Scots punish Labour, vote left

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Scots punish Labour, vote left

By Alan McCombes

As the Holyrood [Scottish parliament] election results poured in on May 7, there were scenes of jubilation among New Labour's dwindling battalions of Scottish activists — an outpouring of relief as the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) bandwagon shuddered to a halt.

Labour's election campaign was the most hysterical ever waged in Scotland, and every Scottish daily newspaper rallied round it. Conducted against the background of a war in the Balkans and with the British economy still stuttering ahead, the New Labour leadership could scarcely have dreamed it would be fighting this election under such favourable conditions. However, the vote was neither a ringing endorsement of New Labour nor a resounding vote of confidence in the [British] Union.

Clearly, a layer of people — particularly elderly and middle-class voters — were affected by the scaremongering of New Labour and the media. Another layer decided to give the new devolved parliament a chance before proceeding any further on the national question. But among young people and the working class there was a further shifting of the sands from under the feet of New Labour.

In 20 constituencies, mainly in the central belt, there were swings of more than 10% from Labour to the SNP. In Glasgow, the swing to the SNP was twice the national average. Overall, Labour's vote plummeted to 39% from 46% in the 1997 general election.

Labour's close allies, the Liberal Democrats, took just 11% of vote — the same as those classified by the opinion pollsters as "others". The fact that the Lib Dems received 10 times the publicity of all of these "others" put together underlines the astonishing advance of new, radical, anti-establishment forces.

The SNP, although failing to live up to some 1998 opinion polls which put the party neck and neck with Labour, is in a potentially stronger position than ever before. The sensational advance of Plaid Cymru in Wales will add a further twist to the growing instability of the United Kingdom.

As Tim Williams, a right-wing Welsh Labour member observed in the Scotsman: "Blairism, the Labour Party, the Union: all damaged in one day. Nice one, Tony ... Electors in Scottish Labour's heartlands preferred to return a superannuated socialist and a truculent Trot over Blair's politically correct placemen."

However, the failure of the SNP to make a decisive breakthrough has already led to recriminations, with tensions growing on the left and right of the party. The SNP, by trying to face in two directions simultaneously, failed either to win over big business or to inspire mass support among the working class for independence.

Its timid policy of a penny on income tax to boost spending on education and health aroused furious opposition from big business and the press, but its refusal to tackle fundamental questions such as poverty and inequality left the SNP incapable of mobilising the working class and the poor against New Labour.

If the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) had the scale of resources and media coverage enjoyed by the SNP, our call for an independent socialist Scotland would have inspired countless hundreds of thousands of young people, council tenants and low-paid workers to rise up en masse against New Labour.

On a small scale, that is precisely what the SSP achieved, especially in Glasgow, where the party has had the highest profile and deepest roots, resulting in the election of Tommy Sheridan.

With Tommy Sheridan's election, that profile has already been raised to new heights across Scotland. The party has had more media coverage in the past few days than in its first six months.

With Sheridan determined to battle inside Holyrood and lead extra-parliamentary action in support of the party's 100 manifesto policies, the SSP is set to become a mighty force in Scottish politics in the next few years.

The victory for [expelled Labour leftist] Dennis Canavan was a magnificent triumph for socialist idealism over New Labour cynicism, and the Green Party victory in Lothians was another defeat for the grey-suit brigade. But Green MSP Robin Harper, after flirting with the idea of backing Canavan as first minister, later told the Scotsman: "My intention has always been that Donald Dewar [the Labour leader, who dismissed Canavan but was out-polled by him] deserves to be First Minister. He is steady and reliable."

Especially if Harper joins the government, tens of thousands of anti-establishment young people who backed the Greens will begin to look elsewhere, particularly to the SSP, which has the most radical environmental program of all Scotland's political parties.

The SSP is now in a pivotal position to appeal to the million and more people who refused to vote because the mainstream parties had nothing to offer them. The relief of New Labour and the media is already tinged with a sense of foreboding. In contrast, the forces of socialism are growing, confident and brimful of optimism.

[Abridged from the forthcoming issue of Scottish Socialist Voice. Alan McCombes is a national executive member of the Scottish Socialist Party. Visit the SSP's web site at <http://www.scotsocialistparty.org>.]