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The new sectarian politics of Scotland and the demise of working class unity

Salmond and Sturgeon BLOODBATHYesterday, canvasing the streets of Stevenston in North Ayrshire, a former Labour voter told me that the only way forward was for Scottish Labour and the SNP to merge. He meant it not as advice but as explanation of why he could not vote Labour. Some are hostile to Labour, others just confused. And even many of those who will vote Labour do so more out of hostility to the SNP than support for Labour’s offer.

Last year’s referendum divided not only the “Scottish nation” but the Scottish working class and in the new sectarian politics of Scotland, neither the left-posing SNP nor the resolutely unionist Scottish Labour Party offer any hope of unity. The majority of working class voters see the SNP as offering some kind of hope, a new “voice” for de-industrialised Scotland and the prospect of change. The pull is emotional not rational. The working class minority see this as a kind of madness to which they are resolutely opposed.

I now find it impossible to see how Scottish Labour can recover, how any unionist party could now displace the SNP from its position of dominance. But nor does the SNP offer any prospect of a redistribution of wealth and power in favour of the Scottish working class. Today’s Morning Star is right to argue that “the SNP is not as left as it seems“.

Both Labour and the SNP are blinkered by their tribalism. The SNP is obsessed with the chimera of “independence”. Though it may well now have the support of the majority of trade union members in Scotland, it shows no reciprocal interest in trade union rights. And Labour is the prisoner of its recent history of unionism and Blairism, hampered by decades of complacency and a lack of activists. It is a mystery why the UK Labour Party is not diverting more resources to Scotland when this is where the election will be won and lost — other than in the constituencies of Douglas Alexander, Margaret Curran and Jim Murphy of course — though the fact that there are still sitting MPs who are still doing no canvassing is a good reason.

When the dust settles after next Friday, the Scottish trade union movement must review its political strategy. Pat Rafferty, Scottish secretary of Unite, recently told radical Indy website Common Space that he was backing a motion from the regional Scottish committee to the union’s rules conference in July that could lead to a trade union version of home rule in Scotland:

The motion proposes that there should be a new rule within Unite’s rule book that reflects policy within the union for Ireland, were we have members. The policy gives Ireland a bit of autonomy. So this rule change would allow Scotland some political autonomy; the regional committee would become the executive committee, and the political direction and the political strategies would be determined at the Scottish level.

Rafferty is also determined that Unite and the trade union movement as a whole build a new generation of trade union activists out of the post-referendum mood which has seen a massive rise in political party membership (though not for Labour).

Some would like that kind of greater autonomy to be used to break the link between the trade unions and Scottish Labour, and to make new links with pro-independence parties. An alternative approach would be to found a new but non-sectarian party of the Left, neither unionist nor nationalist but socialist in character and determined to re-establish working class unity.

I would want any such new Scottish party to see itself as a potential partner for Labour in government at Westminster, not as a threat to UK Labour. If Scottish Labour is a brand so toxic that it is incapable of recovery, I would hope that UK Labour would welcome such a development.

But it cannot be a superficial rebranding. An unashamedly socialist,  trade-union based party is what’s required, and a complete break with Scottish Labour’s recent past. Nothing less can restore workling class unity in Scotland.



  1. once the Labour Movement tolerates separatism and a separate form of organization within its ranks it will be lost to the emotionalism that is the driving force of all nationalist movements.

    In this case, while Labour has finally walked into the brick wall that has threatened in Scotland for 30 years, since Kinnock reluctantly accepted Devolution but never thought through the implications, then Blair refused to think about the West Lothian Question that Tam Dalyell pointed out was developing, Labour had no answer to separatism. At the moment, the prospect of being wiped out is causing despair and this is leading to the kind of defeatism displayed in Jon Lansman’s note here.

    Being wiped out is not the end of the game, nor is a total victory good for the Nats, They are now exposed having promised all things to everyone.

    In case this seems like pie in the sky, look at Stoke on Trent 15 years ago, when Labour took 60 out of 60 seats. And fell apart. When there is no opposition, you have nowhere to go. Within 5 years the Labour Elected Mayor had gone and the elected mayor system removed, the ratepayers and all sorts won seat as the Labour majority vanished, and the BNP won 9 council seats and looked fair set to take the council.

    Anti fascists beat them back, and the Labour Party recovered, though its never got back to its former strength. And Stoke is again in crisis as cuts ravage it. But there was a future after total victory, and it was downward.

    Do not give in to separatism and the SNP. Know your enemy

    trevor fisher.

    1. Sam Mitchell says:

      the red tories in Scotland have never been leaders … they have always followed the london dictate… they didn’t give devolution… they reacted to the strength of the SNP .. especially in the wake of the growing knowledge that a labour pm “buried ” the Mc Crone report… & then used the new TAX wealth from the Oil to promote the South of England & NUKES.. whilst allowing Scotland’s working class to suffer as heavy industry after heavy industry was closed with not one thought for what was any potential replacement… plus the fact that any labour incoming admin has never reversed ANY tory inspired law or union legislation… CHECK THIS OUT.. & yet you claim the SNP is cool on the unions… we have lots to put right in Scotland… foremost should be the land ownership question that your labour crew has ignored completely… allowing the rich to carve up and waste this huge potential asset… so… know your enemy…. they are red tories & finally the Scots are now recognising this..

  2. David Osland says:

    The problem with the ‘neither unionist nor nationalist’ formulation is that it is unlikely to work any more successfully than it has in Northern Ireland.

    For or against independence is now the central question in Scottish politics, and any party that tries to dodge the issue has few prospects.

  3. peter willsman says:

    The Labour Party in Scotland always was rooted in the working class and the TUs and it is surely premature to suggest this cannot return.It is true that the Blairites seem to have undue influence North of the Border, but that can be sorted.A major problem over the last 20 years has been that the TUs, far from challenging the Blairites,have too often been putty in their hands.The answer to the problem is in our own hands in the LP,we do not need to look elsewhere.

  4. In principle Pete is right. However if the scots nationalists break the union, then the game is over. The 2016 election will be crucial, as if they wipe out the Westminster parties next week and gain a majority in 2016 then a referendum would follow, with the current momentum they have this would lead to the break up of the union and the scots would then not be part of the Labour Party.

    Thus Miliband after the election has a major political strategy to develop to keep the SNP at arms length. However first things first, he has to be in a position to gain Number 10. The triumph of Cameron, with UKIP support and that of the Ulster unionists, would make the battle to keep Scotland in the UK (which is the underlying battle the SNP is fighting which we can never forget) an impossible one.

    This will be an election like no previous one, and the Labour Party cannot win a majority unless there is a major shift in the last 7 days. So some form of negotiation is inevitable. Think about this Pete and comrades. You will never have seen anything like this before. I hope Labour will retain some seats north of the border, but if the SNP wipe out the Labour party in Scotland the task becomes infinitely more difficult to revive Labour – and the Labour Party in the UK as a whole, with its commitment to austerity, is making the battle a thousand times worse than it should be.,

    And giving ground to the SNP. Which is the root cause of its current problems.

    trevor fisher.

  5. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

    I posted this in another blog, but I think it’s worth re-posting here.

    On reflection few of the comments, 9to which this was my response,) you’ve made here are quites as out of touch or as damning as, “in a recent TV interview Ed Miliband showed that he’s taken on board the fact that inequality is bad for the economy and for the country as a whole.”

    The leader of the British Labor party shouldn’t have needed someone like Micheal Meacher to explain all that to him, he should have known it already; in his heart and in his blood, and it’s that deficiency and lack of moral conviction, (not just disgusted people like me,) that have lost Scotland to Labor and probably also the next general election.

    The moral is; Never send a Tory to do a Socialist’s job.

  6. Robert says:

    Progress or the Tories not much of a choice is it.

  7. David Pavett says:

    Left Futures writers argued repeatedly that the only way to revive Scottish Labour was by outflanking the SNP on the left. They also warned that selecting Jim Murphy as leader would prevent this and would, more generally, be a big mistake. How right they were!

    Trevor says that all nationalism is driven by emotionalism. The suggestion that unionism is based on reason whereas separtism is based on emotion is likely to add insult to injury for those drawn (for a wide range of reasons) to the separatist cause. It also ignores that very cogent arguments for independence have been developed over decades by people such as Tom Nairn. I am not convinced by those arguments but to dismiss them as emotional is not helpful. I know of no grounds for thinking that the typical nationalist has a different weighting of emotion to reason than the typical unionist. Nairn has been pointing out for a very long time the mess of Britain’s constitutional arrangements and arguing that increased centrifugal pressures are inevitable. He has also been pointing to the inability of the ruling class and the Westiminster parties do come to terms with the problems. On this basis he has been predicting the break up of Britain. Now, rather than dismissing it all as emotionalism, we have to take such views seriously. So far the left has made little attempt to do so. It is indeed important to know your enemy but on this issue that is likely to require more effort than as so far been spent.

    The writing has been on the wall, as Trevor says, in the shape of the West Lothian Question. Up until recently it was impossible to have a sensible discussion about this on the left. Attempts to raise it would be dismissed with a breezy “nonsense”. Decades of complacency have now brought us unprepared to the point of a constitutional and political crisis. The old order is not working and the established parties are unable face up to the problems as they demonstrated si clearly in the Scottish referendum campaign.

    And on the left we are all over the place. Some think that the problems spring from devolution itself while others favour a more generalised regional government for the whole country. At the political level some think that it is just a matter of reviving traditional Labour (Peter W). Jon L suggests that a new party may be needed in Scotland by his ‘trade union based’ formula makes it look very much like repeating the structure of traditional Labour.

    These constitutional an political crises look set to be on any meaningful agenda for the foreseeable future. Finding a solutions is going to require something far more than tinkering with present arrangements and present organisations. We are going to have to go back to the drawing board in a way that we have so far shown no inclination to do. In doing that we will need to rethink the arguments for socialism in terms of 21st century realities.

    The issues raised by Labour’s failure in Scotland and the rise of the SNP are not confined by Hadrian’s wall.

  8. David Ellis says:

    The Scottish working class have broken with the Union and the empire and they are not going back. Milliband hopes that by ruling out a deal with the SNP a second election will see the Scots returning suitably chastened to the fold and they will have outflanked the SNP from the right. That ain’t gonna happen. The working class across Britain will not forgive New Labour for spurning power. The dregs of their Scottish vote will disappear and their rapid Pasokification in England will begin. Meanwhile the Tories will win a second election and will be able to impose the kind of austerity that will destroy the poor and drag the economy into major and rapid decline. Labour will never be forgiven. Milliband will go down in history as the face of Labour’s disintegration.

    1. Mike Homfray says:

      Sounds as if you would love to see Labour’s demise – and how exactly would becoming a hostage to fortune with people who wish to separate from the country be beneficial?

      Of course the Scots have never had to raise their in funds and u us likely that a 5p in the pound tax rise would be needed to stand still once the Barnett formula is removed. Will romantic Braveheart nationalism appeal quite as much then?

    2. James Martin says:

      And the lottery numbers for Saturday are…?

  9. David Ellis says:

    The two big questions are what will the SNP do when Westminster imposes Trident and austerity on Scotland however many SNP MPs are elected and what will the Left Labour MPs in England and Wales do when Milliband spurns power and allows a minority Cameron government in or is seen as creating the chaos that requires another election which can only favour the Tories.

    1. Robert says:

      First who are those left MP’s I know about ten maybe the rest are Progress in the main.

      Scotland will just get on with living if they carry on with trident until the next referendum.

      Labour have now stated Plaid are banned as well, plaid leader smiled and stated we will see.

      The issue is of course Miliband will eat craw and get on with forming a government with whom ever he can get.

  10. Patrick says:

    What about Tory Labour cooperation across a whole range of issue? On Trident renewal. On austerity. On education. On the NHS. Is this not the most likely scenario. They don’t have to be in coalition to lock out the smaller parties. They can in part present it as “saving the Union” and invoking the “national interest” in stable governance; after all this is what big business is likely to demand and both parties may kowtow to that lobby like no other. In that regard I can see both parties dumping their present leaders to finesse such a move.

    1. Robert says:

      Miliband as the leader, short term no doubt, Cameron as deputy,shorter term as Boris gets ready, and Osborne as Chancellor, well they both agree he is pretty good, and Ball’s well where would they put Ball’s out to pasture.

  11. James Martin says:

    I think much of Jon’s article is interesting, but it also seems to lack a view beyond the current snapshot.

    Take the unions, as it is to Jon’s credit that he mentions them in relation to the issue. And as Len McCluskey pointed out the other day, union members in Scotland are as split as anyone else in terms of voting Labour or SNP etc.

    However, there is a more important issue to take into account here. We are constantly told by some of the excitable leftists that there is a rising tide of revolt/struggle in Scotland. But actually the standard indications that this may be the case (rising strike ballots, strike days, occupations, walk-outs etc.) are simply not there at all. In fact, where there have been national union ballots in recent months there has been no more support for action of any kind in Scotland than in the rest of the UK. Nor has there been a move to the left in terms of exec committee election results in key unions this year between the UK nations, which all indicates to me that much of the ‘left shift’ is so far artificial and does not actually represent rising class struggle at all.

    What it does represent as we know is the poisonous bile of nationalism having an effect, even down to the comments Jon reports of people starting to talk of separate Scottish trade unions, despite the fact that a Unite member in Peebles will have far more in common in terms of material position and joint interest with a Unite member in Peterborough.

    There is nothing at all ‘progressive’ about this kind of nationalism in a situation where Scottish people are not an oppressed nationality (whatever the wilder claims and history re-writing attempts of the Nats and their left hangers on). In fact it is highly reactionary, and poses a potential danger to working class unity if workers are started to be split into opposing national lines.

    The daft links some make to PASOK deserve to be laughed at for the nonsense this tripe is, the Labour Party is not looking at 5% support and collapse in Scotland, nor are the big unions breaking with Labour. We will recover support and this will come at the expense of the Scottish Sun supported SNP (and the fact that this scummy paper supports them says it all), we just need to hold our nerve through some difficult times for working class unity and socialist politics.

    1. Sam Mitchell says:

      The sun is a paper that supported blair is it not?.. it supports anyone who does not threaten it… & labour did nothing to endanger it… BUT we Scots now have social media & by using this we have by passed murdochs little empire….
      BUT.. you are way out when it comes to progressive policies… the red tories have nothing.. they are devoid of any progressive thought… the current leadership includes those who openly LIE to keep their expenses flow going… with the depute complaining about importing Chinese steel for the new Forth bridge… didn’t she hear the expolsive charges going off when they flattened Ravenscraig?…wasn’t it gordo who praised the bankers in his mansion house speech?… isn’t it jimbo who’s frightening the pensioners ..WHY??.. is he afraid that his monumental legacy of nothing will be tarnished… working class unity???.. where?… in a few meeting rooms .. where was this when most of the engineering manufacturing was being sent to the redundancy pit… talking & talking… where was the direct action that kept the yards opened for a few weeks till the suppliers & the tory influenced customers were lent on…. NAH… your dreams of a totally socialist utopia are only realisable in an Independent Scotland with NEW ideas & progressive attitudes… not continually banging on about the NHS that other Independent countries throughout the world have seemed to have managed without the aid of the red tories…

      1. James Martin says:

        But when has dividing the working class been progressive Sam? The British working class and its trade unions have been forged over a century and a half of joint struggle and joint interest. That joint interest created the welfare state. That joint interest created united unions. And it’s a joint interest – a material interest – that still exists. To a socialist a worker in Tesco in Glasgow has identical interests to a worker in Tesco in Manchester – but of course to a reactionary nationalist the Glasgow worker has more in common to their local ruling class than to workers elsewhere. That is the simple basis of nationalism, and if you really wanted to find ‘red tories’ you would easily find them in the SNP – or do you believe that Brian Souter has suddenly become a socialist?

  12. Jim Denham says:

    Very worrying that Len McClusky seems to be soft on the SNP and is advocating Labour doing a deal. Nearly as bad as allowing Andrew Murray (speaking “on behalf of Unite”) to back Rahman in Tower Hamlets.

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