Saturday, 14 May 2011

SNP victory: What now for Labour and public services?

With the SNP winning an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament - the thing no party was ever meant to be able to do - what will this mean for Scotland’s public services and for public sector unions trying to defend those jobs and services?
We can analyse – and we will no doubt do so for months – why the result is what it is. Boundary changes had an effect. The Lib Dem vote collapsed and didn’t go to Labour. Labour’s lacklustre campaign must have been an element with policies not clearly articulated and in some cases changed or created on the hoof.

The SNP’s unashamedly populist fib that we can have public services without paying any taxes (latterly borrowed by Labour) will also have had an effect.

Perhaps the biggest factor will turn out to have been a tactical anti-Westminster vote like in the Thatcher years but this time with the electorate seeing the SNP as the most effective bulwark against the Tories and their cuts. The LibDem collapse reflects that.

But there’s a conundrum. If people were voting against cuts, why were they voting for a party that had forced through cuts in local government even before the ConDem onslaught?

Perhaps the answer is that Labour at Westminster started the cuts. The SNP made them worse in local government and managed to convince people it wasn’t their fault. The opposition was posted missing on this one and didn’t appear to be able to find cogent and consistent arguments.

Even where Labour had the positive policies on a ‘living wage’, on youth unemployment, on exposing the SNP failures in education and on the real cost of a local (actually national) income tax with its £1 billion black hole, they came over all too often as merely negative. The media played its part with the Tory press backing the SNP and only one national paper backing Labour.

But the real problem was that no-one, except some of the fringe parties, was articulating that there is a real alternative. Leading politicians were happy to back the STUC ‘There is a Better Way’ campaign without actually believing there was a better way. Little was said about cuts being counter-productive in re-building the economy. The closest we got was ‘slower’ cuts.
This apologist approach to the deficit meant that Labour would not confront and could not shake off the false accusation that they had caused the problem through profligacy.

The SNP has managed to stand above the cuts as if they were nothing to do with them. They have had three ready-made scapegoats. First Gordon Brown, secondly the ConDems and thirdly – and perhaps more importantly – local authorities.

Local councils are rarely popular. The SNP has capitalised on this, starved them of funds, set totally fictional efficiency savings and basked in the increased unpopularity they have created to escape the blame.

Both parties have effectively covered up the crisis in social care by proposing one form or another of ‘national’ rather than ‘local’ services. The inference being that local councils are to blame for people not getting a home care service rather than the patently obvious lack of Scottish government funding and a local tax freeze.

With rumblings about a national fire service and a national police service, how long till someone comes up with a national education service, a national housing service or a national social work service. Why bother with local councils at all?

The lesson for Scotland’s public sector trade unions, so far relatively quiet about cuts to the NHS and having to deal with a range of coalition councils cutting jobs at an alarming rate, is that a united front is needed to challenge the smoke and mirrors of SNP public spending.

With what is effectively a political vacuum on the mainstream left, the trade unions are the only ones left speaking up for the alternative. We have to take on that mantle with our members, the public and crucially through our Labour political fund links.

One advantage of the SNP success is that, in government and local councils, it will become increasingly more difficult for them to shirk the blame. Could it also be that, now the Lib Dems are sidelined and the Tories are back to their core vote, a revitalised Labour Party could to come back in the local elections and then help oust the Tories in the General Election beyond?

Not without a clear, positive and radical agenda, I fear. When you have some Labour supporters privately musing that a range of SNP policies were closer to their values than Labour’s - and harbouring doubt about what Labour might actually do if it won - we clearly have a long way to go.

One danger of the defeat is a civil war in Labour ranks. Trade unions must play their part in avoiding that and building a rational assessment of the lessons to be learned – much more than just criticising the leadership – and re-building a radical and credible alternative from the bottom up.

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