JOHN STEVENSON assesses a Scottish political landscape much changed by the Tory majority that nobody predicted
IT IS now clear that the part of the Scottish election campaign that debated whether we would best get social justice by voting Labour, or voting SNP to support and cajole Labour, was painfully academic.
It relied on a narrow Labour win. It forgot that the real enemies are the Tories.
The “voice for Scotland” mantra has backfired. The SNP now has to grapple with a Tory-dominated British Parliament, with much less influence than if Labour had been the largest party.
Despite the pledge to fight austerity, the danger is that the only real achievement of SNP leaders may be one that in private many of them don’t really want. The Tories may happily hand over full fiscal autonomy, leaving Scotland with far more austerity and poverty than it currently faces.
It would, of course, be plain daft not to recognise the mass wave of support for the SNP that saw the unlikely constituency of Edinburgh South become the last bastion of Scottish Labour. Sturgeon is right that Scotland voted for change, but what change?
It would be just as daft to interpret the SNP landslide as a radical vote for a social justice. It is hard to think of any SNP MP with the sound left anti-Trident credentials of Labour’s defeated Katy Clark. If there are any, they have not spoken up much (perhaps because they are not allowed to).
Neither should we assume that all SNP voters supported the party’s austerity-lite manifesto that would have enshrined deficit reduction in law, refused to ban zero-hours contracts (it would “consult business”), eschewed abolition of tribunal fees, opposed a cap on energy prices and refused to back the living wage in procurement. We should not assume they backed the SNP’s £100 million NHS privatisation in Lanarkshire.
The reasons for the SNP landslide are more complex and it cannot just be put down to disaffection and protest. For many there is an element of hope, as yet unfocused, a frustration with the status quo and a belief that there must be something better. Many will feel disenfranchised and the further referendum call will come. But we must not let that distract from the real issues.
For in many ways, the real political debate is just starting. While there is a broad mix of a left-leaning desire for change in the SNP vote, there is also a far bigger nationalist element than it admits.
Nationalism and the concept that all ills come from elsewhere is not just simplistic, it is dangerous. Once the nationalist genie is out of the lamp, it is nigh on impossible for progressive elements in the SNP or anywhere else to control it, even if they wanted to.
So the political debate now needs to get back down to winning the ideas and arguments, not just the emotions. That’s not easy in a climate where emotions and demagoguery have dominated.
When then Labour leader Johann Lamont was urged at the STUC in 2014 to redistribute wealth to spend on public services, her reply was telling. She agreed but added we had not yet won that argument with the electorate.
There lies the problem. We have not won the arguments. For example, the lie that the financial crash was caused by Labour still underpins the public psyche, fostered by the Tories, the SNP and the media. Labour taking one million children out of poverty, implementing the minimum wage and the lowest inflation since the 1960s all vanished as if they never existed.
The widespread anger at cuts and poverty doesn’t translate into action because many still believe the country is broke rather than understanding that the money is just in the wrong hands.
In the vacuum created by the Labour leadership contest after the 2010 election (which we are still paying for and must not repeat), the trade unions were among the few making the arguments against austerity and campaigning for an alternative to ideological cuts designed to permanently undermine our NHS and public services.
We need to redouble our efforts in that role. The Tories know how influential we can be and that’s why we are about to face attacks threatening our very existence.
That means getting back to organising, recruiting, engaging, educating and agitating. We have a membership to represent and they are going to need us now more than ever.
If there is a lesson to be learned from the SNP, it is about discipline around a cause. Granted, the labour movement cause is more complex than just independence but the left has often let people down with its preciousness, divisions, and failure to find common ground and popular support.
The party we are best placed to organise in is the one we created 115 years ago for the same reason as it is needed now. It is the only way to get rid of the Tories.
It is all the more important now that we unite to channel anger and disillusionment into ideas for social change and give a focus for hope that is deeper and wider than just national identity.
A party founded on principles of socialism, fairness and equality, if it sticks to them, has much more to offer on the real issues than one based on a single objective of independence and which will sway with the populist sentiment of the time to achieve that aim.
In the meantime we need to build, strengthen and unite our trade unions. While Labour regroups and the SNP works out what to do other than another referendum, the trade unions will be the only defence our people have from the war about to be unleashed upon them.