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The SNP Leadership Race Has Ignored Workers

Today’s husting organised by the SNP Trade Union Group is an opportunity for candidates to be challenged over their role in Scotland's widening inequality – and for workers’ issues to set the agenda.

Scottish National Party MSP Ash Regan, Finance Minister and Scottish National Party MSP Kate Forbes and Scotland's Health Minister and Scottish National Party MSP Humza Yousaf attend a SNP Hustings event. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty)

The shock announcement of Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation on 15 February 2023 as First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) has put both the Scottish Government and SNP into a terrible tailspin. It has also exposed the fault lines that run through the governing party. These have become all the more visible as three candidates, Kate Forbes, Ash Regan and Humza Yousaf, slug it out to win the coveted position of being Sturgeon’s successor. The ballot opens on 13 March and closes on 27 March, with the winner announced that day.

It may seem that the battle lines between left and right in the SNP are clearly drawn in a straight fight between the two main contenders, Forbes and Yousaf. Forbes is the pro-business candidate that is socially conservative. Yousaf is the continuity candidate favoured by the party establishment and prepared to defend what is termed Sturgeon’s socially progressive policies on equality issues. Regan trails behind and is mostly known for resigning her Scottish Government post because she would not support the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill.

But behind this seeming polarisation lie important issues that are being obscured. For example, Yousaf drove forward the Scottish Government’s plans to create a National Care Service, which has been roundly criticised by all and sundry, including the union movement, for maintaining reliance upon the private sector and, in a move of managerialism and centralisation, stripping local authorities of their role. As Transport Minister, Yousaf also presided over the disastrous Abellio franchise of Scotrail, issuing improvement notices rather than moving to re-nationalisation.

Just as importantly, although the SNP calls itself a left-of-centre, social democratic party, it has not acted in government as one. Social democracy is defined as quintessentially using the state to ameliorate the outcomes of free market capitalism. Even within the confines of the devolved settlement, the SNP has not shown it has these credentials.

Economic and social inequalities in Scotland have widened since 2007 when the SNP formed its first government, whether that be over health, education or wealth. The quality and quantity of public services, over which the Scottish Government has control, have declined. Measures like minimum pricing of alcohol have been few and far between and existing alongside the continued use of private finance for public services. And, the likes of taking Prestwick airport, Scotrail, and the Caledonian Sleeper into public ownership were reluctantly forced upon it by the failure of free market capitalism.

This is where the SNP Trade Union Group has a potentially sizeable and critical role to play. It has 12,000 members out of the SNP’s 104,000 membership. It is the only organised body within the SNP that has any left credentials after most of the members of the SNP Common Weal and the SNP Socialist groups departed the SNP to join the new party, Alba, established by Alex Salmond in early 2021.

In a step-forward, the SNP Trade Union Group has made an intervention in the contest by organising a husting with the three candidates on 11 March where it will put ten questions to them. It is one of the only nine hustings being organised. Chaired by Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) general secretary, Roz Foyer, the candidates will be asked about i) developing ‘an industrial and economic strategy to take Scotland towards self-determination, both politically and economically’; ii) ‘addressing industrial disputes, increasing the income and standards of living of the majority of Scots, seeking to give Fair Work real teeth, and supporting trade union rights’; iii) resisting ‘the imposition of fabricated ‘minimum service levels’ on striking workers in public services across Scotland’; iv) ‘reconsidering the National Care Service Bill’ and v) preventing the future selling off wind turbine licenses at bargain bucket prices to private interests.

The next five questions concern reform of the council tax and local authority finances; reviewing the neo-liberal ‘freeport’ initiative; taxing the whisky industry properly; implementing a Just Transition; and engaging with the STUC on its revenue-generating proposals.

Previously, the SNP Trade Union Group has struggled to find a role for itself, with many seeing it, in practice, as a way to recruit union members into the SNP and not to build unions and their influence inside the SNP. Only recently has the SNP Trade Union Group found its feet by starting to critique its party’s leadership.

While welcome, the SNP Trade Union Group could and should go further. It has drawn up what it calls five ‘ambitious aspirations’ to help reframe the debate around independence so that it the debate is more about social outcomes than political processes. These are having: a strong, dependable NHS and high-quality public services; a wellbeing economy that offers decent, secure work and conditions; educational and creative opportunities for all; a liveable environment for us, and for our children’s future.; and power to change things locally as well as nationally through deep investment and democratic accountability. But these aspirations fall short of a manifesto as such and obviously lack detail.

A manifesto in hand would help the SNP Trade Union Group decide upon the merits of the three candidates’ answers to their ten questions because it would allow them to be assessed in relation to the group’s attested aims and obvious objectives. This would be a firm basis upon which the SNP Trade Union Group could advise it members on which candidate is the closest to their aims and objectives. Having a manifesto would, just as importantly, make it possible to ask the candidates to endorse their manifesto if they want the group’s support.

And, if the candidate that wins has made pledges to support the aims and objectives of SNP Trade Union Group’s manifesto, then this gives a basis for the SNP Trade Union Group to agitate around, principally concerning that pledged support is turned into something concrete. By doing so much more than just asking questions, the SNP Trade Union Group can play a much more influential role in promoting progressive, left-wing policies.

All this matters as it’s not self-evident, as yet, that Sturgeon’s departure will lead to the implosion of the SNP’s support at the next election and the consequent revival of the fortunes of Scottish Labour. Even if it did revive Scottish Labour, it’s policies still leave a lot to be desired for advancing progressive, left-wing policies in Scotland.

About the Author

Gregor Gall is an Affiliate Research Associate at the University of Glasgow and a Visiting Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Leeds. He is author and editor of over twenty books on unions, politics and Scotland.