Gregor Gall: Left wing warhorse has crucial role

There is a lack of a true left-wing party. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

There is a lack of a true left-wing party. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

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THE STUC spent a long time in the political doldrums but now it can be the body that holds the SNP to account, writes Gregor Gall.

The Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) meets for its 118th annual gathering at Ayr racecourse this coming week. There will be no betting on horses but, with the approach of the general election, there will be much betting about which political party in Scotland now comes closest to reflecting the values of the Scottish union movement.

The SNP is not as left-wing as it makes itself out to be – or is commonly perceived to be.

There will also be betting upon which political party is the most amenable to influence from the STUC in order that the STUC can advance its own distinctive policies.

Not that long ago, of course, there were racing certainties to both these wagers. The winning horses were, respectively, Labour and Labour. Now, coming up fast on the outside and from way behind is the SNP. How exactly did we get to this position and how might the story now unfold?

Thirty or more years ago, the STUC was a major player in Scottish politics. It was the single body that did more than any other to ensure that devolution was put high up the political agenda and was kept there.

It anticipated that the arrival of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 would mean that Scotland became something of a popular democracy where it, quite rightly, expected to play a major role in shaping the politics of the country as it represented well in excess of 600,000 union members.

The direction the STUC wanted to take society in was one of social justice and social democracy.

Although advances were made, especially in the form of the Memorandum of Understanding signed with the Labour-led Scottish Executive in 2002, the STUC found that Scottish Parliament and its committee system did not turn out to be quite what it had hoped for.

Party discipline meant that the system of party politics prevented the parliamentary committees from becoming the powerful, independent, scrutinising bodies that had been anticipated.

This blow was added to by what turned out be something of a mirage. The STUC was asked by what seemed to be consecutive, hospitable Scottish Executives to involve itself in numerous consultation exercises on proposed legislation and changes in public policy.

The STUC played its role as a conscientious social partner, making submissions, writing responses and so on.

Indeed, it was so conscientious that this work started to dwarf the other work the STUC did, with the STUC showing signs of fatigue.

But what was worse was that for all the effort put in, the gains in policy influence and outcomes were small. And, on top of this, all the effort put in was done in competition with other interests, particularly from the business community. This meant that the STUC spent quite a while in the political doldrums.

By 2007, Labour in the Scottish Parliament had expended much of the goodwill shown towards it. It had maintained a tight grip over its MSPs and the committees it controlled. At the same time, Scottish Labour had become increasingly enthralled to the ideology of business that the market knows best.

Although many in the union movement took a while to come to terms with the movement in the tectonic plates of Scottish politics, the STUC looked at the new SNP Scottish Government for what it was – by no means anywhere near perfect but willing to go further than Labour-led Scottish Executives had ever ventured. Concrete outcomes were the establishment of the Work Together Review and the Fair Work Convention.

But with the groundswell of new political activity and the overall movement to the left in public opinion during and after the referendum campaign, the STUC is now poised to be able to go well beyond looking for mere handouts from the SNP.

The current state of political flux is opening up new opportunities for the STUC. As the SNP outflanks Labour by posing as the social democratic party that Labour once was, the STUC can again serve the role of the progressive conscience of Scotland – this time by holding the SNP to account.

All the political weathervanes point to an SNP Westminster presence that can influence the course of British politics as well as the SNP being returned as the Scottish Government in 2016.

Despite Jim Murphy’s opportunistic attempt to reposition Labour as radical, opinion polls tell us that this has no traction. If Labour forms a government at Westminster, austerity will continue. This means that Labour in Scotland cannot credibly try to hold the SNP to account from the left. That role can only be played by the STUC.

It is a role that will be sorely needed as the SNP is not as left-wing as it makes itself out to be – or is commonly perceived to be.

Social liberalism – neo-liberalism with a social conscience – rather than social democracy is a far better characterisation of the SNP.

In the referendum campaign, the STUC declared for no side. Instead, it scrutinised both, laying out its own vision of what society in Scotland should look like. It will take this kind of “no favouritism” approach to fulfil this new role.

But it will also take a revived STUC to put people on the streets to make it clear that what it says carries popular support. If it can to do that, then we can talk about the “return” of the STUC to what it used to be, namely, not just the leading voice of civil society but also a key player in Scotland’s political process.

• Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford and the editor of the Scottish Left Review (http://www.scottishleftreview.org/)

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