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Scottish elections: tactical questions for the workers’ movement

Elections for the Scottish parliament take place in May. As Con-Dem cuts rain down, New Labour is expected to gain. Unfortunately, the socialist alternative has been severely set back by the disgraceful role played by leaders of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) in the prosecution of Tommy Sheridan. PHILIP STOTT reports on the latest moves to mount an electoral challenge and build the anti-cuts movement.

THE SCOTTISH parliamentary elections due to take place on 5 May will be conducted against the backdrop of the most severe cuts in public spending in generations. The Scottish government, in an act of supreme irony, succeeded in implementing a savage cuts budget in February with support from the Tories and Lib Dems. The result is a £1.3 billion reduction in funding for public services in Scotland for 2011/12. Whichever of the establishment parties wins the election, further cuts of another £2 billion are planned over the next three years.

The consequences for jobs, services and working conditions are horrendous. So-called ‘super Thursday’ (10 February) saw the majority of Scotland’s councils set cuts budgets amounting to slashing more than £500 million from local government over the next year. The GMB trade union estimates that 10,000 jobs will be lost in Scotland’s public services. This will prove to be an underestimate – Glasgow city council, alone, plans to axe a minimum of 3,500 posts over the next two years.

On top of this are the cuts at a UK level that directly affect the welfare state, including Scotland’s share of £18 billion in benefit cuts and the slashing of civil service jobs. This will add billions more in cuts to the Scottish economy.

These attacks are being implemented with hardly a whimper of opposition from Labour and Scottish National Party (SNP) councillors and members of the Scottish parliament (MSPs). The mere suggestion that they should stand up and oppose the Con-Dem austerity programme has barely registered with the overwhelming majority of them. Rather than take ‘the Liverpool road’ – set needs budgets and build a mass campaign for a return of the £1.3 billion stolen by the Con-Dem government – without exception they have been prepared to vote for cuts in one form or another.

A book could be written cataloguing the spinelessness of the ironically-termed ‘opposition’ parties. Labour in Glasgow has slashed £100 million from the budget for the next two years. North Lanarkshire has axed £55 million, including 600 job losses, in what the Labour leader, Tom McCabe, described as a ‘socialist’ budget – because it spread the pain evenly! The SNP/Lib Dem coalition in Aberdeen demanded a 5% pay cut from all workers on over £21,000 a year. When this was rightly rejected by the trade unions, the council came back with a proposal for 900 compulsory redundancies. In Fife, the SNP/Lib Dem coalition has voted to privatise all the council’s residential care homes. In Dundee, the SNP council has imposed cuts of £15 million, including the privatisation of services and major cuts to education.

The SNP’s new social contract

ACROSS SCOTLAND THE local government employers’ body, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA), has already imposed a three-year pay freeze (ie a pay cut) on all council workers, which will result in a 10-12% cut in living standards. The SNP’s first minister, Alex Salmond, declared: "If people are willing to accept pay restraint, then we will do our bit to protect family budgets and job security". Public-sector workers will reply: How can you protect family budgets when faced with year-on-year wage cuts? How can job security be protected when tens of thousands of jobs are being slashed from the public-sector pay-roll?

Salmond wants to see a new version of the discredited ‘social contract’. In other words, an agreement between the government, employers and workers that cuts to pay and terms and conditions should be accepted in order to avoid compulsory redundancies and to defend the ‘social wage’. Like the social contract proposed by the right-wing Labour government in the1970s, this is nothing more than a cover for cuts. In reality, only a determined mass struggle by workers and local communities to defend every job, oppose wage cuts and all attacks on services, can defeat the parties of cuts and privatisation.

This has not stopped the right-wing trade union leaders from embracing the social contract idea. A recent document presented with no prior notice to the February meeting of the Scottish Council of Unison proposed that the union should sign up to an agreement with COSLA and the Scottish government – a framework agreement that the Scottish TUC has already put its name to. The Public Sector Workforce Framework argues for "the pursuit of the goal of no compulsory redundancies in exchange for agreement to real and meaningful working practices that allow employers to generate the package of savings required to fund this goal".

The vast majority of Unison branches were outraged by these proposals and the fact that the Scottish Unison leadership advocated the agreement. Following the debate, during which Socialist Party Scotland (SPS – CWI Scotland) members played a leading role, the framework document was overwhelmingly rejected by Unison.

This defeat for a ‘partnership’ agreement that accepts the inevitably of cuts comes after the union voted in December to call on councils and the Scottish government to set needs budgets that protect jobs and services. It was also agreed by Unison that coordinated strike action across the public sector was necessary to build mass opposition to the cuts. Again, these policy positions were put forward by SPS members and were passed overwhelmingly.

The successful launch of the Scottish Anti-Cuts Alliance (SACA) at the end of January is a very significant step forward for building an anti-cuts movement with a fighting programme. One hundred trade unionists and anti-cuts campaigners, representing 23 trade union and anti-cuts organisations, agreed to launch SACA on a clear opposition to all cuts, for setting needs budgets, and that politicians who want to take part in the anti-cuts movement must vote against all cuts. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) sought to water down the founding principles of SACA to allow Labour and SNP politicians who vote for cuts to participate in the campaign. This was rejected by the conference. In contrast, the Right to Work (RtW) campaign set up by the SWP allows politicians onto its Scottish steering committee without ‘checking their credentials’, including an SNP MSP who voted for cuts.

Rebuilding a left political challenge

WITH THE MAIN establishment parties implementing Con-Dem savagery, trade unionists and wider sections of working-class communities will be looking increasingly for a political alternative to the parties of cuts and privatisation. However, the temporary lack of a major left force in Scotland, as well as a desire to protest against the Con-Dem cuts, will probably see Labour emerge as the biggest party in Scotland after the May elections. This will partly be a continuation of the ‘lesser evilism’ that predominated in the 2010 Westminster elections, with the added advantage for Labour that it is now out of power in Westminster and Holyrood. Labour is attempting to absolve itself from any blame for the cuts by posing as an ‘opposition’ to the SNP government in Edinburgh and the Cameron/Clegg coalition in London.

The effective collapse of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) in 2006, due to the political mistakes and degeneration of the leadership of that party – who left the ranks of the Committee for a Workers’ International in 2001 – has left a very bad legacy. (See: Lessons from the SSP Experience, Socialism Today No.100, April 2006.) The SSP lost 90% of its vote between the 2003 and 2007 elections and is finished as a viable electoral force.

The SSP has weakened its position even further as a result of its leadership being widely seen as having played the central role in the conviction and subsequent jailing of Tommy Sheridan on charges of perjury in January. Incredibly, the vendetta carried out against Tommy and Gail Sheridan was only possible through an unholy alliance of the SSP leadership, police, legal establishment and Rupert Murdoch’s empire. SSP members actively encouraged the perjury investigation, including selling a video to the News of the World for £200,000, and handing in SSP Executive Committee ‘minutes’ to Lothian and Borders police. Both formed a key part of the state’s case against Tommy. In all, 24 SSP members gave evidence for the prosecution during the longest and most expensive perjury trial in Scottish legal history.

A colossal £4 million of public money was squandered in this political prosecution of Scotland’s best-known socialist. SPS gave and continues to give our full support to Tommy Sheridan and his family, as well as the Defend Tommy Sheridan Campaign.

As well as working as part of Solidarity, SPS has also encouraged the development of the Scottish Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (STUSC). Our preferred option for the upcoming May elections was for a Scotland-wide challenge under the banner of STUSC, with Tommy Sheridan heading the list in Glasgow. However, given the limited nature of the coalition at this stage, reflected in the lack of involvement by wider forces, this will not be possible. At present, STUSC involves the forces around Solidarity, one branch of the RMT union, and the Lanarkshire Socialist Alliance.

There is a temporary mood among a layer of trade union activists on the left to hold back from engaging in the political field, which necessitates a left challenge to Labour and the SNP. This has been reinforced by the coming to power of the Con-Dem coalition with a savage cuts programme, which the Labour-supporting trade union bureaucracies have used to bolster their case that the alternative to the cuts involves building support for Labour. However another, critical, factor is the legacy of the SSP’s disintegration and its leadership’s role in the jailing of Tommy Sheridan. This has tarnished the idea of building a socialist electoral alternative among a layer of workers – although this will change in the period we are moving into.

Despite this temporary situation, STUSC will continue and, in particular, prepare for the 2012 local government elections in Scotland. The likely coming to power in Scotland of a Labour-led government and the deepening of the anti-cuts movement will allow for a wider and stronger electoral challenge by STUSC next year.

In the meantime, we are proposing that Solidarity should stand a list of candidates for the Scottish elections in a number of regions. One exception is the Central region, where we would advocate a TUSC-type list involving the Lanarkshire Socialist Alliance and the RMT Motherwell and Wishaw branch. The other exception is Glasgow, where George Galloway has announced his intention to stand for the Scottish parliament.

Discussions for an electoral bloc

GEORGE GALLOWAY’S DECLARATION that he will stand for a Glasgow list seat was followed in late January by an approach to Solidarity about the possibility of a short-term electoral agreement for the May elections.

The SPS was not opposed to discussing with Galloway to see if a genuine agreement was possible on the basis of a consistent anti-cuts and left platform for the elections. The Socialist Party in England and Wales had discussed with Galloway and the SWP in 2004 at the time of the formation of Respect. Before then, in discussions with Galloway, the Socialist Party had advocated that he should announce his intention to launch a new left party at the height of the anti-war movement in 2003, on the day when over one million marched to Hyde Park in London.

He did not do this, however, setting up Respect in early 2004. Nevertheless, the Socialist Party went through the process of discussion, while making its position clear on the need for a principled programme and orientation for Respect. In the end this was not possible due to significant differences over programme and the undemocratic functioning of Respect, which was dominated by the SWP and Galloway. (See: The Crisis in Respect, Socialism Today No.114, December 2007.)

For the discussions on the Scottish elections, SPS drew up a list of minimum proposals that would form the basis of an acceptable agreement to stand on a joint list in Glasgow with George Galloway (see box). To refuse outright to even discuss with Galloway would not have been understood among a wider layer of trade unionists as well as youth.

However, unlike the SWP, which in 2004 put no political conditions to an agreement to establish Respect – taking part, in effect, in an unprincipled ‘lash-up’ to create a new organisation – we adopted the opposite approach. Our minimum proposals for an electoral bloc include a fighting programme for the anti-cuts movement, support for needs budgets, as well as a guarantee that any elected candidates, including of course George Galloway, will not vote for cuts in the parliament or take part in a coalition with Labour. These have been agreed to. It means that, while we have not yet finalised an agreement at the time of writing, it is possible that SPS, Solidarity and George Galloway (Respect) will stand on a joint list for Glasgow.

Strengthening the anti-cuts campaign

THIS ELECTION PLATFORM would represent an opportunity to strengthen the anti-cuts movement in the city – particularly as the list would include, if an agreement is reached, the leading figure of the anti-cuts movement in Glasgow, Brian Smith, the secretary of the Glasgow council Unison branch, who is an SPS member.

It is clear that George Galloway intends to run an anti-establishment and left campaign in Glasgow. If he is prepared to adopt the programme of the anti-cuts movement in the city (in which the Defend Glasgow Services Campaign plays the leading role) this campaign could be used to strengthen the anti-cuts movement. This list is also certain to emerge with the largest left vote in Glasgow since the height of the SSP’s support in 2003.

In the concrete case of the situation in Glasgow there is no possibility of any other ‘left’ figure or party being elected to the Scottish parliament. Of course, SPS would have preferred Tommy Sheridan to have won his court case and been available to stand, but this is not an option.

George Galloway, despite the important political differences that exist between us, is widely seen as an anti-establishment figure. Moreover, if he runs a left campaign, which is much more likely with a joint list with Solidarity, he is likely to gain the ear of tens of thousands of working-class people in the city. This campaign can have a powerful impact and is also an opportunity to deepen and strengthen the anti-cuts movement, a vital requirement to ensure that any electoral agreements to fight the cuts are kept to and implemented in practice.

The Scottish electoral system means that around 6-7% of the ‘list vote’ for Glasgow will result in the election of an MSP. There is a good chance that Galloway could be elected on an anti-cuts platform, which would be a significant boost for the campaign. Even a strong vote for such a list would bolster the case for a wide scale anti-cuts electoral challenge for the 2012 local elections. Nothing that may transpire subsequently would negate the fact that the vote achieved in Glasgow was because of the principled position on the cuts and a fighting left programme.

During the campaign, the SPS can also energetically put forward our wider programme for a socialist solution to the capitalist crisis, including the vital task of building a new mass workers' party, which can be widely propagated through leaflets, posters, etc, as well as the major public rallies that will be held during the campaign.

This is not the first time that Marxists have had to confront such questions. Temporary agreements and blocs, even with political forces that we have major differences with, are not new. This applies in the trade union field where, in some cases, socialists are obliged to work in broad lefts with people who are in opposition to them on other political issues. Especially on the electoral plane, agreements with parties, groups and individuals who socialists have political differences with are inevitable at certain stages.

The CWI has a rich experience of this type of work, including most recently our participation in the United Left Alliance in Ireland. In all these cases, and numerous others, it is a question of applying a united front approach, even of a temporary character, that can help strengthen the independent interests and voice of the working class – as a step towards building a new mass workers’ party. At the same time, this must go hand-in-hand with the promotion of a clear socialist and Marxist programme, and building support for organised Marxism which will become a pole of attraction for increasing numbers of workers and young people in the tumultuous events that will engulf Scotland.

A fighting anti-cuts programme

The Socialist Party Scotland proposed that any joint campaign for the Glasgow list seats between George Galloway and the forces involved in Solidarity should include:

Fight the cuts

Opposition to all cuts in jobs, services, benefits and pensions, whether carried out by the Con-Dem coalition in Westminster or Labour and the SNP in Scotland.

Oppose privatisation and support public ownership.

Support for councillors and MSPs who refuse to do the Con-Dem’s dirty work.

Support for the setting of needs budgets that protect jobs and public services.

Support for the Defend Glasgow Services Campaign and clear opposition to the cuts of Glasgow’s Labour council.

That any coalition campaign will not advocate a vote for any Labour or SNP candidate in Glasgow for the constituency section of the elections unless a Labour or SNP candidate supports the anti-cuts stand as outlined above.

We won’t pay the price for the bankers’ crisis

Tax the rich and big business.

Democratic public ownership of the banks.

Scrap the council tax – make the rich pay.

Support for ending the anti-trade union laws.


Support for a referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future.

Support for extending the powers of the Scottish parliament.


Leaflets and election material should be agreed between the coalition partners.

That any candidates elected will vote against all budgets presented to the parliament that would result in cuts to jobs and services, and only support legislation and bills that are in the interests of working-class people.

That any candidates elected will not participate in any formal or informal coalition with either Labour or the SNP, but will only vote on a case-by-case basis for progressive legislation.


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