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Socialism Today 110 - June 2007

Scottish National Party victorious: what now?

ON MAY 3 the Scottish National Party (SNP) won the popular vote in an election in Scotland for the first time in its 73-year history. It came top in the constituencies and the regional list vote, outpolling Labour by 33% to 32%, and 31% to 29% respectively. Its aggregate vote was 1.3 million votes to Labour’s 1.24 million (actually slightly less than the 1.31 million votes it won in the inaugural Scottish elections in 1999).

While Labour’s vote did not collapse, a 2.5% drop in the constituency vote and a marginal 0.1% fall in the regional vote was enough for the SNP to emerge as the largest party by one seat. Labour has lost an election in Scotland for the first time in 52 years.

The SNP increased its MSPs (Members of the Scottish Parliament) from 27 in 2003 to 47. Particularly significant was the increase in constituency (first-past-the-post) seats from nine to 21. The SNP won both Dundee seats and one in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow, as well as other working-class constituencies in West Lothian, Kilmarnock and Central Fife, on top of its rural base.

While support for the Tories and Liberal Democrats was largely unchanged – both down one MSP – smaller parties and independents saw their votes drain away towards the SNP. Of 17 MSPs elected in 2003 – six Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), seven Greens, four independents – only three remain, two Greens and Margo McDonald.

In the 2003 regional list vote 22.5% backed candidates other than from the main four parties. This fell to 11.3%. The Greens national share of the poll fell by 3%, despite sympathetic press coverage and the environment being a central political issue, a 50,000 vote drop (down 37.5%). The SSP vote collapsed catastrophically by 90%, from 128,000 (6.7% of the national poll) in 2003 to 12,700 (0.6%). The SSP was outpolled not only by the new socialist movement, Solidarity, but also by the British National Party, Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, and the Scottish Christian Party. Solidarity picked up 31,000 votes, 1.5% of the national poll.

The SNP’s victory was largely based on the fact that it was seen as the main vehicle with which to hit back at New Labour. Opposition to New Labour’s record, at Holyrood and Westminster, created a mood for change. To capitalise on this the SNP – a pro-capitalist party promoting neo-liberal policies – had to stand to the left of New Labour on a series of social issues. While wheeling out millionaires like Brian Souter, George Matheson and Tom Farmer, and promoting the ‘Celtic Tiger’ model for an independent Scotland, the SNP also supported the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, the scrapping of Trident, abolition of council tax, ending student debt, and an end to PFI, among other generally progressive policies.

It is also clear, however, that a section of the population, including a layer of older workers, voted Labour to keep the SNP out. New Labour concentrated almost exclusively on the theme that an SNP vote was for ‘separation, instability and conflict’. This strategy worked in 1999 but had less impact this time as opposition to New Labour has deepened. Nevertheless, there was a section of working-class people who stuck with the ‘devil they knew’.

So what will the SNP do in power? First Minister Alex Salmond, in his first speech to parliament, outlined his government’s approach: the SNP would "allow Scottish business to flourish", as a "vibrant dynamic economy was the beating heart of a successful country". He promised to cut business taxes for small firms and establish an International Economic Council of advisors, so Scotland could become part of the ‘arc of prosperity’ from Ireland to Iceland to Norway, and to match UK economic growth within four years. He completely omitted the populist elements of the SNP’s manifesto. In fact, Labour leader and ex-First Minister Jack McConnell, berated Salmond for not mentioning what he would do about poverty. This is an anticipation of how on some issues, hypocritically to gain political advantage, New Labour can attack the SNP from the left now it is in opposition.

Thus far the SNP has moved only to abolish the remaining bridge tolls in Scotland and block efforts to build new nuclear power stations. Even its environmental policies – underpinned by expanding renewable energy and carbon capture initiatives – are to be delivered primarily by handing responsibility to multi-national companies like BP, Ibredrola/Scottish Power and Babcock, which are only interested in profit and multi-million pound government subsides.

As a minority administration the SNP has clearly decided to tailor its legislative programme to what the other big-business parties will support, hoping to avoid being seen as a paralysed government largely unable to get its legislation through. It remains to be seen how much of the SNP’s manifesto it brings forward – unless it is faced with a significant class movement and is forced to respond.

A genuine left government in a minority position would make an appeal to the working class outside parliament and seek to mobilise public support to push the introduction of progressive policies. If this was not possible and the government was blocked in carrying through its policies, at a certain stage, it would be correct to force new elections and seek a mandate for decisive economic and social change linked to the need to build a mass movement to challenge capitalist interests. This is not a route the SNP will take as it is not even a genuine left party, far less a socialist force. That is not to argue, however, that the SNP will not be forced to attempt some radical measures. At least initially, the main political direction of the SNP will be to disappoint those workers and young people who voted for it.

On independence, its manifesto pledged a ‘white paper’ to begin to prepare for a referendum. But there is no prospect of this being passed in the current parliament. Salmond now calls for a ‘conversation with the people of Scotland’ on constitutional change and appeals to the MSPs, a majority, who were elected on a policy of ‘constitutional evolution’. This may be a precursor for a new ‘Constitutional Convention’ to draw up plans for extending parliament’s powers. This is supported by the Liberal Democrats, and could involve the SNP, sections of the Labour Party, and the Tories. At this stage, public support for extending parliament’s powers over tax, Trident and other issues is double that for outright independence.

With Gordon Brown replacing Tony Blair as prime minister there is also the potential for a series of conflicts between the SNP in Scotland and New Labour in Westminster which can further inflame the national question. A future Westminster general election, particularly if David Cameron’s Tories were elected, could also ignite the national question still further.

May 3 also extended the SNP’s influence in local government. The new single transferable vote (STV) system of electing councillors and the fall in Labour support radically altered the make-up of local authorities. The SNP is part of ruling administrations in almost half of the 32 councils in Scotland – almost all in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. These include Edinburgh, Aberdeen, and the second-largest council, Fife. With the SNP’s history in local government of attacks on workers’ rights and supporting privatisation and cuts, this will bring it into collision with a much wider section of local government workers and working-class communities than before – especially against the background of new spending cuts under Brown.

Under these conditions – with the SNP being put to the test like never before – the opportunities to build a fighting socialist alternative in Scotland can grow rapidly. The fact that there are no socialist MSPs is a setback. The responsibility for this lies with the actions and policies of the SSP leadership which forced a split and the formation of the new socialist party, Solidarity, in September last year. The SSP leadership was widely seen to have backed Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World against Tommy Sheridan and they paid a devastating price. Not only were the SSP wiped out of parliamentary representation but it was Solidarity that clearly emerged as the main socialist force, winning 70% of the socialist vote.

The task now is to deepen the roots of Solidarity as a socialist party by taking up the issues facing working-class communities and young people. The International Socialists, the CWI in Scotland, whose members play a key role in Solidarity, will campaign to build Solidarity and the forces of Marxism in Scotland. With the big-business agenda set to continue, now through the SNP, working-class people need a fighting socialist party to defend their interests.

Philip Stott


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