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Holyrood hopes

Ken Ferguson asks how the Scottish left can respond to anger at the Westminster cuts consensus

April 14, 2011
8 min read

Whatever the outcome of the Scottish election in May, the government that emerges will be prepared to cut public spending. The main question is likely to be whether it is Labour-led and places the blame on the misguided policies of the Tories, or SNP-led, blaming the cuts on London rule. There is also the possibility of a coalition, though suggestions that the Greens might prop up Labour must be ringing alarm bells among activists in the light of their sister parties’ experiences in Ireland and Germany.

Whatever the electoral outcome, though, the new government will not be able to push through its cuts programme easily. In poll after poll, Scottish voters have shown that they support public spending, favour taxing the rich and oppose privatisation.

These views have long been reflected in the collapse of the Tories, who have just one Westminster seat in Scotland. Now, having joined the Conservatives in government, the Lib Dems are likely to be on the receiving end of a Scottish politics that has, for the past 30 years, supported policies to the left of the UK mainstream.

This dogged rejection of the free-market ideology imposed by a London government that never held a Scottish mandate was an important driver in the creation of a Scottish parliament. From the slaughter of key industries to the imposition of the poll tax a year before the rest of the UK, Scots said ‘we never voted for this’ and overwhelmingly backed devolution in a spirit of ‘never again’.

From 1999 until the financial crash, both Lib/Lab and SNP governments pioneered distinct Scottish polices. These ranged from free personal care for the elderly to the abolition of the right to buy public housing. Indeed, the SNP, with its opposition to PFI and support for free school meals and the abolition of prescription charges, has presented itself as a social-democratic party to the left of Labour.

Game changer

The financial crash and the formation of a Tory-Lib Dem cuts government at Westminster, however, is a game changer. The Scottish Parliament depends entirely on a London block grant to pay the bills. Under the Tory-led government, it will lose £5 billion over the next four years, 16 per cent of the total grant. This will increasingly curb the ability of Edinburgh to pursue distinctive policies as spending levels are slashed.

As in the rest of the UK, the debate over the budget deficit in Scotland has focused narrowly on the scale and tempo of the proposed cuts. No mainstream political party has dared suggest that the debt crisis could be tackled by raising revenues rather than slashing spending. This is despite the fact that the Edinburgh parliament could activate its currently dormant power to raise or lower basic income tax by up to 3p in the pound.

The SNP fought the first Scottish Parliament election in 1999 under the slogan, ‘A penny for Scotland’, promising to raise income tax by 1p in the pound to generate extra cash for public services. But it later dropped the policy, so all four mainstream parties are now pledged to operate within the budgetary constraints imposed by Westminster. Holyrood politicians face the prospect of operating between the rock of an electorate opposed to cuts and the hard place of a Westminster government imposing them.

Nominally, of course, there are broad areas – including education, the NHS, crime and the environment – that are run directly by Edinburgh. The money to run these services, though, is beyond its control. Thus Labour will have to square much brave anti-cuts talk before the poll with the reality of making cuts – very much against the views of its supporters – when and if it takes power. It will then be left telling voters that the only answer is to vote in a Labour government in London, echoing the story of the Thatcher years.

The reality is that, as well as having little real control over its own spending, Holyrood is also powerless to halt cuts in UK benefits to the sick and disabled, prevent Scots troops dying in Afghanistan, or stop the scandal of ruinously expensive Trident missiles being stationed on the Clyde. Indeed the Scottish Parliament has already voted against Trident, to no avail.

The SNP will face a similar problem to Labour if it retains power in May. It may initially blame cuts on London, but it will still make them. As the pressure mounts, any SNP government will face pressure to bring forward a bill for a referendum on independence – promised for this parliament but never delivered – in response to the limitations of devolution.

Growing opposition

Alongside the parliamentary dilemma facing whoever wins in May, there are growing signs of a burgeoning of community, union and student opposition to the Tory-Lib Dem agenda that will not necessarily accept compromises reached in Holyrood. For example, the Scottish government recently floated a deal – amidst a loud media fanfare – offering no compulsory redundancies in local councils in exchange for a pay freeze. It was rejected by two-to-one by the Unison union’s Scottish council.

Mike Arnott, secretary of Dundee trades council, gives a flavour of the increasing resistance to the austerity agenda, which he predicts will grow irrespective of the outcome of the May poll. ‘The trades council is making opposition to the cuts a key priority and we are already working with groups such as the pensioners’ forum and students,’ he says. ‘There are also moves to re-form a campaign group for the unemployed such as existed in the 1980s.’ A citywide anti-cuts network is developing, and Dundee trade unionists are involved in a move to re-found the long defunct trades council further up the Tay in Perth.

Although they are not affected by the fees issue that has so motivated their counterparts south of the border, students in Scotland have also taken part in militant demonstrations and occupations, largely focused on cuts. Speaking from the long-running ‘Free Hetherington’ occupation of a former student research club at Glasgow University, Jack Ferguson told Red Pepper of the formation of a student anti-cuts network across the city. ‘Council restrictions on demos make central Glasgow a virtual no demo zone,’ he says. ‘But inspired by groups like UK Uncut, we have staged highly mobile, fast-moving protests which have overcome that ban. A striking feature has been the self-organised involvement of school students in big numbers, who realise the college cuts already planned menace their future.’

‘The Free Hetherington has reopened a student union closed by the cuts and can be a trailblazer for similar actions across communities,’ Ferguson suggests. ‘The May polls won’t change this demand for justice.’ A sign that this protest movement is already drawing blood was the recent pledge by Scottish Labour not to introduce either student fees or a graduate tax.

 

Left reeling

At a time when they should be benefiting from this rising tempo of action, socialists in Scotland are still reeling from the bitter conflict around the Tommy Sheridan affair. The former Scottish Socialist Party leader and MSP’s recent jailing for perjury, and the years of division and conflict that led up to it, have been a major factor in the marginalisation of the left not just at Holyrood but in wider society.

Deep divisions persist, but the cuts present a reality that all must face. It is vital that those involved in the resistance are able to concentrate on the priorites of communities most affected by the cuts, and move beyond the rancour created by the Sheridan debacle.

Many on the left are taking a self-critical look at the culture of left organisations, drawing on insights from feminism and social movements. The challenges for the Scottish left are not fundamentally different from those elsewhere: any viable left alternative will need to mobilise the qualities and capacities of all its members, and ensure that leading individuals are genuinely democratically accountable.

Overhanging this already complex picture is the ever present issue in Scottish politics – the national question. If the only prospect is a devolved parliament acting as agents for Tory cuts, voters may once again ask whether it is time to back independence.

But even in its present constricted form, the Scottish Parliament has the power to do things differently. Research by the Scottish Socialist Party has revealed that by replacing the widely despised council tax with a new progressive Scottish service tax, with a sliding scale of payments based on income, the Scottish government could raise an additional £1.6 billion a year, thus protecting Scotland from cuts and job losses.

Whatever happens in May, the left has no current prospect of repeating its 2003 success, when six Scottish Socialists were returned to Holyrood. Instead, it urgently needs to find ways – such as a Scottish left convention and the development of policies which address real public concerns – to respond to both the social and national demands of the growing protest movement.

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