Issue 228 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1999 Copyright Socialist Review

Labour: can the centre hold?

Discontent is growing in Labour's ranks. In London former GLC leader Ken Livingstone launched his campaign to stand for mayor at a 1,000 strong meeting of supporters. New Labour will do all that it can to prevent him. In Scotland left wing or 'off message' candidates have been barred from standing for Labour in the elections to the Scottish parliament. In Wales Blair's choice of candidate for Assembly leader, Alun Michael, was forced on a bitterly resentful membership through the union block vote. Blair may win his desired result in the short term, but at terrible political cost, as opposition to him grows in London, Scotland and Wales. Here Chris Bambery explains why socialists are standing in the elections, and overleaf we talk to Welsh Labour activists

Alex Salmond

In the first six weeks of this year 2,632 jobs were lost in Scotland. The mounting job losses have added to the deep sense of bitterness with New Labour which exists north of the border. The Daily Record, Scotland's biggest selling paper, was quick to point out that the latest figures show unemployment rising in Scotland but falling in England and Wales. This rather misses the point that job losses are running at just as high a level in south Wales and the north east of England. Wages in Scotland, at an average of £350.30 a month, are lower than the UK average of £411.43, but again this misses the point that the two most deprived regions in the UK (excluding Northern Ireland) are Wales and the north of England. The Scottish economy is particularly vulnerable because of the importance of the computer assembly industry and oil. Both have seen a massive price drop caused by overproduction.

The SNP and New Labour are neck and neck in the opinion polls. Scottish workers disillusioned with Blair and Dewar increasingly see the SNP as representing Old Labour values. The SNP leader, Alex Salmond, has carefully adopted a left rhetoric. Both parties are engaging in a war of words, but they both share the same prescription for Scotland: that Scottish workers should accept low wages and bad conditions in order to attract low tech jobs from multinational firms. That underlay the success of Silicon Glen, the electronic and computer firms which set up shop over the last two decades.

The problem is that these jobs are at the absolute bottom end of the market, relying on low skilled assembly work with no research or development, and in the case of computers little software production. The whole pattern of previous recessions is that multinationals draw in the pursestrings, retreat to their production heartlands and shut down such low tech operations. That is precisely what is happening in Scotland, as multinational computing and electronics firms centralise production in the US and Japan. In this sense there is a direct link between low wages and high unemployment. The consensus between the SNP and New Labour goes further. Both parties rule out the new Scottish parliament increasing taxes on the rich.

The likely outcome of the 6 May elections will either be the formation of a New Labour-Liberal coalition or an SNP-Liberal coalition. Millions of Scots have looked to the creation of a Scottish parliament as means of escaping 18 years of Tory rule and two years of Tony Blair implementing Tory policies. Yet the chances are that the Liberals will have the final say in any major decision.

Between now and 6 May it is vital that two things happen in Scotland. The first is that there is a massive push to build the demonstration called by Unison in Newcastle on 10 April in support of a decent minimum wage. The bigger the turnout in Newcastle the bigger the challenge to the all-party consensus on selling Scotland on the basis of poverty pay which can pose the need for class unity between Scottish, English and Welsh workers.

Secondly, on 6 May it is important that there is the strongest socialist challenge to both New Labour and the SNP. This can only strengthen working class confidence. The electoral agreement between Scotland's two biggest socialist parties, the Scottish Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party, is a welcome step towards achieving this. It is therefore sad that Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party not only refuses to discuss such unity but has said it will even stand against Labour dissident Dennis Canavan in Falkirk West. Nevertheless, both the SSP and the SWP can work together to maximise the socialist vote.

Scotland remains one of the most class divided societies in Europe. After 6 May that class divide will remain. Much of the ruling class, including Rupert Murdoch, Brian Souter and Richard Branson, have no problem with independence as long as their profits are maintained. In contrast Scottish workers look to the Scottish parliament and, in growing numbers, independence as a life raft which will allow them to escape low wages, rising unemployment and Blair. The bitterness underlying these different aims can, however, quickly boil over into class struggle. And while socialists have to campaign for a strong socialist vote on 6 May, what remains crucial is working to create a fightback which can ignite the strong sense of class anger which exists not just in Scotland but south of the border as well.

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