Scotland’s Cuts Election
Frontline described the last election to the Scottish Parliament as ‘Scotland’s Independence Election’. It laid out the possibility of an SNP government taking power, breaking the years of Labour domination. The SNP did take power but with a minority government. The parliament failed to allow the nationalists promised referendum on independence to take place.
That SNP government is to face the voters in May. This time the situation looks rather different. With the world in the grip of a huge economic recession this is ‘Scotland’s cuts election’.
Politics has changed in the last four years. The banking crisis has seen capitalism itself face oblivion. Entire nations have faced bankruptcy. The massive cuts being forced through in Ireland, as they surrendered their sovereignty to the international money-men of the IMF, are not far from anyone’s mind. Iceland has been pauperised and Portugal is on the brink of financial collapse.
In the UK as a whole, the crisis has seen massive cuts in public spending with attacks on pensions, jobs and services. Unemployment has soared to 2.53 million, the highest number since 1994 according to the Office for National Statistics. Particularly hard hit have been the young, with 974, 000 without work, education or training, the highest figure since 1992. Bearing in mind that these are the government’s own figures, the real situation is likely to be even worse.
Those young people who do go on to further or higher education now face paying fees of up to £9000 a year. The days of universal access to education are effectively over. The Tory government with their Lib-Dem lapdog allies are using the cover of the recession to push through ideological attacks on the welfare state and public services. The attacks on higher education and the dismantling of the NHS have been brewing in Tory think-tanks for years. Now they are taking the opportunity to destroy the gains that generations of working people fought for.
What does this mean for Scotland? Devolution of powers means that education, health and local government are under the control of the Scottish Parliament. But of course with only limited tax raising powers most of the finance comes from Westminster. The last SNP budget effectively put off decisions about cuts. This enabled the administration to go into the election with their pledges of no compulsory redundancies in the public sector and no rise in tuition fees for students, intact.
Anyone who works in the public sector knows that belts have been tightened, with cuts in budgets, a pay freeze and job losses through ‘natural wastage’ as those retiring or leaving are not replaced. But with cuts of £1.3 billion for the Scottish government, it is likely that the real attacks on public services in Scotland are still to come. Labour as much as admitted that they would be carrying out deeper cuts if elected. When responding to the SNP long-term budget plans put forward by John Swinney Labours Andy Kerr said “To suggest every single departmental budget, with the exception of health, will remain unchanged for the next four years is an election trick that shows he is not serious”.
In fact the SNP will almost certainly carry out a similar level of cuts if they are elected. Polls at the moment point to a Labour victory however. Revulsion at the Tory government has boosted Labour whose platform is basically that they will cut but not as much as the Tories. The SNP has also suffered from Alec Salmond’s ‘Arc of prosperity’ speech which looked to countries including Iceland and Ireland as an economic model. This has done little to boost confidence in the viability of independence. The lib-dem vote is likely to collapse – punishment for their role in the ConDem coalition – with Labour likely to win most of those voters.
What of the alternatives? The left and greens both suffered at the last election with a swing to the SNP mopping up their vote in what was seen as a ‘two horse race’. The troubles of the socialist left played a part too. Two groups, Solidarity and the Scottish Socialist Party both stood in the election following the SSP split.
This time around the situation is a little better for the left. Workers and students have begun to organise to fight the cuts. The labour movement has mobilised the biggest numbers for years, with 10, 000 travelling from Scotland to London for the massive TUC demonstration on 26th March. Young people have moved into more militant action with a significant student movement. The inspiring occupation of the Hetherington Research Club at Glasgow University typifies this new movement.
Polls have given the SSP 4% nationally. How this will be reflected on polling day is hard to say. The situation in Glasgow is complicated by the intervention of George Galloway who is standing on the Glasgow list for parliament. The Galloway list is backed by some unlikely sources including the Committee for a Workers International group ‘Socialist Party Scotland’ and the Socialist Workers Party as well as the rump of Solidarity. Only a few weeks previously he had been denouncing the same people on Newsnight Scotland as ‘Trotskyites’ while he was ‘a Labour man’. Galloway has made few concessions to these groups, promising to back Labour in the parliament if elected and laying out his anti-abortion views in the Catholic press. So far his backers have been silent on these questions.
Whether the next Scottish government is Labour, SNP or some kind of coalition, the real struggles lie ahead. Trades-unions, students and communities need to step up their organising efforts for the likely cuts that the next administration will try to force through. That will mean building on the demonstrations and beginning to organise for generalised action across the public sector to oppose the cuts. That action will need to unite as many workers as possible and involve community groups and service users.
The message needs to be that capitalism should pay for its own crisis.