For more than twenty years the most radical developments in British politics have taken place in Scotland. The situation may be changing, not because Scotland is less radical, but because the forces that have emerged through the campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party have shown the potential for resistance to austerity and for the emergence of a significant radical left in England.
In England the surprise of the May 2015 elections was that the Conservative Party won, though narrowly, an absolute majority. In Scotland there was no surprise: the landslide victory of the Scottish National Party (SNP) had been widely predicted. The only unknown was its exact scale, which turned out to be 56 out of 59 seats, with 50.2 per cent of the vote. The SNP had succeeded in winning over a large part of the working-class base of the Labour Party. Its electoral victory was a direct result of the two-year-long campaign for the referendum on independence which took place on 18 September 2014.
But the referendum could be held in 2014 because of the absolute majority the SNP had won in the Scottish parliamentary election in 2011. This was not supposed to happen. Britain’s first-past-the-post parliamentary voting system is designed to produce majority governments and squeeze out minority parties, and it mostly does. The person elected in each constituency is the one who gets most votes, not necessarily 50 per cent. That is how the Conservatives won an absolute majority in 2015 with only 37 per cent of the national vote.
The electoral system for the first Scottish elections in 1999 was designed by the Labour Party. In a complete innovation in British politics, it consisted of a mix of 73 seats through the first-past-the-post system and 56 with proportional representation (PR). The aim was to stop any one party getting an absolute majority – and above all the SNP – in order to block any move towards independence.
The system worked at first: from 1999 to 2007 there were Labour-led coalitions with the centrist Liberal-Democrats (Lib Dems). In 2007 the SNP won the most seats and formed a minority government. In 2011 it won a majority. And it won it in the only way it could have done – by making serious inroads into the Labour bastions in the Central Belt.1 In a foretaste of the 2015 wipe-out, the SNP won in constituencies that had been held by Labour since the 1920s. It was the vindication of a patient strategy aiming, on the one hand, to have the SNP recognised as the best representative of the Scottish people and, on the other, to position itself to the left of Labour. We will see later how far to the left the SNP actually is, but as Labour moved steadily rightward that part of the strategy was not difficult.
2011 was or should have been a wake-up call for the Scottish Labour Party, a warning that it had to change. It chose not to: it continued on its social-liberal path, attacking the SNP’s social policies. Above all, it decided to rush headlong into campaigning for a No vote in the referendum, thinking no doubt that independence would be soundly defeated (as early polls seemed to indicate) and then the parenthesis of an SNP government could be closed. Furthermore, it conducted this campaign in alliance with the Conservative Party, widely detested in Scotland, and it did so in a very confrontational way. The combination of its support for austerity and its aggressive unionism brought about a fracture between the Labour Party and a large part of its social base, which was moving towards independence.
The result of the referendum was a Pyrrhic victory. Superficially clear enough (55-45%), it was not regarded as definitive by the partisans of independence, strongly based in the working class and among young people. In fact, what was most important about the referendum was not so much the result but the campaign, which led to a mass politicisation in working-class neighbourhoods and especially among young people. One indication that the supporters of independence were not demoralised was that the SNP quadrupled its membership to over 100,000, with proportionately similar gains for the other pro-independence parties, the Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). At that point the Scottish Labour Party had not much more than a tenth of the forces of the SNP. The result of the 7 May 2015 elections was the logical consequence.
There seems little doubt that the SNP will also win the next Scottish elections in May 2016 – it is currently running at over 60 per cent in the opinion polls. But there is a new factor in British politics, one that no one had anticipated. This was the result of the campaign for the election of a new leader of the Labour Party, which was won on 12 September by the left candidate, Jeremy Corbyn, with 59.5 per cent of the votes cast – over 250,000 votes.
Corbyn has been an MP since 1983. He is one of a small band, whose emblematic figure was the late Tony Benn, that stuck to its socialist principles during the Blair years and afterwards. Consequently, he has never held ministerial office and he has voted in Parliament against the line of the Labour group on about 500 occasions. He is anti-austerity, for nationalisation, (of rail and energy to start with), and opposed to Trident nuclear weapons and to NATO.
According to the conventional wisdom of the British political establishment, the media and the academic world, this should have made him unelectable – as leader of the Labour Party, and even more as Prime Minister. But that is not how things have turned out. From the start of the leadership campaign, there was a surge of popular support for Corbyn. And this is not in fact so surprising. Survey after survey shows that there are majorities for nationalising rail and public utilities and against privatisation of the health service. There is also a very strong anti-war sentiment. In fact, the demand for left policies is there; there was just no major party proposing them.
The catalyst was a new method of electing the party leader. At one time this was done by Labour MPs. Later there was a system of three colleges – one third MPs, one third affiliated trade unions and socialist societies, one third party members. For the first time this year, the leader was elected by one person one vote. The electorate was composed of party members, affiliated trade union and society members, and thirdly, anyone who registered as a supporter of the Labour Party was able to vote.
The intention was undoubtedly to reduce union influence and give the party a more open image. And that is where the law of unintended consequences intervened.
The first unexpected element was the size of the electorate: 300,000 party members, 190,000 affiliated members, 121,000 registered supporters – a total of over 600,000. By way of comparison, in 2010 there were 180,000 party members and 238,000 affiliated trade unionists, plus the parliamentary group.
Although in 2010 there were 180,000 party members the composition began to change due to people leaving and others joining, and there was a surge in party membership after May 2015. So, in fact, only about 20 per cent of today’s party members voted in 2010. And it transpired that the new intake was much more to the left, as were the registered supporters. Jeremy Corbyn received the support of more local Labour Party branches than any of his rivals, a sharp difference from 2010.
Union and society affiliates vote individually. But they are certainly likely to be influenced by the positions adopted by the unions. Corbyn won more union support than any other candidate, including that of the two biggest unions in the country.
As the campaign progressed, virtually every poll taken predicted a victory for Corbyn. Polls also indicated that the idea – pushed by the Labour establishment – that Corbyn would not be accepted by the wider public was open to serious doubt. The political world was in a state of shock, and obviously first of all the Labour Party. Following the defeat in May, the Blairite wing of the party went on the offensive: according to them, Labour had lost because Ed Miliband had been too left-wing; so the solution was back to the Blairite centre, in other words, to the right. They had clearly completely misread the mood of the party. They were astounded by the surge of support for Corbyn. Liz Kendall, the one Blairite among the other three candidates, arrived in fourth place with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The other two candidates, Andy Burnham (19 per cent) and Yvette Cooper (17 per cent), can best be described as centre-left, with Burnham more to the left than Cooper.
As polls showed Corbyn racing ahead, the reaction of the British political establishment and the media went from shock and disbelief to a systematic offensive, calling on people to vote for ‘anyone but Corbyn’. Former Prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown weighed in. It is more than doubtful whether their opposition did Corbyn much harm. The Labour Party apparatus even scrutinised the voters’ lists, trying to weed out those who were not ‘real Labour supporters’, who did not share ‘Labour values’, an inherently subjective judgment. Thousands of potential voters were excluded in this way, but that was far from enough to influence the final result.
Among all the barrage of attacks on Corbyn there is one that has some truth in it. When the Corbyn campaign is compared to Syriza or Podemos, the analogy is not so far-fetched. The kind of forces that have been mobilised by Syriza and Podemos and other formations of the radical Left in Europe mobilised behind Corbyn. His rise was not in any significant way the result of an internal battle within the Labour Party. It was a case of people seizing the leadership election to create a movement that could challenge neoliberalism. A new political force has been born in Britain.
We have seen for over twenty years that as social democratic parties move rightwards, they lose popular support, gradually, or dramatically as in Greece. It is often said that it is not a question of the base moving leftwards but of the parties moving rightwards. What is new over the recent period, and what perhaps makes people as different as Donald Tusk and Francis Wurtz draw analogies with 1968,2 is the role being played by young people, many of whom are in fact moving leftward. This has been seen in Spain, Greece, and elsewhere, and now the most dynamic component of the Corbyn phenomenon is made up of young people, whose combativeness was already visible on the streets following the May election.
How does this affect Scotland? It has certainly had some impact. During the campaign, Corbyn had successful meetings in the four biggest Scottish cities. But there are differences. In the first place, the Labour Party in Scotland is a shadow of its former self. We have seen that 600,000 people were eligible to vote in the whole of Britain. On August 15, there was an election for a new leader of the Scottish Labour Party (the eighth since 1999). The total number of members and supporters eligible to vote was 21,000, of whom about 60 per cent actually voted. These figures are ridiculous. Since England has ten times the population of Scotland, one might expect 50-60,000. Knowing the role Scotland has played in the history of the Labour Party, it should be considerably more. In fact, so many members have left, moving to the SNP, the SSP, the Greens, or nowhere, that what is left is a rump. The Scottish Labour Party has been described as the last bastion of Blairism. Following on the referendum, it might have chosen a more emollient leader to try and repair the rupture with the many Labour supporters who had voted for independence. On the contrary, it elected the arch-Blairite Jim Murphy, who had distinguished himself by the virulence of his anti-independence rhetoric and was forced to resign after the debacle on 7 May.
Can the Corbyn effect on an all-British level win back former Labour supporters? The SNP won over Labour voters on the twin themes of independence and being to the left of Labour. On the second point Corbyn is unquestionably to the left of the SNP (see below), so he might have some effect. But there are probably limits. People will not be won back simply with more left policies unless the Labour Party can shift its position on the national question. Corbyn has tried to deal with this, stating ‘I’m a socialist not a unionist’. He went on to make it clear that ‘I would prefer the UK to stay together, yes, but I recognize the right of people to take the decision on their own autonomy and independence’. He added that he had chosen not to intervene in the Scottish referendum because ‘it was a decision for the Scottish people to make’, not him. He also affirmed his willingness to work with the SNP at Westminster against the government.
He is in fact a unionist, not only opposed to independence but even to wider powers for the Scottish Parliament, a demand supported by a large majority in Scotland. Nevertheless, the balanced way in which he expressed his position, emphasising that it was for the Scottish people to decide, should make it easier for him to work with the left in Scotland.
However, Corbyn is one thing and the Scottish Labour Party quite another. The new leader and deputy leader, Kezia Dugdale and Alex Rowley, are typical Labour apparatchiks. Dugdale, who will lead the campaign in 2016, is an outright Blairite. Rowley is slightly more left, or more opportunist, and said towards the end of the leadership campaign that Corbyn would make a fine leader and that there could be a referendum on Trident. Nevertheless, Scottish Labour, including the few leftists within it, is unquestionably unionist. With a combination of Blairism and unionism, it is difficult to see them winning back Labour voters from the SNP. In an effort to be more open, Dugdale announced that in any future referendum party members would be free to campaign for or against independence. She rather spoiled the effect by saying in the next breath that there should be no second referendum for at least a generation, a position that is shared by the Conservatives and LibDems.
There is in fact a space to the left of Labour and the SNP in Scotland. A survey conducted in both Scotland and England after the May election3 showed that on a scale of left to right, 14.5 per cent of Scots were in the most left category. For England the figure was 9.8 per cent, which is still significant. It counters any idea that England is irremediably conservative and helps to explain the Corbyn phenomenon.
The difference is, however, not just that Scotland is 5 per cent more to the left than England but that there is in Scotland a quite clear connection between being on the left and supporting independence. For example, 25 per cent of SNP voters were in the most left category. The link between independence and socialism has been increasingly apparent and has become much stronger as a result of the referendum campaign.
It has become habitual to situate the SNP on the left. This is true only relative to Labour. The SNP has flagship social policies: free university education, free medical prescriptions, free care for old people. On foreign policy its opposition to Trident nuclear weapons has been resolute, as was its opposition to the Iraq war in 2003. But there are distinct limits. In June 2015 First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was at pains, on a visit to the USA, to underline her overall agreement with US and British foreign policy as regards the Middle East and Russia. Let us not forget that in 2012 the SNP reversed its traditional opposition to NATO, and made clear that it would accept the Queen as head of state of an independent Scotland and that it would keep the pound sterling and stay in the EU. Taken together, the message to the international community was: ‘don’t worry, we may be against austerity and nuclear weapons, but we’re not going to be a Cuba in the North Atlantic’. In domestic politics the SNP is business-friendly and plans to have an Irish-style low company tax to attract foreign capital. Unlike Corbyn, it is opposed to any tax on financial transactions. It is opposed to nationalisation of energy and has also resisted calls to renationalise rail.
So there is a space for a force to the left of both Labour and the SNP. After much preparation in the framework of the Scottish Left Project, a new left force came into being on 29 August 2015 under the name of RISE (Respect, Independence, Socialism, Environment) (see appendix). RISE is not (yet) a new party, nor is it a coalition of existing organisations. It includes the SSP, but also many of the new, young forces that emerged in the referendum campaign and were active in the Radical Independence Campaign, Women for Independence, and other movements. There are also figures who represent important moments in the history of the Scottish workers’ movement, including veterans of the historic struggle of the UCS shipyards in 1971, and others who come from outside the traditional left, such as Jean Urquhart, one of the three MSPs who resigned from the SNP when it decided to support NATO membership.
However RISE will not automatically fill the space. There are other contenders. In the first place there is the SNP itself which is now so dominant that many socialists have joined, hoping to push it further to the left. At the upcoming SNP conference they may find that this is not such an easy task. RISE will have to win over SNP activists and voters, and not only in view of the 2016 elections. Everyone knows that one day there will be another referendum on independence. But the idea that this can simply be left to the SNP is fundamentally misguided. It is not certain that the SNP’s vision of a moderate centre-left Scotland will be more convincing than it was in 2014. The surge in participation in the referendum was in no small measure due to the grassroots work of the radical left, and it is the combination of social progress and thoroughgoing democracy that can build a majority for independence.
There is another – serious - competitor for votes to the left of the SNP. The Scottish Greens are to the left of their English counterparts, who themselves are on the left of the European Green spectrum. They have radical social policies, such as renationalisation of rail. They have recently come out for the nationalisation of Scotland’s major oil refinery and petrochemical complex and are discussing the question of rent controls. It is probably no accident that these measures were announced just before and just after the launching of RISE. A convergence between the Greens and RISE would be logical; the party hierarchy is against it, but there are those within the Greens who favour such a convergence.
The SNP is predicted to win virtually all of the constituency seats in 2016. If it does, it will not qualify for a percentage of the PR seats, which means that everyone else – Labour, LibDems, Conservatives, Greens, and RISE - will be fighting for those 56 seats. So nothing is certain. RISE has from now until May 2016 to carve out a place for itself.
After the Scottish elections, David Cameron will, perhaps as early as autumn 2016, fulfil his campaign pledge of a referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU. There are many unknowns, including what concessions Cameron will be able to get from his European partners and what powers Britain can take back, notably over immigration. The probability is that Cameron will claim that he has won enough concessions and will campaign for a Yes vote, in which case he will be opposed by up to eight of his own ministers and a significant minority of his MPs – but supported by most of big business. If he himself says No that changes everything.
How will other parties react? A year ago it seemed clear that the Labour Party, the LibDems and the SNP would all call for a Yes vote. But with Corbyn’s victory this is not certain. He is the only party leader who is actually opposed to the present capitalist, neoliberal EU. Prior to his election his attitude was, to say the least, ambivalent. On the one hand, he talked of staying in and fighting alongside the radical left in other countries. On the other, he spoke of making demands on the EU – quite different obviously from those that Cameron is making. What would he do if (when) the response is negative? Since his election as leader he has stated that his position is to call for a Yes vote and then push for changing the EU from within. If he were to reconsider this it would trigger a major crisis in the Labour Party – or rather a deepening of the crisis that his election has already provoked.
Corbyn is in a difficult position. He has broad support within the party, but it is diffuse throughout the country. His daily experience is of working with the parliamentary Labour group, 90 per cent of which is opposed to his policies. He is constantly under attack from the media and the political world, including those in his own party and even some in his ‘shadow cabinet’. While composing this ‘alternative government’, in line with the British political tradition, he was faced with a boycott from many leading figures and had to make up his team from a minority of those who really agree with him and a majority of others who were willing to serve but disagree with him to a greater or lesser degree and hope to control him.
He has just come through his first Labour Party conference as leader, rather successfully – his keynote speech being well received not only by the conference but by the general public. But he has to move carefully, decide what issues to fight on, what debates to put off until later. For example, Trident was not on the conference agenda because he would have been defeated on it by some of his trade union allies. But that does not mean he has given up on the issue. Perhaps he will change his position on certain points, but at the moment it is difficult to say if he is doing that or just playing for time. He certainly seems to be concentrating on national rather than international issues – though he has unequivocally opposed Britain taking part in the bombing of Syria. His support in the party will take time to filter through to the leading bodies – even to the parliamentary group. But it is increasing – in his first two weeks as leader, over 60,000 people joined the party, and 2,000 more within an hour of his main conference speech. Those forces can be mobilised not just within the party, but on the streets, in opposition to Cameron.
When the European referendum comes, in Scotland the SNP will certainly call for a Yes vote. It really is pro-EU, but there is also a tactical consideration: it has declared that if England voted to leave but Scotland to stay, this could trigger a new referendum on independence. Their calculation is that Scotland is more pro-European than England, which is true, but not massively. With so many uncertainties anything could happen: a double Yes, a double No, Yes in Scotland, No in England or even vice versa.
There is however one new element – the perspective of a left campaign for a No vote. A few months ago this seemed an unlikely or at most marginal development. The general feeling was that the No campaign would be dominated by the Conservative Right and UKIP and that the left had nothing to do there. That was before Greece. The role played by the European institutions has provoked a debate in Britain as elsewhere on the attitude the left should have towards Europe. For the moment this debate is taking place essentially in circles of left activists and intellectuals. The well-known writer and activist Tariq Ali has announced that Greece has convinced him to vote No, and he is not alone. What the scale of a left No campaign would be is hard to gauge today, but it seems clear that unlike the left opposition to British membership of the EU in 1975, it will be an internationalist No.
British politics is moving into uncharted waters, with many unanswered questions. We had an answer to one of them on 12 September when Corbyn won the Labour leadership: but that is just the start. Then there will be the Scottish elections in May 2016, with an SNP victory highly probable; the open questions are whether Labour can stop its downward spiral and what forces there will be to the left of the SNP in Parliament. And beyond that, the perspective of a second referendum on independence. Finally, there will be the result of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.
It is becoming clear that all of these questions are symptoms of a deepening crisis of British politics and even of the state form. The dominance of the two big parties has steadily eroded, from 93 per cent of votes in 1951 to 67 per cent this year. They are both in crisis: the question of Europe is a time bomb for the Conservatives, and the Corbyn phenomenon has revealed deep fractures in the Labour Party. UKIP, which is fundamentally an English nationalist party with a strong racist streak, may only have one MP, but it received four million votes in May 2015. The Scottish question has steadily increased in importance since the 1960s, and whether expressed through the SNP or forces to its left it is not going away. Cameron is heading the most Thatcherite government since Thatcher, with an offensive against the unions and what remains of the welfare state. But Thatcher’s achievements sowed many of the seeds of today’s crisis. There are now increasingly strong movements on both sides of the border against her social legacy and her British nationalism.
APPENDIX: Summary of RISE’s political outlook4
1. The Central Belt runs roughly from south and west of Glasgow over to Edinburgh and in a wider sense up to Dundee. Most of Scotland’s industry is located there and it accounts for two-thirds of the population.
2. Francis Wurtz, ‘Vers un “1968 en Europe”?’, Humanité Dimanche, 24 July 2015, http://www.humanite.fr/vers-un-1968-en-europe-580148.
3. ‘Revealed: indyref created a surge of support for the left’, The Herald, 3 August 2015, http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/13525237.Revealed:%20Scotland’s_booming_left_in_hard_numbers/?ref=ebln.
4. From http://www.rise.scot/about/.