Anti-austerity backlash is moving up a gear - even in ‘progressive’ Scotland

Protesters gathered in force for the UK state opening of parliament on May 27. Yui Mok/PA

What to expect from the latest Westminster parliament? More strikes and demonstrations look very likely as the next phase of austerity takes hold. With the success of the Conservatives in winning an outright majority at the election, and with the collapse of the Labour vote, there are already numerous indications that many of those experiencing the reality of austerity are not willing to wait for signs of a Labour revival. The plans announced in the Queen’s Speech to tighten trade-union legislation have further soured the atmosphere.

The threat of the first national UK rail strike in 20 years in early June is the latest sign that resistance is building. Anti-austerity demonstrations have meanwhile spread across major towns and cities in England and Wales since May 7, with thousands most recently demonstrating during the state opening of parliament in London. Thousands more are expected to attend a similar demonstration in Glasgow organised by the STUC on June 20. 

Much of this protest surely reflects, at least in England, the lack of choice at the recent election. Both coalition partners from the previous administration argued that austerity measures were working well in helping to reduce economic deficits. Labour promised that it would continue with the “fiscal responsibility” of the coalition government, though over a longer time-scale. UKIP was promising more cuts too, meaning that only smaller groups and parties such as the Greens and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition that were offering a real anti-austerity message in England.

The Scottish dimension

In Scotland, of course, the SNP campaigned on an anti-austerity platform. After it won 56 of the 59 Scottish seats, with 50% of the vote north of the border, the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems, together with much of the media outside Scotland, portrayed this as reflecting the growth of Scottish nationalism. But this arguably downplays the party’s anti-austerity campaigning, dismissing at a stroke any opposition to the main UK parties’ commitment to continue with the spending cuts. For UK Labour, any claim that it should have followed the SNP’s anti-austerity message has been firmly rejected since the election. Instead significant sections of the party are arguing that Labour failed because it was “too left wing”.

While this looks like folly from a Scottish point of view, the SNP’s anti-austerity message ought to be viewed much more critically too. Amid all the reasons put forward to explain the historic shift to SNP from Labour, one that has tended to be overlooked is the experiences of workers employed by Labour councils and in the public sector more generally. 

Councils have been implementing cuts across Scotland, using Conservative anti-trade-union legislation and “volunteer” labour to break strikes. Glasgow City Council, Scotland’s largest authority, represents probably the most significant example of this. Long Labour-controlled, there is a history of public-sector disputes in the city. 

From 1997 and the election of New Labour through to May 2015, there has rarely been a period when at least one group of public sector workers wasn’t involved in some form of strike or industrial action in the city. Since the end of March, 70 homelessness case workers have been involved in an indefinite strike over a re-grading dispute, for example. If successful, it would see the affected workers re-graded in line with other workers who have similar levels of responsibility, amounting to a pay increase of up to £5,000.

This dispute may not involve many staff, but it is indicative of the wider tensions and disputes that are bubbling away beneath the surface in public services across Scotland – and also elsewhere in the UK. It reflects the impact of austerity cuts, not only on public-service workers but also on service users, with up to 3,000 homeless people affected by this dispute alone. 

Many of the affected staff sought support from the Scottish government, which could order the council to settle by agreeing to re-grading. Thus far, however, the SNP has been as silent on this as it has been on the possibility of a UK-wide rail strike – despite having been reminded by its critics that a previous SNP promise to bring the railways in Scotland back into public ownership and run by the public sector has yet to materialise.

Silence in Dundee

Another relevant dispute is taking place in Dundee, which recorded the highest support for Scottish independence in the 2014 referendum. It returned two SNP MPs in the UK election and has an SNP-run council. The dispute concerns 120 porters at the city’s Ninewells and Royal Victoria hospitals. It, too, is around a re-grading issue, which if successful would bring the porters into line with counterparts elsewhere in Scotland, adding £200 per week to their pay packets.

Scottish health secretary Shona Robison. Scottish Government, CC BY-SA

Once again, the Scottish government is in a position to end the dispute by agreeing to the demands of the strikers, this time as the direct employer via NHS Tayside. And once again there has been silence from the SNP, even though the Scottish government’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is an MSP in Dundee. Elsewhere in the city, SNP-run Dundee City Council has announced that it implement a further £33m worth of cuts over the next five years.

Other disputes have taken place and are again threatening to erupt, for instance among workers in Scotland’s further education sector, which has experienced significant cuts in funding in recent years. What will the progressive SNP do for the workers involved? And what are the chances that it will campaign and demand the ending of anti-trade union legislation for all workers in Scotland?

Great claims have been made about the Scottish government’s commitment to social democracy, equality and fairness in Scotland. But the reality on the ground is very different. As with their counterparts in other parts of the UK and beyond, Scotland’s public-sector workers are more and more sceptical about the willingness of the SNP to go beyond mere rhetoric. Following the experience of Scottish Labour, the risk is that this costs the nationalists much of their support as early as next May at the Scottish parliament elections.