SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 213 November 2017

Scottish Labour: on the road to recovery?

The pro-business, pro-war policies of the last 20 years decimated Labour Party support in Scotland. Then it signed up to the establishment’s project fear in the independence referendum. By 2015 it had only one MP in Westminster. Now, with support for Jeremy Corbyn on the rise, and the election of a new Scottish Labour leader on 18 November, a debate has opened up on the way forward in Scotland. PHILIP STOTT, from the Socialist Party Scotland, reviews an important contribution to the discussion.

Socialism and Hope: a journey through turbulent times

By Neil Findlay with Jeff Holmes

Published by Luath Press, 2017, £12.99

Neil Findlay is a leading figure on the Labour left in Scotland and a member of the Campaign for Socialism. Elected as a member of the Scottish parliament (MSP) in 2011, Findlay played a prominent role in the historic 2014 independence referendum on the No side, although not as part of the establishment Better Together campaign as he is at pains to point out in his book. He went on to challenge Blairite Jim Murphy for the Scottish Labour leadership in late 2014, wining a creditable 35% of the vote.

Findlay was also the campaign manager in Scotland for Jeremy Corbyn when he won the leadership of the UK party in 2015, and again following the ill-fated Blairite coup of 2016. Corbyn has written a forward for Socialism and Hope. The book is a worthwhile read as an insight into the attitude of the Labour left on a range of vital questions facing the working-class movement today, including on how to approach the national question.

While Socialist Party Scotland has very important differences with Neil Findlay on a number of issues, we welcome the book and his contribution. Findlay is one of those rare breeds, a working-class politician who still lives in the former mining community he was brought up in. His reputation as a staunch fighter for the interests of workers blacklisted by the giant construction companies is well known. He has been a vocal campaigner demanding justice for miners criminalised during the 1984/85 strike, standing up for women whose health has been devastated by the scandal of mesh implants, and someone who lacerates the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) hypocrisy on austerity at every opportunity.

As outlined vividly in the book, Findlay also has a dismal view of the careerist, right-wing Blairites, which he pulls no punches in expressing. Witnessing former Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock in the House of Lords he writes: "My word, this is the same guy who used to sit with [Dennis] Skinner in the Commons during the Queen’s Speech, protesting at the illegitimacy of the Lords. Now he sits there in ermine, picking up his £300 a day attendance allowance and fully aboard the gravy train". Jim Murphy and his advisor, John ‘serial-loser-and-the-world’s-worst-political-advisor’ McTernan, are treated even more severely.

After ten years as a bricklayer, Findlay, in the mid-1990s, went to university. "I was an active member of the Labour Party locally but never got involved in the Labour club as it was full of wannabes. They were clearly carving out some form of political career". He goes on to say: "Through time, I discovered that Marx’s philosophy chimed with me and my view of the world. It was class that determined almost everything in life: your school, where you lived, your career, how long you lived".

Findlay does not mention Militant – the forerunner of the Socialist Party – or the witch-hunting of the socialist left from Labour in the 1980s. He did not join the Labour Party until the late 1980s, but many of his ideas – certainly on the approach to the national question – are clearly influenced by the Communist Party of Britain and the Morning Star newspaper which he praises.

The independence referendum

Much of the book takes the form of a daily diary leading up to the September 2014 independence referendum. Findlay anticipates its seismic importance and warns in an entry in January 2014: "I have said from the moment I was elected that Scottish Labour MPs don’t get it and are just an X on a referendum ballot paper away from their P45". And so it proved. Despite ‘winning’ the referendum, in the May 2015 general election Scottish Labour was slaughtered, losing 40 of its 41 MPs. What is less clear from Findlay’s book is whether he fully accepts all of the factors behind Labour’s annihilation. He writes: "Labour was crushed by competing nationalisms. Union Jack British nationalism versus Saltire Scottish nationalism". However, this is a not an accurate picture of what actually took place.

Socialist Party Scotland anticipated two years before the referendum that it was very likely to become a lightning rod for mass working-class anger at austerity, the economic crisis and the political establishment which was inflicting it. The creaking edifice of New Labour, its pro-business policies and the anti-working class agenda of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, had reduced Scottish Labour to a shell. Above all, its roots in working-class communities had shrivelled. By siding with the Tories in opposition to independence as part of the Better Together campaign, Scottish Labour ensured its electoral demise.

To be fair to Neil Findlay, he refused to participate in Better Together. As he describes: "Working-class voters are saying to hell with it, independence can’t be worse than this… so we need a response that is better than Better bloody Together". That response, according to his book, was to oppose independence with "a bold radical devolution offer". That meant a transfer of powers to the Edinburgh parliament and "fully-funded, quality public services financed by the UK’s redistribution and devolved Scottish taxes". Not surprisingly, even this was opposed by the pro-austerity Blairites, including Brown. That was until a poll three weeks before the referendum showing the Yes side ahead. At that point the infamous ‘vow’ was unveiled by Brown promising major new powers for Holyrood in the event of a no vote.

An escape from poverty

Where Neil Findlay and the Labour left, including the Communist Party, made a fundamental error was misjudging just how far to the left of the SNP big sections of the independence supporting working class actually were. There was a huge space for a socialist case for independence, one that argued critically for a yes vote while remorselessly criticising the SNP leaders and their ‘white paper’ on independence.

While supporting a yes vote, Socialist Party Scotland responded to the SNP: "Under the SNP plan an independent Scotland would continue with the pound and with the queen as head of state. It would apply to join both the capitalist institutions of Nato and the EU. Nor would there be any nationalisation of the key sectors of the economy, including the energy companies, oil and gas, transport and the banking system… To emphasise their enthusiasm for a big-business agenda, a key plank in the SNP’s plan is a promise to slash corporation tax to 3% below whatever the UK rate is in 2016". (The Socialist, No.791, 4 December 2013)

We showed it was possible to oppose the SNP leadership’s pro-business policies while reaching out to the hundreds of thousands of workers and young people moving towards independence. We had proposed in 2012 the need for a socialist campaign for independence, involving the socialist left, trade unions and anti-austerity activists. The Hope Over Fear tour, at which Tommy Sheridan was the main speaker often accompanied on the platform by Socialist Party Scotland representatives, were huge assemblies of working-class and young people moving in the direction of socialism.

There was tumultuous enthusiasm for the idea of independence based on public ownership of the privatised utilities, oil and transport, a minimum wage of £10 an hour, the ending of zero-hours contracts, the scrapping of the anti-union laws, etc. The slogan of an independent socialist Scotland was utilised by us, at the same time as linking this to the idea of a voluntary socialist confederation of Scotland with England, Wales and Ireland.

Unfortunately, this approach is absent from Socialism and Hope. Findlay instead argues that "nationalism and socialism are two completely different ideologies". While that is true, it is necessary for socialists to differentiate between the nationalism of the working class seeking an escape route from class oppression, and the pro-capitalist nationalism of the SNP leaders. By refusing to give critical support to independence while standing implacably for the unity of the working class, Labour opened the door to the SNP to make sweeping gains in working-class areas across Scotland in 2015. In 2014, there were many workers enthusiastic about independence but who were highly sceptical about the SNP and its then leader Alex Salmond.

Socialism and Hope says the 2014 referendum was a battle between a "neoliberal, low tax, race-to-the-bottom independent Scotland under the SNP", and "the social solidarity of a united trade union movement in a radically devolved federal UK". However, this completely removes from the picture the colossal movement by the working class towards independence, looking to escape poverty, austerity and oppression. The approach should have been to seek to win over at least a section of the working class with a socialist case for independence, while defending the unity of the working class and its organisations across Britain and internationally.

Socialists and the EU

A very telling point is made in the book on the European Union. "Corbyn’s critique of the EU is similar to mine", Findlay writes. "It is a remote, undemocratic institution that pursues neoliberal policies that have caused havoc in countries like Greece, Spain and Italy. It has been a major contributory factor in the crisis of capitalism… and promoted competition and privatisation". So far so good. But he then comments: "Despite this the Parliamentary Labour Party, and the party in general, are pro-EU, so Corbyn took a pro-EU position".

However, why did Jeremy Corbyn not campaign on his principled internationalist position and for a socialist exit from the EU? It would have been possible to have linked up with unions like the RMT (Rail Maritime Transport), which Findlay praises in his book, Aslef train drivers and the Bakers’ Union, as well as the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), in a left campaign to leave the EU. Had Corbyn, Findlay and the Labour left fought on this platform they would have appealed to millions of workers and cut across, to a significant degree, the racism and xenophobia of Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and co.

By conceding to the Blairites in his own party on this issue it strengthened the hand of the right wingers and reactionary nationalism and racism. Indeed, Brexit is now being used by the Labour right to undermine Corbyn in their drive to push Labour into defending the single market and customs union and, they hope, even stay in the EU itself.

Dealing with the Blairites

Concessions to the Blairite wing of the party, which operates openly in the interests of capitalism, are all too prevalent in Socialism and Hope. When Jim Murphy was forced to resign as Scottish leader after the disastrous 2015 general election, Neil Findlay offered Kezia Dugdale his full support: "I met with Kez and advised her to be the unity candidate who will work across the party… I don’t want anything from her, just a fair crack of the whip for left candidates".

Findlay had ruled himself out of standing for the contest but why make such an offer to a right winger in the party? Just a few weeks later, Jeremy Corbyn announced that he was to stand for the UK Labour leadership and Findlay became his campaign manager in Scotland. As he points out, Dugdale returned Findlay’s kind offer of support by attacking Corbyn who, she said, would leave "Labour carping on the sidelines" if he won. In 2016 Dugdale went on to call on Corbyn to "consider his position" when the coup against him began. One of the first shadow ministers to resign – live on TV – was Ian Murray, Scotland’s only Labour MP. Dugdale rewarded his treachery by bringing Murray into her own ‘shadow cabinet’.

The idea of peaceful coexistence between left and right, which Socialism and Hope seems to welcome, is a utopia: "For the first time in decades, we have a proper balanced slate of candidates with members from both wings of the party. In the broad church that is the Labour Party, this is exactly how it should be". The right wingers in the Labour Party are ruthless. They will do everything in their power to defeat the left and remove Corbyn over time. In this they have the full backing of the capitalist establishment.

A broad socialist Labour party is one thing. We are in favour of trade unions and socialists from all backgrounds being in one party, with the right to organise into trends and platforms to assist democratic debate and discussion. But the avowedly pro-capitalist and pro-war right is another question altogether. They should be removed through methods like democratic reselection of MPs, MSPs and councillors, in order to create a genuine anti-austerity and left-wing Labour Party. Unfortunately, this is something Neil Findlay currently seems opposed to.

The left is challenging for the Scottish leadership once again. This is welcome and Socialist Party Scotland is calling for support for Richard Leonard, as we did for Neil Findlay when he stood in 2014. However, while a Leonard victory would be a step forward, the mistakes over the national question still continue. Leonard has said: "For the avoidance of doubt, let me make it clear – there will be no ground ceded to nationalism at the expense of progressive socialism under my leadership… And no second independence referendum".

Such an inflexible position carries the real danger of taking Scottish Labour down the road of the ‘social democratic’ PSOE in Spain, which has disgraced itself by uniting with the Spanish ruling class to deny Catalonia the right to self-determination. Even under a left leadership, unless a change in approach is taken, Labour will struggle to recover. As it is, Scottish Labour’s membership has not seen the surge witnessed in other parts of the UK.

While the intensity of the mood in favour of independence has dipped, support for it is still at historically high levels. Moreover, Labour councillors continue to vote through cuts across Scotland. Labour’s modest recovery at the June general election – although it only added 9,860 votes to its 707,147 tally in 2015 – and the widespread support and sympathy for Jeremy Corbyn, has not resulted in a major advance in the polls. Under a new left leadership this must be addressed. A fighting socialist policy to oppose all cuts and a class approach towards Scottish independence is essential. Socialism and Hope, unfortunately, does not clearly offer that alternative.

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