Tuesday, May 08, 2007
The Scottish elections in perspective
Electoral politics can be cruel but is not inexplicable. Unfortunately a lot of what passes for election analysis is facile and self-serving, often being used to reinforce an already existing prejudice, or to fluff up a particular party allegiance.
To put the recent performance of the Scottish left into perspective, consider a comparison.
In 1989 the Green Party achieved an astonishing 15% across the Britain in the Euro elections, with a total of 2292695 votes. This included 115028 votes in Scotland. Yet five years later their vote across the Britain was only 3% and was only 23304 in Scotland (compared to 12113 for Scottish Militant Labour in 1994, who stood only in Glasgow, compared to all eight constituencies the Greens stood in). The Green vote in Scotland in 1994 was no better than the far left vote in that country today, and exhibited a comparable decline over a few short years, yet they have recovered.
You can read the full Euro election results here (PDF).
The extraordinary vote for the Greens in 1989 was due to the intersection of a number of factors that no longer prevailed in 1994. This article is not about the Greens, so I will leave discussion of that till another day.
Scotland in Britain
Scotland is a nation, but its political, economic, industrial and cultural history has developed in the context of Britain. There are both elements of commonality with the rest of Britain, and differentiation through particular Scottish characteristics.
One of most important aspect of commonality is the broadly progressive nature of the Labour party’s electoral base, and the institutional links between the trade unions and the Labour Party. For several decades the Labour vote has been higher in Scotland, and Trade Union membership has been higher than in England as a whole, but not higher than some English regions, such as the North east, and not higher than Wales. For more discussion on this see Gregor Gall’s book, “The Political Economy of Scotland”
There is no convincing case that Scottish trade unionism has followed a significantly more militant path that trade unionism across Britain. Nor, to dispel a famous myth, was the poll tax rebellion deeper or more militant in Scotland. The campaign started a year earlier in Scotland because it was introduced there earlier, and the tactic of non-payment and opposing bailiffs was derived from Scotland, but there was considerable militancy in England also, paradoxically more so in the South West, with for example, some 15000 marching through Plymouth, hundreds of protestors in Swindon breaking into the council chamber as councillors set the tax, and it was England that saw the Trafalgar Square riot, where the South African Embassy was set alight.
The political common sense in Scotland has been more left social democratic than in Britain as a whole. Added to which there is a distinct national culture that has had a stronger left voice than in England. Yet the general level of working class struggle has been very similar, and the levels of class consciousness and organisation are no greater than in some English regions.
Four particular factors have operated in the least few decades to accentuate the differences between Scotland and Britain.
Firstly the fall of the British Empire has removed an external referent. Scotland, England and Wales were historical partners as an imperial power. The diminished role of Britain today permits an alternative model of Scottish capitalism to be envisaged, and one of the strongest aspects of the SNP’s politics has been its opposition to the war in Iraq.
Secondly, Margaret Thatcher’s government abolished or weakened most British wide national institutions, such as British Rail, British Gas, British Steel, National Coal Board et al. (Subordinate to this, but culturally significant was the abolition of football’s home international series in 1984, which removed a common British framework for the most popular sport)
Thirdly, Scotland endured eighteen years of Tory rule without the Tories ever having won a majority there. This is of course also true of English regions such as the North East and South Yorkshire, but in the case of Scotland and Wales there were subordinate nationalisms that could give expression to this grievance.
Finally, devolution has created its own dynamic, with an increased proportion of media coverage in Scotland referring to events in Hollyrood rather than Westminster.
The result of which is that the dominant form of separatism expressed by the SNP ditches a lot of the imperial baggage of British culture and politics, and reflects the generally social democratic social attitudes prevalent in Scotland. True the SNP sucks up to Brian Souter and other businessman, but in this regard new Labour is no different. For many voters the SNP are a vote to the left of Labour, a position they have achieved due to expressing left opposition to Westminster policies via separatism. (Of course the SNP also has its share of Hooray Hamishes, and James Bonds, but these are not characteristic of the party)
What is more, the objective conditions for a stable and successful socialist party to the left of Labour in Scotland is neither better nor worse than the conditions in England or Wales. The hitherto greater success of the Scottish left had been largely due to subjective factors – they had simply been better at it than us in England.
Nature of political parties
All political parties are complex social institutions. We need to consider the relationships between the party leadership, the party bureaucracy (not meant pejoratively), the activists, and the wider electoral support. We also need to consider the social forces that interact with the party, the party’s professed ideology, and the dynamic between that ideology and day to day pragmatism.
Parties also operate within concrete historical and political contexts, which they can influence but not determine.
Yet much of the commentary about the SSP in particular has signally failed to look at the party in the round, instead we get facile comments about how its alleged nationalism is the source of all woes, etc. Or an assumption that its electoral performance (good or bad) has been entirely due to this or that individual factor.
Let us consider some aspects of this concretely
Factors of the SSP’s 2003 success
A distinct difference between the Scottish and wider British political situations was the much more effective organisation of Scottish Militant Labour in consolidating gains from the poll tax rebellion.
In 1992 Tommy Sheridan (then in gaol) gained 6,200 votes in the 1992 general election, coming second to Labour in Pollok. A few weeks later Tommy Sheridan was elected from prison to Glasgow District Council. SML also won another council seat in Pollok and came within 46 votes of winning a seat in Drumchapel. This gave SML four councillors in Glasgow. In September 1992 SML won a victory in Easterhouse winning 54% of the vote in a regional council byelection. SML stood 7 candidates in the May 1992 council elections receiving more votes that the 77 Green Party candidates who stood across Scotland.
When the Scottish Socialist Alliance (later the Scottish Socialist party) was launched, it was therefore building on consistent and patient work over a period of years.
Of course, a pernicious factor in electoral politics is the necessity of building a brand loyalty towards individual politicians. This is exaggerated by the preference of journalists to hang stories on individuals, and to create local celebrities. In the process a popular legend is created, that may or may not accord to the actual history and characteristics of the individuals.
In the case of Tommy Sheridan, as a young man he had indeed been the firebrand popular face of the poll tax rebellion, and he was a popular leader of some ability. But we must also recognise that Tommy was also collectively supported, educated and developed by the Militant, who also provided the strategic framework within which he operated. In more recent times, Sheridan has been a figurehead, but it was the party who built him up.
Nevertheless, Tommy was a potent brand, and had been a success as an MSP between 1999 and 2003. His name, associated with the SSP, helped the party electorally. Of course, Tommy was not the only high profile activist in the SSP, and one of Scotland’s best known trade unionists, Carolyn Leckie, was also elected in 2003.
Another important factor was the war. In February 2003 the SSP was seen as central and indispensable to the campaign in Scotland against the upcoming attack on Iraq, and the level of militant opposition to the war remained very high for the May elections. As the SWP’s Mike Gonzalez has written, the vote in 2003 “arose directly out of the public perception of the [SSP]’s leading role in the anti-war movement: 100,000 marched through Glasgow on 15 February that year. It is no coincidence that that figure so closely reflected the numbers in the election.”
In 2003 the SSP were also able to stand as a party that had achieved the unification of almost the entire Scottish left, with the exception of the no-longer mighty Communist Party. This would have been an important factor in motivating the activists, it also helped in establishing a popular recognition of the SSP brand. Electoral differentiation was also achieved over say Arthur Scargill’s SLP because the SSP stood not only on the list (where very many minor parties compete) but also stood in the constituencies, associating the SSP with the major parties.
The 2003 election therefore saw a favourable conjunction where the party’s ideological position opposing imperial war and the party’s commitment to extra-parliamentary struggle attracted a militant leftward moving component of the opposition to Iraq. They also benefited from the long term electoral work of Sheridan and the SML, and the SSP was still in its heroic phase in the eyes of the activists, helping it get more campaigning out onto the streets.
Reasons for electoral failure in 2007
Whereas the intersection of Scottish and British politics acted largely in the SSP’s favour in 2003, in 2007 this had changed.
Opposition to the war has become much more all-pervasive over the last four years, and this has muted the intensity of the issue. Paradoxically the success of the hard left in building a strategic opposition to the war in Iraq that embraces the political mainstream has also diminished the degree to which the hard left are seen as the political expression of anti-war militancy. Alex Salmond has been a consistent opponent of the war, and the SNP presented themselves as an anti-war party, and what is more one that could actually achieve the withdrawal of Scotland from the imperial British project.
This election has seen a complex interaction of Scottish and British characteristics. The defining feature of British politics is the enduring social democratic electoral base for the Labour Party, despite the abandonment of its traditional social democratic role by the Labour Party, structurally and ideologically, so that the victory of neo-liberalism is institutionally reinforced in Labour. In most of Britain, there has been no electorally credible vehicle to break a significant section of the progressive vote towards a new force.
But in Scotland, there is no prospect of the Tories winning, and the SNP position themselves, or at least are perceived by much of the electorate (which may not be the same thing), as a social democratic party, moderately but tangibly to the left of Labour.
To a large degree then the votes for Solidarity and the SSP in 2007 were simply eclipsed by the SNP.
What was clear was that the results for both Solidarity and the SSP range from disappointing to disastrous. Nevertheless, Tommy Sheridan’s brand loyalty was more effective electorally than the SSP’s. This is no surprise, and was indeed the sole political rationale behind Solidarity.
However, the positive spin being put on this by Solidarity, that they are now the largest socialist party is Scotland, is disingenuous. The wider electorate do not follow the ins and outs of debates within the party, or even very much the debates between the parties. The vote for Solidarity is based upon the inherited capital of SML and the SSP, expressed through loyalty to the Tommy brand, but organisationally and institutionally Solidarity does not represent continuity with either the SML or SSP, in terms of its political composition or ability to sustain community campaigning.
Solidarity are also now spinning that because Sheridan missed out on a seat by around 0.5%, then it was the SSP to blame for splitting the vote. The dogs in the street are laughing at that one, because whatever view we take of the background to the situation, it was Tommy who walked out of the SSP and set up a rival organisation.
The Tommygate sex scandal, and the NOTW trial not only led to a split in the party, they also demobilised a layer of activists, and demoralised a lot of SSP voters. The blame for which entirely lies with Sheridan, who simply should not have brought the libel case to court.
However, there was already some malaise in the SSP even before the NOTW problems. As described by Gregor Gall, in an interview with me in June 2005. ,
“Many of the key pre-2003 activists now are MSPs or are Parliamentary workers. This is necessary to support the MSPs and to use the platform of Parliament as much as we can. The key issue here is why is it that a new generation of activists have not emerged or have not been produced to fill this vacuum. Four further issues are critical here. One is that many of the members and activists that helped get the six elected by general campaigning and specific election work have sat back and let the MSPs and other staff get on with ‘the job’. For example, my branch (Edinburgh North and Leith) had between 20-25 members out of 60-80 members in the branch come to twice monthly branch meetings prior to May 2003. Now, it’s down to about 10. These now inactive members see that their job was to get the MSPs elected so that they could ‘fight for socialism’ as a result of having that public platform. The second is that the members which continue to be active do not have a very good understanding of how a parliamentary platform can be used to build the SSP. This is most clear over extra-parliamentary campaigns to support SSP bills where with only 6 MSPs and only 19 SSP, Greens and independents out of 129 MSPs, extra-parliamentary pressure must be brought to bear on other MSPs and parties to support SSP bills, either to get them passed into law or to have any impact on Scottish Executive policies. Thirdly, the SSP underestimated (or more accurately did not give much thought to) the amount of resources that are necessary to be given over to acting seriously as a party with significant parliamentary representation. This concerns both the call on MSPs to speak at countless public meetings and to the media, and the preparation this requires, but also that if the SSP does not take its parliamentary work and responsibilities seriously, it will be torn to shreds by other parties and the media, thus undermining its credibility and stature. Lastly, the terrain on which the SSP works has not been so favourable of late. The anti-war movement has subsided as a force in between demonstrations. There has been no major trade union struggle like the nursery nurses since early 2004.”
Consequently, although the six (and then four) MSPs did a brilliant job, their work did not necessarily engage with the wider electorate in such a way as to consolidate the vote. The SSP was in the process of a debate about how to overcome these problems, and may well have succeeded, when Tommy Sheridan blew the whole thing off course.
There may have also been technical issues, we will never know whether the SSP would have done better had its also stood in the first past the post seats, but it didn’t have the financial resources to do so.
So where next?
Despite the electoral disaster, the combined left vote was still proportionate to European levels for the far left. And the combined vote would have seen at least one MSP elected for Glasgow. (Unless something remarkable happens twixt now and then, the performance of Respect in the Europeans elections in 2009 will probably be no better).
The SSP must be demoralised, as they were expecting to do better than they did, and in elections, it is not so much how you do in absolute terms but how you do relative to your expectations that determine how you feel about it.
However, they still have a number of advantages:
i) They are not perjurers, and when (as seems likely) criminal charges are brought against Sheridan, they will not be blemished by the muck.
ii) The SSP still has the larger proportion of the activists and what is more, unlike the SWP members in Solidarity, the SSP activists are committed to building the party between elections.
iii) They have five former MSPs, who are experienced and popular politicians: Rosie Kane, John McAllinon, Colin Fox, Carolyn Leckie and Frances Curran.
Solidarity failed to get Sheridan elected, and it is not clear whether there is enough glue to keep the organisation together without him being an MSP. The differences over independence and mutual incompatibility between Sheridan, the SWP and CWI may pull it apart. There are however many activists who, for good or bad reasons, joined Solidarity, and they should hopefully be part of any regroupment.
One area where the Scottish left (SSP and Solidarity) need to more seriously work is in the trade unions, where they need to build a stronger industrial cadre. This needs to take place alongside, work in community campaigns. They are back to the hard slog by which Scottish Militant Labour built their electoral base in the first place.