the general election: the view from scotland

by Allan Armstrong

The General Election results on 6th May came as somewhat of a surprise. This did not lie in the failure of the Tories to win an overall majority; the Lib-Dems inability to make their much-heralded breakthrough; the collapse of the SNP surge; nor even in New Labour making a limited recovery, especially in their London, Scottish and northern English heartlands. What was surprising to most was the increased level of voter participation, especially after the mounting anger and public disgust over Westminster sleaze.

Can the increase in electoral participation be put down to the wider interest created by televised debates between the three main party leaders? Quite clearly, despite all the media hype, especially around the ‘Clegg phenomenon’, the final division of votes, between the mainstream parties, bore little relationship to the initial opinion polls.

What has become clearer is that, in the absence of any credible alternative, most voters have accepted that the costs of the ongoing crisis are going to be borne on their shoulders, and that the only possible defence, is to ensure that more of the burden falls upon the shoulders of others (with a far Right and  Establishment consensus that migrant workers be hit hardest), or is at least spread out over a longer period of time. There is still a misplaced hope that maybe the cuts won’t be too horrific, since, unlike the current situation in Greece and Ireland, none of the mainstream opposition parties have spelled out exactly where these cuts will fall – other than, of course, upon ‘the public sector’.

Therefore, Cameron’s Eton-schooled clique, which runs the Tory Party, appeared just too eager to protect its rich chums; Clegg’s Fib-Dems just looked like smooth talkers who are saying very little different; the SNP was still shell-shocked after the collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland (and was excluded from the main televised debates); leaving Brown and New Labour able to scare the shit out of workers, who still lack the class confidence to take on the brute power of corporate capital. Maybe New Labour will use its close links with the now restored ‘masters of the universe’ to plead for mercy!

This lack of a more generalised class fightback, compared with say the situation in Greece, further undermined the left’s limited electoral challenge. This had reached its highpoint in the 2003 Holyrood   election, and in the 2005 Westminster election. However, with the left unable to stop the war, first in Iraq, and now in Afghanistan (still opposed by the majority), voters have increasingly looked for ‘softer’, or in the case of the BNP, nastier Rightist, alternatives.

Despite the ‘Credit Crunch’ in 2008, the left hasn’t had the confidence to begin to articulate a genuine communist vision for an alternative society, rooted in the contradictions of actually existing capitalism. At best, it has proclaimed that ‘Another World is Possible’, but has remained decidedly vague on what this would look like. Instead it has clung on various aspects of outmoded mixed economy (social market) and state capitalism, which were once advocated by old-style social democrats and bureaucratic socialists. Only now, following the collapse of ‘actually existing socialism’ in 1989, the left has half-heartedly added unspecified forms of ‘democratic’ or ‘workers control’ to its wish list.

When the ‘Credit Crunch’ broke out, many on the left thought that its time had arrived at last. Neo-liberalism was discredited. This left focussed on a possible revival the US ‘New Deal’ or Old Labour’s Welfare State, combined with a massive Keynesian-style government intervention in the economy. However, without the left’s prompting, neo-liberals themselves quickly adopted Keynesian measures, only to buttress their now shakey capitalism through massive banking bail-outs, and by increased military expenditure tied to permanent war.

So, how did the Scottish Socialist Party’s electoral intervention go on May 6th? There had been internal opposition to standing in the Westminster elections – some based on demoralisation after the split in 2006, some based on a left nationalist preference for standing in Holyrood elections in 2011, and some others, more community focussed,  wanting to concentrate on the local elections in 2012.

However, the SSP Conference, held at Dunkeld in March, overwhelmingly endorsed a limited electoral intervention (in 2005, the still united SSP had stood in all Westminster seats). Colin Fox, the National Co-spokesperson, emphasised his low voting expectations – no more than 1%.  He asked the SSP to use the opportunity instead to draw existing members back into activity, create new branches and gain new members.

The four main issues raised in the SSP’s election campaign were the need to oppose the massive public sector cuts (combined with support for workers in struggle, whether in BA, on the railways, or in the civil service); opposing the Afghan War by calling for the immediate withdrawal of troops; attacking parliamentary corruption (with an emphasis on a worker’s MP on a worker’s wage – as implemented by the 6 SSP MSP’s between 2003-7); and the need for a democratic Scottish republic.

Ten candidates were eventually adopted, which allowed for an election broadcast.

Despite three national editions of Scottish Socialist Voice being produced, the ten campaigns were very much local affairs. Therefore members’ response to the anticipated poor election results – ranging from 0.5% to 1.4% (an average of 316 votes) – has mirrored the nature of the local campaigns. Where the emphasis was on winning recruits for socialism, e.g. the new Aberdeen branch, there has been some optimism. Where there was a more populist and electoralist focus, there has been some demoralisation, with the resignation of an SSP candidate in Paisley.

Quite clearly, the division between the SSP and Solidarity (campaigning this time under a TUSC umbrella) added to the marginalisation of the left here. On paper, the SSP has a policy of trying to renew socialist unity by leaving the door open to a return of Solidarity. In reality, a significant section of the SSP (including amongst the leadership), naively believe that the state will solve the left’s problem by bringing Tommy Sheridan to account in court!  The only reason the state has become involved is to discredit and further marginalise the whole of the left in Scotland, hence the many delays of the trial.

If the left has to look to the bourgeois courts to solve its own problems, then it can not expect workers to take it seriously when it claims to be offering an alternative to capitalism and its state. It is to be hoped that poor overall electoral showing of the left in Scotland, on May 6th, will allow the debate about re-establishing principled social unity to be reopened.

However, as the equally poor results of the left elsewhere in the UK show (with the partial and ambiguous exceptions of left populist, Respect candidates; and of Eamonn McCann, the SWP’s left populist ‘People before Profit’ candidate in Derry), something more than mere organisational unity is needed. The left has first to decide exactly what it means by a ‘socialist alternative’, and then to begin serious discussions on how to link this with raising the political sights of those who will inevitably be drawn into struggle, as the bosses’ austerity programme takes its toll.

After making considerable progress in the SSP with our socialist republican ‘internationalism from below’ approach, the Republican Communist Network has been placing a new emphasis on getting the left to debate its ‘socialist alternative’, and to widen this debate beyond the usually hermetically sealed divisions encountered on the left – orthodox and dissident communists, anarchists and autonomists. This is why we have been asking people to The Global Commune events, jointly organised with The Commune. The next event is being held on Saturday May 22nd in Edinburgh.