With just one week to go till the British General Election, polling in Scotland, and the SNP in particular, has been at the forefront of reporting. Ever since a poll in October showed the SNP to be on 54% and Labour 23%, projecting Labour to fall from 41 to 4 seats and the SNP to go from 6 to 54 (out of 59 Scottish seats), focus has been on the rise of the SNP and demise of Scottish Labour. Polls have shown that rather than Labour closing the gap, the SNP’s dominance in Scotland has solidified and even extended. An STV poll released earlier this week put the nationalists on 54% of the vote, predicting that the SNP could conceivably win every single constituency in Scotland.
Rise of the SNP
As has been commented on in previous articles, the popularity of the SNP must be related to their own rhetoric; but also and, perhaps even more fundamentally, the role played by the Labour Party. The party has been on the downturn since 2007 when the SNP first won the largest number of seats at the Scottish parliament. This trajectory was confirmed in 2011 when the SNP won an unprecedented majority at Holyrood (which is elected via a proportional representation system).
However, it is notable that this mood is now shifting from Holyrood to Westminster. Whereas before a vote at Scottish level for the SNP was seen as something of a protest vote and Labour retained support at Westminster level – in 2010 Labour won 42% of the vote compared to 20% for the SNP, winning 41 out of 59 seats, increasing support by 2.5% and winning two extra seats – many are now prepared to vote for SNP MPs as well as MSPs. Such a shift can be related to the role played by the Labour and SNP in recent years - and more particularly at the independence referendum last year.
Whilst the Scottish Labour Party has spent the past few years promoting “inspiring” policy in the vein of “carry a knife, go to jail” (their lead policy at the last Scottish Parliament election in 2011) and making soundbites on the problems of Scotland’s “something for nothing culture”, the nationalists have reinvented themselves, filling the vacuum for a social democratic party left vacated by New Labour. They have enacted policy including free tuition fees for Scottish students at Scottish universities and free prescriptions. At the referendum the SNP were at the forefront of a “yes” campaign promising change and social justice against food bank, austerity Britain. Meanwhile, the Labour Party aligned itself with the Tories and Liberal Democrats in the British nationalist Better Together campaign, offering no promises for change and instead focussing on fear mongering tactics.
Since the referendum the Scottish Labour Party have elected arch-Blairite Jim Murphy as their leader, only confirming their position on the right and their place in the establishment in the minds of Scottish people. Whilst Murphy has attempted to co-opt some of the SNP’s nationalist rhetoric, adding a clause committing the party to “patriotism”, he has not adopted their anti-austerity stance.
Here the Labour leadership is behaving similarly to other traditional parties of social democracy across Europe, such as PSOE in Spain and PASOK in Greece. Having tied itself to the capitalist system, and determined to show fiscal responsibility, the leadership refuses to go against the wishes of the capitalist class and instead intends to do their bidding, ableit in a slower, “kinder” fashion. For PASOK, such an attitude has resulted in virtual wipe-out: the party received just 5% of the vote in January. For Labour the situation in Scotland, though not on quite the same scale, is similarly reflective of their negligence of their working class base.
In the course of the interviews, TV appearances and debates in the run-up to the election Nicola Sturgeon (leader of the SNP) has proved herself popular through anti-austerity, social democratic rhetoric. After the first leaders debate “Can I vote SNP in England” became one of the top internet searches in England. Meanwhile any leftward policy announcements by Labour such as changes to non-dom tax laws and capping of rent increases have also been accompanied by promises to balance the books and support for £30 billion of cuts.
This is not to say that the SNP policy is radically left or offers a real left alternative. Far from it, in many ways their actual policy is not so very different with Labour (apart from in relation to cuts) with similar policies on taxation, housing and the NHS. During the referendum their vision for an independent Scotland included reduced corporation tax and in government they have overseen huge cuts to colleges as well as cuts at council level.
The point is however that the emphasis from the SNP has been entirely different, with Sturgeon pushing the SNP forward as a left alternative, whilst the Labour leadership have remained determined to promote themselves as responsible statesmen/women. Whereas Labour are seen to be part of the establishment the SNP are promoting themselves as the exact opposite, an anti-establishment alternative ready to promote the interests of working people.
“Threat to democracy”?
All this has resulted in the SNP becoming one of the most talked about “issues” at the election. The three main parties have presented the SNP as a threat to British democracy, with Cameron consistently fear mongering about a Labour minority government allowing the SNP in, and Miliband desperately trying to distance himself. UKIP have even had the audacity to accuse the nationalists of anti-English racism.
The SNP have been presented as a disruptive force, only interested in independence. Such a reaction has only helped the SNP in Scotland to continue to present themselves as the anti-establishment party. Meanwhile, Miliband first of all ruled out coalition with the SNP and more recently claimed he would not even enter into a “confidence and supply” agreement. During the leaders’ Question Time special Miliband even went so far as to claim that he would sacrifice a Labour government rather than go into a deal or coalition with the nationalists. Whilst the aim is to present Labour as the only alternative to the Tories, this does not wash well with voters who saw the party only too happy to get into bed with the Tories during the referendum.
One also has to question Miliband’s sincerity. If the SNP win as many seats as they are projected to it seems unlikely that there would be any other party open to Labour. If Miliband sticks to his declaration, and in doing so either forms a grand coalition with the Tories or allows Cameron to form a government, then he faces immense unpopularity both sides of the border. The fact that this is being contemplated only points to the treacherous nature of those at the top of the party.
Tectonic shifts; political earthquakes
In Scotland the hollowing of the party’s vote reflects a shift within the Scottish working class, which has stuck with the party for decades and is fed up of being offered little in return. At the referendum it was the more working class, traditionally Labour areas that saw the highest votes for independence with Glasgow, West Dunbartonshire, North Lanarkshire and Dundee recording majority “yes” votes. At constituency level, Lord Ashcroft has predicted that 6 out of the 7 Glasgow seats will switch from Labour to SNP and Gordon Brown’s Kirkcaldy constituency is set to overturn a 23,000 majority and return an SNP MP. All this is reflected in the huge growth of membership experienced by the SNP, which has now surpassed the 100,000 mark (in a country with a population of 5 million).
The membership also has interesting characteristics, with the SNP trade union group having grown from 800 members pre-referendum to 15,000 today. This has been reflected in comments by Len McCluskey (leader of Britain’s biggest trade union, Unite) that his membership in Scotland is split between Labour and SNP, stating, “Whether we [the trade unions] like it or not the SNP appear to have gained some trust of the Scottish working class.”
Undoubtedly this is true. A sizeable section of the Scottish working class, having lost their hard-worn faith in Labour, have turned to the SNP in hope of dramatic change. On the electoral front it is becoming increasingly irrefutable that this is going to be reflected in a mass swing to the SNP and their winning the vast majority of seats. This will be a huge blow to Labour and almost certainly prevent them from forming a majority government.
For the majority of working class and young Scots who have turned to the SNP and who voted “yes” in the referendum, this has little to do with nationalism and is much more a reflection of deep anger at austerity and the current system and a yearning for a change in favour of ordinary people. This deep frustration exists not just in Scotland, but across the whole of Britain, and will come to fruition in the case of deeper austerity being pursued.
In order to make the sweeping change needed in our society we need to go beyond social democratic rhetoric and fight for socialism. Through taking control of the commanding heights of the economy and putting them in workers’ control we can achieve the demands of the referendum. There is plenty of money in the system, and through taking it into the hands of the majority we can have an economy run in favour of the majority rather than the profits of the few.