John Hunter, Scottish organiser of the Young Communist League reviews the first trade union conference of the SNP and asks how they will face up to the challenges posed by party policy.
The first full conference of the SNP trade union group took place earlier this month. This is a welcome development. If the group can become an effective vehicle for advancing the needs of organised labour, it will fill an important gap in SNP policy-making.
At this year’s STUC Nicola Sturgeon was given a particularly warm welcome. The First Minister spoke of the close relationship between the Scottish government and the STUC, the Scottish government’s intent to develop partnership working across all employment sectors, the importance of the living wage and the need to tackle wider issues of inequality and social exclusion.
Yet there remains within the SNP a daunting imprecision about economic policy.
The party is currently calling for greater powers over taxation to be included in the Scotland Bill. In the Commons the party’s economy spokesman Stuart Hosie argued that such devolution would increase the benefits of “tax competition” across Britain.
John Swinney outlined what this meant earlier this month in the Scottish government’s policy paper Beyond Smith. He claimed Scotland would be able to attract entrepreneurs from elsewhere if it had the ability to moderate capital gains tax.
Control over corporation tax would, he claimed, have the same effect. And the call for the devolution of national insurance would seem to follow the same logic.
On this front, therefore, there would seem to have been no shift in policy from the pro-big business, neoliberal perspectives set by Alex Salmond’s council of economic advisers.
You would also get the same impression from Nicola Sturgeon’s presentation to the European Policy Centre in Brussels at the beginning of the month. She gave almost unqualified support to the EU. No treaty changes were required. The benefits of membership were listed as energy security, trade, social protection for workers and freedom to travel. “For many investors, EU membership is a vital selling point.” No mention was made of TTIP.
Some changes, she said, could be made without treaty change. The EU should “focus on economic and social policies which should make a tangible difference to the lives of its citizens.” Even more vaguely, she called for “more autonomy” for local authorities, especially “to protect life and promote health.”
Yet the very same week the Scottish government was claiming that it could do nothing about the private tendering of Scottish ferry services, with Serco pitted against CalMac, because of EU competition rules.
The First Minister did not see fit to mention this at all — nor the swingeing austerity requirements of the 2012 Fiscal Compact, the prescriptions for labour market reform and flexicurity or the bans on state aid that have required the reprivatisation of Scotland’s biggest bank, RBS. All would require EU treaty change.
The same lack of hard focus was apparent when Sturgeon appeared in New York the following week. There she argued that Scotland should seek the benefits of the “Rhine capitalism,” the West German model that combined “competitive markets with strong social protection and partnership” between workers and business.
This model has indeed worked well for German business (less so for German workers) but its economic requirements are a million miles away from where Scotland is today. Almost all the industry that remains in Scotland is externally owned: oil, chemicals, aerospace, IT, life sciences and even food and drink.
German industry depends on privately owned regional champions sustained by regional banks, local industrial districts, flexible labour markets and supply chains that stretch away to eastern Europe where wages are a quarter of those in Munich.
Scotland does desperately need locally controlled world-class industry and hi-tech industrial districts to match, but the only way of securing it requires the kind of sustained public-sector intervention that is outlawed by EU state aid rules.
These points are not made to claim any lack of integrity in SNP policy-making. It is more that policy is not coherent. It seems to be drafted almost off the cuff with a view to popular impact — principally, it seems, by electorally focused spin doctors.
An example would be its very successful electoral claim that the SNP was anti-austerity, while Labour was pro-austerity, on the basis of spending projections that — according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies — involved more cuts than Labour.
Then last month, in its own attack on the Tory budget cuts, the SNP appropriated the same figures used by Labour before the election, based on the Charter for Budget Responsibility, to argue that austerity was not necessary in order to balance the books.
This is why a policy-making conference of the SNP trade union group is welcome and important. The SNP leadership is exposed to many lobbies: corporate finance in Edinburgh, the small businesses that have been historically central to the SNP and the oil majors that control the North Sea.
Unless trade unionists within the SNP fight for policies that match their class interests there will be no progressive change in employment law in Scotland, no use of tax powers to redistribute away from big business, no demands that the EU permit state-run services and no policy for industrial redevelopment based on public-sector intervention — which effectively means no industrial regeneration.
Nor will there be any interrogation of what “partnership” means — whether it genuinely enhances trade union power and collective bargaining or is used as a tool to incorporate the trade union movement within a neoliberal agenda of cuts and labour flexibility as required by the EU.
Even though the turnout for the People’s Assembly rallies was proportionately much bigger in London than Glasgow, it nonetheless demonstrated a renewed commitment in Scotland to public-sector provision and the historic objectives of the labour movement.
At the same time in the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn’s candidature for leadership has greatly strengthened the growing movement to reject neoliberalism and return to class politics — one in which the wider trade union movement is playing a key role.
Correspondingly trade unionists in the SNP now have some very clear policy challenges, imminent in terms of the debate around the Scotland Bill and the EU, that they cannot afford to miss if they are to help redevelop class politics in Scotland.