By Dale Street
“Neither Nicola Sturgeon nor her deputy (Stewart Hosie) are saying austerity can be avoided. Instead, it’s being re-badged and re-profiled, or spread out for longer. …”
“The defiant refusal to accept more austerity, which won power for Syriza in Greece last month, is not being offered here. Instead, a serious bid for a share of power in Britain requires a message that won’t spook the markets.”
That was the verdict of BBC Scotland’s business and economy editor Douglas Fraser after listening to SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon speak on SNP economic policy at a meeting of academics in London in February.
The fact that both the leader and deputy leader of the SNP are saying that more austerity is unavoidable is at odds with the SNP’s message on the doorstep (and in television debates): that the SNP is the only Scottish party with an anti-austerity agenda.
This kind of incoherence – and dishonesty – permeates the SNP general election campaign. In fact, such is the level of incoherence and dishonesty, the SNP is not running one election campaign but a collection of mutually exclusive campaigns.
SNP leaders says that this election is not about independence for Scotland but about austerity. In fact, as far as the SNP is concerned, everything is about independence. And ‘everything’ includes this election.
Although both Salmond and Sturgeon previously described last September’s referendum as a “once-in-a generation” event, both of them – just seven months later – are now refusing to rule out another referendum after the Holyrood elections of 2016.
On the doorstep, SNP election activists are far more honest than their leaders. They describe the general election as “a stepping stone” (sic) to another referendum and independence. (So too do the SNP’s ‘socialist’ bag-carriers. But not even the SNP takes them seriously.)
SNP leaders claim that they want to help Ed Miliband into 10 Downing Street. But they don’t actually want anyone to vote Labour! Instead, Scotland should vote for the SNP, Wales for Plaid Cymru, and England for the Greens.
Again, SNP election activists are more honest than their leaders.
They want Scots to vote SNP and the Welsh to vote Plaid Cymru. But, because they cannot conceive of voting on any basis other than national identity, and because there is no such thing as an English National Party, they cannot work out how the English should vote.
Unlike the public face of the SNP, they are also refreshingly honest in declaring that they really don’t care if the Tories win the general election. For them, a Tory victory would be just an additional reason for another referendum and independence.
The SNP makes much of its supposed commitment to ensuring that a (minority) Labour government implements what the SNP calls Labour’s “progressive policies” and goes further than its election commitments.
But up until only a few weeks ago the SNP leadership and media machine were still pushing out the “Labour are Red Tories” line – completely at odds with the SNP’s sudden discovery of Labour’s ‘progressive policies’.
On the doorstep and in cyberspace SNP activists still punt the “Labour are Red Tories” line with a toxic vengeance, peppered with all manner of accusations of betrayal, treachery and sell-out. (These are people who would have felt at home in the politics of the Weimar Republic.)
Central to the SNP election campaign is the theme that only a vote for the SNP will allow Scotland to “make its voice heard” in Westminster (illustrated by pictures of Tartan benches in the House of Commons): ‘It is clear that the only party who can be that voice is the SNP.’
But independence for Scotland is the SNP’s mission in life.
And just seven months ago a majority of Scots rejected that policy in a referendum. Only four out of 32 regions voted ‘Yes’. Ten regions voted ‘No’ by over 60%. Undaunted by the fact of having attracted only minority support, the SNP now campaigns as the voice of all of Scotland.
Some SNP activists explain away the contradiction between the SNP’s claims to speak for all Scotland and its defeat in the referendum by claiming that most Scots voted for independence but the British state forged (vast amounts of) ‘No’ votes.
(This is not the position of the SNP nor that of most of its supporters. But the proportion of the latter who do argue such a conspiracy theory is frighteningly large. Nationalist movements always provide a natural home for conspiracy theorists.)
Salmond and Sturgeon are demanding that Westminster should hand over to Holyrood control over everything apart from defence and foreign policy and that Scotland be given Full Fiscal Autonomy. This is not that far removed from the ‘independence-lite’ which the SNP campaigned for in the referendum campaign.
Having failed to convince the Scottish electorate of the supposed economic merits of ‘independence-lite’ last September, the ‘democrats’ of the SNP now want Westminster – in SNP parlance, that well-known home of ‘the establishment’ – to impose on Scotland the kind of policies rejected by the Scottish electorate only last autumn.
And while the SNP campaigns for more powers to be handed down from Westminster to Holyrood, it certainly does not apply the same approach to its ongoing centralisation of powers in Holyrood.
Under the SNP’s council-tax-freeze policy, a council which increases its council tax to pay for services will simply have its grant from Holyrood cut by the same amount. This means, in effect, the imposition of a financial straightjacket on councils and the control of council budgets by Holyrood rather than by the councils themselves.
As a political party, the SNP itself is also highly centralised. Its conference last month voted to ban SNP elected parliamentarians from making any public criticism of SNP policy. This is something that even Tony Blair could only have dreamed of for the Labour Party.
This centralism goes hand-in-glove with cultism. In the 2007 Holyrood elections SNP candidates appeared on the ballot paper as candidates of “Alex Salmond for First Minister – SNP.” And anyone who attended the anti-Trident demonstration in Glasgow in early April can testify that the cult around Salmond’s successor has gone several stages further.
Thus, the SNP says that the election is about austerity (when they mean: independence), that they want Ed Miliband as Prime Minister (but that no-one should vote Labour), and that they want “progressive policies” from Labour (although they are really “red Tories”).
They also claim that the SNP is the voice of Scotland (while ignoring what that voice said in the referendum), demand more powers for Holyrood (ones rejected by the Scottish electorate last September), and attack Westminster centralisation (while consolidating Holyrood and SNP-internal centralisation).
The incoherence and dishonesty of the SNP’s election campaign(s) become even more obvious when its promises are compared with its record in power at Holyrood and the policies which it promoted as recently as last year’s referendum campaign.
“We want more millionaires, and any notion that an independent Scotland would be left-wing is delusional nonsense,” said Jim Mather, the SNP’s Enterprise Minister in the 2007-11 SNP government. Hardly the stuff of social democracy.
According to Salmond: “One of the reasons Scotland didn’t take to Lady Thatcher was because of Scotland’s strong-beating social conscience. It didn’t mind the economic side so much. But we didn’t like the social side at all.” Again, not the stuff of social democracy.
The same applies to Salmond’s hostility to even a regulated (never mind nationalised) banking and finance sector.
“We are pledging a light-touch regulation suitable to a Scottish financial sector with its outstanding reputation for probity, as opposed to one like that in the United Kingdom, which absorbs huge amounts of management time in gold-plated regulation,” said Salmond in 2007.
A year later Salmond lavished praise on Scottish banks: “The Scottish banks are among the most stable financial institutions in the world.” A few months later the Royal Bank of Scotland reported losses of £28 billions and HBOS also teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. The Labour government of the time injected £38 billions to keep them afloat.
Rather than criticise RBS and HBOS bankers for years of speculative lending and predatory unviable acquisitions, Salmond blamed unnamed “spivs and speculators” and (of course) the UK government for bringing down the banks: “This is London’s boom and bust.”
When the banking crisis was raised as an issue in the referendum campaign, the SNP simply lied, claiming that there would have been no such crisis in an independent Scotland because Scottish banks would supposedly have been better regulated.
(And can there be a worse fate than being praised by the SNP? It praised the Scottish banks. And they nearly went bust. It promised to emulate the ‘tiger economy’ of Ireland. And it nearly went bust. It promised that the average price of a barrel of oil would remain at $113 until 2020. And within months it had slumped to less than $50.)
The SNP is promising that its Westminster MPs will protect and promote the NHS in England. But this is something that they have failed to do in Scotland, despite health being a devolved power.
In real terms, spending by the SNP Holyrood government on health has fallen during its years in office. Holyrood now spends a lower proportion of its budget on health than the Con-Dem government in England. And the SNP Health Minister who presided over these cuts was Nicola Sturgeon.
Since 2009 4,500 jobs in the NHS in Scotland have been cut, including 2,000 nursing posts. An RCN survey found that 54% of nurses in Scotland work beyond their contractual hours in order to meet demand.
Accident and Emergency waiting times in Scotland are worse than in England. A European-wide survey of healthcare performance placed Scotland in 16th position – lower than England, despite the latter being subject to Con-Dem cuts.
But spending on private health under the SNP has increased by 47% since 2011 and is now running at £100 millions a year. Lanarkshire health board alone spent over £6 millions in 18 months, referring NHS patients to private health providers in an attempt to meet its Treatment Time Guarantee.
The SNP’s record on education, another devolved power, is no better.
When the SNP came to power in 2007 Scotland proportionately spent 15% more on education than did England. By 2011/12 that figure had fallen to 0.4%.
A survey by the EIS teachers union found that teacher numbers had fallen by 4,000 under the SNP. As local councils passed on Holyrood’s cuts, their spending on education fell in real terms by 5% between 2010 and 2013. Under the SNP, the attainment gap between schools in better-off and worse-off areas has increased.
Youth from working-class backgrounds are less likely to attend university in Scotland than they are in England: 28% compared with 31.5%, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
This is because of the SNP’s cuts to Further Education, the main route for working-class youth into Higher Education. It has ‘merged’ colleges, cut courses, axed 3,600 FE teaching posts, and slashed 130,000 places in FE colleges.
The impact of the SNP’s council-tax-freeze policy – a policy which is the property of the Tories in England – has been to benefit the better off far more than the poor and the working class.
When the SNP first introduced the freeze in 2007 it was meant to be a temporary measure, pending the replacement of the council tax by a Local Income Tax (LIT), a fairer form of local taxation than the council tax. But SNP proposals for a LIT quickly evaporated.
The unemployed and low paid who pay no council tax do not benefit from the freeze. For the low-paid in Band A properties who do pay council tax, the annual saving as a result of the freeze is 0.3% of their income (£60). For the better-off in Band H properties, the annual saving is 0.8% of their income (£370).
By 2012 owners of Band G and Band H homes had ‘saved’ a total of over £115 millions as a result of the council tax freeze. By the time of the next Holyrood elections, this figure will have risen to £300 millions.
At the same time, massive cuts in real terms by Holyrood in the funding of local authorities (combined with the failure of local councils to actually campaign against the cuts rather than merely complain against them and then implement them) have resulted in job losses (over 39,000 since 2007), cuts in services, and increased charges for services.
According to a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the councils covering the poorest areas have been hit hardest. Between 2010 and 2013 they cut spending by an average of £90 per head more than councils covering more affluent areas.
And the people most dependent on the services which are being scrapped year-on-year, or for which charges are being introduced and increased year-on-year, are the people who benefit the least, if at all, from the council tax freeze.
Just as the SNP’s actual record over issues such as health, education and local authorities – all of which are devolved powers – are at odds with its electioneering anti-austerity and ‘we-are-the-workers’-friend’ rhetoric, so too is its record on transport.
In its 2003 Holyrood election manifesto the SNP promised to re-regulate Scotland’s bus services. The policy was re-affirmed by the 2006 SNP conference.
But in early 2007 Stagecoach owner Brian Souter made a large donation to the SNP. A few weeks later the SNP dropped its policy of bus re-regulation. Since then the SNP has consistently voted against Labour proposals in Holyrood for re-regulation.
In 2008 the SNP announced – without consulting transport user bodies or trade unions – that the First Group’s contract to run ScotRail, would be extended by three years, until 2014. At the close of 2014 the contract was then awarded to Abellio, while the contract to run the Caledonian Sleeper service was awarded to Serco.
The SNP argues that Holyrood does not have the powers to re-nationalise the railways. But Holyrood does have the powers to run rail-franchising on the basis of a not-for-profit contract, or to set up an arms-length body which could run the railways as an ‘operator of the last resort’.
The SNP’s independence White Paper did not promise that an independent Scotland would take rail back into public ownership. It promised no more than a “review” of rail ownership. This puts it to the right of Labour’s current policies on rail, and also to its policy of giving Holyrood powers to take rail back into public ownership.
In 2012 the SNP awarded the £350 millions contract to run ferry services to the Northern Isles to Serco (previous experience of running ferries: the Woolwich Ferry in London). Now the Clyde and Hebridean ferry services have also been put out to tender, with Serco a favourite to win that contract as well.
Again, the SNP argues that its hands are tied, this time by the European Union. (One of the most endearing features of the SNP is: It’s always someone else’s fault.)
But the RMT and the Scottish TUC have consistently argued that European Union cabotage regulations and the decision of the European Court of Justice in the Altmark case mean that there is no need to put Scottish ferry services out to tender.
But the most damning indictment of the SNP’s general election campaign is surely the extent to which it conflicts with the policies on which the SNP fought the recent referendum campaign.
A comparison of what the SNP said then, in the referendum campaign, and what it is saying now, in the general election campaign, makes a mockery of its claims that, unlike the ‘establishment’ parties at Westminster, it can be trusted to tell the truth.
Then, it promised there would be no tax increases in an independent Scotland. Now, it will make sure that Labour increases the higher rate of tax to 50%.
Then, it promised a 3% cut in corporation tax in an independent Scotland. Now, it will make sure Labour increases corporation tax by 1%.
Then, it had not a word to say about zero-hours contracts in an independent Scotland. Now, it will make sure that Labour cracks down on their use and abuse.
Then, it promised that the National Minimum Wage would increase by at least the rate of inflation in an independent Scotland. Now, it wants to increase the National Minimum Wage to whatever Labour promises plus a bit more.
Then, it had not a word to say about a mansion tax or a bankers’ bonus tax. (Remember – the bankers were the good guys, according to Salmond.) Now, just two a half weeks before the election, they will make sure Labour implements such policies.
Then, there was no future for Scotland in the UK and the people of Scotland had to go their own way. Now, the SNP promises to represent the entire UK electorate and to be a voice for “everyone across these islands.”
In fact, they even want to be the de facto UK government. In Salmond’s words: “Whoever holds the balance, holds the power.”
After years of the SNP denouncing England for ‘robbing’ Scotland and stereotyping the English as virtually Tories by birth, Salmond’s attempts to portray himself as the champion of English people do at least provide some light relief.
He has now taken to talking of ‘the real people of England’ and explaining how “the people of England don’t think like Westminster politicians”, rather as if they were a new species of life which he has just come across for the first time.
In fact, if Salmond continues with his anthropological studies, he may even eventually discover that English people are pretty much like Scottish people.
Some are rich and some are poor. Some have power, but most don’t. Some have benefited from austerity, but the majority have lost out. Most of them work for a living, and a lot of them join trade unions.
When it comes to social attitudes, it turns out that they are pretty much the same in England as in Scotland.
And this is why the way to begin to reverse the damage inflicted by five years of Con-Dem rule and to advance the interests of working people is not to vote SNP but to vote Labour.
Not just because much of what the SNP is now saying is charlatanism and hypocrisy: posing as the champions of anti-austerity while implementing it in Holyrood, championing policies today which they rejected only yesterday, and declaring the Tories to be untouchable after having traded policies for votes with them during the 2007-11 SNP government.
(As the then Tory leader in Scotland put it in a recent interview in the ‘Daily Record’: “Our position was very clear. In return for supporting their budget, the SNP would include Conservative policies in their budget. It was as simple as that.”)
Not just because – after the collapse in oil prices, the SNPs abandonment of the corporation-tax-cut which was meant to attract new business, and the recent publication of reports by the IFS and GERS – the SNP’s economic case for Full Fiscal Autonomy is even less credible than its case last September for independence.
(In its independence White Paper the SNP’s “cautious estimate” (sic) of the average price of a barrel of oil in the period 2013-20 was $113 a barrel. By early 2015 the real price of a barrel had slumped to less than $50. The internet is still littered with articles by ‘Yes’ supporters denying that oil prices were already on a downward trajectory at the time of the referendum.)
Not just because the SNP is now so incoherent that it has become the first political party in history to advocate that no-one should vote for the party which, it claims, it wants to see form the next government.
(According to Sturgeon, “Labour voters across the UK” will never forgive Miliband if he fails to work with the SNP to “lock the Tories out of Downing Street”. But Sturgeon thinks that these unforgiving Labour voters should not be voting Labour anyway.
And if the price of Scottish independence – i.e. the withdrawal of all Scottish MPs from Westminster – was to be handing the keys to Downing Street back to the Tories, then the SNP would not hesitate for a moment to let other people pay that price.)
And not just because the SNP is not honest enough to admit that the worst possible election outcome for them would be a majority Labour government which delivered on its “progressive policies”.
(Because such an outcome would weaken the case for independence and also deny the SNP the chance to horse-trade propping up a minority government for Full Fiscal Autonomy. A majority Tory government would not be the worst outcome for the SNP: that outcome could and would be used by the SNP as an argument for independence.)
A vote for the SNP would be a vote for a party which stands for the opposite of what underpins the most basic principles of the labour movement. And it would cut across the chances of building a political force strong enough to challenge austerity and advance specifically working-class interests.
The SNP is a nationalist party which seeks to mobilise support on the basis of national identity. Salmond’s sickly, opportunist and transient overtures to “the real people of England” do not change this one iota.
By contrast, the labour movement seeks, however imperfectly, to bring together people of different national identities into a single movement which represents and advances their interests as members of the same class. This includes fighting for a government which represents the interests of the labour movement.
The SNP can never be such a government. Not in Scotland, and even less so at a UK level.
It stands for the nation, not for any particular class in that nation (although, in practice, a political party which governs on behalf of ‘the nation’ inevitably governs on behalf of that nation’s ruling class). And it has no organisational ties with, or even minimal structures of accountability to, the workers movement.
In this election the labour movement alternative to the Tories is a Labour government. It is a very limited alternative. It promises no more than a limited redistribution of wealth, a limited improvement in workers’ rights, and a limited roll-back of the Tories’ dismantling of the welfare state.
Even so, it is the labour movement alternative to another five years of Tory rule. It is an alternative which appeals equally for the votes of workers of all national identities – in contrast to the divisive call by the SNP for workers of different national identities to vote for different parties on the basis of where they live.
It is an alternative actively backed by trade unions representing millions of members. Labour election campaigners are more likely to be union activists than the campaigners of any other party. And unions remain the main financial backers of the Labour Party.
Most important of all, despite the weakening of the party-union link over recent decades, union representation in the structures of the Labour Party and their 50% share of the vote at Labour party conferences provide opportunities for affiliated trade unions to seek to exert control over the political direction of an elected Labour government.
If the unions were to take such opportunities, then this would be real, democratic, labour movement accountability – not to be confused with the SNP’s Byzantine argument: vote SNP (or Plaid Cymru, or Green) but not Labour; SNP MPs will then hold a Labour government to account; but at the first opportunity the SNP MPs will depart for an independent Scotland.
It should not be necessary to say it, but, bizarrely, it is:
Every seat Labour fails to win, and every seat which it now holds but loses, increases the chances of the Tories being able to form the next government.
And every seat which Labour loses to the SNP makes it more vulnerable, should it end up as a minority government, to pressure by a nationalist party which has its own political agenda, one in which the promotion of specifically working-class politics plays no part.
If Labour were not to win an absolute majority in the election, then this would be a major setback for collective working-class politics and working-class political representation. And the SNP’s key goal is precisely that: to make sure that Labour does not win an absolute majority.
The labour movement needs to combine campaigning for a Labour government with raising clear working-class demands, boosting working-class confidence and militancy in order to win the implementation of those demands by a Labour government after 7th May.
A vote for the SNP contributes nothing to that goal. In fact, a vote for the SNP is not just a diversion from that goal but an obstacle to achieving it.