May 31 2012

WHAT DO THE MAY 5th LOCAL ELECTION RESULTS MEAN IN SCOTLAND?

This article was first written for socialists in England and Wales. It has been published on the commune website (see http://thecommune.co.uk/2012/05/25/what-can-we-tell-from-the-scottish-local-election/), and  issue 23 of Permanent Revolution, in slightly edited forms.

The Scottish local council elections, held on May 5th, have attracted much wider interest than would normally normally be the case for such an event. The primary reason for this is the mounting speculation arising from the SNP Holyrood government’s promised Scottish independence referendum in 2014. The media has become more aware that the current UK constitutional arrangements face a real challenge. Therefore, whenever any Scottish election occurs, the runes are carefully being read to see if support for independence is growing or falling away.

The usual presumption is that votes for the SNP can be directly interpreted as support for Scottish independence. There are a number of problems with this. A vote for the SNP represents different things in different contexts. This can be seen by examining the very different voting patterns in the Westminster, Holyrood and local elections; and also by comparing these to polls showing the levels of support for Scottish independence (however this is understood [1]).

 

Westminster

2005 – % vote, no. of seats

2010 – % vote, no. of seats

SNP

17.7 (-2.4), 6 (+2)

19.9 (+2.3), 6 (0)

Labour

39.5 (-4.5), 41 (-5)

42.0 (+2.5), 41 (0)

 

Holyrood

2007 – % vote, no. of seats

2011 – % vote, no. of seats

SNP

32.9 (+12), 47 (+20)

45.4 (+12.5), 69 (+23)

Labour

32.2 (+2.9), 46 (- 4)

31.7 (-0.5), 37 (-9)

 

Local council

2007 – % vote, no. of seats

2012 – % vote, no. of seats

SNP

27.9 (+3.8), 363 (+182)

32.3 (+4.4), 424 (+61)

Labour

28.1 (-4.5), 348 (-161)

31.4 (+3.3). 394 (+46)

 

 Summary of TNS polls showing support for Scottish independence 

 

Aug. 07

Nov.07

May 08

Jun. 08

Oct.  08

Jan. 09

For independence

35%

40%

40%

39%

35%

38%

Against independence

50%

44%

41%

41%

43%

40%

Don’t know

15%

16%

19%

21%

22%

21%

 

May 09

Nov. 09

May 11

Aug. 11

Jan. 12

 May 12
For independence

36%

31%

37%

39%

35%

 33%
Against independence

39%

46%

45%

38%

44%

 57%
Don’t know

25%

23%

18%

23%

21%

 10%

 

The SNP’s support in Westminster elections is much weaker than in either the Holyrood or local council elections. The reason for this is clear. It is impossible for the SNP ever to form a Westminster government. Even people who support independence (and all the polls since 2007 show support for Scottish independence lying considerably above the SNP’s recent best result at Westminster in 2011) are prepared to vote for anti-independence parties. Usually this means voting for Labour to keep out the Tories. The extent to which this is true was shown in the 2010 Westminster election, where Labour in Scotland bucked the British trend and actually increased its % vote [2]. They also won 42% of the vote compared to the SNP’s 19.9%.

However, in the Holyrood elections, the SNP has done much better. Their spectacular election victory in 2011, with 45.4% of the vote, came about because many non-independence supporters saw the SNP as a better bet than Labour when it comes to opposing the Con-Dem Westminster government’s cuts in Scotland (and this was in the context of the SNP having formed a minority Holyrood government since 2007). The SNP was able to position itself as a better social democratic-style party in Scotland than Labour (not a hard task!) In 2011, the SNP’s % vote went well above the support for Scottish independence suggested in the opinion polls at the time.

Now, when it came to the May 5th local council elections in Scotland (and here, unlike England and Wales, every seat was up for election), another factor has first to be taken into account. The turnout was considerably down on the 2007 election – from 52% to 38% – but that was because this time the local election did not coincide with the Holyrood election. However, the turnout was still 6% higher than in England, and this is not a usual characteristic feature of other Scottish elections. It is quite likely that the wider national interest generated by the looming Scottish independence referendum did account for this difference in turnout, although it is not obvious which parties benefited most from this.

On one hand, the supporters of the current Union, especially Labour, were quick to point to the ‘collapse’ of SNP support from the high point of 45.4% in the May 2011 Holyrood election, to 32.3% [3] in the May 5th 2012 local elections [4]. Yet, any comparison of the SNP’s support between the 2012 and 2007 local elections, especially when compared with Labour’s, shows that they actually performed quite well. However, to reiterate, the continued increase in support for the SNP at local council level is not the same thing as increased support for Scottish independence. Neither does the drop in support from the Holyrood election necessarily mean a decline in support for independence.

Therefore, the SNP leadership, on the other hand, was quick to claim how much better they did than Labour on May 5th, in terms of the % vote, additional seats won, and the total number of council seats they now hold. However, this can not disguise their real disappointment in not taking Glasgow from Labour. Glasgow City Council had become a byword for Labour corruption and sleaze.  The Scottish party leadership had been forced to step in and push for the deselection of 17 sitting councillors, who immediately defected in February, forming Glasgow First. This left the ruling Labour group as a minority administration. Yet, on May 5th, despite the SNP increasing its vote in the city by 8% and its number of seats by 5, Labour also increased its vote by over 3%, losing only 1 seat overall. They easily saw off the Glasgow First challenge (who only held on to 1 seat, showing they had indeed spent far more time looking after their own immediate interests, rather than showing much concern for their constituents [5]), and were able to once more form a majority administration in the city.

Nobody, not even Labour, had expected this, although they had fought back like cornered cats. They well knew that if Glasgow fell, the immediate danger was not so much a surge in support for Scottish independence. The problem for Scottish Labour was the likely ending of its longstanding and widespread patronage. This had launched so many careers – not just political, but also in administration and service management. Future career prospects were not looking too good after Labour had already lost control at Westminster in 2010, Holyrood in 2007, and so many Scottish local councils in 2007 – down to 2.

However, SNP Glasgow council group leader, Allison Hunter, came to Labour’s assistance. She belongs to the party’s ‘Ally MacLeod’ [6] wing. They believe that all you need to win is to cheer on your side the loudest, and ignore the opposition’s strengths (even if these do consist of relentlessly negative tactics).  Thus, just before the election, much to the consternation of the SNP national leadership, she very publicly stated that, “Glasgow would be a stepping stone to independence.” This turned out to be nearly as embarrassing for today’s SNP leadership, as Ally Macleod’s 1978 answer to the question, “What do you plan to do after the World Cup”, to which he replied, “Retain it”!

The SNP’s national depute leader (and likely successor to Alex Salmond), Nicola Sturgeon, had already claimed at their party conference earlier this year, that she thought that the SNP could take Glasgow. However, she made sure that she did not link this with any hype about the prospects for the Scottish independence referendum.

The SNP’s strategy is two pronged. The Scottish independence referendum represents just one of these. When the SNP formed a minority Holyrood government after 2007, they made no attempt at the time to implement their promised independence referendum. Then, they had the excuse that this would just be voted down by the mainstream unionist parties’ majority, and the last thing they wanted was to mobilise extra-parliamentary support on the streets, and upset those they were now assiduously trying to court.

So this period was marked by the public support given to Salmond and the SNP government by prominent business figures, including Sir George Matthewson of the Royal Bank of Scotland (something that proved a temporary embarrassment when the Credit Crunch struck!), Sir Brian Souter of Stagecoach, and Sir Tom Farmer of Kwikfit. However, as well as making it clear that they wanted the SNP to pursue pro-Scottish business policies, they also indicated that they wanted no major constitutional conflicts. For some, ‘Devolution-Max’ was their preferred option. A significant section of the SNP leadership think likewise – including most prominently, Michael Russell, current Education Minister, along with others, mainly, but not exclusively, on the SNP’s neo-liberal right wing.

Salmond’s first success, after 2007, lay in quickly silencing the ‘Independistas’, both inside and outside the SNP. They had formed ‘Independence First’, and initially called for an extra-parliamentary campaign to bring forward the promised independence referendum. However, Salmond soon persuaded them that waiting to achieve a Holyrood majority in 2011 was the best course. ‘Independence First’ disappeared, with more and more of its supporters falling in behind Salmond’s strategy.

When Salmond did achieve his sensational Holyrood SNP victory in 2011, the ‘Independistas’ began to think ‘he walked on water’. Some had been involved in the even lower-key Scottish Independence Convention, which the SNP leadership had joined to stifle. However, the strong likelihood is that this will go the same way as ‘Independence First’. Salmond launched the SNP’s official ‘Yes’ campaign [7] in Cineworld in Edinburgh on May 25th. After this, the ‘Independistas’ are most likely to concentrate instead on forming the ‘Tartan Army’ or ‘Ally Macleod’ wing of the official ‘Yes’ campaign [8]. They will be praised when the going is good and damned whenever their ‘Braveheart’ approach embarrasses the SNP leadership. They will not be allowed to have any influence on the SNP leadership’s own strategy, which means keeping Scottish business interests placated, and Scottish establishment figures appeased.

It has been clear for some time that Salmond would like the 2014 ‘Independence-Lite’ referendum to have a second ‘Devolution-Max’ question. This is because the second prong of Salmond’s political strategy is to develop a wannabe Scottish ruling class. The SNP’s current Scottish business (and global corporate) supporters want a Scotland that can compete more effectively on the global capitalist market (primarily by lowering corporate taxation [9]), and which still participates in the US/UK imperial policing of the world [10]. They also like the idea of retaining the monarchy, not so much out of any particular devotion to the queen (although Salmond himself seems besotted), but to reassure British unionists and to have those Crown Powers at their disposal, should things get too rough.

‘Independence-Lite’ already amounts to little more than ‘Independence within the Union’, with the SNP government’s acceptance of the monarchy, sterling (and hence effective control of the economy by the City [11]) and Scottish armed forces remaining under the British High Command. However, a ‘Devolution-Max’ option would provide a wannabe Scottish ruling class with an even less ambitious second option to help it gradually increase its influence, particularly over fiscal policy, if British ruling class opposition to ‘Independence-Lite’ proves to be too intransigent.

Yet, despite the continued attempts by Salmond to appease the British Establishment (including its Scottish unionist component [12]), the US state, and the global corporations (e.g. Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump), there is little indication that the current British ruling class and its British unionist leaders will play ball. Putting the unionist parties’ public bravado aside, the British ruling class is fully aware that the UK is a declining power. It now faces a prolonged period of economic crisis, and there is no room for an uppity wannabe ruling class wanting a greater slice of a diminishing cake. This is why the British unionist parties have chosen a strategy designed to give Salmond and the SNP government a ‘bloody nose’ in the forthcoming referendum campaign. In Scotland, it is Labour, desperate to cling on to all that patronage, which will take the lead in this. Indeed, Tories will keep a low profile north of the border!

If you only examine the clearly visible public politicking around the independence referendum, you could be forgiven for thinking that the British unionists have acted in a pretty cack-handed manner so far. They failed to prevent the SNP’s referendum from going ahead, and revealed in the process, their underlying hostility to the principle of national self-determination. Both Jeremy Paxman and Labour Lord Foulkes’ attempts to paint Salmond as Mugabe or Mussolini misfired spectacularly, especially when Salmond’s obvious role model is so much closer to home – Tony Blair!

However, what we are witnessing is the British unionists’ step-by-step withdrawal from their outer and not so well-held defences to their inner, very well-armed strongholds. Furthermore, you can not see all the hidden, behind-the-scenes, anti-democratic preparations going on, especially those sanctioned under the UK state’s Crown Powers. Salmond is astute enough to know, that any ‘Ally Macleod’-style, ‘attack, attack, attack’ tactics are unlikely to deliver a majority ‘Yes’ vote in the 2014 referendum [13].

It looks as if Salmond’s hopes of a ‘Devolution-Max’ referendum option have been stymied by the inability of ‘civic Scotland’ (i.e. the Scottish Labour Party and STUC ‘in civvies’) to cooperate, and by the SNP’s own internal ‘Independista’ opposition. However, Salmond has lived through two other major SNP setbacks [14] (the first in 1979, straight after the first failed Scottish Devolution referendum; the second in 2003 the with loss of 8 MSPs in the Holyrood election). He knows that the SNP can still recover, if it champions certain class interests. Should the referendum independence option go down to defeat in 2014, Salmond or Sturgeon are likely to quickly demand the ‘Devolution-Max’ option, which some unionists have promised [15] after a ‘No’ vote. They can see the precedents for further advancing a national ruling class incrementally within the existing state established by Catalan Convergence and the Parti Quebecois in Spain and Canada respectively.

Therefore, Salmond’s longer-term strategy is to appeal to ever widening sections of the Scottish middle class (and hopefully even some jaundiced Scottish members of the British Establishment) to seek their fortunes in a future ‘independent Scotland’, rather than be held back by the increasingly reactionary British Establishment. What the business-savvy Salmond [16] proposes is not so much a hostile takeover of part of UK plc; but more a junior management partial buy-out, with the promise of continuing profitable cooperation in the future. The existing UK state institutions north of the border would then be marketed in ‘tartan dress’.

And, it is this desire to develop a wannabe Scottish ruling class that highlights the importance of the ability to dispense patronage in Scotland, whether at Holyrood or at local council level. Salmond, and of course Scottish Labour, both knew what was at stake in the May 5th election. This has been shown by the Labour Party’s subsequent determination to exclude the SNP from as many local council administrations as possible, even if this meant forming coalitions with the Conservatives in six councils – Aberdeen, East Dumbartonshire, East Lothian, Falkirk, East Ayrshire and Stirling [17]. The only apparent exception to this is Edinburgh – the sole example of Labour in coalition with the SNP – but even here, this was only after the Conservatives turned Labour down first!

Labour in Glasgow, though, already knew before the election that they had to see off Glasgow First, if they were to guarantee their more ambitious backers future access to the much greater rewards through cooperation with big business, compared to the smaller-scale, more localised spoils their former colleagues, now in Glasgow First, were so desperate to cling on to. Learning from this, the Glasgow SNP group quickly ditched its leader, Allison Hunter, after the election, and replaced her with the much more on-message, Graeme Hendry. He was quick to declare that,  “Our work begins now to put in place a team of spokespeople from this talented group which will continue to hold labour to account and start the process of developing ideas that will help this great city” – not a word about the forthcoming independence referendum there!

So, were the Scottish local elections just a two-team fixture – SNP and Labour? Labour were able to oust the existing SNP administrations in both Renfrewshire and Dumbartonshire. Renfrewshire had seen the threat of large-scale teacher strike action backed by local parents, in protest at a particularly ill-judged education cut; whilst the SNP in West Dumbartonshire had imposed drastic cuts on already hard-hit local communities. And the SNP was able to finally oust Labour in Dundee.

When in opposition, Labour opposed ‘SNP cuts’, just as the SNP opposed ‘Labour cuts’, when they found themselves in the same situation. Neither party publicly owned up to the second part of their policies – but ‘support Labour cuts’ or ‘support SNP cuts’ respectively! However, in West Dumbartonshire, the sitting SSP councillor, Jim Bollan, held on to his seat in Renton, in what was once the Vale of Leven’s ‘Little Moscow’. The ruling SNP group had suspended Jim for six months for his continued support for actions taken by his local community in defiance of the cuts. However, Jim’s very welcome victory was the only bright spot on another bleak electoral night for socialists in Scotland. The divisions caused by ‘Tommygate’ continue to bedevil the Scottish Left; whilst the absence of any effective action in defiance of the cuts, have left workers looking for ‘easy’ electoral alternatives, and hoping against hope that SNP or Labour election promises will be honoured.

One precondition for any socialist resurgence is the ability to become centrally involved in the resistance that is bound to arise. Most government cuts have been delayed for longer in Scotland, and have yet to be fully enforced. One obvious obstacle in achieving this is the various competing anti-cuts campaigns promoted by the socialist sects.

However, another precondition for significant advance is for socialists to appreciate the political significance of the Scottish independence referendum and its ability to produce a constitutional crisis for the UK state. The economic and political are not two separate issues, but are very much linked in the context of growing crises in both these spheres of capitalist control.

Therefore, the political situation could still change very dramatically before 2014. There is nothing inevitable about the domination of the campaign for greater self-determination by the SNP [18].  Socialists will need to confront both the existing British ruling class with its Scottish unionist supporters, and the rising Scottish wannabe ruling class and its SNP backers. Ambitious? Yes – but the nature of the times means that we have to raise our sights.

 Allan Armstrong, RCN, 24.5.12


[1]             The SNP government’s own proposals only amount to ‘Independence-Lite’, or ‘Independence within the Union’, although there is considerable support for more extensive self-determination, including a complete republican break with the UK state, amongst supporters of Scottish independence.

[2]             In Scotland, unlike the rest of Britain, the Lib-Dem % vote declined in 2010.

[3]             This does not take into consideration the additional SNP support has at national level in the Highlands and other areas, where non-party Independents are still a major factor at local level.

[4]             This does not take into account the difference in turn-out rates between local and national elections, and the future independence referendum will certainly be a national event. However, there is no particular reason to believe that the turnout factor in the local elections under-estimated the SNP support at this level.

[5]             One of those who fared badly was former Solidarity councillor, Ruth Black, who first defected to Labour, becoming closely linked to disgraced former council leader, Stephen Purcell. She received 48 votes!

[6]             Ally Macleod was made manager of the Scottish football team in the 1978 World Cup in Argentina.

[7]             The platform party, led by Alex Salmond, included Denis Canavan, former Labour MP and MSP, Tommy Brennan, former trade union convenor at Ravenscraig steelworks (closed under Thatcher), and several figures from Scotland’s cultural scene, of whom pride of place was given to the actor Brain Cox, who declared himself a former longstanding Labour member but still a democratic socialist now he supported Scottish independence.

[8]             This nature of this official SNP campaign will be instantly recognised and jealously regarded by the SWP and SP, who know a front campaign when they see one, given their own practice  in the Right to Work Campaign and the National Shop Stewards’ Network respectively!

[9]             Although, the SNP government has also paid a large government subsidy to the US-based anti-trade union employer, Amazon, to set up a new distribution centre in Scotland.

[10]           The SNP opposed the Iraq war but warmly supports the role of Scottish regiments in Afghanistan.

[11]             Edinburgh’s much vaunted finance sector is, in effect, a branch office of the City. This was  highlighted by the spectacular fall of the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Bank of Scotland, and the subsequent (Labour initiated) British government bailout.

[12]             One example of this has been the SNP government’s insistence that Megrahi was guilty of the Lockerbie bombing, and was only released from Barlinnie prison on “compassionate grounds”. The SNP does not want to alienate the powerful Scottish legal establishment, by suggesting they were complicit (with US and UK security service backing) in a miscarriage of justice at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands. The ‘inherently compassionate’ nature of Scotland’sjustice system, compared to that in England and Wales, would not be obvious to anyone else who had been through it!

[13]             And, even in the unlikely event of this happening, the British ruling class would not just give up, and warmly embrace ‘Independence-Lite’. They will use all the constitutional, political (including their US connections) and economic power at their disposal to obstruct this. Indeed, they would be mightily aided in this, by the constitutional powers they still held in Scotland under the SNP’s ‘Independence-Lite’ proposals.

[14]             Although in both of these cases Salmond’s vaunting pride was not directly affected, since he was not the party leader at the time, something he was not slow to hint at!

[15]             Few people in Scotland take such promises seriously, after Sir Alex Douglas Hume’s promise that a ‘No’ vote in the 1979 Devolution referendum would lead to an incoming Conservative government bringing in a better devolution measure!

[16]             Salmond was an energy economics advisor for the Royal Bank of Scotland, after working for the influential joint public-private sector Government Economic Service.

[17]             The SNP are in coalition with the Conservatives in two councils – Dumfries and Galloway and East Ayrshire – and with a dissident pro-independence Conservative in Midlothian. However, the Labour Party claims to be anti-Tory on principle, whereas the SNP is anti-British unionist party. This stance does not rule out cooperation with Scottish members of any of the unionist parties, in a similar way that the SDLP and Sinn Fein were prepared to make deals with the Ulster Unionists, long before that was very reluctantly reciprocated.

[18]             Although, the likelihood of the British Left taking the lead from the Conservative/Lib-Dem/Labour unionist alliance opposition to the SNP is indeed remote, despite the victory of the Left populist and strongly British unionist, George Galloway in Bradford. His ‘real Labour’ electoral appeal did not work in Glasgow in the Holyrood election last year, in the face of competition from the ‘real social democrats’ of the SNP.


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