Dark, difficult days ahead

We are entering a period of dark, dark days. There will be storms ahead and maybe some chinks of light, even a little bit of sunshine. But the forecast is a not a good one, make no doubt of that. The outcome that almost no one thought possible – a majority Tory government – gives us not just five more years of austerity in the public sector, five more years of wealth inequality and more and deeper attacks on worker’s rights, repeal of the Human Rights Act etcetera but also something worse, namely, the Tories’ ability to go even further and faster than before in implementing their neo-liberal agenda. Get ready for bigger and faster cuts, bigger and faster wealth redistribution from the poor to the rich and so on.

Yet it will not be all entirely plaining sailing for the Tories. While Labour and Liberal Democrats are unlikely to provide much opposition over the coming months on account of not just their meltdowns but also their leadership contests and similar policies to the Tories, the clamour for independence will go up another notch as a means to evade this rampant neo-liberalism. It will go up a few further notches as next May approaches, with the SNP’s dominance in Holyrood likely to be solidified and, probably, extended too. A little further down the line, the Tories will have to deal with their by far most contentious issue – membership of the EU – when the in/out referendum takes place. Despite the failure to breakthrough at Westminster, UKIP still gained nearly 4m votes so this will give confidence to the Tory ‘little Englander’ brigade to their work.

What has happened in Scotland will renew the long running Edinburgh Zoo panda joke. Now, it’s not just applicable to the Tories but also the LibDems and especially to Labour (given Ian Murray’s constituency is Edinburgh South). Hats off to the SNP’s formidable party machine for not being disorganised and disillusioned by the referendum result as well as to Nicola Sturgeon for proving that she did not have a poisoned chalice in her hands courtesy of Alex Salmond and his over-exuberance. She’s gone from the portrayal of the rather cold, austere ‘wee Scottish wifie’ you would not wish to have a ‘stairheid rammy’ with to a minor cult leader and celebrity of ‘I’m with Nicola’ fame.

But far greater political acumen has been shown by Sturgeon and the SNP in stealing the clothes of ‘old’ Labour which Labour left lying around while simultaneously not providing a genuine, full anti-austerity agenda. Not so much a case of the Emperor’s new clothes as austerity would have been slower and lesser under SNP plans but still a form of austerity nonetheless. And certainly not social democracy nor socialism either.

Of course, Labour gave the SNP the helping hand and ability to do this. The manifesto Labour fought the election on was a relatively progressive one (no matter what was also not in it) when compared to what the Tories had on offer. Thus, Labour would repeal Health and Social Care Act, establish a public inquiry into blacklisting, freeze energy bills for two years, build 200,000 homes every year by 2020, scrap the non-dom status, abolish employment tribunal fees, give zero-hours workers a contract after three months, cap rent rises, introduce a mansion tax and re-introduce 50p top rate of income tax.

The problem is that there were loads of other and bigger things in Labour’s manifesto that undermined all this, most obviously, fiscal prudence so that virtually no new spending would be incurred. Any increases in budgets in one area would come from cuts in others. ‘Austerity with a red rosette’, ‘Red Tories’ and ‘austerity-lite’ were among the various epithets given to this. A political party cannot expect to win voters to its cause with this small array of progressive measures in the six months running up to May 7 when for the last five years its message has been austerity via fiscal prudence.

Recalling an elementary marketing nostrum: Labour’s brand or product was not clearly enough differentiated in the marketplace from its main rival, the Tories. In other words, Labour lost the campaign well before it really kicked off in January 2015. Labour should have been miles ahead of the Tories and stayed there had it offered a social democratic programme (never mind a socialist one). In doing so, Labour managed to undo a time honoured tradition of basking in anti-Tory anger.

The foreseeable and still important role of the overwhelmingly Tory press should have been factored into Labour’s strategy. It abetted Cameron’s fear tactics of SNP MPs controlling a Labour minority government which cost Labour votes in middle and south England.

Back in Scotland, Jim Murphy suffered much the same fate. No matter how radical the recent words coming out of his mouth were – and they were quite radical and much more so than those from Miliband – he was simply not believed. Scottish Labour had become so corrupted by its adherence and accommodation to neo-liberalism, this being so splendidly personified in the figure of Murphy himself, that hundreds of thousands deserted Labour.

The challenges for the SNP are many and varied. Its strategy was based upon being able to support and shape a Labour minority government in terms of some broad political agreement and on a ‘confidence and supply’ basis. Even though it did better than it expected, the SNP now has to deal with a majority (albeit small) Tory government. It is thus unlikely to be able to deliver much in the way of solid-cum-material gains in the Westminster system (especially on any anti-austerity basis), and it is this which may explain Nicola Sturgeon’s emphasis on making ‘Scotland’s voice being heard’. Here having one’s voice being heard is necessary but not sufficient to affect change – indeed, sometimes having one’s voice being heard comes to be a (very poor) substitute for affecting actual change.

But politics is never that straightforward. The above expression of voice without affecting change could lead to the accusation of the ‘feeble fifty six’ but in the short-term it is more likely that the SNP will be seen as the Scotland’s ‘doughty defender’ as not only has Labour in Scotland been all but wiped out but also because the SNP’s definitions of ‘Scotland’s voice’ and ‘Scotland’s interest’ will be couched in terms of claiming to be socially progressive against the nasty, neo-liberal Tories. This is at least going to protect the SNP in the short-term from a serious backlash by being castigated for being noisy but largely ineffective. Indeed, the SNP is wise enough to be able to use this situation to create an opportunity to increase its majority in the Scottish Parliament come the May 2016 elections as well as in a second referendum.

But the SNP will face two pressures. Firstly, to make clear its intentions -and any attendant timescale – on a second referendum. Salmond and Sillars are already leading the charge here but will it be in the SNP’s 2016 Holyrood manifesto? Secondly, to outline how material conditions will improve upon enhanced devolution. Any steps toward some kind of full(er) fiscal autonomy to raise all taxes and to spend all taxes will inevitably raise questions about how to stop austerity. Will the SNP be prepared to raise taxes, used progressive taxation, end the subsidies to the rich, employers and so on? Here, a left in the SNP has a critical role to play. Some of the left has either departed the SNP (John Finnie, John Wilson, Jean Urquhart) or been marginalised within it. Others nominally on the left toe the party line. Among the new crop of MPs, it will be interesting to see how the likes of Tommy Sheppard and Chris Stephens organise themselves and what demands they raise. Beyond these, it is unclear what the left in the SNP is or looks like.

Crisis and failure do not just abound for Labour – they are there too for the radical left and the social movements. After the worst economic, financial and political crisis for generations – aka the crisis of neo-liberalism – and followed by five years of austerity courtesy of the ConDem coalition, the showing of the radical left at the polls was worse than abysmal. It is simply not good enough to talk about how the results for 2015 help the lay the groundwork for the coming battles because this merely absolves the radical left for taking responsibility for the mess it’s in right now. Yes, there are certain objective factors like the strength of the media, the power of employers and the hegemony of neo-liberal ideas. But politics is a two-sided coin because there is also the subjective, namely, how lacking in credibility the radical left is and how self-inflicted many of its wounds are. If the prospects for resistance and radical were as good as the radical left made out in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014, how come there was no sign of this in 2015?

The biggest social movement is still the union movement. It remains something of a sleeping giant – or a giant with feet of clay depending on your viewpoint. The defeats suffered over pensions, job cuts and pay freezes since 2010 (especially in the public sector) did not lay out the basis for providing an assertive challenge to the political parties and the political system. Neither did the lowest level of strikes for generations between 2010 and 2015 either. This was all the more true for the various initiatives and proto-social movements that the various unions supported like the Peoples’ Charter, Coalition of Resistance, National Shop Stewards’ Network and Peoples’ Assembly against Austerity. They have all failed to become what they wanted to be and what they needed to be – mass, vibrant, popular and, critically, effective, anti-austerity movements.

And the majority of the unions (by membership) are affiliated to the Labour Party. They failed to get (policy) value for money with their funding of Labour’s election campaign, indicating the iron grip that exists at the top of the Labour tree. Conference policy is still routinely ignored, National Policy Forums account for little and even the Parliamentary Labour Party has been usurped by the leader’s office. Of course, many moons ago this happened to the National Executive Committee. Democracy is not a Labour strength.

There is no sign that much is likely to change with the replacement for Ed Miliband. A party so dominated by the right (Blairites, social liberals etcetera) is not suddenly going to vote for a left candidate (even if one could be found and get onto the ballot paper in the first instance). A new ‘new’ Labour is on the cards led by any of the current declared and undeclared contenders, unless things really do change.

So will the unions make sure someone like John McDonnell gets on the ballot paper this time round? Will they learn from their mistake in 2010 in voting from Ed Miliband, and naively convincing themselves he was a break from ‘new’ Labour even when McDonnell espoused the very policies union supported themselves? Or will Unite decide to disaffiliate after not only giving Labour millions in what Len McCluskey often called ‘the fight of our lives’ but also McCluskey promising that if Labour lost disaffiliation would be up for serious discussion.

In Scotland, can Labour listen and learn in the way in promised to but did not after 2007 and 2011? Will it also move to become a new ‘new’ Labour Party? Or could an independent Scottish Labour Party emerge which reconstitutes itself as social democratic (aka ‘old’ Labour) and in time for May 2016?

Murphy thinking he can remain Scottish leader, being supported by the right wing, and many on the left thinking the annihilation in the election was an aberration by traditional supporters who have been conned by the SNP rhetoric and will more or less return to the fold when SNP fail to deliver highlights the denial of reality within Scottish Labour.

The following articles on the outcome and implications of the election touch on these issues and more. We hope the breadth and depth of treatment allows readers to be stimulated and informed. But before turning to them, this editorial makes three specific appeals in this new political era we are now in.

The first is for content – what are the issues you would like to see Scottish Left Review cover, who would you like to see write them and how would you like to see the issues approached? Suggestions not on a postcard – but instead by email (g.gall@bradford.ac.uk).

The second is that we want more interaction with our readers and subscribers – so please email us your thoughts and reflections – your diagnosis and prognosis – in the form of a letter of up to 400 words on what challenges the left faces in getting back on the saddle. Email g.gall@bradford.ac.uk

The third is as you might expect is a plea for money. We have expanded to a regular 32 page format to provide the space for discussing and debating what needs to be done and what the left needs to do in the coming months and years ahead. This always comes as a cost in terms of production outlays. Please donate to the magazine at

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Looking at things from a different angle

In my editorial, I made the correct – but standard – left wing case for why Labour lost. But we can also try to get at the answer about why Labour lost by asking the question: ‘Why nearly 11.5m people in Britain voted Tory?’ Was it because they support the austerity agenda? Was it because they are not affected by the austerity? Or was it because they benefit from the growing wealth inequality that austerity brings and are experiencing the fruits of what economic growth that there is? These questions are important because we can only get so far in understanding what happened south of the border by saying that if Labour had been more like the SNP down south then it would have triumphed. Recognising that the Tories have a parliamentary mandate – albeit not a popular mandate – is important in trying to judge what level and success of resistance we can anticipate in the months and years to come in the ‘belly of the beast’.