It is perhaps fitting that in the week following the return of a majority Conservative Government Channel 4 screened a documentary entitled "The World's Most Expensive Food". Set in London, home to more billionaires than any other city on the planet, the programme presented viewers images of the super-rich consuming cups of coffee costing £300 ("It's worth it" says the supplier), alcohol from dusty bottles at £5,000 a shot and tales of a wedding where the guests consumed over 200 "gold" hot dogs. Perhaps its most surreal moment, even more so than the focus on salmon that is smoked whilst a man entertains the hanging dead fish by playing jazz music on a piano, is an unintentional modern take on the fable of The Emperor's New Clothes. Some wealthy men are shown consuming edible gold and silver whilst one remarks that the fare, obscenely expensive, has unsurprisingly, "no flavour whatsoever." Meanwhile, back in the real world, food-bank usage soars. Let them eat cake, or perhaps smoked salmon infused with improvised swing.
All of these billionaires would no doubt have been raising and expensive glass in celebrating the return of Cameron to Downing Street. So too those investors and speculators in the city of London, those whose greed and avarice led the economy into meltdown, the price of which is still being paid by those who can afford it least. In the hours following the Tory victory, shares in Sports Direct rose by 5% as the city breathed a sigh of relief once they realised Ed Miliband's more than modest proposals to slightly increase the minimum wage and abolish "exploitative" (are there any other kinds?) zero hours contracts would not be taking place after all. Even in the earliest days of this new regime we can get a flavour of what awaits us all. Attacks on human rights, on trade-unionists right to strike and a headlong rush towards more failed policies of uber-austerity. The Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman's warnings that austerity policies had been discredited and damaging to economies trying to recover from the banking crash has been drowned out by the sound of champagne corks as the economic experts of the Bullington Club prepare to wage war on public services and the very idea of a welfare state.
In Scotland the political tectonic plates moved in the most incredible General Election of modern times. Yet even with this remarkable outcome the cold hard fact remains that the United Kingdom now has a majority Conservative Government. Labour's failure total, the return of Cameron a disaster. Labour may have abandoned any pretence of being a socialist party a long time ago, they may have continued with the failed policies of austerity, but given the ferociousness of an unchecked Tory majority Government, Ed Miliband, supported by a progressive alliance of SNP and others looked a much more palatable alternative.
There are those on the left in Scotland who argue that there is no discernible difference between the two parties. It may be a catchy campaign slogan to refer to Labour as the Red Tories, but there are significant differences between what the Government of Ed Miliband would have looked like and the one we have to deal with for the foreseeable future. Nicola Sturgeon understood this when she offered to work with Miliband and categorically ruled out any deal with Cameron and the Tories.
In the build up to the poll it looked likely that no one party would emerge victorious and instead a series of deals and agreements would have to be pursued in order for one party to form a government. In the end all the speculation came to nought. Miliband's failure was complete and within hours he had joined Nick Clegg in resigning. Labour's attempt to imply a vote for the SNP in Scotland would let the Tories in was exposed as a myth. It was their failure to win a majority of seats in England that was their undoing. Even if every single seat in Scotland had gone to Labour it would not have been enough.
Cameron's triumph may yet prove to be a pyric victory for unionism. In order to make short-term electoral gains he has opened a Pandora's Box by appealing to base English nationalism in calling into question the legitimacy of the choice of the Scottish people. In September Scots voters were asked to stay in the union and "lead." What that meant of course was stay and do what you've always done. Shut up and don't rock the boat. During the final few days of the campaign I could not help but feel that the cause of Scottish independence had been advanced more by David Cameron, Boris Johnston and the Daily Mail than Sturgeon, Salmond and the entire Yes Campaign put together.
Here in Scotland it was clear for weeks prior to the election that something seismic was going to happen. Whilst debate rages over the accuracy or otherwise of the opinion polls in predicting the outcome across the UK as a whole it was only the magnitude of Labour's failure that was in doubt. Allied to the Tories portrayal of the SNP as potential puppet masters, pickpockets and lacking legitimacy, Miliband's dismissal of the idea of any deal or coalition with a party the majority of Scots were clearly going to vote for exacerbated the Labour Party's already damaged credibility north of the border. This dismissal can be added to the long list of reasons that Labour's vote vaporised in Scotland...Iraq, PFI, siding with the Tories in Better Together, de-regulation of the banking industry and many more besides.
Labour is a hollowed out shell of a party. The result last week was an accident waiting to happen. Its leadership has progressively distanced itself from the trade unions who founded it whilst its activist base has been in decline for decades, replaced instead by an apparatchik class of councillors and parliamentary staffers. What used to be an organisation built on solid foundations of working class collectivism and participation is now a house built on sand. The antipathy and tribal hatred that exists towards the SNP is not so much based on ideology and politics but on a rivalry for careers and paid positions. Having been almost wiped out at Westminster the fear for many will be that their MSP's and councillors will be next. Can Labour honestly, with any confidence, predict a single first past the post seat it can hold in Scotland next May? Likewise across local government, a cull of Labour councillors looks increasingly inevitable. The unprecedented influx of new members and activists give the SNP a huge advantage for all future electoral campaigns. A sense of entitlement that Labour has enjoyed for decades is coming to an end as Scotland looks likely to enter a new political epoch. The first of these was dominated by the Liberals who took the vast majority of seats in Scottish elections between 1859 and the rise of the Labour Party after the First World War. A second, shorter period was dominated by the Unionist Party that preceded the current Scottish Conservatives and then finally, a period of unbroken electoral domination of Scottish Labour that began in the late 1950's and ended last Thursday. Had it not been for the combination of Ian Murray's high profile in helping to revitalise Hearts FC and the idiotic and insulting twitter ramblings of the SNP's candidate Neil Hay in Edinburgh South, there was the very real possibility of a Labour wipe-out, a situation that seems barely credible considering the dominance the party enjoyed until recently.
The predictable Blairite reaction has started already. Labour was too far to the left they cry and argue for a shift to the centre right. Yet the result in Scotland is proof positive their conclusions are wrong. In first of all electing arch-Blairite Murphy and then in allowing him to stay as leader, Scottish Labour appears to have indulged in nothing short of masochism. SNP strategists must also be rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of a UK Labour Party led by the likes of Chuka Umunna or Liz Kendall. Labour were routed not because they were too left but because hundreds of thousands of their core voters finally ran out of patience with a party they have perceived as abandoning its values and founding principles. The resignation of Johann Lamont offered a temporary break in the clouds and a chance for a reinvigorated Labour attack on the SNP from the left. They chose instead probably the worst option they could and paid the price. It was beyond defeat, it was annihilation. Amongst the bewildered throng of vanquished Labour figures in Glasgow was former MP Ian Davidson. Just a few short months ago Davidson was predicting a resurgent Labour showing following on from their referendum "success". His, "all that's left to do is bayonet the wounded" statement in relation to the defeated Yes campaign must have come back to haunt him as he stood ashen faced in the teeth of a political storm that wiped his party from their previous fortress of Glasgow.
The Blairite strategy of winning elections by placing yourself in the centre and focusing on key demographics and marginal constituencies proved to be a successful formula for a while at least. Yet it was based on an assumption that in winning over floating voters in key strategic areas you would also maintain your core vote in areas of traditional strength. It was the unshakable belief that it didn't matter if you took your traditional voters for granted or treated them with contempt they would remain loyal. In Scotland, where there is a viable and credible left of centre alternative, that plan has unravelled completely. In England and Wales the fixation of focusing on marginal seats whilst neglecting the base manifests itself in ever increasing disengagement and abstentions by what should be Labour's core vote and dalliances with the right in the shape of UKIP in recent years and previously the BNP (now an increasing irrelevance thankfully) . There are constituencies across England and Wales were turnout barely exceeds 50% and it in engaging those abstainers that the future success or failure of Labour lies rather than fixating on winning over tiny demographics. The SNP showed that by eschewing the language of the right and talking positively about immigration, wanting to get rid of Trident and anti-austerity rhetoric could be popular. If it is to learn valuable lessons Labour needs understand that the popularity of the SNP is not driven by nationalist fervour or by a suspension of the electorate critical facilities but in being seen to be different from the toxic Tories. (The 14.9% vote share Ruth Davidson's party received made it their worst result since 1965.) Instead it is likely Labour will not learn from past mistakes and take a rightwards turn. The need for a new party to represent working class people has never been more apparent.
The SNP strong showing had not just come at the expense of Labour however. Hopes that the individual reputations of high profile MP's and the targeting of resources could save the Liberal Democrats proved unfounded as they, like the other main parties were reduced to a single seat. Even when Alistair Carmichael held on in Orkney it was with a much reduced majority. The Faustian pact with the Tories that brought power and seats at the table of Government has proved to be fatal. There is now the very real possibility that the Liberal Democrats will become an even more marginalised and irrelevant rump in next year's Scottish Elections.
Electoral records were being broken at 10 minute intervals as news was broadcast from counts across Scotland. Commentators and psephologists struggled to keep up with swings that kept obliterating previous records. It was as if a long jumper at the Olympics became the first athlete to break a 100 year old world record, only for them to find by the time they'd completed a lap of honour of the stadium the next 5 jumpers had each gone on to improve on the distance. Given the magnitude of some of the results, (Anne McLaughlin achieved a swing of 39% in Glasgow North East) it was understandable that the significance of some others was lost.
My own constituency of Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk has been either Tory or Liberal since elections began. In 1868 it was won by Sir Graham Graham-Montgomery, 3rd Baronet Stanhope who I presume was not a local mill worker and has see-sawed between various shades of Tory Unionist and Liberal candidates ever since. Following the "boy" David Steel's triumph during a by-election in 1965 it seemed that the constituency was sealed as Liberal (Democrat) for ever. In the early hours of last Friday morning, and after a re-count, I watched as the final result of the night in Scotland confirmed that we really were living through historic times. The SNP won. Michael Moore's strong personal profile was not enough to stop his vote collapsing and the majority of those, who have often voted tactically for the LibDems in the past to keep the Tories out switched to Calum Kerr of the SNP along with around 5% of Labour voters. The SNP vote increased by a staggering 27.5%. In its own way, this single result was every bit as significant as those from across Central Scotland which hogged the majority of the headlines.
Images of shell-shocked Tories, upset Lib/Dems and euphoric SNP were beamed around the country from Springwood Hall in Kelso. In the early hours of September 19th 2014 I sat in that same hall with Calum Kerr and other activists from Yes Scottish Borders as we watched results of the Independence Referendum coming in from across the country. We had the dubious pleasure of attending the count that would deliver the second worst Yes vote in the country. Only in Orkney was the percentage of No voters higher. We were surrounded by the local No campaign, predominantly Tories of the most unpleasant and boorish kind. However, joining the posh country set were also local Liberal Democrats and Labour campaigners in their "United with Labour" badges. As each local authority area across Scotland declared, the majority for No, we watched as Tory, Lib/Dem and Labour alike high-fived each other and smirked in our direction. Wealthy farmers, land owners and local businessmen cheered as traditional Labour heartlands delivered No vote after No vote. Only when results in Glasgow, Dundee, North Lanarkshire and West Dumbartonshire were announced did we have cause to raise a smile, but we knew it was not going to be enough.
We left Kelso and returned to a hall in Galashiels where Yes campaigners had gathered to watch the referendum results coverage. Minutes after I arrived a No vote was confirmed. In an attempt to console a tearful fellow activist I told her of how it felt to be surrounded by those from the parties of No. Those parties who represented greed and avarice and who had campaigned throughout the referendum with a message of disingenuous fear. In comparison our campaign had been positive, anti-austerity and fundamentally anti-Tory. Despite the disappointment of losing the vote I explained it felt better not to have been associated with those on the other side of the room that morning. Watching those same Tory faces back in Springwood Hall on TV as Calum Kerr defeated them by just over 300 votes was satisfying indeed.
Yet unlike the majority of the friends I made in the Yes campaign I did not share their sense of joy and triumph that the SNP did so well, only a despondency that the Tories had a majority. It remains to be seen if the SNP can offer a solution to the problems faced by ordinary people day and daily or if they will be an effective barrier to the worst ravages of the Tories. Whilst the rhetoric the party has employed during the campaign has encouraged this belief that the SNP offer a break from the cuts consensus of the big two at Westminster, their record in both Holyrood and in local Government does not provide proof that they can walk the walk on opposing austerity.
They have positioned themselves to the left of Labour on issues such as trident and immigration but it has only been since the election of Nicola Sturgeon that the SNP moved to drop the policy of cutting corporation tax and adopted other economic policies that brought them more in line with Miliband's Labour. Despite being in Government since 2007 and enjoying a comfortable majority at Holyrood since 2011 the party has failed to act on scrapping the unjust Council tax and replacing it, (as they had promised) with a fairer, income based alternative. This one redistributive measure alone could have made a huge and positive difference to the lives of the majority of Scots over the past 4 years. The council tax freeze is a poor alternative to scrapping an unfair and discredited policy and has put increasing pressure on local authority budgets which have in turn led to cuts in vital public services. College places have been cut whilst low paid striking hospital porters in Dundee show that the devolved NHS lacks fairness just as much as its maligned English and Welsh counterpart.
The Tories have no mandate in Scotland to implement the damaging and brutal austerity policies planned for the next 5 years. The SNP in comparison have an overwhelming mandate to resist such measures. If they choose simply to employ anti-austerity rhetoric but implement cuts in practice, then they run the risk of losing the incredible levels of support they currently enjoy. Lessons from the not too distant past show that a failure to resist unpopular Tory measures can be damaging to a party in Scotland. Despite enjoying huge popular support and returning the vast majority of MP's to Westminster, the Scottish Labour Party was roundly condemned for failing to stand up to the Thatcher and Major Governments. The "feeble 50 "as they were known played a large part in the disillusionment that haunts Labour to this day. The 56 SNP representatives currently moving into their new offices in Westminster should take heed. It won't be good enough to simply say that without Independence we cannot do anything to stop Cameron. Despite understanding the constraints imposed by the union it remains to be seen just how patient and tolerant the Scottish people will be.
Just as the SNP argued that a strong vote for them would hold Westminster's feet to the fire then there is a need for a strong showing by the left in Scotland to hold the SNP to account. The referendum campaign proved that the potential exists for socialists and other progressive forces to work together and successfully challenge neo-liberal orthodoxies and fight for a much more radical agenda. I disagreed with Tommy Sheridan and others in Solidarity and Hope Over Fear who argued we should lend our vote to the SNP everywhere in the election. My preference would have been to call for a vote instead for the candidates who were either the most left wing, openly socialist, anti-trident or against austerity. This may have meant in practice voting for SNP candidates in the majority of places anyway but not everywhere. In Tommy's own constituency the candidate Chris Stephens was a trade unionist with a reputation for being on the left. In other places, Kilmarnock and Louden for example, the candidate was a sitting councillor who has been implementing austerity as part of a SNP/Conservative coalition. It seems inconsistent to me to say you'll punish the "Red Tories" by calling for a vote for someone implementing cuts with the "actual Tories."
The Scottish Left did stand in a handful of seats last week but received the derisory results that were perhaps as predictable as they were depressing. It is telling that the left in Scotland is so weak electorally that there has been barely a commentator who has even mentioned them in the days following last week's results.
The Greens received the best results of the smaller progressive parties but they cannot lay claim to having created a significant social movement that looks likely to shake Holyrood to its foundations next year. Their best result came in Glasgow North where they scored 6.2% and they performed well in a couple of Edinburgh seats where they managed to save two deposits. Whilst it is not quite as simple to suggest that in the absence of a Green candidate voters may have instead switched to the SNP, it is nonetheless frustrating to see that in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale Constituency, Scotland's only Tory David Mundell managed to beat the SNP by the smallest margin of 798 votes. The Green vote in the constituency was 839. In retrospect it might have been a better result for Greens and environmentalists if Mundell had been removed and Scotland was a completely Tory-free zone. Patrick Harvie will be hoping that in 2016 a large number of those voting SNP in the constituency contests will switch to Green for the Regional List vote. It is unlikely that the Greens would agree to any kind of Yes Alliance or left re-groupment strategy prior to 2016.
The performance of the socialist parties was much poorer. The SSP's National Co-Spokesperson Colin Fox stood in Edinburgh South, the one seat where Labour held on in Scotland. The SSP have made much of their profile as members of the Yes Scotland Advisory Board and Fox has maintained a decent media profile since September last year. He received 197 votes or 0.4%. The SSP's best percentage result of the night was in Paisley and Renfrew South where Sandra Webster achieved 0.6% of the votes cast. In the four seats where they stood the cumulative total of all their votes did not exceed by much the number received by the Claymore wielding Independent candidate Jessie Rae in the Borders. The Socialist Equality Party accumulated 58 votes in Glasgow Central whilst in Glasgow North West the Communists managed to secure 136 votes.
The biggest left challenge in Scotland was mounted by the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) who stood in 10 seats. Nowhere did the party achieve even 1% of the vote with their strongest showing 0.7% in Dundee West for trade unionist Jim McFarlane and their weakest 0.2% in neighbouring Dundee East. In Glasgow TUSC finished behind the Cannabis is Safer than Alcohol Party in 2 out of the 3 seats where they went head to head. One small crumb of comfort was in Aberdeen North where at least TUSC's Tyrinne Rutherford beat the National Front candidate by 20 votes. Across the UK TUSC did not perform much better. Its highest profile candidate the former Labour MP Dave Nellist scored a respectable 3.9% in Coventry North West but that was as good as it got for the coalition. Trade Unionist Nick Wrack received 0.6% in Camberwell and Peckham, Nancy Taafe scored 0.9% in Walthamstow whilst in Bethnal Green and Bow Glyn Robbins polled 1.8%. In Abervan, Captain Beany, curator of museum of beans received almost ten times the vote of Owen Herbert of TUSC who polled 134. Reports have emerged of one TUSC candidate, in Rainham North, who did not receive a single vote.
These results in no way reflect either the quality of the campaigns or indeed the candidates themselves. Across the UK TUSC stood some of the best left-wing and trade union activists there are. In the Liverpool Riverside constituency TUSC stood Tony Mulhearn, one of the key figures in Liverpool City Council's resistance to Thatcher in the early 1980's. Tony polled 1.3% of the vote. In Glasgow North the candidate was Angela McCormick, an active trade unionist, community activist and anti-war campaigner. You could not get a more suitable socialist candidate standing for election. Angela's vote was 0.4%. In Glasgow South TUSC selected Brian Smith, the Secretary of the Glasgow City UNISON branch. A high profile trade unionist with a record second to none in fighting for his members and his class Brian received 0.6% of the votes cast.
Neither is it the case that the message being put forward by socialist candidates was not well received or popular. Calling for the rich to be made to pay their fair share of taxation, an end to cuts and privatisation, for public ownership and stronger trade union rights in the workplace are ideas that resonate with the public. TUSC and the other socialist organisations who stood will say they were simply laying down a marker and preparing for the potentially more rewarding proportional representative Scottish Elections next year. Thousands of leaflets were distributed, papers were sold and the message was received warmly. Results were "modest" and the left was "squeezed" in the battle between the SNP and Labour. If the left is to be treated as a seriously at future elections however, different conclusions need to be drawn.
The problem for socialist candidates under whichever banner they stand is that they lack electoral credibility. This is compounded every time they put up candidates and receive miserly and derogatory votes. The comrades in TUSC will point out that they are at least raising the standard of socialism in elections and are 100% anti-austerity. They would also quite rightly point to the fact that the coalition is supported by one major trade union, the RMT, giving them an authority no other left grouping can claim. The dilemma is however, that the more times the coalition is defeated by Captain Beany or by candidates under the moniker of "Elvis Loves Pets", (as happened in Eastleigh in 2013) the harder it is to maintain credibility, to persuade the RMT to continue backing TUSC or indeed managing to convince other unions to make the break from Labour. Whilst the majority of socialist cadres from the organisations that make up TUSC, primarily the Socialist Party and The SWP are not dispirited by such meagre results, it is harder to encourage fresh layers of new activists to either join or to stay involved when results are so poor. Modest results could be acceptable if during the campaign significant social movements were being constructed in their wake, but this is not the case.
The results last Thursday, and those in the preceding elections can lead to only one conclusion - that the left cannot go on repeating the mistakes of the past in the hope that something will change. A new strategy is urgently required.
I attended all the meetings at the RMT Headquarters in London where the TUSC and NO2EU – Yes to Democracy coalitions were formed. I represented Solidarity in negotiations with the late Bob Crow, the RMT and the other socialist organisations that came together in a bid to offer a left alternative to the Labour Party. These coalitions were created in the wake of a conference entitled the "Crisis in Working Class Representation" that the RMT organised in London in the winter of 2009. Speaking on the eve of the conference Bob made a statement that is as applicable now as it was then,
"(this) conference comes at a crucial time for working people in this country. The gap between rich and poor has never been greater... the three main parties are all spouting the same pro-bosses mantra of public spending cuts and privatisation. People up and down the country are angry that they are being told to pay the price for the recession while the speculators who created it are bailed out to the tune of tens of billions and are gearing up for a bumper round of bonuses at our expense. Millions of working class people have been disenfranchised by the political establishment. Our aim is to give them a voice."
In Scotland hundreds of thousands of working class people concluded in a first past the post contest that the SNP gave them that voice. Yet many of those, especially a younger generation engaged during the referendum campaign, will be prepared to back a more radical alternative in the list vote in next year's Scottish Elections. Unfortunately neither TUSC nor any of the current left organisations are they are constituted looks capable of making the significant breakthroughs that are potentially on offer in 2016. The various socialist organisations instead have to acknowledge their shortcomings and amend the tactics that have been employed for the last ten years or so. This requires meaningful dialogue and discussion between the various parties and movements of the left in a bid to achieve some kind of unity of purpose that avoids a myriad of different options appearing on the ballot paper. As it stands, especially in Glasgow, there could be a large number of socialist options competing on the regional list including TUSC, Solidarity, The SSP, The Socialist Labour Party, The Communist Party and The Left Project. Each one claiming that it is the authentic voice of socialism. This bewildering array of options needs to be avoided or at least a serious attempt made to reach agreements and accommodation no matter how fraught the process may be. Left unity cannot just be proclaimed by one or other of these groups. Any serious attempt cannot start with any groups being excluded or marginalised. The renewed attacks facing the poorest and most vulnerable in society deserve a co-ordinated response and fightback. To not exhaust the possibilities of re-groupment would be abdicating responsibility.
Simply re-aligning the miniscule and disparate left groups will not be enough of itself but it is a necessary starting point. Any new formation needs to capture the momentum, the energy and the drive of the referendum campaign. It must become a living, breathing social movement driven by bottom up activity and engaging meaningfully in communities rather than handfuls of cadre distributing leaflets and newspapers. The challenge for the left in the months before the 2016 election is seeing if it can set aside differences and egos and mount a unified and credible challenge offering an alternative to either the full austerity or austerity lite policies of all the main parties, including the SNP.
Other articles by Graeme McIver in The Point (click on the articles)