How a hung parliament could lead to a new anti-austerity alliance

The right is horrified by the rise of the SNP – because it raises the prospect of a progressive coalition, argues Hilary Wainwright

April 21, 2015 · 15 min read

Most parents know the trick of letting their children shout and scream (‘to let off steam’ was how mine put it) in order then to have peace and quiet. Similarly with the mentality of the imperial British state towards what it sees as its immature provinces. The referendum on Scottish independence, with its stark ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ choice, was intended to allow the Scots to let off steam on the assumption that they would then keep quiet.

So the prospect of the SNP having significant leverage over a future Labour government, especially an SNP hugely strengthened in the aftermath of the ‘alarmingly’ high 45 per cent Yes in the referendum, has produced shock and horror among the London establishment. An angry Max Hastings, establishment journalist par excellence, asks: ‘How on earth has it come about, in a few months, that the referendum which was supposed to silence debate about the UK’s constitution for a generation, today appears instead to have triggered an avalanche?’

In a language that echoes the 18th-century fear of the mob as it clamoured for political representation, he goes on: ‘Scots have rushed to embrace the defeated SNP. It is as if a whole people are rowing lifeboats like madmen to climb aboard the Titanic.’ He puts them together with other, to him incomprehensible, developments on the continent: ‘Like the French and Greeks, the Scots seem immune to rational argument about their circumstances and prospects.’

This and his other references to the Greeks give away what all the grandiose rhetoric about ‘defending the union’ is really about. Defending the British state – with the Treasury at its centre – is, in this neoliberal age, mainly about state control over the economy, the ever-potent equation of money and power. What the monetarist establishment fears is that any agreement between Labour and the SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru would break, or at least weaken, the Treasury’s hold on the UK’s economic flows. Since gaining such a hold was what the Thatcher revolution – the destruction of all pressures on public spending, local government, trade unions, public housing – was about, the influence of these so-called ‘fringe’ parties would put the ‘gains’ of the neoliberal settlement at risk. For Labour the rise of the SNP, and any further credence being given to it, puts the very future of their party at risk.

Discussion impossible

The atmosphere of panic coming from the right is making any clear or profound discussion of the issues at this historic moment impossible. It is reinforced by the defensive mood of Labour as it faces the blowback from its alliance with the Tories in the ‘Better Together’ campaign against independence. A senior Labour figure personally sympathetic to at least exploring contact with the SNP told me he’d be ‘slaughtered’ if he had any even informal discussions about common causes. There is much dismissal of ‘speculation’ – as if open discussion and seeking public views on the real options that could face us all following the election cannot be done in front of the children; such important matters as who governs the country are for the grown ups alone. No wonder the voters are feeling pissed off.

Caroline Lucas is perhaps currently the one able to speak most openly and clearly about what is on voters’ minds: austerity and its daily consequences, and what is needed in parliamentary terms to end it. She argues that the rise of the SNP, along with the Greens’ own surge, offers the chance ‘to forge a new grouping in parliament, a progressive alliance’. Campaigning against austerity will be a – probably the – central plank of this platform. Indeed, would-be new SNP MP George Kerevan calls it a ‘progressive anti-austerity alliance’.

‘We have worked with Plaid and the SNP where we agree, above all on our opposition to austerity and cuts to essential services,’ says Caroline Lucas. ‘And after this coming election, we can do far more.’ And although the ‘we’ might in parliamentary voting terms be only one MP, in Lucas the Greens have had a real political force in parliament – a force driven not only by her personal capacities, which are immense, but also by a political methodology that could well be adopted by the progressive alliance as a whole.

Lucas’s effective parliamentary initiatives against fracking and the energy companies, for public ownership of the rail system and for reinstating the NHS have been the result of immersion in extra-parliamentary campaigns and public debates. This has enabled her to identify the issues on which public opinion is converging with the left and then make these issues the ones for which she uses her parliamentary platform to amplify people’s concerns. A bit like Tony Benn, she thereby gives further confidence and strength to the movements in society and their ability to shift public consciousness with a clear and persuasive political message.

From street campaigning to Westminster

This methodology, so suitable for a progressive alliance ‘in and against’ the political system, will come as second nature to the new SNP MPs who will dominate the SNP parliamentary group after the election (see below). Most of them were directly involved in the street campaigning of the Yes campaign. Moreover, they were mostly selected by a party membership that quadrupled from around 25,000 before the independence referendum to a stunning 100,000, mainly drawn from activists in the radical Yes campaign, with a strong working‑class base and including many trade union activists and leftists who had previously been members of the Labour Party.

‘As a previous Labour voter, I cannot recognise the party that currently stands under that name,’ says Dr Philippa Whitford, another likely new member of the SNP parliamentary group. ‘The 35 per cent of Labour voters who voted Yes and are now planning to vote SNP have not left the Labour Party – it has left them.’

As with Caroline Lucas, the new SNP candidates are seeking election to Westminster to gain a platform for movements organising for change from a base outside the existing political system. Philippa Whitford, a breast cancer consultant, has been an outspoken campaigner for the NHS. Coming to parliament is in effect an extension of this campaign. ‘The directors of public health in Glasgow and Lothian have warned that if we do not act, today’s children will live shorter and more impoverished lives than their parents,’ she says. ‘That is an appalling indictment and one of the reasons I felt I had to step forward as a candidate for Westminster, albeit reluctantly.’

Committed campaigners, reluctant MPs and independent spirits. This makes for a very unusual breed of MPs who are not going to keep quiet if any party leaders try to determine the character of the next government behind the backs of the public. This isn’t just talk. Would-be MPs such as George Kerevan and Philippa Whitford are committed to being accountable through regular town hall meetings across their constituencies.

If elected, they will find ready allies among a small but significant number of Labour MPs, especially in resisting austerity. The left of the parliamentary Labour Party, numerically weakened over recent years, also expects to be joined by a new force of MPs, many of whom have been radicalised by campaigning against not only the Tory government but also the leadership of their own party on local government cuts, NHS privatisation and for the public ownership of the railways (see below). Through the recently-formed Left Platform, uniting all the key groupings of activists on the Labour left, and the successful ‘People’s Parliament’ discussion series, they are regrouping and looking for like-minded allies in campaigns and engaged intellectuals without necessarily asking for their party cards – again very much in the tradition of Tony Benn.

John McDonnell MP, a driver of this process, is clear about building alliances around specific issues, especially anti‑austerity. ‘If Labour forms the next government, important votes around controversial measures will happen early on and what happens here will set the temperature for much of what follows,’ he anticipates.

It would be foolish to make predictions about the arithmetic, but a progressive anti-austerity alliance with a strong component of Labour MPs who intend to vote against the renewal of Trident and yet another austerity budget is going to constrain the Ed Balls austerity dogmatists. The SNP’s proposal to increase spending on public services by one half per cent per year, producing an extra £180 billion spending across a five-year parliament, will be an attractive alternative, meagre though it is in the face of the scale of reconstruction that is needed.

Not just Scotland

The new SNP MPs will be concerned about the consequences of austerity across the UK, not just in Scotland. ‘Watch out for SNP campaigners south of the border,’ says Kerevan. ‘If there are anti-austerity demonstrations in London, I will be there.’

On constitutional issues, too, there will be implications for the UK as a whole – and they are not disconnected from ending austerity. The SNP’s demand will be for the home rule commitments made by all parties after the referendum to be implemented in full. The key powers here are over welfare policies, including pensions, and the taxation necessary to pay for them. ‘Devo Max’ is an inaccurate description because the SNP insists that this must be more than devolution, in which the power to reverse the process is retained by Westminster.

‘They must be entrenched powers,’ insists Kerevan, expressing SNP policy. And this, as he and other SNP candidates recognise, is a constitutional matter and therefore opens the door to a constitutional convention – an opportunity, if it is an open popular process not a parliamentary fix, to bring down the British state as we have known it and lay the basis for a genuine democracy.

If talk of a genuine democracy is the language of dreams (though why not dream?), we must also face up to the all-too-imaginable possibility of getting up on 8 May to the waking nightmare of a Tory-UKIP coalition. Or, not much better, a Tory minority government depending on Labour as well as Lib Dem votes – the logic of Ed Balls’ present insistence on maintaining Tory austerity.

The fear and insecurity that favours Farage and the right can only be countered by a positive alternative. But south of the border, Westminster’s electoral system means that positive alternatives that could decisively influence the outcome of the election are extremely limited. This is a further reason for treating the electorate as intelligent people rather than agitated children and talking openly about the leverage that a progressive anti-austerity alliance of the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens and the left of the Labour Party could have if they worked together.

If the nightmare comes to pass, such an progressive alliance will be a good reason for coming out from under the duvet and starting the campaigning again, making 2020 an explicit deadline by which to have turned that alliance into an unstoppable force for entrenched and irreversible change. Either way, I would urge the People’s Parliament, alongside the extra-parliamentary People’s Assembly, to convene a meeting of anti‑austerity campaigns with the new MPs who have come to Westminster not to ‘sit’ in it but to make business as usual impossible.

The radicals in the SNP

If the opinion polls are anything to go by, the SNP is likely to increase its number of MPs dramatically. The new influx will not just be career politicians, since the party decided to open up its selection process to new members and non-members, in order to soak up the talent from the independence movement. These include:

Tommy Sheppard

Sheppard was the assistant general secretary of Scottish Labour in the 1980s, before leaving to run a comedy club in Glasgow and Edinburgh. He joined the SNP a few days after the referendum, declaring that Scotland needed ‘a party that will be the champion of the dispossessed – and speak to those huge communities who have previously put their trust in the Labour Party . . . That’s why, even though I never have and still would not define myself as a nationalist, I am joining them today.’

Sheppard sits on the board of Common Weal, a left-wing campaign group and think-tank. He is a republican, who tweeted ‘off with their heads’ during the royal wedding in April 2011.

George Kerevan

Known for his forthright views and bold economic thinking, Kerevan has been a regular commentator on the development of Scotland’s Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), praising its positive role in the independence movement but critical of its lack of a modern left vision. Kerevan advocated a wealth tax last October, saying that it could help create a ‘shift away from debt finance’. He was a member of the International Marxist Group in the 1970s.

Philippa Whitford

Consultant breast surgeon Philippa Whitford rose to prominence with impassioned speeches during the Yes campaign that made a compelling case for why a No vote could lead to the privatisation of the NHS in Scotland. The unionist media led several attacks on the veracity of her claims, but she was defended staunchly by the independence movement and the NHS became a key theme in the last two months of the campaign. Whitford is also on the Common Weal board.

Mhairi Black

If Black beats shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander in his Paisley constituency, she will become the youngest MP in Westminster at just 20 years old. From a working-class background with a straight-talking style, she certainly appears different to most MPs.

However, Black’s unpolished demeanour landed her in the media recently for comments she made shortly after the referendum. When describing being taunted by unionist politicians at the count, she said she wanted to ‘stick the nut in them’. The comment was made in a light-hearted manner but was spun by the Daily Record as ‘fantasising’ about violence against No supporters. She has since apologised.

Not all good news

Various other candidates are from more curious backgrounds – one, Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, is an ex-Tory who once called Alex Salmond ‘out of his depth’.

New proposals to the upcoming party conference from Westminster party leader Angus Robertson, known to be on the right of the party after pushing through a controversial change in favour of NATO membership, state that MPs must ‘accept that no member shall within, or outwith the parliament, publicly criticise a group decision, policy or another member of the group.’ Breaking the rules would bring with it penalties from the chief whip, including possible exclusion from the SNP group.

Labour after the election

As it stands, 38 sitting Labour MPs are due to retire at the election – well down on the exhausted and expenses-paid exodus of 100 members in 2010, but still a significant overhaul.

Of those departing, 23 held office in the Blair-Brown governments, including New Labour stormtroopers like Jack Straw, Tessa Jowell, Hazel Blears and, of course, Brown himself. Only four pre-date the start of Kinnock’s modernisations; 17 entered Parliament in 1997 or later.

On the other hand, leaving the parliamentary Socialist Campaign group are Martin Caton, David Hamilton, Linda Riordan, Mike Wood, and the euphemistically ‘erratic’ Austin Mitchell.

It is tough to call how the balance of power might change in the parliamentary Labour Party, or where new allies will emerge on red-line issues, but there are some positive indicators. Last year, a ComRes poll of 73 Labour prospective candidates found 51 per cent would support a manifesto commitment to scrap Trident – rising to 75 per cent in a more recent survey by CND.

ComRes also found 81 per cent backing renationalising the railways, while 60 per cent said they would back a referendum on EU membership, in which 96 per cent would vote to remain. Mercifully, 97 per cent acknowledge anthropogenic climate change, and none thought the party’s relationship with unions could be described as ‘too close’.

The caveat with these numbers is their anonymity. On the one hand, responses might reflect more truly held opinions than are allowed for when campaigning or in government. On the other, respondents could well be standing in unwinnable seats, unlikely to attain positions of influence.

Who to look out for among Labour candidates? In the safer seats, Richard Burgon is a successful trade union lawyer and community campaigner, who is quite comfortable identifying as a socialist. A founding member of the Labour Assembly Against Austerity, he was among a group of candidates who called for public ownership of the railways in a letter to the Guardian. He also told CND that ‘I oppose the renewal of Trident and support a global ban on nuclear weapons’, citing both principle and cost.

Louise Haigh, who at 27 could become one of the youngest MPs if she succeeds Meg Munn in Sheffield Heeley, is another opponent: ‘I believe investment in nuclear is immoral in and of itself and . . . a dire waste of public resources.’ With a bio including ‘trade unionist, feminist, vegetarian, socialist’, she may come to represent the generational preference for politics with a direct, personalised voice.

Among the key marginals, watch for Clive Lewis (Norwich South) and Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood), members of the Labour Assembly who backed the call for rail ownership and are known to take pro-union positions. Both seats are winnable for Labour.

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