For me, the campaign for Scottish independence was the most significant, and certainly the most entertaining, political event of 2014. As Montaigne said, “There are some defeats more triumphant than victories” and this was perhaps one. The spectacle of the whole British ruling class hysterically panicking as it realised it had completely miscalculated the situation was wonderful to behold. Suddenly, it seemed, trainloads of Labour bigwigs were heading north, sweeteners at the ready! Even the royals were starting to get narky.
Although the campaign was ostensibly about independence, it had quickly morphed into a revolt against free-market capitalism and against privatisation, racism, austerity and war. Although the ‘impossible’ did not happen, and the union did not fracture, the referendum gave birth and momentum to a popular movement which was not narrowly nationalistic but, on its left flank, represented a youthful, working class revolt against ‘politics as usual’ and towards a more socialistic model.
However, the main beneficiaries of the independence campaign have been the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the main losers the Scottish Labour party. SNP membership has grown to nearly 100,000, while Labour has shrunk to 13,000. Its reward for getting the Tories and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) off the hook over independence has been a collapse in support for Labour across Scotland. The growth of the SNP has created problems for the far left too, to which I shall return.
But, to be honest, Labour has been creating the conditions for its own undoing for years, maybe decades. The arrogant assumption that core Labour voters, not just in Scotland, but in England and Wales, have nowhere else to go and can therefore be used during elections but abused as far as protecting their interests is concerned, could not inform Labour policy indefinitely without consequences.
The decay of the mainstream parties nationally has been a long-term process. In 1951 Labour and the Tories won more than 96% of the vote between them, now they struggle to get 70% at very best. The impact of the 2008 economic crisis has accelerated this decline, and it has been traditional social democratic parties that are most vulnerable, notwithstanding the ability of right populist parties like UKIP to also bite into the Tory vote. The pernicious effects of ‘triangulation’, the decline in influence of unions and other working-class voices, pressure from the IMF, and Labour’s embrace of the market, have rendered it largely indistinguishable from other parties that are ostensibly the ‘organising committees of the ruling class’. For years Britain has grown an increasingly homogenous politics – in Tariq Ali’s phrase, ‘the extreme centre’, or, to use George Galloway’s more ribald term, ‘three cheeks of the same arse’. We have got used to having reformism without reforms for many years, but now so-called ‘reformist’ parties have completely inverted the meaning of the word. It no longer means improving the lot of workers, but making their lives and living conditions harder and more distressing.
It was clear that this situation could not continue indefinitely. Despite the grip of Labour on many unions and the completely unwarranted loyalty of many voters to the party, not to mention the obstacle for small parties of the ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system, it was clear that the embracing of neoliberalism by left reformism was eventually going to force workers to seek to protect themselves by other means and through other institutions, and this is what is happening in Scotland. Labour trails the SNP by 20 points according to a series of polls for the 2015 election, and 20 Labour seats are at risk, with even Labour strongholds like Glasgow vulnerable. It is a downwards trajectory which will be accelerated by the election of the Trident and Iraq-war supporting Blairite Jim Murphy as leader of the Scottish Labour party.
The result of the 2015 election is hugely unpredictable – the most unpredictable in living memory. The decline in support for the traditional three parties is accompanied by the entrance of what Toby Helm of the Observer rather melodramatically calls ‘insurgent forces’. On the right is UKIP, in Scotland the SNP, and nationally also the Greens, up to 6% in many polls and in at least one ahead of the Lib Dems. Even with ‘first-past-the-post’ some of the smaller parties could well end up in coalition as power-brokers. What is becoming increasingly clear is that the mainstream parties will never again rule as they once did. But where in all this is the socialist left?
In the absence of a left alternative to Labour, it is UKIP which I heard on the radio absurdly claiming to be the inheritors of the Levellers, Chartists and Suffragettes. I nearly choked on my muesli. The 2015 general election presents the left with a dual challenge –first to mobilise against UKIP’s poisonous policies and secondly to begin the process of building an united left. That is why Sheridan is wrong to say there should be no electoral challenge to the SNP in 2015. The Greens and the nationalists are not anti-capitalist parties: although we can unite with them against Tory policies, against austerity and inequality, the nationalists believe in building up capitalism, not taking power away from the capitalists altogether. The closer they get to power the more they suck up to big business to show they are market friendly. Already we have seen Alex Salmond’s willingness to do business with right-wing business tycoons such as Rupert Murdoch, Brian Souter and Donald Trump. We saw how Brighton’s Green councillors cut bin workers’ wages and played along with spending limits imposed by Whitehall, despite being elected on an anti-austerity ticket.
We cannot postpone any longer creating a united left pole of attraction, which is why the Trades Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) project is an important one. Even in Wales, where we are unlikely to get any significant votes, being squeezed by the Communist party, the Socialist Labour party and Plaid Cymru, it is the process of the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party working together with others in an united fashion which is important. We need in the medium term to combine with wider forces, linking up where possible with Left Unity, ideally with a major trade union or two breaking from Labour and putting its resources into building a political alternative. Right now this sounds like pie in the sky, but if Labour does badly in 2015 who knows what could happen? These are unpredictable times, and politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum.
This erosion of support for the traditional parties is an European-wide phenomenon. Not just Britain, but Ireland, Greece and Spain all have general elections due not later than the next 18 months, In Greece the coalition government has already fallen, triggering an election which could well see the radical left party Syriza - now 5 to 10 percent ahead of the ruling conservative New Democracy party - come to power. Some polls in the Irish Republic put Sinn Fein narrowly ahead of both the ruling Fine Gael party and the once dominant party of Irish capitalism, Fianna Fail. And in Spain two recent polls put the newly-formed left-wing Podemos on 27.7 and 28.3 percent, beating both the main opposition PSOE Socialist Party and the ruling conservative Popular Party.
The fracturing of the old order is leading to political polarisation and fragmentation across Europe. If the left cannot seize the opportunities open to it, then other forces will be ready to benefit. The stakes are high as we enter the new year,