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Scotland 2018: A Marxist analysis from Socialist Party Scotland

The following is a document on political, economic and social perspectives for Scotland that was discussed, voted on and agreed at the recent conference of Socialist Party Scotland. The document was drafted in early February 2018.  

Perspectives for Scotland 2018

Predicted economic growth for the Scottish economy for 2017-2021, at less than 1% per year, paints a picture of a capitalist economy mired in depression. According to the Fraser of Allander Institute: “such low trends in economic growth for Scotland have not been witnessed in 60 years.” According to the recent OECD survey, the Scottish economy will grow more slowly than all 46 advanced capitalist countries.

While the UK economy is, according to Office of Budget Responsibility forecasts, due to grow between 1-2%, it does not represent the much-predicted recovery. Indeed it is the backdrop for continued austerity and further attacks on workers’ living standards, wages and benefits, which have already undergone the most sustained reduction in a century since 2007.

Mood to fight

It is this reality that forms a key cornerstone of a Marxist perspective for Scotland in 2018. Rising inflation and debt levels, alongside wages which fail to keep pace with living costs, are a recipe for growing anger. A mood to fight on pay by workers – to claw back at least some of the 15% loss in wages over the last decade – is likely to increase. The main Scottish teachers union – the EIS – has tabled a pay claim of 10% for this year. Local government and NHS unions, 6.5%. This reflects a pressure from workers to fight to get back what has been lost after years of austerity. The victory of the Bi-Fab workers at the end of 2017 after taking decisive action, including occupying their workplaces, was another example of what is possible when workers move into struggle.

The fear of facing a wave of strikes in the public sector was the key reason why the Scottish Government was forced to end its 1% pay cap policy in December 2017. However, for the vast majority of workers – including in local government and the NHS – there is currently no extra money being provided to pay for the “aspirational” 3% increase for 2018. In other words pay rises must come from existing budgets, leading to the threat of further cuts in services. Our demands on the Scottish Government to fully-fund pay rises to the level of at least those demanded by the trade unions, alongside no cuts budgets, are crucial in this context.

The explosive crisis in the NHS and a new round of cuts budgets across the 32 Scottish councils can provoke struggles, particularly at a local level. The recent vote for strike action by the UCU union and the potential for a sustained period of strike action by university lecturers is also a step forward. While the conscious inaction of the right wing trade union leaders is still a major obstacle to the emergence of widespread national strike action, it is likely that there will be an increased combative mood by workers in 2018. Our role in unions like PCS, Unison, Unite, the EIS, CWU will be vital.

Huge anger at ever-expanding levels of inequality will continue to grow. The annual Oxfam investigation released in early 2018 found that the ten richest families or individuals in Scotland had a combined wealth of £14.7bn. Overall, the richest 1% have now accumulated more wealth that the poorest 3 million in the country. At the same time 430,000 workers were paid less than the living wage of £8.45 per hour in 2017. More than a quarter of a million children – 25% in all – are officially recognised as living in poverty. In 2017, 1.05m people in Scotland were living in relative poverty after having paid their housing costs – a rise of two per cent on 2016. All of these realities will provide explosive material to drive both the class struggle and socialist consciousness forward over time. The catastrophe of Universal Credit will also drive tens of thousands of families deeper into poverty.

Brexit

Against this backdrop the pro-capitalist SNP leadership have made retaining membership and access to the neoliberal bosses’ EU their top priority. In part to act as a diversion from their own role in implementing austerity, and to boost their falling support. Backing for the SNP has fallen significantly since 2015, as seen in the 2017 general election when they lost 500,000 votes and 21 MPs. They are also under increasing pressure from Corbyn on their left flank. As a result they are using the national question, linked to Brexit, to try and shore up their base.

Nicola Sturgeon set out her position in January 2018: “The EU referendum gave no mandate for leaving the single market. And so my priority for the year ahead is to continue to make the case for single market and customs union membership.” Sturgeon’s stance is indistinguishable to that of the Blairites – the openly capitalist wing of the Labour Party – and also reflects the overwhelming interests of British big business, who are fighting to retain full access to the bosses’ single market as a minimum.

SNP MPs are also openly participating in the so-called “grassroots coordinating group” headed by Blairite MP Chuka Umunna, alongside Lib Dem, Green and pro-EU Tories. This amalgam is seeking to build pressure for either a second referendum or a Bino (Brexit in name only and continued full access to the single market and customs union). In addition, the SNP leadership are also seeking to blame the dire economic position facing capitalism in Scotland on Brexit. Falling growth projections, deeper cuts, threats to jobs etc are all blamed on the impending rupture from the EU, rather than rooted in the failures of capitalism as a whole. A new Scottish Government analysis warns that a hard Brexit could cut Scottish GDP by £12.7bn, or 8.5 per cent, by 2030. While Angus Robertson, the then SNP leader at Westminster, last year claimed in the House of Commons that, “wages were likely to drop by £2,000 and that 80,000 people may lose their jobs in Scotland as a result of the hard Tory Brexit plan of the Prime Minister.”

In reality job losses, inequality and austerity are built into the capitalist system whether we are in or out of the EU. Workers in Scotland have already suffered the loss of 40,000 public sector jobs since 2010 and tens of thousands of job cuts following the crisis in the oil industry, a result of the crisis while in the EU and an SNP government implementing austerity. The only solution is to implement socialist measures based on public ownership and workers’ control on the economy, a £10-an-hour living wage and a massive programme of investment into housing, the NHS and public services.

We are not in favour of any version of Brexit being put forward by either the Tory right wing “hard Brexiteers” or the “soft Brexit” campaigned for by the SNP leadership. Neither option would be a solution for working class people desperate for an end to austerity and falling incomes. A socialist Brexit, on the other hand, would be based on ending the rule of the neoliberal, free-market bosses’ Europe. Not a penny in payments to the EU institutions. A programme of public ownership of the main sectors of the economy and the tearing up of anti-worker legislation enshrined in the EU treaties, including all anti-union laws and the posted-workers directive which attacks migrant worker’s rights to be paid the rate for the job.

This approach is summed up in the demand: “No to the bosses’ EU – For a socialist Europe”. Of course we fully recognise that a “no-deal hard Brexit”, linked to the illusion that Britain could negotiate race to the bottom free-trade deals with the likes of Trump, would be hugely economically damaging for workers’ interests. As would an exit from the EU with “no deal” with the EU. And it cannot be ruled out that a no deal Brexit could emerge. Although this would, in all likelihood, lead to the fall of the Tory government and a general election in 2018/2019.

Tory civil war grows

The removal of May as Tory leader is indeed a very likely outcome of the Brexit process. The Tory party is deeply split and as the negotiations unfold these divisions will deepen further. If it became clear that May was going to accept the idea of a soft Brexit – and this is the overwhelming demand of big business – then an open split in the Tories is very likely and could lead to the removal of May as leader. As it is, despite their fear of a Corbyn-led government, the collapse of the Tory/DUP agreement and an early general election can become a reality, raising the possibility of a Labour government coming to power.

This is a factor in the calculations of the SNP. They fear an early general election and the potential loss of seats to Labour in Scotland. So while they are focused on attacking the “dysfunctional, crisis-ridden” UK government, increasingly they are targeting Corbyn, Richard Leonard and Labour. Sturgeon wrote in the Sunday Herald: “Scottish Labour’s position – in line with that of their London bosses – is utterly bizarre and inexcusable. They are effectively backing the Tories’ extreme Brexit plans, which threaten many thousands of Scottish jobs and risk doing huge damage to our economy and society.”

This attack has a two-fold purpose; it is part of the campaign, in concert with the Labour right wing, to force Corbyn to embrace the single market and customs union. And at the same time to try and undermine Labour’s potential to make gains at the SNP’s expense at what could be an early general election by heaping responsibility on them for a “chaotic Brexit”. Fearing losses to Labour in Scotland is also a factor in pushing the SNP to the left, at least in words. For example recent noises that the Scottish Government would bring ScotRail into the public sector in the future. The tendency for the SNP to be squeezed by pressure from the working class on the one hand and the interests of big business on the other can lead to Sturgeon zig-zagging between these two opposing classes. Ultimately, however, the SNP leaders will continue to defend the interests of the capitalist elite.

Labour recovery in Scotland?

As we have pointed out, Richard Leonard’s victory in the Scottish Labour leadership contest is to be welcomed. However, the Labour left are still carrying an albatross around their collective necks, which is their continuing mistakes on the national question and their preparedness to seek compromise and conciliation with the Blairite right wing. Nothing epitomised this more than witnessing Leonard appointing the likes of Anas Sarwar, Jackie Ballie, Iain Gray and James Kelly as his key front bench spokespeople.

Scottish Labour are currently polling around 27% support, a dozen points behind the SNP and 14% down on their levels of support in England. It is not excluded that despite the growing anger at the SNP’s role in implementing austerity, they can still maintain polling levels in the mid to high 30s. A growing space to the left of the SNP has opened up that a real fighting left party could fill. However, this would require a much more sensitive approach on Scottish independence and a fighting anti-cuts policy from Labour councillors and MSPs. At a UK level, Labour’s continued support for Trident is also used by the SNP to attack Corbyn.

“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”. Richard Leonard.

This approach, if it continues, will be an albatross around the neck of Scottish Labour. It will hamper its ability to reconnect with vast swathes of the working class in cities like Dundee, Glasgow and across the west of Scotland. 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 there is a change, Labour will struggle to recover. As it is Scottish Labour’s membership has not seen the surge witnessed in other parts of the UK. An anti-austerity policy – in truth only a partial anti-austerity policy because of Labour’s acceptance of councillors who vote through cuts – will not be enough on its own to recover ground lost to the SNP. Labour are in the ruling administrations in 12 of the 32 councils in Scotland and are voting through savage cuts to local austerity budgets.

Although Labour can make some gains from the SNP in a general election, they are likely to be very limited unless a change is made by the left in the direction of building a real anti-austerity party. As we have commented on many times, the Corbyn surge that resulted in hundreds of thousands joining the Labour Party had only a pale reflection in Scotland. Leonard’s election and performance so far as Scottish leader has therefore had little impact.

A Corbyn government?

As the Socialist Party England and Wales perspective document explained: “The capitalist class fears that Corbyn will come to power and, under the impact of an economic crisis be pushed further to the left. Even without a new stage of economic crisis he would be under huge pressure from below as a result of the misery the working and middle class have suffered over a whole period. It is true that a Corbyn-led government is implicit in the situation, but it is not yet guaranteed. Jeremy Corbyn’s programme in the general election raised the sights of wide sections of the working and middle classes that an alternative to austerity was possible, but unless it is accompanied by a general struggle to implement its radical measures against the opposition of the capitalists, scepticism can return even among those who have been enthused. The quietist approach that Corbyn is once again tending to adopt will not be sufficient.”

“The Labour leadership’s mistaken approach reflects their programmatic limits. The general election manifesto marked a radical break with the neo-liberal policies of Labour over recent decades. Nonetheless, by historical standards the programme is very modest, far more limited than was put forward by Tony Benn, or Corbyn himself, in the early 1980s. Benn called for the nationalisation of the banks and the top 25 monopolies. It would not be accurate to describe Corbynism today as rounded-out left reformism. It contains elements of this but is still much more limited. Although Corbyn would consider himself a socialist, and is seen as one, he does not raise his programme in terms of the need for a fundamental change in society – for an end to capitalism and the building of a new socialist order. This was the case with left reformism in the past, albeit on a ‘gradual’ basis, and will be again in the future.”

Nonetheless, the possibility of a Labour government led by Corbyn would be a decisive change in the objective situation. It would allow broad sections of the working class to judge the limitations of reformism. It is also possible that Corbyn could be pushed by the working class to go even further than his limited programme suggests at this stage and would open up a new political situation, including in Scotland. For this reason it is likely that we would give critical support to a vote for Corbyn in a general election, as we did last year.

The national question – What now?

The key feature of the national question, currently, is an ebbing of the mood towards independence. There is some recent polling evidence that indicates a slight softening in support for independence for the first time since the 2014 referendum. On the one hand this reflects falling support for the SNP itself among a layer of workers and young people. Sturgeon and co have shifted more openly in a pro-big business direction in the wake of Brexit, as well as failing to fight austerity. Another factor is the SNP’s defence of the EU. An estimated one-third of pro-independence supporters voted to leave the EU in the 2016 Brexit referendum. Amongst this group support for the SNP has dropped by 20%. The idea of an independent Scotland having to be part of the EU, a central plank of SNP policy, is less attractive to this layer. The treatment of Catalonia by the EU establishment who backed the vicious methods of the Rajoy government has also played a role in the process.

The exposing of the SNP leadership over the past period is a decisive factor. Becoming the main recipients of a huge anti-establishment movement during the indyref has been a double-edged sword for the nationalist leaders. On the one they benefited from an explosive growth in membership in late 2014 and early 2015. Alongside an electoral tidal wave that saw the SNP capture 56 of the 59 available seats in the 2015 general election. However, this was only achieved because the SNP was seen to be a party that had stood up to the onslaught of Project Fear and the capitalist establishment. This, allied to the dire role of the socialist forces in Scotland who aided this process, meant that the reputation of the SNP as a radical and anti-establishment force was enormously strengthened.

It would inevitably take time for the working class and young people to test out and begin to see through the leadership of pro-capitalist nationalism. Since 2016, it is precisely this process that has been underway, reflected in a stalling and then falling back of electoral support. This has gone along with an emptying out of the structures of the SNP at branch and activist level. Reflected in an new openness among young people to the ideas of socialism – allied to the rise of Corbyn and left ideas generally. The complete absence of an organised left in the SNP, never mind a socialist pole, has meant the process of the falling away of activists has been quite rapid. SNP representatives like Mhairi Black, who is seen to be on the left, have in practice not challenged the pro-business policies of the SNP. Nor has she consistently opposed the Scottish Government’s austerity policies. Including refusing to help lead a campaign, when asked by local residents, against the closure of the local children’s ward in her area.

The changed mood towards independence was expressed recently from the unlikely source of the SNP’s deputy leader at Westminster. Kirsty Blackman MP commented: “I don’t think most folk in their daily lives give two hoots about whether Scotland is a member of the Union. The constitutional issues are not the biggest concern for an awful lot of people and, in fact, I very rarely talk about Scottish independence.” It’s important to note, however, that support for independence is still at the historically high levels of 43%.

Reflecting the shifting sands of the national question, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon was forced to “reset” the Scottish Government’s plans for a second independence referendum at the end of June 2017, following the party’s heavy loses at the general election. Their plans were to legislate immediately for a second referendum. Indeed this was voted through the Scottish parliament in March 2017, but have now been shelved. Significantly, Sturgeon admitted that “there was no widespread support in Scotland for a second vote on independence before the UK leaves the EU.” Indeed current polling evidence shows support for an immediate second referendum as low as 20%.

Faced with a new reality the SNP has changed tack. In the words of Nicola Sturgeon: “At the end of this period of negotiation with the EU – likely to be around next autumn [2018] – when the terms of Brexit will be clearer, we will come back to parliament to set out our judgment on the best way forward at that time, including our view on the precise timescale for offering people a choice over the country’s future.” This reflects a dramatic shift in approach. Indeed Sturgeon’s speech from June 2017 no longer proposes a definitive second referendum, merely to set out a judgement on the “best way forward”.

The Brexit vote, the SNP strategists calculated, should have led to a rapid rise in support for Scottish independence. While there is some evidence that sections of the middle class did shift, it was offset by falling support by some of the estimated 400,000 independence supporters, mainly working class, who voted to leave the EU. In addition, a deep polarisation has now set in over the national question. The Tory gains in Scotland at the general election saw large parts of rural and middle class Scotland swing towards the Scottish Tories. Ruth Davidson’s single issue campaign – no to indyref 2 – effectively mobilised a large part of the anti-independence vote from 2014, allowing the Tories to win 13 seats.

But demands for a second referendum could erupt again, given the ongoing falling living standards and the crisis facing capitalism in Scotland and internationally. The failure of a Corbyn-led government, for example, could re-ignite demands for independence. Yet, for now, it is clearly the case that the intensity of the mood on the national question has dipped. No longer do a section of radicalised working class and young people currently believe that the SNP offer a real alternative to fighting austerity. And this has had an impact on the immediate prospect for a second referendum as the SNP have moved in a more explicit pro-business direction. The recent Scottish budget – despite having access to unprecedented tax powers – saw the SNP refuse to impose any significant tax rises on the richest. Indeed, they claimed again and again that tax increases would drive the rich from Scotland.

It was important that we took the initiative to table a motion at the recent Scottish council of Unison calling for the Scottish Government to use its new powers to significantly increase taxes on the rich. We linked this to demands on councils and the Scottish Government to fight austerity with no-cuts budgets. The fact that the Scottish council backed this position is a step forward and shows the mood to take on inequality is way to the left of the SNP and even Labour leaders. At the same time while agitating in favour of tax increases on the top 1% and the major corporations, we will continue to answer propaganda and threats that there would be a “flight of capital” by demanding the nationalisation under workers’ control of the banks and big business. Capital controls, to prevent money being moved out, and a state monopoly of trade are also essential elements of a socialist policy designed to defeat the attempts of the capitalists to sabotage a workers’ government.

What are the circumstances under which the SNP could put a second referendum back on the table in the short term? The most likely case would be in the event of a “no deal” or a “hard” Brexit. If the UK was to end up outside the customs union and the single market, reliant on the Tory Brexiteers “vision” of a series of UK free market deals with the US, China, Korea etc, then it is likely that the Scottish parliament – with an SNP and Green majority – would vote through a motion demanding an indyref 2. Of course Westminster has to agree to a legislative motion – a Section 30 order – before a “legally binding” referendum can take place. It is also possible that in the case of a hard/no deal Brexit the Tory government could collapse and a UK general election called. The outcome of which could, particularly if it led to the election of a Corbyn government, have a significant impact on whether the SNP would demand an immediate second referendum, or delay it for a period of time.

While the SNP will still use the issue of Brexit to agitate in general in favour of independence, they will be very cautious about being boxed into the corner of demanding a premature indyref 2, unless they are confident they could win. The economic depression facing the Scottish economy can also undermine confidence among workers in the viability of capitalist independence under the SNP. Our approach will be to consistently defend the democratic rights of the Scottish people while fighting for the maximum unity of the working class across Britain and internationality. This is still best summed up in the demand for an independent socialist Scotland as part of a voluntary and democratic socialist confederation with England, Wales and Ireland, as a step to a socialist Europe.

Consciousness

There are a myriad of issues that can provoke an outpouring of struggle in the next period. On pay, as mentioned earlier, and on cuts to the NHS and local government services. Our role in helping to ensure trade union demonstrations in Dundee and Glasgow in February, on the issue of cuts and equal pay respectively, can also assist in building the confidence of workers as a step towards building struggle.

Young workers will play an increasingly important role in struggle, as evidenced by the recent McDonald’s pay victory. The super-exploitation of young people in work also brings an explosive dynamic that we should turn to. In particular the hospitality and retail sector is an important arena.There is also potential for discontent to develop on the university and college campuses. Overall one third of young people in Scotland do not feel they have a secure economic future. Struggle over issues rooted in oppression involving the LGBTQ community and Black and Minority Ethnic workers and youth will also feature prominently.

Very importantly, young and working class women generally have been to the forefront of struggle over a range of issues, including on pay and cuts, especially in the public sector. A sweeping radicalisation and preparedness to fight on sexual harassment, gender-based violence and other issues is likely to increase in the coming months. This work is vitally important, not least because of the growing numbers of young women who are being drawn towards socialist ideas.

Struggle is a key ingredient in helping to drive consciousness to the left and in a socialist direction. While recruitment has not been straightforward over the last year or so, there is clearly a layer of young people who are open to joining a revolutionary organisation. It is understandable that workers and youth take time to assess the new terrain on which struggle can take place. It’s becoming clearer to many workers that the nationalist leadership of the SNP will not be prepared to lead anything approaching a mass campaign to tackle austerity or inequality.

The vacuum to the left of the SNP is therefore growing and the potential for socialist ideas to be a factor is also posed. Of course there is also a real anticipation among workers and young people, which can even be reflected in a certain wait-and-hope attitude, in the possibility of a Corbyn government coming to power and solving some of the problems. This can increase as the Tory crisis deepens and especially if an election is called. Although the pro-Corbyn mood is less pronounced in Scotland that in England and Wales.

Trotsky referred often to “molecular changes in consciousness” that, on the surface, appear go unseen but then burst out into the open in the form of a qualitative change in a socialist and even a revolutionary direction. We have seen this process throughout recent history. The working class will test out many parties, leaders and programmes that seem to offer an “easier” road to solving their problems. However, that process of testing and re-testing radical, left nationalist and reformist ideas will inexorably lead to the conclusion that the only way out of the nightmare of capitalism is the road of Marxism. This will, of course, require the conscious intervention of our forces now and in the future to act as a catalyst to speed up the process.

The building of a insurgent, principled left in Scotland – as the SNP are further exposed – is an urgent task. There are four elements to this. Firstly, we will should continue to demand a serious struggle by the Labour left and the affiliated trade unions to wrestle control from the right wing in Scotland. We should continue to call on Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters to campaign for the necessary democratic changes to the Labour party, including the right to re-select MPs, councillors and MSPs who oppose Corbyn and have a record of carrying out cuts etc. This should be allied to a pledge that under the new Scottish and UK leadership all Labour’s elected politicians must refuse to vote for cuts in councils, the Scottish parliament or at Westminster.

Labour is still two parties in one. A Blairite, capitalist dominated parliamentary party who will never accept Corbyn’s leadership, and a majority of the membership who are anti-austerity and pro-Corbyn. Scottish Labour has an even larger influence of the right, given the absense of a new, radicalised membership. As well as removing the extreme capitalist wing through the democratic renewal of the Labour Party’s structures, the trade unions who are affiliated to Labour should have their full rights restored. In addition, the party should be opened up to all socialists and left and anti-austerity activists to join, including those who were expelled in the past.

The second element, particularly important given the reluctance of the Labour left to challenge the out-and-out capitalist elements in their party, is to build an electoral alternative to cuts and austerity. While of course this means not standing against left Labour candidates who pledge to fight cuts, in most cases that is not currently the case. Both Labour and SNP councillors in Scotland are preparing a new round of austerity budgets in 2018, in some cases in coalition with each other. Our call for a new mass workers’ party to be built is still key demand.

We have pioneered since 2010, alongside the RMT union, the building of the Scottish Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) and local anti-cuts groups to stand in elections. The decision of the RMT over TUSC and affiliation to the Labour Party will be clearer over the next few months but we should continue to seek to build a socialist and trade union coalition to stand candidates.Where there are opportunities to stand locally in areas where we have a base we should take these opportunities on.

Thirdly, the building of organised and coordinated mass struggle by the trade unions and communities is essential in order to defeat ongoing austerity. The recent signifiant concessions won by the CWU after a massive vote for strike action in important. As was the Glasgow Janitors victory after 67 days of strike action and a 20 month-long campaign. The recent victory by college lecturers over pay after taking strike action is another.

And fourthly, the urgent and vital task of building our revolutionary party while strengthening our cadres and branches.

Conclusion

We always opposed the SNP leaders and their pro-capitalist policies, including during the referendum when we fought for a Yes majority. We have given critical support to Corbyn and the Labour left but demanded that they fight the Blairites to create a real anti-austerity and left party. At times that has meant holding the line and even swimming against the stream of the prevailing mood – for example in illusions that the SNP would deliver for the working class. That period has largely – although not completely – come to an end. We did not make the fundamental errors of socialist groups who, to one degree or another, gave uncritical support to the SNP both during and since the 2014 referendum.

The key task facing the working class, young people, the trade unions and the left is to build a mass combative movement to end austerity and oppose all the parities who inflict it. To fight for the establishment of a mass working class party armed with socialist ideas that becomes a majority in society. To forge a real instrument that can lead to an independent socialist Scotland and lay the basis for a voluntary and democratic confederation with a socialist England, Wales and Ireland as a contribution to the struggle for socialism internationally.