Mark Perryman argues why on election night England’s Radical Left should be celebrating the SNP Landslide
Without much fear of contradiction our front window is the only one in my constituency to be displaying a Vote SNP poster. We live in East Sussex you see, Nicola Sturgeon and her party doesn’t appear on ballot papers around here. More’s the pity. I‘ve stuck up an SNP election address too, which the more curious passers-by stop and read, well the headlines at any rate. They certainly stand out in the fog of smug from Labour, Tories and Lib-Dem leaflets that litter, unread, our hallway. No Trident, Against Austerity, Stop Fracking, Keep Scotland’s free University Tuition Fees. The candidate, Tommy Sheppard, is a recent SNP convert, a former Scottish Labour Party assistant-general secretary. I can remember him as a Bennite Labour student, big on direct action, he’s going to be a brilliant MP.
And that’s the wider point surely. The SNP landslide, which all the polls continue to suggest is going be of epic proportions, will strengthen not weaken the ranks of what Ed Miliband’s late dad, Ralph, once famously described as Parliamentary Socialism. Sure some, as Ralph also powerfully chronicled from an earlier era, will disappoint. After all as Frankie Boyle rather brilliantly put it the SNP only appear left-wing because the Westminster Parties are so determined to occupy the centre ground.
“It’s quite telling about our political climate that the establishment seem terrified of an SNP who, let’s remember, aren’t that progressive. They propose rejecting austerity in favour of a very modest spending increase and don’t think their country should be a nuclear missile base. This only seems radical if you're a gibbering right-wing lunatic. It’s just unfortunate that so many of those people own newspapers.”
Rupert Murdoch was presumably one of those proprietors Frankie had in mind. The Sun front-page splash 7 days out from polling day illustrated precisely how the SNP have managed to detonate the cosy two, sometimes three, party system some like to call democracy. The English edition leads with 'Vote Tory' Why? to ‘Stop SNP running the country.’ And the same paper’s Scottish edition proclaims ‘Its’ Time to Vote SNP’.
Of course much of this is to do with market opportunism but a knee-jerk unionist Labour taunt of ‘Tartan Tories’ would be profoundly mistaken. What we are witnessing is the effective break-up of Britain, with or without the formalities of Scottish independence. While Scotland is moving dramatically towards a social democratic consensus in England Cameron’s Tories have been busy in the past few weeks reinventing themselves as an English nationalist party with a strong inclination towards exiting the EU as well.
Labour’s previously iron grip on Scottish electoral support has been fundamentally weakened, now it is limp and flaccid more like. There’s been the odd by-election upset before but nothing like this, a process unfolding since the SNP became first a minority then a majority governing party in the Scottish Parliament. The No campaign victory was supposed to put an end to that yet when Gordon Brown became Cameron’s little helper for the Unionist cause Scottish Labour was fatally compromised. With the Scottish Parliament elections scarcely a year away Scottish Labour is about to suffer two resounding defeats in a row from which it is scarcely likely to recover, ever.
One of the most interesting moments of the Leaders’ debates was the very obvious personal and political empathy between NIcola Sturgeon, Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood. Natalie’s Green Party organises independently north of the border as the Scottish Greens, electoral rivals to the SNP especially in next year’s Scottish Parliament elections. Leanne Wood is considerably to the Left of Nicola Sturgeon. Yet all three recognised that what they had in common, to mark themselves out as anti-austerity parties and to drag in their different ways the debate leftwards, mattered most. This should be the key lesson of the campaign. It was recognised by Neal Lawson when he wrote as the SNP’s rise in the polls became irresistible:
“What we potentially have is a reordering of the anti Tory bloc – but the likely re-adjustment of seats from Labour to the SNP could make more radical politics more likely. Now if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Labour tribalist – this offends. Equally, if you are a to-your-finger-tips Blairite, convinced that Britain will never vote for anything more radical than the mild humanisation of free market capitalism – then its equally offensive. But if all you want is to make Britain a normal place to live in again – then what’s not to like?“
It is an unsettling of politics, a break with tradition that many on the Left are uncomfortable with, the supposed binary opposition of nation v class doesn’t fit with the lexicon many are more used to. But a plural, radical left that gets used to living and breathing a radical version of what Gramsci termed the 'national-popular' will be part of the future. Fail to do so and clinging to the wreckage of the Union is just about all there will be left to look forward to.
This is precisely what Ed Miliband threatens to do when he rather pompously declares with all due solemnity "There will be no coalitions, no special favours, no deals with the SNP." Ludicrously, unbelievably certainly, adding that he'd rather not be in government than have any sort of arrangement with the SNP. Few left-of-centre voters will have very much sympathy for such a position when they see Cameron march as a result up Downing Street to re-occupy Number Ten. Miliband would have joined Cameron in writing off the Union, for good, in any such treatment of Scottish voters. And should he U-turn, his statement gives more than enough space for some wiggle-room in terms of voting against a minority Tory Queen's Speech (sic), then he plunges all credibility any politician ever had into unheard of depths. Honesty, this lot can't even spell the word.
The Scottish turn has decisively broken the logjam of what Tariq Ali has termed the 'extreme centre'. The shaping of a future English Left now becomes yet more urgent. This will be the product of process rather than one epoch-shattering event though the shift could be rapid once the dawning realisation of the sheer scale of the SNP landslide hits home on the morning after the vote before. For the SNP its a win-win. Either Milband owns up to the obvious, he can only govern with SNP support. Or Cameron presides over the end of the Union, leaving Scotland to its own social-democratic future while marching England out of the EU in double-quick time.
An English Left would recognise that breaking up Britain is a crucial pre-requisite towards a rebirth of the radical. The SNP is likely to be pushed to the Left in 2016 by a resurgent Scottish Green Party and hopefully a new Scottish Left out of the Radical Independence Campaign. Meanwhile who knows what will happen with Trade Union's Scottish regions with huge numbers of members who will have voted SNP? Len McCluskey has been quicker than most to recognise the contradictions and the need to adopt a more co-operative attitude towards the SNP.
This English Left will need to be as resolutely committed to breaking up Britain as our Scottish brothers and sisters. The English are not in the vanguard, so to speak. Relocating our political discourse from a fixation with London, England, is no bad thing. But mapping a vision for the England we want to make has to start at some point too. And make no mistake, without Scotland there is no more Britain, Great or any other sort. We could start by recognising that the Scots and the English are not so very different. A social-democratic consensus with a radical impulse on its fringes is every bit as possible in England as it is in Scotland. The primary difference being the need to settle in a quite different way the basis of a civic as opposed to a racial nationalism. England’s radical future must be absolutely grounded in the multicultural nation we have become to a far greater and deeper extent than Scotland or Wales. In this sense a renewed and popular anti-racism is the foundation of an English civic nationalism as the key to breaking with the ugly version that we all know, and fear, it could become.
Europe will loom large too. Locating an English Left absolutely as part of common movements against capital across the continent must be a keynote idea and practice. More than anything else this challenges the establishment version of that other Union, the EU. The wide interest in Syriza and Podemos is a more than useful starting point for such a reconfiguration of our own Left.
2015 will be remembered forever as Scotland’s turn. The question is whether that creates the basis for turning Left too. All the signs are that it can, I think I might leave that poster up beyond 7 May after all.
Days of Hope 1945-2015
Cat Boyd, co-founder of Scotland’s Radical Independence Campaign joins Owen Jones and Paul Mason for a post-election evening of discussion also featuring the comedy of Josie Long the poetry of Michael Rosen and music from Captain SKA. Sat 9 May, Rich MIx, London Tickets from Philosophy Football or call 01273 472 721 to book your place.
Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour Party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football, he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest is The Corbyn Effect and is published by Lawrence & Wishart in September, available to pre-order here.