Who speaks for the Scottish working class?

On Saturday 22 November, FRFI supporters were among 3,000 activists who attended a conference convened by the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) in Glasgow. At the same time, possibly as a spoiling tactic, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) organised a rally at an arena a hundred yards away which attracted 12,000 people. Politics in Scotland has undergone a dramatic change as a result of the referendum on 18 September. The genie is out of the bottle, and it will be very difficult for the ruling class, whether in Scotland or in Britain, to put it back. As political parties prepare for the 2015 General Election, the question is: who will speak for the Scottish working class?

Not the Scottish Labour Party

With a declining membership of 13,500 in Scotland and poll ratings suggesting the loss of half its 41 MPs next May, Labour is reaping the consequences of its Better Together campaign. Despite big union support and cash from Unite, the union’s own polling shows that 54% of people who voted Labour in Scotland in 2010 will not vote Labour again in 2015. In an effort to forestall this, Labour has decided to agree to the devolution of income tax raising powers and many elements of welfare spending. Labour may have won the referendum, but hundreds of thousands of Scottish working class people now see the fight for independence and the fight against austerity as intertwined. The fact that the Scottish Labour Party is likely to elect arch-imperialist warmonger Jim Murphy as its new leader in December instead of the ‘left’ candidate Neil Findlay will not help it regain lost support.

Disillusionment extends to trade unions which have failed to organise any serious resistance against austerity. As Neil Davidson points out:

‘Most full-time officials were hostile to independence, though few unions could openly align themselves with the No campaign without consulting their members… At branch level, things were different…[Unite] union officials in aerospace and shipbuilding actively courted Tory ministers and Labour No MPs for meetings to “defend the defence industry”. In some workplaces CEOs and managers organised “employee briefings”, in effect mass meetings to agitate for a No vote, with the union representatives backing up the employers.’ (New Left Review, September-October 2014)

Nor the SNP

SNP membership has jumped by 60,000 to over 92,000 since the referendum. It is now the third largest political party in Britain. Its new leader, Nicola Sturgeon, declared at its November 2014 conference that her mission was to eradicate poverty in Scotland. She had previously condemned the Labour Party for ‘abandoning the social justice agenda’ and claims that the SNP is now the social democratic party in Scotland.

However, the SNP has thrown the Labour Party a lifeline with the announcement that it would not rule out a coalition with Labour should it agree to a further devolution of powers to the Scottish government. It remains to be seen whether the new membership of the SNP will accept such overtures, or the promotion of Home Rule as against full independence. Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan who was forced to resign after exposing the regime’s gruesome torture, is now an SNP member. He has properly described Home Rule as ‘bollocks’ and was a popular Yes speaker who denounced the monarchist position of his party.

While the SNP did oppose the attack on Iraq in 2003, the party narrowly took a pro-NATO stance in 2012. Murray has described the British state as ‘deeply immoral…a pathological state, which is a danger in the world, a rogue state prepared to go to war to make a few people wealthy’. For how long will the SNP tolerate such forthright condemnation of British imperialism, or any member who refuses to endorse its support for the Crown, the pound, NATO and the EU?

The paradox is that the Yes vote emerged from the broad working class in urban Labour Party constituencies, yet it is these voters who are now saying that Labour is finished for them because of its No campaign. Conversely, the SNP constituencies in more affluent and rural areas returned a strong No vote in the referendum as the middle classes sought to maintain their privileges. An estimated 180,000 SNP voters rejected independence. Home Rule will represent the limit of the aspirations of the middle class and better-off sections of the working class: the SNP is a bourgeois party and it will implement whatever cuts are necessary to preserve economic stability.

Radical Independence Campaign

‘Because we recognised that the poorest, most densely populated communities must bear the most votes and the most ready support for a decisive political and social change, we canvassed these areas the hardest…We recognised early that those voters who would buck the polling trend would be those voters who don’t talk to pollsters and hate politicians; those voters who have told our activists: ‘You are the only people to ever ask me what I think about politics.’ (Suki Sangha and David Jamieson, ‘The Radical Independence Campaign’, RS21 2, autumn 2014)

Supporters of the RIC were central to the registration and voting drive in support of independence. Through the campaign, thousands of young people started to participate in political life for the first time. Its local groups had broken new ground in the period up to the vote by canvassing the huge housing estates of each Scottish city and town. That its conference could attract so many participants shows that it still has the ear of many of these activists and marks an important step forward. The question now is how it can sustain the momentum and organise working class forces in support of General Election candidates who link the struggle for independence with the fight against austerity. Activity, democracy and popular involvement will be the key. Socialists must support the RIC in qualitatively transforming its approach to political organisation by building open and democratic local groups, and supporting that development with an equally open and democratic leadership. We have to seize the time now before the forces of reaction have a chance to gather themselves and launch a counter-offensive. For an independent socialist Scotland!

Mike McGregor