrood and its claim that it was the party best suited to defend Scotland from an incoming Tory government, summed up in the call to elect “local champions”.

Labour is already using its victory in Scotland – and it certainly was a victory – as a springboard for next year’s Holyrood elections. Its argument is that the election results amounted to a vote of no confidence in the SNP’s record in Holyrood and a rejection of the SNP’s aspiration to be the best “local champions”.

The SNP’s counter-argument is that Labour appealed for votes on the basis of ‘keep the Tories out’, without any mention of the SNP’s record in Holyrood. And given that Labour failed to keep the Tories out of 10 Downing Street, Labour’s campaign has been a failure.

Despite its good electoral performance the Labour Party ‘on the ground’ in Scotland remains in a withered state, with a collapsed membership and little by way of active political life in the local wards and constituency management committees.

In many areas local Labour Parties were even struggling to find members and supporters to help out in the election campaign.

It would therefore be a bad mistake to conclude that Labour’s good performance in the elections, both in terms of seats and its share of the popular vote, was the expression of any revival of political life in the Labour Party in Scotland.

Such a revival in future cannot be excluded. But the election results were certainly not evidence of any such a revival to date.

Left Vote

1% of votes cast counted as a ‘good score’ for the 27 left candidates who contested selected Scottish constituencies in last week’s general election.

The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) each contested ten seats – the ‘magic number’ needed for a Scottish election broadcast. Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party (SLP) contested five seats, and the Communist Party of Britain and the Communist League one seat each.

Three SSP candidates broke through the 1% ‘barrier’. Even so, along with the other seven SSP candidates, their votes slumped in comparison with the scores achieved by the SSP in the same constituencies in the 2005 General Election.

(Moreover: the SSP’s performance in 2005 was uniformly poor. Although it was still strong enough at that time to stand a candidate in every Scottish constituency, the only candidate who managed to save his deposit was Sheridan.)

Two TUSC candidates scored higher than 1%. But one of them was Sheridan, taking one last opportunity to trade on the remnants of his celebrity status before meeting his date with destiny in the High Court in Edinburgh in September.

One SLP candidate achieved over 1% of the vote, and two others fell only narrowly short of 1%. This was no small feat for a party which did not leaflet, did not canvas, lacks a public profile, and has virtually no members in Scotland (or elsewhere).

There was one constituency contested by the SSP, TUSC and the SLP. For what it’s worth (i.e. probably nothing), TUSC came ‘first’ (187 votes), the SSP came ‘second’ (179 votes), and the SLP ‘third’ (156 votes). Put another way, they were competing for the three lowest scores in the constituency.

(By contrast, the BNP candidate in the constituency scored more votes (798) than TUSC, the SSP and the SLP added together. Throughout Scotland, with the exception of Sheridan’s personal vote, the BNP did better than left candidates. The 20 SSP and TUSC candidates scored a total of just over 6,700 votes. The 12 BNP candidates picked up just under 8,000 votes.)

The SSP can – and will – put a positive spin on its vote: kept the flag flying, a step forward in rebuilding the SSP after the Sheridan split, picked up some new members, reinvigorated some branches, and provided a basis for contesting next year’s Holyrood elections.

TUSC will do likewise, probably stressing that this was the first time that candidates had stood under the TUSC banner and an electoral breakthrough was therefore hardly to be expected.

In doing so, the Scottish TUSC will be confronted with a more difficult task than the SSP. Despite receiving some £4,000 in trade union funding and the endorsement of various ‘big name’ trade unionists, six of its candidates scored less than 0.7% of votes cast.

Moreover, in Scotland (and probably elsewhere) TUSC was more a flag of convenience than an actual coalition. Election material produced by SWPers standing under the TUSC banner had little in common, apart from the logo, with material produced by other TUSC candidates.

(In Edinburgh, for example, TUSC candidate Gary Clark produced an election address calling for “an independent socialist Scotland”, while SWP-TUSC candidate Willy Black made no mention of Scotland in his election leaflet and was portrayed on the constituency’s TUSC banner selling a copy of “Socialist Worker”.)

When socialists contest elections, how many votes they pick up is not necessarily the most decisive criterion. Electoral interventions are important as an opportunity to talk politics with people. Even so, the number of votes cast does count for something. And, by any standards, last Thursday was not a good day for left candidates in Scotland.

Rather than try and ‘talk up’ the vote, some honest political accounting and political debate would be more useful.


The SSP emerged from the 2003 Holyrood elections with six MSPs. In the 2005 general election the SSP had the resources to stand a candidate in every Scottish constituency (even if they all did extremely poorly).

But in 2006 Sheridan, the SWP and the Socialist Party pulled out of the SSP. In the following year’s Holyrood elections the SSP suffered an electoral wipeout. In last week’s general election the SSP managed to contest only ten seats, with most of its candidates picking up less than 1% of votes cast.

Given the Sheridan/SWP/SP split of 2006 it was inevitable that the SSP would suffer a major loss in terms of financial resources, membership and general political credibility.

That unavoidable collapse in material resources has also been paralleled by a – not in the least unavoidable – political degeneration.

From the outset the SSP advocated an independent socialist Scotland. However uneasily, that policy managed to co-exist with some degree of class politics and some kind of a commitment to the idea of the working class as the decisive agent of social change.

But what is the political physiognomy of the SSP today?
The SSP is now a party of ‘anti-imperialism’ par excellence. In practice that includes: cheering on what it calls “the revolutionary processes in Latin America”, almost uncritical admiration of “the building of socialism in Cuba”, and support for a boycott of Israel and an end to its existence.

(British withdrawal from Afghanistan is another anti-imperialist demand raised by the SSP. But in the SSP’s general election manifesto this demand was motivated by the curious argument that the occupation “damages Britain’s international reputation”.)

This ‘anti-imperialism’ also provides the framework for the SSP’s demand for Scottish independence. Given that Britain is the historical imperialist state par excellence (“the most imperialist and militaristic in Europe”), its break-up would necessarily be a blow against imperialism – “an anti-imperialist act to get excited about.”

In the past it was Norway (small country, small population, oil, long coastline, lots of empty space, and cold) which was cited as a country on which Scotland could model itself. More recently, however, Norway’s exemplary status has been eclipsed by the unfolding revolution in Latin America:

“The SSP sees Scottish independence in the same way (as Bolivian President Evo Morales views change in his country) – a chance to re-found Scotland on the basis of a democratic republic. … We demand the right of the people (of Scotland) to decide their own future. … We can learn a lot of lessons from Latin America.”

Last week’s elections saw “For an Independent Socialist Scotland” as the front-page banner headline in the SSP’s election broadsheet in Glasgow. As the party’s election manifesto proclaimed:

“The SSP is a pro-independence party – no ifs, buts or maybes. We say ‘Yes’ to an independence referendum and ‘Yes’ to independence. We will work with other pro-independence parties [read: SNP and Greens] to deliver a resounding referendum ‘Yes’ vote.”

And once independence has been achieved? Well, continued the manifesto, “beyond that, we stand for an independent socialist republic where the wealth is fairly distributed, and where protection of the environment is paramount.”

How an independent Scotland, to be brought about by the SNP and its SSP sidekick, will end up as an independent socialist republic was left unexplained in the SSP’s manifesto and election material. And any mention of the working class as the agent of socialist transformation was equally absent.

Even the SSP’s approach to opposing cuts in public spending cuts is now tainted and warped by the party’s enthusiasm for an independent Scotland. As one of its candidates explained in the Glasgow election broadsheet:

“The Scottish government and our local councils must protect Scotland’s jobs and services against the London axemen. We need a national mass movement of resistance.”

The SSP’s support for independence also influenced its position on how people should vote in the 49 Scottish constituencies where the SSP was not standing in the general election.

Given the widely differing views within its ranks, the SSP wisely refrained from taking a formal position on the issue. But an article in the last-but-one issue of its paper before the elections left the door open to a vote for the SNP.

The article warned against anyone voting for “any of these authoritarian and right-wing parties” (meaning Labour, Tory and Lib-Dem), but had nothing to say about whether a vote for the SNP might be justified, either across Scotland or at least in individual constituencies.

Although even the SWP’s “Socialist Worker” was able to make a general call for a Labour vote (save where socialist and Respect candidates were standing) on the grounds that “Labour retains a link with the organised working class through its union affiliations”, the SSP distinguished itself by refusing to call for a vote for Labour.

The SSP’s attitude to the union-Labour link which provided the justification for the SWP’s call for a vote for Labour has remained unchanged since the days when the SSP represented a relatively significant political force. The problem is that it was wrong then, and wrong even more so now.

Union funding of the Labour Party is described by the SSP as “absurd, indefensible and no alternative to unions helping to build a working-class socialist alternative.” Union members are urged by the SSP to “demand that your union breaks from its abusive relationship with New Labour” and join the SSP “as individuals”.

So, unions should disaffiliate from the Labour Party. And then what? Apparently – nothing! The SSP’s advocates that the unions pull out of the Labour Party but fails to explain how this relates to the call for unions to “help build a working-class socialist alternative” (other than suggesting that individual trade unionists join the SSP).

Unite, for example, with its one and a half million members, is hardly likely to disaffiliate from the Labour Party and then affiliate to a party of a few hundred which struggles to secure even 1% of the vote in ten constituencies.

(In fact, for now and the foreseeable future Unite is not going to be disaffiliating from the Labour Party anyway.)

In its heyday the SSP was not just a name. It was a political project, one aimed at trying to bring together the different sections of the left in Scotland into a single organisation. For a variety of reasons, that project came to an abrupt end in 2006.

The SSP today still speaks vaguely of a left regroupment as something desirable at some point in the future (but certainly not before Sheridan’s trial later this year).

In the meantime, its perspective for growth is essentially based on one-by-one individual recruitment – exactly what it sought to escape from at the time of its inception.

The SSP will continue to recruit. In fact, it takes only a flight of fancy for the SSP to believe its day has come: Tory Westminster government with no popular mandate from Scotland; SNP discredited by its record in Holyrood; New Labour dead; referendum today; independence tomorrow; and socialism the next day.

But as long as the SSP continues to recruit individuals on the basis of a spurious ‘anti-imperialism’, collaboration with the SNP to (try to) achieve an independent Scotland, and near enough an attitude of ‘anyone but Labour’ in elections – the likelihood is that the residual class-struggle element of the SSP’s politics will become increasingly eclipsed.

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