Left nats lose out to SNP nats

Sarah McDonald assesses the effects of deep divisions and ill feelings within the left in Scotland

With parliament going into its summer recess, the inhabitants of the Westminster constituency of Glasgow North East now know they will have to wait until November for a by-election to replace Michael Martin.

As Commons speaker, Martin, who was forced from office following the MPs’ expenses scandal, had been unopposed by the UK establishment parties in the 2005 general election. But this time Glasgow North East will be hotly contested by all of them, with Labour under threat from the Scottish National Party.

The tactical decision by the Labour Party to delay the election is bad news for the nationalists, who had hoped to cash in on anti-Labour sentiment on the back of the economic crisis and the expenses row in an August election. Presumably, Labour is hoping for the expenses scandal to have blown over, for a united party following its last conference before the general election and for an economic miracle by early November.

Indeed, it is the SNP that has been reaping the gains from disillusionment with Labour in working class communities in Scotland, as illustrated most recently in the June European Union elections. Crucially, last summer’s Glasgow East by-election saw the SNP beat Labour in one of the most secure Labour seats in the country. The SNP’s vote increased by 26%, while Labour’s went down by 19% (it is worth noting that the vote to the left of Labour also decreased in both these elections).

It is unsurprising in these circumstances that both Labour and the SNP have completely reversed their positions compared to Glasgow East. Then, Labour pushed ahead for a summer election, while the SNP criticised them for holding it during the Glasgow fair (the traditional holiday fortnight) when local people are often away.

While the SNP stands to gain the most from the anti-Labour backlash, it is not doing itself any favours in its choices of candidate for this traditional Labour seat. It first selected councillor Grant Thoms, who, according to the BBC, “withdrew suddenly”. The SNP then chose James Dornan, who stepped down due to allegations that he may have broken charity law by using “a ‘protected trust deed’ to keep creditors at bay”.1 But the candidate now in place, David Kerr, is also not without controversy - both Labour and the Tories have raised questions over his suitability due to his membership of Opus Dei, a rightwing Catholic organisation.

Kerr argues that his religious beliefs are a private matter which should not be dragged into the political forum, yet Opus Dei is an organisation which holds particular political positions. So why should a candidate not be questioned over their membership of a religious group if that might impact on their position regarding certain policies? It is interesting that Kerr quit his job at the BBC, fully expecting to be selected as candidate, though Dornan was chosen in his place. It would seem that the SNP have also had some doubts over his suitability.

Still, it is unlikely that the personalities of the main party candidates will influence the way people vote too much. In what is a very deprived area, those who vote Labour generally do so through some sense of class-consciousness and the SNP vote will express a mixture of increasing nationalist sentiment and growing anti-Labour dismay. While this is understandable, incredibly much of the Scottish left would doubtless hail an SNP victory as progressive, just as it did in last year’s Glasgow East by-election.

There is one notable personality who will feature in this election campaign. Tommy Sheridan, who on July 13, along with his wife, Gail, entered their pleas of ‘not guilty’ on perjury charges relating to the 2006 defamation case against the News of the World, is to stand for Solidarity. The trial itself will begin in January. If comrade Sheridan plays his cards right, he could make much political capital out of accusations of victimisation.

The left is, yet again, likely to be split three ways. The Scottish Socialist Party is to stand Kevin McVey. The SSP is still campaigning on its moralistic 10% ‘greed tax’, but at least comrade McVey is stressing his commitment to receiving only a skilled worker’s wage (as would Sheridan) if elected. The SSP is also highlighting the campaign against school closures, which saw militant action in Glasgow earlier this year.2

Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party may also stand. In the 2005 general election the SLP got one of its best ever results, finishing third with 14.2% of the vote behind Martin (standing as ‘Speaker’) and the SNP. This remarkable vote for Dot Kelly, who did not bother to make the trip from Bolton to do any campaigning, was almost entirely due to ‘Socialist Labour Party’ being confused with ‘Scottish Labour Party’ by more than 3,000 voters (the latter name not appearing on the ballot paper, of course).

It will be interesting to see how the left fares in an area with such a strong working class tradition. Certainly, it will suffer from being divided, as it has in every election since comrade Sheridan led the Solidarity split from the SSP in 2006. But there is also a more general shift to the right, a shift towards nationalism. However, let us not forget that this nationalist sentiment has been actively encouraged by both the SSP and Solidarity. This is truly pathetic at a time, now more than ever, when we should be fighting for the unity of the historically constituted working class in this country. If, as seems probable, there is a Tory government elected at the next general election while Scottish voters elect an SNP majority, then we are looking at a referendum on independence. Sadly, in these circumstances we would likely see the left call for a vote for separation.

Solidarity did call for a ‘left unity’ candidate for Glasgow North East. By this it meant something along the lines of ‘No to the EU, Yes to Democracy’, where Solidarity can be the left wing of a trade union-backed election campaign. At its Glasgow all-members meeting on June 30, a motion was passed which resolved:

1. To continue and where necessary seek to renew efforts to secure a united left candidate able to maximise the socialist vote across the constituency and generate significant trade union and community backing.

2. Write again to the trade union executives of the left unions of the FBU, RMT, PCS and NUJ in Scotland with a view to encourage them once again to take the initiatives towards left unity in this by-election and beyond; continue to participate in the RMT-led initiative which is discussing a left alliance to participate in the Westminster elections and raise concretely at the next meeting the likely timing of any convention and how this could tie in with the Glasgow North East by-election and whether such a coalition could stand.

3. Appeal again to the other left parties in Scotland not to select candidates for this election until the end of August to allow left unity discussions and meetings to progress.

4. Agree to reconvene our Glasgow-wide membership in September, either separately or as part of a Scottish-wide congress, to agree support for an identified left unity candidate in the election or to endorse Tommy Sheridan, our co-convenor, as our candidate with a mandate to not only champion the cause of socialism, but also to continue to promote the left unity agenda in the course of the campaign.3

While this represents something positive in terms of an appeal for unity (which has not been reciprocated by the SSP, and as usual ignored by the SLP), it is clearly aimed primarily at the unions, which are named (unlike the rest of the left, which is referred to as “the other left parties”). Which groups are included in this? The Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain again? And what is the nature and purpose of this proposed unity? A loose electoral alliance with no aspiration beyond that? Though any unity at the moment would be a step forward, there is little value in an electoral pact based on (mainly economic) platitudes which raise more questions than they answer. The No2EU campaign in Scotland had to be kept vague as to whether anti-EU nationalism should be wrapped in the saltire or the union jack.

The divisions and ill feelings within the left in Scotland are deeply held and will certainly come to the fore again when Tommy Sheridan stands trial in 2010. Unfortunately, although these will involve key questions of principle (not least over the attitude of socialists to the prosecution of a working class partisan for allegedly telling lies about his private life), much of the animosity is now highly personal. We must move beyond this.

This will not happen if we ignore the past or pretend political differences do not exist. Unity should not be for electoral purposes only, where typically a bunch of revolutionaries pretend to be Labourites. The aim must be for genuine unity in a Marxist party where the open exchange of ideas is encouraged.

True, in Scotland, where left nationalism in one form or another is completely dominant, this may be even more difficult to achieve than in the rest of Britain - unity must be based on working class principle, not opportunism. However, the concept of a single party which seeks to develop its theory through the open discussion of contesting ideas should not be too difficult for those who say they are Marxists to embrace.