SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 163 November 2012

The fall of Labour Scotland

Support for Labour in Scotland has been on the slide for years. It has, in fact, lost the backing of its traditional working-class power bases as it has moved ever further to the right. PHILIP STOTT reviews a book tracing this steep decline.

THE PUBLICATION OF The Strange Death of Labour Scotland is certainly timely. Scottish Labour’s historic defeat in the 2011 Scottish parliament elections was a devastating blow to the party, its worst result since1918. The scale of the Scottish National Party’s victory over the once powerful Labour machine was indicated by the fact that Labour won only 15 of the 73 first-past-the-post constituencies. The SNP, in contrast, captured 53, including a majority of the seats in the working-class strongholds of Glasgow, West of Scotland, and across the central belt.

As Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw point out, there has been a long-term decline in support for Labour, accelerated by the establishment of the Scottish parliament in 1999. By the 2011 election Labour’s share of the vote had fallen to 31% across the 73 parliamentary constituencies, while the SNP polled over 45%. In 2012, Labour was defeated by the SNP for the first time in all-Scotland council elections, with the nationalists winning more councillors and a higher share of the vote, under the single transferable vote system.

Although Scottish Labour has never won over 50% of the national vote, the party did hold the overwhelming majority of parliamentary seats and had control over local government for decades. This was not least because Labour was associated with mass council house building, the formation of the NHS, and other reforms following the second world war.

Labour Party membership in Scotland has fallen dramatically, with only 13,000 members on paper – itself a huge exaggeration. Significantly, Scottish Labour refused to release the numbers of party members voting in the leadership election won by Johann Lamont in 2011. The SNP has seen its membership increase to over 20,000 in the last four years and outweighs Labour by a huge margin in terms of activists.

The impact of New Labour in power, which governed so clearly for the rich and big business, the Iraq war, and the Labour/Lib Dem coalition in Scotland from 1999 to 2007 which pursued anti-working-class policies, have all contributed to the decay of Labour’s support in Scotland. Simultaneously, the evolution of the SNP from the ‘Tartan Tories’ of the 1970s towards a radical nationalist, although pro-capitalist, party standing to the left of Labour has also been a key factor in undermining Labour’s base.

A question of class

READERS HOPING TO find a coherent analysis of why these developments have taken place, however, will not find much of one in this disappointing book. The authors do produce some useful facts and figures illuminating Labour’s declining support among the working class in Scotland. But their woefully inadequate explanation of the key factors that have driven this process means that this book is unable to get to grips with what is taking place and why. Chief among their mistaken analysis is their refusal to accept the decisive change in the class character of the party over the last 30 years.

The Socialist Party, formerly Militant, has long argued that Labour, which always had a pro-capitalist leadership, is no longer a workers’ party at its base. It was transformed in Britain during the late 1980s, especially following the collapse of Stalinism in the early 1990s, into an out-and-out capitalist party. The eradication of the socialist Clause Four of the party’s constitution and the rise of New Labour were definitive reflections of this process. This was accompanied by a sharp turn to the right by the leadership to embrace neoliberal policies, the emptying out of working-class membership from the party and the systematic expulsion of the socialist left – in particular, the Marxist wing organised around the Militant newspaper.

Hassan and Shaw do outline some of these processes. For example, Labour has undergone what they describe as "de-factionalisation and de-idelogicalisation". In other words, there is no longer debate about ideas and programme. Nevertheless, they lay heavy emphasis on Labour’s electoral decline being driven by the changed nature of the working class and society generally. They highlight three main factors: a decline in trade union membership, the fall in the numbers living in council housing and Labour’s declining influence in local government, exacerbated by the introduction of proportional representation in council elections in 2007.

However, they exaggerate these factors to a ridiculous degree. They cite the example of Glasgow, which no longer has a single council house left, as if the transfer by the Labour council of the entire stock to a housing association would have, in itself, altered the class outlook of the tenants. Equally, the density of union membership in Scotland, at over 32% of the workforce, is remarkably high given the decline of heavy industry and the rise of the service sector, retail etc. The mass participation in Scotland on the 30th November 2011 public-sector strike underlines the fact that the working class in Scotland, in particular the organised trade union movement with over 650,000 members, is still the most powerful force in society.

This post-modernist approach, which argues that society is no longer divided into classes that can be easily defined as working class, capitalist, etc, is typical of academics who have no roots in the working class nor any record of political struggle.

It is instructive that Hassan and Shaw interviewed only the top echelons of the Labour Party past and present. Perhaps even more instructive is the fact that the authors’ own political roots were in the Labour Coordinating Committee (LCC) and Scottish Labour Action (SLA). These were Labour Party groupings, in particular the LCC, that began on the non-Marxist left and moved rapidly to the right, becoming key pillars in the emergence of New Labour in the 1990s. The LCC, for example, was set up as part of the left around Tony Benn during his challenge for the deputy Labour leadership in the early 1980s. Prominent LCC members included many who became the leadership of Labour in Scotland, Jack McConnell, Margaret Curran and Johann Lamont to name just three.

Backing the witch-hunt

THE AUTHORS ALSO betray their political bias and anti-Marxist prejudice when dealing with the rise of Militant as a major force within the Labour Party. The heroic struggle of the 47 Labour councillors in Liverpool, who defied Thatcher, refused to implement cuts and fought for and won increased resources for the city, is dismissed as "hubris and ultra-left posturing".

By the early 1980s Labour had a policy, fought for by Militant and others on the left, for the mandatory reselection of MPs. No longer was being an MP a job for life. Militant supporters were successfully selected as Labour candidates and won seats in Liverpool (Terry Fields), Coventry (Dave Nellist) and Bradford (Pat Wall) – standing as workers’ MPs on a worker’s wage.

In Scotland Militant supporters, including Ronnie Stevenson, David Churchley and Davie Dick, were narrowly beaten in a number of constituency struggles with the right wing to become parliamentary candidates. The authors describe "a series of fraught and furiously fought contests" where party officials "threw their energies into foiling Militant". Scandalously, the so-called left of the LCC and others, including the Communist Party (through influencing trade union delegates), backed the right-wing candidates. "Resistance to the Trotskyists was marshalled not only by the bitterly hostile right of the party but also by the staunchly anti-Militant LCC".

The witch-hunt against Militant supporters from 1983 was cheered on by the capitalist establishment and the enemies of socialism. A wave of expulsions swept Scotland, in particular the Militant strongholds of Pollok, Cathcart and other areas of Glasgow. The vibrant and active Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS), led by Militant supporters, was shut down. The expulsion of Militant, supported by Hassan, Shaw and their co-thinkers at the time, ushered in the transformation of Labour into what it has become today: a party that is no longer able to represent the working class. This poses the need to build a new workers’ party.

This is partly understood in The Strange Death when Sarah Boyack, in the LCC and now a Member of the Scottish Parliament, is quoted reflecting on the battle with Militant: "There was a battle of ideas and it really seemed to matter if you turned up". Bill Butler, MSP, says: "It was a period of quite genuine political ferment within the party".

Opportunities on the left

THE BOOK GIVES the example of Scottish Labour’s own survey of voters’ views in 1996 which found that, "little difference was seen between New Labour and the Tories. Blair was seen as focused on and from the middle class, and shifting Labour remorselessly rightwards. The disadvantaged were seen as having lost Labour as a voice and a champion". How clear these views are from working-class Labour voters! They reveal the huge political vacuum which had opened up in Scotland. If that was the view before Blair was elected, how much more so is it the case today?

Militant, rooted in the working class, understood this process. We launched Scottish Militant Labour (SML) in 1991 and Militant Labour in England and Wales a year later. SML, whose leaders and activists formed the backbone of the mass anti-poll tax campaign, made spectacular advances in elections in 1992, winning four council seats in Glasgow in first-past-the-post elections, trouncing Labour and the SNP in the working-class housing schemes.

These successes were a big factor in launching the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) in 1998. Its initial impact in 1999 and 2003 demonstrated the scope for building a mass working-class alternative to Labour and the SNP. It is no coincidence that the high points of support for SML and, later, the SSP saw the nationalists lose significant support to the socialist left. The criminal throwing away of the potential to build on the success of the SSP was down to its leaders who had abandoned Marxism after their split from the Committee for a Workers’ International in 2001. Their shameful and catastrophic role during Tommy Sheridan’s court case against Rupert Murdoch’s News International, which resulted in a split, led directly to the collapse of the SSP vote which largely went over to the SNP in 2007.

A few weeks after this book’s publication, Labour’s Scottish leader Johann Lamont sought to shift the party even further to the right. In a key speech, she launched a crusade against the SNP by claiming that Scotland had the only "something-for-nothing culture in the world". In her sights were free personal care for the elderly, that Scottish students pay no tuition fees, the four-year council tax freeze, and free prescriptions. She announced that Labour would establish what has been dubbed a ‘cuts commission’ to unpick the few progressive policies the Scottish parliament has introduced – many of them by the SNP. Lamont’s speech was choreographed to coincide with the UK Labour conference where shadow chancellor Ed Balls promised that the public-sector pay freeze and other austerity measures would continue.

Instead of attacking the SNP from the left for implementing Con-Dem cuts and defending big business, Labour is moving further to the right. By threatening to tear up the limited progressive policies the SNP have introduced it will lose further support among the working class. In the short-term this is likely to benefit the SNP and can also boost support for independence. In particular, Labour’s bloc with the Con-Dem parties in opposition to Scottish independence as part of the ‘Better Together’ campaign can deepen this decay even further.

Hassan and Shaw implore the party to find a "new plausible and popular modus operandi through which it can come to terms with the very different politics and society it finds itself in". But the energies of socialists and trade unionists have to be directed into laying the basis for a new mass working-class party based on a fighting anti-capitalist and socialist programme. Socialist Party Scotland is working to build that idea by standing candidates through the Scottish Anti-Cuts Coalition and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). Against the backdrop of a capitalist crisis likely to last for many years, such a programme has the potential to gain huge popular support.

The Strange Death of Labour Scotland

By Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw

Published by Edinburgh University Press, 2012, £19.99

Home About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page