General Election: Scotland at Crossroads

Photo: Christine McIntosh (creative commons)

This General Election has been rightly described as the most significant in Scotland in decades and a range of complex and key issues are raised.  Whether you are viewing it from inside or outside Scotland there are several key differences with the election in the rest of Britain. Mike Picken gives his personal view on what socialists in Scotland should do.


Scotland is overwhelming against Brexit–62% of those voting in Scotland voted to Remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum, with every single local government area showing a Remain majority.  Polls show that opposition to leaving the EU is now at over 70%.  

While there is some modest scepticism against some EU policies, the main reason for the pro-EU sentiment is that the xenophobia against EU migrants associated with the large Leave voting elsewhere in Britain does not exist to anything like the same extent in Scotland. This is primarily due to a declining population and labour shortages that make the Scottish economy dependent on migrant labour.  Scottish opinion is strongly supportive of the EU’s “free movement of people” with a largely welcoming environment to both EU and non-EU migrants alike, including refugees. 

The largest group in Scotland supporting leaving the EU actually comes from those supporting independence from the UK, summarised in an unfortunate slogan pandering to this view displayed at the recent conference of the Scottish Socialist Party of Neither London nor Brussels…’ (‘unfortunate’ because you should not equate the working class populations of London and Brussels with the institutions of the UK Parliament and the EU commission also based there – the people who live in those two cities are allies, not enemies!).  

The Brexit Party has largely failed to make any inroads, with its solitary MEP elected in June 2019 leaving the party within weeks of being elected. They are only standing in a token number of non-Tory Scottish constituencies in this election. 

The British-wide Labour Party’s initial support for implementing some form of Brexit did not go down well in Scotland with the Party crashing to fifth place in the recent EU elections. Labour’s conversion to support for a second EU referendum at the Labour Party Conference in September 2019 has largely come too late to arrest the Party’s declining support and despite the widespread support for federalism in the Scottish Labour Party, the Party largely fails to recognise Scottish distinctiveness in its position on UK membership of the EU.

Support for independence grows

The second key element is that the movement for Scottish Independence remains very strong and increasing in supportThe 2014 referendum on Scottish Independence led to a major swing: 25% support for independence 12 months before the referendum increased to 45% overall during the campaign. Independence won majorities in major working-class cities, including Dundee and Glasgow.  

Only a major ‘Project Fear’ by the Unionist parties, including Labour, raising the prospect that an independent Scotland would not be (re)admitted to the EU and fears over the uncertainty of the poorly thought out position on a currency, convinced some working class voters leaning towards independence instead to back staying in what seemed at the time to be the relative stability of the UK. 

Edinburgh Princes Street, August 2019

But the narrow 52/48 UK wide decision in 2016 to leave the EU while Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain has increased what is seen as the ‘democratic deficit’.  Support for independence has crept up with current polls indicating around 50%.  

This move has been reinforced by the creation of a mass movement on the streets.  Regular large demonstrations ranging from tens of thousands in small towns to hundreds of thousands in Glasgow and Edinburgh have been mobilised over the last 18 months.  These actions have been overwhelmingly working class in composition. At a smaller level the newly relaunched left-wing Radical Independence Campaign, that unites Marxist and radical supporters of independence across parties, attracted over 500 people to a recent Glasgow conference.

The main electoral beneficiary of this has been the Scottish National Party which surged forward in membership after 2014 to 120,000 members.  Proportional to population this is far and away the largest mass party in the UK.  

Nevertheless, the SNP remains a notoriously undemocratic and ‘top-down’ party where the membership play little role in policy-making. The SNP has claimed over the last several decades to be aligned with ‘the mainstream of European social democracy’ while the leadership have endorsed a largely neo-liberal set of economic proposals by their ‘Growth Commission’ for a post-independence Scotland.  

However, electorally they have become dominant and have now clearly replaced the Labour Party as the principal party of Scotland.  The SNP won 50% of the vote and 56 out of 59 Scottish seats in the UK general election in 2015 and despite a small reduction in support retained its leading position in the Scottish Parliament elections of 2016 and the local government and general elections in 2017 (although Scottish elections, unlike UK general elections, are fought under systems of proportional representation and hence lead to minority governance).

Environmental Crisis and Trident opposition

Environmental and peace sentiments are strongly embedded into Scottish politics.  Protests in support of the youth climate strikes on September 20th attracted tens of thousands in Glasgow and Edinburgh with gatherings and demonstrations all over the country. There is a well-established and vociferous school and community environment movement, including in tiny island communities where the natural environment is under massive threat from climate and environmental change.  The Scottish Parliament has recently passed a Climate Change Act that claims to be the strongest of any parliament in the world and the decarbonising of energy generation is strongly embedded in a country where natural resources such as wind power are relatively strongly placed to replace conventional means including nuclear. 

 While the country has previously been highly dependent economically and for employment on oil and gas extraction from the North Sea, there is a widespread understanding that this needs to stop and a ‘just transition’ planned to green technologies. The Scottish government responded to some of this sentiment by banning fracking across Scotland some years ago, though it has yet to legally constitute this  

However, while the SNP tries to project itself as environmentally concerned and active, it remains strongly wedded to oil, gas and aviation industries.  The recent SNP conference in Aberdeen was exclusively sponsored by BP and Heathrow Airport. The party has previously supported airport expansion across the whole UK, but are under strong pressure on this.  

The Scottish Green Party (SGP) has long had representation in the Scottish Parliament and is widely seen as a key part of the growing environmental movement.  They are completely independent of the Green Party of England & Wales and strongly support Scottish Independence The SGP are standing 22 candidates in the General Election to highlight the ‘Climate Emergency’.

The focus on environmental issues has been reinforced by the UK government’s decision to host the next UN climate conference (COP26) in Glasgow in November 2020 and there is a growing movement at the grassroots, ranging from local Extinction Rebellion groups through to Friends of the Earth Scotland and the Stop Climate Chaos Scotland coalition, to focus on genuine climate action before and at the summit. 

Anti-Trident demonstration, Glasgow

A key element of the increasing sentiment around preserving people and planet, is also  seen in the widespread opposition in Scotland to the Trident nuclear missile system of the UK government.  Britain’s Trident nuclear submarines are located in the Clyde estuary just 20 miles from Glasgow.  The SNP and Scottish Parliament have consistently opposed nuclear weapons and particularly the current Tory plans for a hugely expensive £200 billion replacement for Trident.

Trident replacement was also strongly opposed by the Scottish Labour Party at its conference in 2016 and the Scottish Trade Union Conference (STUC) has also joined forces with the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to oppose nuclear weapons and demand a defence diversification agency to replace jobs in nuclear weapons industries. But these strong historical position are not reflected in the position of either the overall Labour manifesto or that of Scottish Labour for this election.

Scottish Labour Support in Freefall

All of these specific developments have led to an ongoing crisis of electoral support for the Scottish Labour Party.  As recently as the 2010 General Election support for Labour in Scotland actually rose to 42% overall.  But since then the Party has declined massively, falling to third place in the general and Scottish elections since then, and to less than 10% in the most recent EU elections losing its MEPs completely for the first time in 40 years.  

The two opinion polls for Scotland in the current General Election put Labour support at around 18%, down significantly from the 27% achieved in 2017 and only a little more than half of the Party’s overall polling across Britain as a whole. In an echo of the transition in the early 20th century from Liberal to Labour in England, this has been dubbed by one former insider and commentator as ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’ (a parody of the title of George Dangerfield’s book: “The Strange Death of Liberal England”). 

The reasons are not hard to see.  The Corbyn landslide that swept the English Labour Parties in the leadership elections of 2015 and 2016 did not happen in Scotland – in fact Scotland was the onlyarea of Labour Party membership that failed to vote for Corbyn in the 2016 election. The organisation Momentum that spearheaded support for Corbyn elsewhere was not set up in Scotland and the membership of the Scottish Labour Party failed to grow in the way it has in England, despite the historic strength of Labour in being the dominant party of urban Scotland for nearly a century.  At around 20,000 members, the Scottish Labour Party is less than one sixth the size of the SNP and probably only about double the size of the Scottish Green Party.  

In 1923 a crowd estimated at 250,000 gathered at Glasgow’s St Enoch’s station to see off to London the ten Labour MPs elected for the first time in Glasgow in the Westminster General Election of that year; in his closing rally of the 2017 General Election, Jeremy Corbyn addressed less than 200 people at the other end of Glasgow’s Buchanan Street, with even the then leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Kezia Dugdale, absent.  Since then Labour has elected a new leader, Richard Leonard. 

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard

Scottish Labour has seen a parade of a long succession of around a dozen weak and inept leaders in the last 20 years. While Leonard was identified as a supporter of Corbyn, the reality is much more complex and he only narrowly won over a more explicitly right wing anti-Corbyn candidate. Leonard has spectacularly failed to galvanise support for Scottish Labour around a radical programme of change and he remains a marginal figure in Scottish politics.  

Part of this decline in the Labour electorate is the Party’s steadfast continuation of support for the union with the UK.  Indeed not only is Scottish Labour opposed to independence, but is vehemently opposed to the right of the Scottish Parliament even to call a referendum. Scottish Labour has tried to pressurise the British Labour Party to rule out another independence referendum, despite the more positive recognition of reality by the likes of Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.  

Particularly disappointing is that while the Scottish Labour Party has reached agreement with the British Labour Party that it will campaign for Remain in any second EU referendum, the recent Manifesto of Scottish Labour explicitly repeats the support of the British Labour Party for nuclear weapons and Trident replacement, against the conference policy of the Scottish Labour Party itself!  The SNP have not been slow to highlight the inconsistencies of Scottish Labour’s approach to EU membership, a second independence referendum and support for nuclear weapons.  

A further problem with supporting Labour in Scotland is that the Labour Party seems to have failed to recognise the last 20 years of devolution and the reality of 12 years of an SNP-led Scottish government.  The British Labour Party’s general election campaign has been attempting to highlight policies that would make a difference in England – such as abolition of university tuition fees, a massive house building programme, free social care for the elderly, banning fracking, free prescriptions and dental checks, defence of the NHS etc – which don’t apply through the Westminster government in Scotland. 

Indeed most of these policies have already been introduced in Scotland under the SNP governments since 2007. The previous Labour/LibDem coalition in Scotland from 1999-2007 was actually synonymous with a massive expansion of private finance in public services, the legacy of which still exists.  The highlight of the Scottish Labour manifesto was to commit to free school meals, a policy that cannot actually be implemented by Labour at Westminster and will have to await the Scottish Parliament elections in May 2021.  

While British Labour under Corbyn has shifted to the left and attacks the SNP on austerity and privatisation, the reality is that apparently radical Labour policies unveiled every night on the ‘national’ TV news channels attacking the Tories and get away from Brexit issues, actually have very little relevance to Scottish voters and just reinforce support for the SNP’s claims as to its ‘progressive’ governmental record.  

Corbyn’s election campaign visit to Scotland was run in a ham-fisted way by the Labour Party apparatus, with major confusions and contradictions over the policy on an independence referendum ruthlessly exploited by the Tories and SNP alike. Labour even failed to announce its policy on the roll out of free fibre broadband in a place where it would have had a major impact – Scottish rural, island and remote communities – and waited until two days after Corbyn’s visit to Scotland to announce it … in England!

Scottish Labour has been bleeding significant electoral support, primarily to the SNP but also on a unionist basis to Tories and LibDems.  Ironically, polls show that as the Labour vote has declined, the proportion of Labour voters that would support Scottish Independence in a future referendum has increased from around one third to nearly half of Labour supporters; yet hardly a single figure in the Scottish Labour Party even supports Scottish self-determination, and virtually no leading figure in the whole of the British Labour Party supports Scottish Independence per se.  

Both the SNP and Labour regularly indulge in politically sectarian party ‘tribalism’, with Labour seeing ‘the Nats’ as a bigger enemy than the Tories, while SNP figures attack Labour universally without acknowledging the radical elements of the Labour programme or that to win an independence referendum they need Labour voters to support independence to guarantee a majority.  This just helps the Tories.  

In fact, the policy differences between Labour and the SNP are relatively small, both largely having what in broad terms can be described as ‘left social democratic’ policies. The Scottish Green Party also shares many similar programmatic elements of the left of social democracy.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has made it clear during the election debate that SNP MPs at Westminster would ensure in the event of a parliament where no party had a majority that they would aim to keep Boris Johnson’s Tory party out of power and would support a minority Labour government, if it agreed to oppose nuclear weapons and allow another independence referendum.  Such a prospect is not a mere abstract possibility to judge from the current state of the opinion polls.  The left of the Labour Party in England will need to get their heads around what possibilities such an agreement might open up.

Tactical voting?

It is impossible to endorse as a whole any of the left of centre parties standing in the general election.  

Labour has some elements of a radical social programme, much of which does not apply in Scotland due to devolution, but Labour is against independence and supports nuclear weapons – while the Scottish Labour Party is well to the right of the Corbyn leadership. Labour’s position on EU membership could still lead to the UK state leaving the EU, while Scotland votes to remain. 

The SNP are for independence, against Brexit and nuclear weapons, but are also strongly tied to the oil and gas industries and the neo-liberal ‘Growth Commission’ report.  Nevertheless, the SNP are prepared to countenance support for a minority Corbyn-led government.  

The Scottish Green Party are agitating around the climate crisis and support independence, but in the first-past-the-post Westminster electoral system have little track record of success and only a small chance of achieving even a modest level of support, say above 5%.  The SGP are essentially standing as a protest vote against Labour and the SNP in circumstances where the Tories or LibDems could be a threat. 

It goes without saying that in Scotland the LibDems are not an option than any Scottish socialist could seriously countenance, with their support for austerity, hostility to independence and support for nuclear weapons (Scottish MP and LibDem leader, Jo Swinson, said without hesitation that she would fire nuclear weapons and she has a track record of support for the most heinous policies of the Tories in the 2010-15 coalition which she has only belatedly ‘apologised’ for).

Despite huge majority hostility to Boris Johnson (and Donald Trump) in Scotland and the loss of Tory leader Ruth Davidson from the scene, the Scottish Tories remain a threat and have become the focus for both the pro-Brexit and unionist viewpoint in Scotland.

Of the 59 Scottish constituencies, 46 are considered marginal by polling expert John Curtice with less than 10 percentage points between the first and second parties in the 2017 general election, which resulted in the following overall picture:

In the two Scotland-only opinion polls so far, the current party strengths is put at:
SNP around 40%,
Tories around 27%,
Labour around 18%,
LibDems around 12%,
with the Brexit Party and Greens on a couple of percent.  

Only a relatively small movement in votes would result in quite a few Scottish seats changing hands


Faced with this complex picture, this is therefore my suggestion of how left wing/ecosocialist Scottish voters could use tactical voting based on the different constituencies and the following principles:

1. Drive the Scottish Tories out of Westminster – a tactical vote for the SNP in the 13 constituencies held by the Tories

This is a clear choice – the Tories have been driven out of Scotland before and can be driven out again.  The SNP are the clear challenger in each of the 13 Tory seats and we should therefore vote SNP here: Aberdeen South; Angus; Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock; Banff and Buchan; Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk; Dumfries and Galloway; Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale; East Renfrewshire; Gordon; Moray; Ochil and South Perthshire; Stirling; West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine.

2. Support Corbyn – vote Labour in the six constituencies gained by Labour in 2017

While Labour is a unionist party which doesn’t support Scottish independence, it is in the wider interests of the British left to deliver the largest possible Labour contingent at Westminster and certainly not reduce its support. The six individual Labour MPs winning seats in 2017 may not be particularly left wing, but they have all supported Corbyn at Westminster and stand by the many progressive elements of the Labour Manifesto.  

Individual SNP and SGP candidates may be worthy individuals, but we need to look at the wider picture and vote tactically to help Labour retain their MPs in these constituencies: Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill; East Lothian; Glasgow North East; Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath; Midlothian; Rutherglen and Hamilton West.

3. No vote for Ian Murray in Edinburgh South – vote SNP or SGP instead

The MP for Edinburgh South, Ian Murray, is different to the other Scottish Labour MPs.  He was the sole MP elected under the Labour banner in 2015 and held his seat in 2017 with the largest majority of any in Scotland, partly on the back of Tory votes in what is quite a middle-class constituency.  Since Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party in 2015, Murray has steadfastly sought to undermine and oppose every single thing Corbyn stands for.  A half-hearted attempt by the Unite union to deselect Murray in the run up to the election was easily thwarted by Murray’s machine, but nevertheless it all shows how dreadful his politics are and how he stands against virtually every radical policy in the Labour Manifesto.  A protest vote for the SNP or SGP candidates in Edinburgh South is certainly appropriate!

4. Support a protest vote for the Scottish Green Party in other constituencies, where they are running a credible campaign and where there is no risk of letting Tories or LibDems in

A modest protest vote for the SGP will help keep the Climate Crisis in the centre of attention, but only if there is little risk of letting Tories or LibDems in or where there is not a better SNP or Labour candidate with a strong track record of support for environmental or other issues.  Despite the SGP standing 22 candidates in total, there are only a handful constituencies where this is possible.  An example would be Glasgow Central where there is little risk of the Tories winning, and, as the location close to COP26, a strong protest vote for SGP will help build the environmental movement.  

However, in Edinburgh East the SNP candidate is Tommy Shepperd, a prominent former Labour activist and socialist at Westminster, and we would suggest voting for him in that constituency.  In Edinburgh South West, the Tories are a serious challenger, only 1% behind sitting SNP MP Joanna Cherry who led the legal action at the Supreme Court, and we would recommend supporting her rather than the Green to avoid any risk of the Tories taking the seat. 

 Where the Greens are running against a sitting LibDem MP and the SNP are the main challenger we would recommend voting SNP instead – this includes East Dunbartonshire and Edinburgh West.  

As well as Glasgow Central, other constituencies where the Greens are running and are worth considering voting for include:  Falkirk; Glasgow North; Glasgow South; Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey; Linlithgow and East Falkirk; Livingston; West Dunbartonshire

5. Elsewhere: vote SNP or Labour, depending on the qualities of the individual candidates and the risk of letting in the Tories or LibDems

In practice this probably means voting SNP in most other constituencies, including those four seats held by the LibDems, where the SNP is the main challenger: Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross; East Dunbartonshire; Edinburgh West; Orkney and Shetland. 

In other seats where the Labour candidate might be considered strongly left wing/pro-Corbyn and there is no risk of letting in the Tories or LibDems in, it is worth considering a vote for Labour over the SNP but in most cases the SNP candidate is better placed.  It is worth singling out Chris Stephens in Glasgow South West as a left-wing SNP sitting MP worthy of support, though with only a small majority over Labour it would be understandable why some on the left might prefer Labour.

Of necessity, because it is tactical, this is a controversial list and readers in Scotland are encouraged to post their views or alternatives in the comments box below.

Mike Picken, 5 December 2019

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2 Comments on General Election: Scotland at Crossroads

  1. Marian Brain // 6th December 2019 at 9:35 am // Reply

    So you are advocating a vote for the Scottish nationalist, often described as the tartan tories. I would advocate a vote Labour everywhere. At least now in the Labour Party there is democracy and the members are having more influence, and trade unions are a role and influence

  2. Michael Picken // 9th December 2019 at 6:19 pm // Reply

    Far from it being “often described as the Tartan Tories”, virtually no-one in Scotland would describe the SNP in such terms today.

    The insult was inaccurate when it was first used in 1979, to describe the fact that SNP MPs voted against the Labour government of James Callaghan after it failed to deliver its 1974 manifesto promise of Scottish devolution, due to wrecking amendments being carried by anti-devolution Labour MPs voting with Tories to deny the legitimacy of a majority Scottish referendum vote. The SNP has described itself as social democratic since 1974 and its track record in Scotland has been slightly better than either the Labour UK governments of Blair/Brown 1997-2010, or the Scottish Labour Party’s record in government 1999-2007, or indeed many social democratic parties in Europe in the last few decades.

    The trade unions do most certainly have a role and influence in today’s Labour Party though their votes within the Labour Party are rarely controlled by the members who pay the political levy – the British union bosses are the main supporters of the renewal of Trident nuclear submarines, opposed by a majority of the Scottish population (58% in a Daily Record poll in May 2016).

    It’s a nuanced and debatable position, but certainly the differences on most policies between SNP and Labour are pretty minor and as I say in the article, the left in England may have to get used to doing business with the SNP if there is a hung parliament.

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