Scottish Labour: turn outwards, or close down?

Submitted by Matthew on 17 June, 2015 - 11:46 Author: Dale Street

“Can the Scottish Labour Party listen and learn from its defeat on 7 May?” asked Katy Clark, former Labour MP for North Ayrshire and Arran, at last Saturday’s Campaign for Socialism (CfS) conference in Glasgow.

The 70-plus Scottish Labour members attending the event were clear about some of the things that Labour needed to do in response to that question. The same cannot be said of the Scottish Labour Executive Committee, meeting at the same time.

Speakers at the CfS conference emphasised the need for local Labour Party branches to turn outwards and campaign alongside of trade unionists and community groups, instead of just going door-knocking and asking for people’s votes.

As an appeal from one of the strikers in the Glasgow City Council homelessness caseworkers dispute highlighted, this includes campaigning against Labour-controlled local authorities which implement Westminster and Holyrood austerity dictates.

The need to expose the SNP’s record in power at Holyrood since 2007 was also emphasised: cuts in Further Education, growing inequalities in educational attainment in schools, real cuts in NHS spending, undemocratic centralisation, and not a single redistributive policy.

(Other than the council tax freeze, which serves as a tax cut for the better off.)

In fact, the SNP’s only real achievement over the past decade has been to replace class-based political affiliations and voting patterns by ones based on Scottish national identity, for which the enemy is not unaccountable wealth and power but “Westminster”.

In a conference session on trade unionism in Scotland a speaker from the Fire Brigades Union highlighted the reality of what the “left-wing” SNP and its policies mean for unions.

The last FBU Scottish Regional Secretary, himself a member of the SNP, had failed to lead a fight against SNP cuts of 400 frontline jobs, cuts in non-operational staff, and the closure of control rooms.

By agreeing to work in “partnership” with the SNP government and Fire and Rescue Service bosses, the FBU found itself discussing where cuts should be made, rather than challenging the supposed need for cuts to be made at all.

A similar approach has been adopted by the Scottish TUC. “Working Together” is not just the name of a recent report jointly produced by the SNP government, trade unions and employers. It also sums up a political philosophy now shared by the SNP and the STUC:

Unions, employers and the Holyrood government supposedly have a common interest in building a strong Scottish economy. This requires partnership between workers and bosses, working together in the national interest — rather like Peronism, but without the sunshine and the musical.

“Cognitive dissonance” is how one speaker described the behaviour of SNP members in the EIS, the union covering Scottish schools and Further Education. FE has been one of the prime targets of SNP cuts — and yet many SNP members in the EIS still cannot bring themselves to criticise the party’s policies.

Other speakers pointed out that the much-vaunted “SNP Trade Union Group” consists of SNP members who happen to be members of a union (and not necessarily active ones), not trade unionists organising in the SNP to advance a specifically trade union agenda.

In fact, the group’s only publicly declared policy is to campaign for trade union disaffiliation from the Labour Party: The idea of trade unions having their own form of political representation is anathema to the SNP’s corporatism.

While the CfS conference grappled with the problem of how to rebuild Scottish Labour as a democratic campaigning organisation, committed to socialist policies, and rooted in the community, the workplace and the trade unions, the Executive Committee was carrying on with the job of killing it off.

At its May meeting failed leader Jim Murphy had announced, albeit reluctantly, his intention of resigning. But, as a parting shot, he had promised to rewrite the rules for the election of leader and deputy leader.

With opposition virtually confined to the trade union delegates, last Saturday’s meeting of the Executive Committee dutifully voted through:

• Abolition of the electoral college; elections to be held on the basis of one person, one vote.

• Franchise for leader and deputy leader election to consist of: members; trade unionists who have signed up as affiliated members; registered supporters (i.e. anyone willing to part with £3).

• Candidates for leader need to be nominated by at least 15% of MSPs, MPs and MEPs. (Such is the parlous state of the Scottish Labour that “15%” works out as: 7.)

• Councillors to be eligible to stand for deputy leader if they obtain the required number of nominations (which means that the Blairites have a councillor lined up to be deputy leader).

• Nomination period for leader and deputy leader to last for a week (in fact: next week). Voting will take place from mid-July to mid-August. This leaves affiliated trade unions with less four weeks to encourage members to sign up as affiliated members.

• The “regional lists” of candidates for next year’s Holyrood elections to be “reopened” (presumably to allow failed right wing ex-MPs to be given top positions) and non-members to be allowed to join the and promptly be nominated as a candidate.

• Iain Gray to be appointed interim leader for the duration of the leadership contest. (Gray led the party to defeat in the 2011 Holyrood elections. He is remembered solely for having been filmed running away from a couple of hecklers in Glasgow Central Station.)

A dozen motions from CLPs opposing rewriting the rules without consultation with CLPs were not even discussed by the Executive Committee. And Kezia Dugdale — who, only a couple of weeks ago, was making overtures to the left in preparation for her leadership bid — voted in favour of all the “reforms”.

News of the Executive Committee’s decisions arrived too late to be discussed at its conference. But the substance of those decisions underlines the readiness of the Blairites-Murphyites to see Scottish Labour killed off rather than move to the left.

“I welcome that the Labour Party was defeated so comprehensively in Scotland, this was a step forwards” said Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) co-convenor Colin Fox at a meeting of the Unite United Left (Scotland) a fortnight ago.

Fox was at least being consistent. After last year’s referendum the SSP had proposed that the SNP, Greens and SSP form an electoral bloc (“Yes Alliance”) which would stand a single joint candidate in each constituency in the general election. Unsurprisingly, the SNP and the Greens were not interested.

The SSP ended up standing just four candidates on the basis of a manifesto which declared the key thing in the election to be “inflicting (the) most damage on Labour and maintaining the strength of the broad independence movement.”

Labour certainly did suffer massive damage in the election. But the SSP cannot take any of the ‘credit’ for this. On average, their four candidates polled slightly over 200 votes (0.5% of the constituency vote). This was around half their average constituency vote in the 2010 general election.

So SSP is consoling itself by welcoming Labour’s “comprehensive defeat” and looking forward to the 2016 Holyrood elections, when, according to Fox, “our turn will come.”

“Solidarity — Scotland’s Socialist Movement” — a rump organisation which serves as a vehicle for Tommy Sheridan’s ego – was shameless in calling for a vote for the SNP in the general election:

“The blue, red and yellow Tories are united for Trident, cuts and more austerity. On May 7th THE ONLY WAY to stop Trident renewal, more cuts and more poverty is to VOTE SNP.”

Like the SSP, “Solidarity” looks forward to its “turn” coming in 2016: “Next year a clear socialist alternative to current SNP policies must be presented for the Hollyrood elections.”

In previous elections the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Socialist Party (SP) have collaborated with “Solidarity”. But this time the SWP and SP contested the election under the banner of a Sheridan-free Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). Reflecting the decline in the SSP vote, votes cast for the ten TUSC candidates were around half of what they had been in 2010. The average vote of their ten candidates on 7th May was 177 (0.4% of the constituency vote).

The SP’s post-election analysis focused on Labour’s virtual annihilation on 7 May and put an idiot-optimist gloss on TUSC’s miserable election performance: “Although the votes were modest(!), given the tsunami towards the SNP, TUSC received the two highest votes on the left, in Dundee West and Glasgow South.”

Undaunted, the SP now also looks forward to the 2016 Holyrood elections: “By standing widely, despite the objective difficulties, we laid the basis for a much stronger challenge in 2016.”

All groups would do better if they looked at their own political record.

In the referendum campaign — and even well before then in the case of the SSP — they acted as bag-carriers for the SNP, selling the SNP’s nationalist political project of independence as a way to fight austerity — and British imperialism!

They also helped the SNP to shift Scottish political “discourse” away from an even vaguely class-based one to one based on national identity, and one in which the basic class divide in society is replaced by the notion of a Holyrood-Westminster divide.

In the general election campaign they chimed in with the SNP’s denunciations of Labour as “Red Tories” who had betrayed Scotland and its working people by campaigning for a “No” vote in the referendum.

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