This Thursday May 3rd, Scotland goes to the polls. 73 Members (MSPs) will be returned to the Scottish Parliament under first-past-the-post and a further 56 members elected from the 8 regions, based on second votes for their parties will make up the Chamber. In a new development, a Single Transferable Vote (STV) will be used to elect members to the local authorities. It is fair to say that there is enormous disappointment in Scotland over the quality (or lack of it) in the Parliament. Like Labour's victory in the General Election of 1997, devolution, delivered two years later was expected to signal a break from the 18 years of wilful social and industrial vandalism under the Tories. 1999 saw Proportional Representation used for the first time in British elections and some said it would improve "democracy". It meant Green Party representation, and the continuing political career of Old Labour stalwart Denis Canavan who trounced the official Labour candidate in Falkirk after he was judged "unsuitable" by the New Labour interlopers. A Pensioners' Party MSP won a seat on the list (through the Additional Member Scheme) and the Scottish Socialist Party secured enough votes throughout Glasgow to have the top of their list, Tommy Sheridan elected. The new parliament was to be broad and inclusive, representative of how Scotland voted. It was also proposed as an answer to the increasing voter-apathy that had affected the whole of Britain. Eight years have passed and clearly none of the positives envisaged by the supporters of devolution have materialised. So great was the sense of optimism in proposals for a devolved parliament that 73% turned out to vote. Five years later, less than half those eligible to vote did so in the Scottish elections. This reveals an undercurrent of desperation for a shift away from pro-big business politics and a complete change in social policy priorities which the parliament had no intention of delivering for the people of Scotland.
With capitalism red in tooth and claw and public services cut to the bone it has become clear that the priorities demanded by the people are at odds with the detatched parliamentarians. More Scottish children now live in poverty than when Thatcher was running amok according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Action on Health and Poverty, while on average, according to Age Concern, 15,000 pensioners are now at risk from dying of hypothermia during winter. Three quarters of Scottish families live on less than the European Decency threshold of poverty as reported in The Herald, 14th March, and over 50% of those in work receive means-tested government benefits to subsidies poverty wages. As is the story throughout Britain, the poorest have been on the receiving ends of brutal cuts, the NHS is staggering from crisis to crisis and the Labour/Liberal Executive have foisted Private Finance Initiative on the population despite their overwhelming opposition. Education, health services and elderly care are being handed over to the private sector and charities, many of whom are industries with charitable status. In all, policies and programmes benefiting ordinary people and the poor, the sick, pensioners and students are difficult to find.
And some of the decisions taken by MSPs and their Westminster colleagues, collectively and individually, are met with bewildered disbelief by Scots. For example, health, which is a reserved matter for Westminster, is consistently regarded as the most important issue in successive opinion polls. John Reid, "Blair's attack dog" in the Cabinet and a man who has held almost every governmental post, was Health Secretary when he rammed through Foundation Hospitals in England and Wales. He toured tv studios and vigorously defended this privatisation of the NHS by the back door. Reid is the MP whose constituency includes Monklands Hospital, Airdrie. When the Heath Trust announced they wanted to shut the Casualty Department, Reid appeared at public meetings in his area condemning the Trust. Along with neighbouring MP, Tom Clarke, a notorious reactionary, Reid helped organise a march against the Trust's decision. Clarke and Reid then stood on the sidelines weeping crocodile tears – in protest at their own policies! Meanwhile, the 3 MSPs for the district who claimed to be against the closure, refused to vote against the decision in the Scottish parliament after the Deputy Health Minister rubber-stamped the closure. In fact, so incompetent is one of these MSPs Karen Whitfeld (Airdrie&Shotts) that recently she introduced a bill to Holyrood proposing that workers should not be compelled to work on Christmas day or New Year's day. She argued in the chamber for her proposals. Then, in line with the Labour Whip, Karen voted for the employers to have the right to make workers go into work on New Year's day!!
What developments can we expect in this Thursday's elections? The first thing to be said in this regard is that nobody has a crystal ball. We must base our thoughts on what has gone before. Trident has become a huge issue and according to a BBC Scotland poll 70% of Scots would rather see the billions of pounds spent on these weapons of mass destruction being used for other things. "Trident 365", who last October began a year long picket of Faslane, near Helensburgh (hence the 365 name) have maintained a presence at the naval base and the issue is firmly to the front of people's minds here. Hundreds have been arrested and the opposition to the bombs has cross-party and cross country support. The occasional Labour MSP has revolted at Holyrood – an example was the replacement of Trident when three defied the whip. The Scottish National Party have made hay on the issue as you would expect. But the public are overwhelmingly disenchanted with New Labour's continuation of essentially Thatcherite policies, compounded by the fact that First Minister Jack McConnell is "suffering from the unpopularity of Tony Blair," (Guardian Feb 7th) and this has led to a surge in support for the SNP. According to an Observer poll on 4th February the prediction is: SNP 44 seats, Labour 41, Liberal 23, Tories 17. If this prediction is correct then Salmond of the SNP would be willing to form a coalition with the Liberals. Labour would fall short by one seat of having an overall majority even in coalition with the Liberals. In a series of the most up to date polls, all but one show the SNP would be the largest party. An ICM poll gives the following: SNP 33%, Labour 31%, Liberal 17%, Tories 13%, Green 4%. All the polls predict an implosion for the Scottish Socialist Party and Tommy Sheridan's break-away Solidarity. They either do not register, or register between 1% to 3% – a result that would see all four MSPs from the SSP and the two Solidarity MSPs (who were elected as SSP members) virtally wiped out.
The SNP have made it clear they will not work with the Tories. Alex Salmond, SNP leader has put a referendum for independence at the heart of their manifesto to be implemented towards the end of a SNP led-Executive first year in office. Labour has failed to inspire its core support and angered many with continuation of PFI resulting in hospital closures, co-operation with Westminster in allowing Prestwick airport to be used for stopping points for planes carrying bombs and prisoners in the "war on terror" and a crisis in education, 1 in 3 Scots children live in poverty, and of course, the continuation of the illegal invasion and occupation in Iraq continues to have its ramifications. The Liberals have been in coalition with Labour since 1999 assuring that Labour held the balance in return for certain reforms. This arrangement has meant the Liberals have punched well above their weight. Readers will know that last August, Tommy Sheridan who had been removed from the convenorship of the SSP over allegations about his private life, won a libel case against the News of the World, but in the process split the SSP and later launched a new party with fellow SSP MSP Rosemary Byrne, called Solidarity – Scotland's Socialist Movement. NotW appealed, calling the decision "perverse" and have still not paid out. Lothians Police, on the orders of the judge who heard the case, are still conducting a perjury inquiry. Various sects like Peter Taaffe's Socialist Party and the equally opportunistic Socialist Workers Party threw their lot in with Sheridan – obviously seeing this vehicle as their best option to sponge recruits. On March 3rd, the SSP and Solidarity both held their pre-election conferences in Glasgow. As Socialist Appeal reported at the time, there are no political divisions between the two "left nationalist socialist" parties. In an interesting development new Solidarity leader Sheridan was unable to convince conference to back his plan for a referendum on Scottish Independence by way of an enabling bill, and this matter was not the only policy proposal blocked by the SWP and the Taaffites. Absolutely incredible given what both these sects supposedly stand for! The rump left in the SSP have attempted to capitalise by out-tartanising their divorced partner in the fight to "smash asunder the British State". In the end it seems the electorate will be faced with a take your pick left-nationalist party and will come down to personalities, which we also predicted. Understandably, the most recent opinion poll suggest both Solidarity and the SSP will be virtually wiped out – possibly only saving one seat
The council elections will, for the first time be based on PR through the STV. Replacing the first-past-the-post, STV will use multiple choices of recording your vote for first preference you put a 1 in the column, then 2 for your second choice, then 3 and so on. Eventually, the votes of those who do not meet the level required will be eliminated and your vote transferred to your higher placed candidate. Where one councillor used to serve a ward, the boundaries will be expanded and up to four councillors will represent the area. Again Labour will most likely be punished both for the performance of the Labour administrations in Holyrood and Westminster but also for the many failings of those councils under Labour control.
As Thursday gets nearer some polls have suggested a turn away from the SNP towards Labour, who are now just 2% behind the nationalists, with other parties being squeezed. This may prove to be a false hope for Labour activists but it does show that many are by no means convinced that the SNP – the Tartan Tories – actually possess any way forward for Scottish workers. Interestingly a majority of voters now think that Scotland would be poorer off under independence. The reason is clear: capitalism can provide no way forward for workers in Scotland or anywhere else for that matter. Whether Labour loses power or not this Thursday, the labour movement needs to get to grip with the task of transforming the Labour Party into a genuine force for working class representation, throw out the Blairite carpet baggers and arm itself with a socialist programme capable of transforming both Scotland and the rest of the British Isles. If Labour had done this already then we would now be looking at a massive potential victory and a smashing of the pro-capitalist parties – Liberals, SNP, Tories and the rest – from which they would not recover. Scotland would be setting an example which the rest of the UK would be wise to follow – as things stand this Thursday will be another grim reminder of the ultimate failure of Blairism and the policies it represents.