Fractured left

While the main battle in Scotland will once more be between Labour and the SNP, rival left nationalists will also be slugging it out. Sarah McDonald reports

The general election campaign north of the border has a slightly different character to that of the rest of the country. While across the UK as a whole the Tories are in the lead with around 34% and the Liberal Democrats and Labour are in the 20s, the Scottish figures look considerably different due to the presence of the Scottish National Party.

The SNP is aiming for 20 Scottish seats that Alex Salmond hopes will get him more bargaining power and a greater share of the budget for Scotland. The SNP leader’s dreams are unlikely to be realised. Many who would vote for the party in a Scottish election would see this as a wasted vote in a Westminster poll, and conversely many of those who might have considered voting for the nats to stick it to the Labour Party are unlikely to do so in such a closely run campaign for fear of a Tory victory.

That is not to say the SNP is not a powerful force. According to a Mori poll showing Scottish voting intentions, the nats currently sit at 26% - down from 34% in November last year, but significantly higher than the 18% they won at the last general election in 2005. Perhaps this can be put down to the SNP having increased gravitas since forming a minority government in 2007.

The party is running with the slogan ‘More nats, less cuts’ and a manifesto that is in many ways positioned to the left of Labour. It is calling for protection of public spending on health and education and scrapping Trident and ID cards to make savings. While the SNP is to the left of the Labour Party at the moment, given that its raison d’être is Scottish independence, policies beyond this goal have no mooring in the workers’ movement and can shift far to the right according to the needs of capital.

The Lib Dems, unlike the SNP and Plaid Cymru, have reaped the benefit of airtime in the leaders’ debates. The nationalists claim the “London parties” (as though everyone outside the M25 is politically disenfranchised) have gone to the courts in a vain attempt to get the BBC to give Salmond an equal platform alongside Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Yet in a UK election campaign it seems neither unreasonable nor undemocratic that the nats are not given equal airtime to the three main UK parties.

Just as elsewhere in the country, the Lib Dems are seeing some increase in support, partly on the back of Clegg’s performance in the election debates and partly through disillusionment with the Labour government. But the Liberal Democrats’ support has been less of a factor in Scotland. They have seen a rise from 12% in February to 20%, yet interestingly are down from 23% in 2005.

In Scotland the Labour Party is currently sitting at 36% in the polls, significantly higher than the national average, though down four percent from 2005. Unlike elsewhere in the UK, the Tories will not be the main beneficiaries of disaffection with Labour and are presently polling around 14% (down by six percent compared to 2005). It is half a century since the Tories won mass support in Scotland, and, just as with the Thatcher government of the 1980s, should we see Cameron in Number 10 come May 7, there will be anger that Scotland will suffer at the hands of a Tory government without a Scottish mandate. This scenario is most likely to add fuel to the fire as far as the national question is concerned, where the legitimate anger of the working class under attack is exploited by those with a separatist agenda.

And speaking of those with a separatist agenda …

Just as is in the rest of Britain, the left in Scotland is starting from a position of real weakness. The fuck-ups and failures of the last decade have resulted in weak, fractured and less than credible formations. The Scottish Socialist Party, which could once stand a candidate in every seat in Scotland and expect a relatively respectable vote, is now contesting only 10  and - if recent by-elections are anything to go by - is likely to take an embarrassingly low share of the vote even in traditionally left-voting, working class constituencies.

The Scottish Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition is also fielding 10 candidates. Tusc does at least represent something in terms of the need for socialist unity across Britain. While its platform is better than last year’s No2EU venture, politically and organisationally it is a far cry from what is required. The non-SSP left nationalists (Solidarity, including the Socialist Workers Party and Committee for a Workers’ International) seem to have had more influence on the Tusc platform than was evident with No2EU, which was based on anti-European British chauvinism. While the Tusc platform north of the border stops short of demanding independence, it calls for a referendum and “the chance to vote on whether Scotland should become an independent country” and “whether there should be a stronger devolved Scottish parliament with fiscal powers”.

While an all-Britain coalition is an advance on Tommy Sheridan’s insistence when he was an SSP member on the necessity for separate Scottish organisation, Tusc is just that - a mere electoral front rather than a genuine step toward unity. It is regarded as a means of raising Solidarity’s profile during an election campaign, while avoiding a humiliatingly low vote for Solidarity itself. But what will happen after the election? At the launch of the Glasgow South campaign, Tusc candidate Brian Smith, Glasgow City Unison branch secretary and CWI member, commented that May 7 is just as important as important as May 6. Quite true, but nobody seemed to have any concrete plan for what is to happen to Tusc after the polls close.

The SSP’s platform is, unsurprisingly, similar to that of Tusc: no to cuts in public spending; troops out of Afghanistan; jobs for youth, etc. But there is now a clear difference in emphasis, though not policy, on the national question. Whereas not making independence a priority fits nicely with the politics of the SWP, which has (at best) fudged the issue, and with the CWI, which seems to have unofficially backtracked on it of late, Scottish independence is central to the SSP’s campaign, as it is to the organisation. Its manifesto reads: “We stand for an independent socialist republic where the wealth is fairly distributed …” Well, yes, good luck with that, comrades. Quite how a small country with a population of around five million (and that is before everyone makes a run for the border) will be able to go it alone, surrounded by hostile imperialist powers is left to our imagination. I dare say, though, that there will not be much wealth to redistribute.

Apart from not wanting to water down its separatism, another reason why the SSP would not contemplate standing under the Tusc umbrella can be summed up in two words: Tommy Sheridan. It will not take part in anything that can be regarded as a move towards reunification until the Sheridan fiasco is put to bed.

Still, with both organisations only fielding 10 candidates, one would have thought they would have been able to at least agree some sort of non-aggression pact. Not so. While in most places a tacit understanding seems to have been achieved - in Dundee the two organisations have split the city, with Tusc fighting the West constituency and the SSP taking the East, and in both Edinburgh and Aberdeen there is no clash - in Glasgow North East both groups are contesting. Tusc is standing Graham Campbell, Solidarity member and community campaigner, against the SSP’s national secretary Kevin McVey. It seems no lessons have been learned from last year’s by-election in the same constituency, when the SSP and Solidarity split what was a tiny share of the vote.

Meanwhile, Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party is standing in six seats (including Glasgow North East!) and I would not be too surprised to see it poll at least as big a share of the vote in the constituencies it contests as do the SSP and Tusc.

There are many on the left who cite the failure of the SSP, Socialist Alliance, Respect and so on as a reason not to get involved in ‘unity projects’. Yet the very opposite is true. We need to take unity much further. Not in Scotland alone, but across Britain, there is a crying need for a party based on Marxism rather than populist, opportunistic politics. There is a need for an organisation that encourages debate and the open resolution of differences, not an ideological sect; an organisation that develops a thinking membership, not personality cults; an organisation capable of digging roots in the working class - in communities, workplaces and educational establishments.

But we must deal with things as they are. That means critical support for Labour anti-cuts, anti-war candidates, as well as for those of Tusc, the SSP and, yes, the SLP. But I will leave readers to judge for themselves who to support in Glasgow North East.