Pete Cannell discusses the questions that face socialists in Scotland in the up-coming general election
The June general election has the potential to significantly change the political landscape in Scotland. At first many people felt that it would be a non-event. With Scottish Labour hugely discredited and obsessively attacking the SNP for contemplating indyref2, and more pandas in Edinburgh Zoo than Tory MPs, surely the issue was going to be simply how close the SNP could come to a 100% of seats. But the reality is that there is already plenty of evidence that 8 June will not be a rerun of the 2014 independence referendum and the 2015 general election.
Indyref1 moblised a significant minority of Scots, inspired by aspirations for a break with the British state, an end to austerity, and the possibility of a new kind of politics. Most importantly it engaged important sections of the working class who would not have voted in a ‘normal election’. The SNP benefited from a mass influx of new members. That membership has been retained. However, since 2014, the large numbers of indyref1 voters among the poorest and most marginalised parts of Scottish society have born the brunt of Westminster attacks on welfare, swingeing cuts in local services by local authorities and a huge decline in part-time adult education places. On top of this, although it was less toxic in Scotland, the Brexit campaign divided Yes and No camps and provided some openings for the regrowth of the Tory right. Across the UK, Labour was discredited by the Blair and Brown years, but in Scotland, Scottish Labour’s support for unionism explains why the party is now a poor third in the opinion polls.
But now Labour has a manifesto that some have described as socialist is it time for the left in Scotland to pull together and unite around Labour? Ironically, in electoral terms, anything other than a very large upturn in the Labour vote, actually allows in more Tories. So if we want to deny May her mega-majority voting Labour is likely to be counterproductive. There are a few honourable exceptions but additions to the Labour ranks at Westminster from Scotland will also add to the anti-Corbyn ranks in the parliamentary party. But as Scottish Labour and Scottish Conservatives line up full-square for the union, a swing away from SNP will boost the unionist camp. This matters not just because it will make life easier for a Tory Westminster government, but because it also impacts on the character of day-to-day grass roots political activity post election.
There are significant numbers who could form the core of a new left in Scotland. But activists are scattered and divided across several political parties and none. Natural allies that could work together against fracking, racism or job closures are separated and divided. Few on the Labour left are prepared to acknowledge the reasons why Scottish Labour is so discredited. Even fewer are prepared to think about how, when the Tories want a British state that harks back to Empire, the breakup of that state, Scottish Independence and Brexit are important class issues that shape and influence possibilities for struggle.
Typically the Labour left dismisses the working class base of the SNP as misguided Nats. Some on the Indy left characterise Labour as red Tories. My view, in these circumstances, is that the most important task is to ensure that the Tories are unable to reclaim ground and credibility by electing more MPs. One is too many. Falling out over voting Labour or SNP in these circumstances is the last thing we need. The task is to unite these disparate and seemingly hostile groups to create an independent working class force that can begin to overcome these divisions.