Ructions after the referendum: workers, Labour and Scottish independence

Johann lamont

Scottish Labour leader Johann "Scots are not genetically programmed to make political decisions" Lamont

by Richie Venton, Scottish Socialist Party national workplace organiser The Scottish referendum has added substantially to the stresses and strains between Labour and the trade unions. On one side of the potential for clashes we have the blind, unthinking loyalty to Labour of the tops of many of the trade unions; either blatantly through affiliation to the Tory-funded, Labour-fronted Better Together, or increasingly in recent months via the United with Labour front for unionism. Lined up against such trade union ‘leaders’ is a growing battalion of union activists and members who see Scottish independence as a rapid escape route from the dictatorship of the Tories.

Political education
At a UK-wide level within the trade unions this might not be an issue of prime importance; but within the Scottish union memberships it is a decisive turning point, another factor in the abandonment of Labour by big chunks of the working class. Scottish workers and working class communities have been engaged in the politics of the referendum debate like no other issue in living memory. Questions of profound significance about what kind of society we live in and what kind of society we want to construct under Scottish self-government have been debated in community halls and school assembly rooms every night of the week, in every corner of the nation, with tens of thousands participating. It is a mass political education system that means nothing will remain as it was after September 2014. And the exposé of Labour as open collaborators with the avowed Tory enemy of workers has added immensely to the process of workers unshackling themselves from their old Labour loyalties. The British and Scottish Labour leaderships are increasingly the chief barriers to Scottish independence. As the battle for the hearts and minds of the working class majority population heats up, the Tories, Lib Dems and mainstream media are more hindrance than help to the unionist cause; they are widely recognized as workers’ enemies. Hence the rolling out of Gordon Brown as newly-discovered evangel of workers’ solidarity, promising “justice with Labour”, etc.! Of course many workers are liable to fall for Labour’s lies, given the residual roots of what used to be Labour in the mass of the population, going back several generations. That danger is heightened by the same Labour leaders’ cynical portrayal of the referendum battle being between them and the SNP – another lie! A substantial minority of workers, traditionally Labour voters, have had these myths burnt out of their consciousness at public meetings of the SSP, or other Yes meetings with SSP speakers. Socialists are in the best position to crush the lies of Labour mis-leaders in working class audiences. We have exposed the fact that when Labour claims independence would break the unity of the working class, it was 13 successive years of Labour governments that banned workers’ solidarity, legally outlawing the right to take action in support of fellow workers, under threat of seizure of trade union funds.

Labour lies
We’ve exploded Labour leaders’ lie that voting Yes is condemning workers in England and Wales to permanent Tory rule: only twice has the Scottish vote been essential to a Labour government being elected, one of which was the brief eight months of Harold Wilson government from February to October 1974. We’ve explained that far from abandoning the working class down south, independence would usher in the opportunity to lead by example, by shaping a society in favour of the working class that would act as a beacon to fellow workers in our neighbouring states. And SSP speakers have been instrumental in reminding thousands of the realities voting No and then seeking “justice with Labour” at Westminster in 2015 would mean: it was Labour in office under Brown, Blair and Alastair Darling that announced 100,000 civil service job losses; abolished the lower 10p tax rate for the lowest paid; implemented rampant privatization; destroyed Final Salary Pension Schemes; and presided over the most unequal division of wealth since 1886, according to Oxfam. Labour’s attachment to the UK state is an expression of its deeper ideological devotion to capitalism and it’s state institutions. Since at least the 1990s, Labour has transformed into an openly capitalist party. But precisely because of its working class origins of a century ago, and the remaining institutional links between Labour and the majority of the trade unions, that makes Labour the chief political obstacle to the advancement of the working class, let alone full blown socialism.

Capitalist Labour
By clinging onto traditional working class voters, whilst preaching and practicing neoliberal capitalism, Labour is involved in a monumental deceit that upholds the power and profiteering of the capitalist elite – the billionaires who rule Breadline Britain. The same applies to foreign policy, which is only an extension of domestic policies: it was Labour that dragged Britain into the killing fields of Afghanistan and Iraq, clinging onto the coat-tails of USA imperialism. The debates at trade union branches and public meetings on the referendum have raised issues that can’t simply be bottled up and put in cold storage again after September. These include the call for control over trade union decisions by the Scottish membership; the formation of industry-wide shop stewards committees across national boundaries (and not just restricted to the borders of the current UK, in this age of multinational capitalism); and the treacherous role of Labour in their undisguised collaboration with the sworn Tory enemies of the working class. After September 18, we are likely to see eruptions, schisms and a haemorrhaging of members from Labour in Scotland. If, as we hope and expect, a Yes vote is won, the tops of Labour at UK and Scottish level will never be forgiven for their anti-working class collaboration with the Tory enemies of democratic self-rule. If their efforts were to succeed in getting a No vote, hundreds of thousands will neither forget nor forgive their role in blocking workers’ escape route from brutal Tory dictatorship. And after a while, those in uproar at the Scottish and British Labour leaders would include tens of thousands conned into voting No who then realized their betrayal, as the assault on jobs, pay, benefits and services began to bite deep.

If, with the assistance of the growing Labour for Independence trend, we win a Yes vote, all hell will break loose in and around Labour in Scotland. MPs will vie with MSPs for parliamentary seats in an independent Holyrood – mostly unprincipled jockeying for parliamentary ambitions; rarely if ever as a principled left/right split. Those Labour members who’ve had the courage to campaign for independence will face stark choices in an independent Scotland: join with other genuine socialists in the SSP to fight for a socialist majority in the 2016 elections, or stay in the Labour Party in the hope of transforming Scottish Labour into a socialist force. Of course a political programme for radical socialist transformation is at the heart of this question, rather than names and party labels. Policies that could mobilize working class people in a movement built on the shoulders of the referendum campaign and that challenges capitalism would include: a decent living minimum wage; reversal of Westminster’s cuts; massive increases to pensions and benefits; defence and extension of a modern public welfare state; abolition of all anti-union laws and introduction of workplace democracy; reversal of past Tory and Labour privatisations; democratic public ownership of Royal Mail, energy, transport, construction, banks; progressive taxation of the rich and big business; full employment through creation of decent, well-paid jobs and apprenticeships in housing and the green energy sector; removal of Trident and opposition to involvement in imperialist wars. But where would such a programme leave ‘Scottish’ Labour? The Labour Party in Scotland under Westminster rule is a mere appendage of a British party that is firmly hitched to capitalism and besotted with winning middle-class swing voters in so-called Middle England. In other words, fundamentally and utterly opposed to any suggestion of socialism. In the event of independence, Labour in Scotland would be obliged to reposition itself. Not a principled autonomy or independence from the capitalist British Labour Party – based on the principles of the right to national self-determination and therefore pursuit of an independent Socialist Scotland – more an unprincipled readjustment driven by self-preservation and parliamentary ambitions in an independent Scottish parliament. The central question would still remain: what ideology and political programme would drive such a Scottish Labour Party in an independent state?

Lamont ‘socialist’?
The performance of the parliamentary wing of Labour in Scotland bodes ill for those dreaming of a socialist revival in Scottish Labour’s ranks. For instance, only two Scottish Labour MPs voted against the recent Tory cap on welfare benefits. I’ve witnessed some in Labour for Independence claim – in their argument that independence would revive Labour as a socialist force – that Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont is actually a socialist, but hampered by the London-based domination of Ed Miliband et al. It’s a strange version of socialism that denounces Scotland as a “something for nothing society”, threatening to remove free prescriptions, over-60s’ bus passes or free school meals; or that besmirched the Scottish working class as “not genetically programmed to make political decisions” – both declarations being made in the past year by the same ‘socialist’ Johann Lamont. A Yes vote may embolden some in LFI and the Labour Campaign for Socialism in challenging the Scottish Labour leadership. But the fundamental problem they would still face is the lack of any groundswell in the working class towards joining the Labour Party en masse to reclaim and convert it into a socialist party. In fact, the opposite is the trend. At least a whole generation of trade unionists and working class communities have experienced nothing but disappointment, disgust and despair at their experience of Labour in government at council, Holyrood or Westminster levels. And their most recent experience is of the same Labour being on the wrong side – united with the Tory class enemy – during the referendum battle. Far from any movement of workers being attracted to join the Labour Party, unions like USDAW have had members resigning and threatening to resign due to the union’s ultra-Labour loyalist affiliation to Better Together; a mistaken, but entirely understandable conclusion by workers who are furious, and a graphic indication of the deepening chasm between the trade union ranks and Labour. A clear and growing majority of activists and union reps in the likes of UNISON and UNITE are for Yes, which brings them into conflict with the party their unions are still affiliated to. Regardless of whether it’s a Yes or No majority in September, the case for breaking from Labour has grown in the trade unions; exponentially so compared to when the SSP launched our ‘Make the Break’ campaign in January 1999. Trade union branches and especially union activists are key to the renewal of socialism in Scotland, alongside young people and those currently not in a unionised workplace.

Severe limitations
But that won’t be achieved by trying to breathe life into the Labour Party. The severe limitations of that strategy – even when applied by the biggest trade union in the country – were highlighted in Falkirk, with all the consequences for Unite the union and it’s activists at Grangemouth refinery. The limitations – indeed the futility of that strategy – were further underlined by last year’s Labour conference voting – unanimously! – for public ownership of Royal Mail and the railways, only to have the Labour leaders spit in the face of their own party conference, declaring within minutes that they will do no such thing on winning power at Westminster. Workers convinced of the need for radical change, including through the mass learning process of the referendum, would do much better to devote their talent and energy alongside those of us already organised in the SSP, in constructing a mass, working class socialist party. Realignments on the Scottish left in the event of independence will strengthen that strategy immensely. That is especially so given the thousands of socialists who have up until now chosen the SNP as the biggest vehicle to travel to independence in. On reaching that destination – the raison d’être for the SNP over 80 years – they will then confront the choice of what kind of Scotland to build with the powers of independence. Whether to surrender to a tartan capitalism, ‘more of the same’ but under the Saltire – or do battle for a full-blown socialist programme for Scotland, as part of the international struggle for socialism? Thousands of SNP members on demos, rallies and public meetings have said to the SSP: “When we get independence, we’ll be with you.”

Make the break
These pro-independence socialists need to ‘make the break’ from an SNP party whose dominant leadership have shown their dedication to capitalist economy and capitalist institutions through policies such as lower Corporation Tax; membership of the nuclear, warmongering NATO; support for a medieval monarchy; and their implementation of Westminster austerity through cuts imposed by SNP-led councils. Together with the SSP – which for all 16 years of our existence has persistently fought for socialism and Scottish independence – socialists in the Labour Party and trade unions, plus newly awakened socialists in RIC and Yes groups across Scotland, socialists currently in the SNP can help forge a mighty force for fundamental socialist change in Scotland and beyond. Nothing will remain the same after 18 September – provided we fight to shape Scotland into the socialist society workers need it to become.

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