SNP and the Unions
Much of the discourse around the future development of the relationship between the SNP and the Scottish Trade Union movement is being viewed through the lens of Labour’s historical link with the Scottish trade union movement. Indeed this fundamental misunderstanding is not confined to the ranks of the media.
Although there is a comfortable match between many of the policies of the SNP and the Scottish trade union movement, the institutional cultures of the SNP and the Scottish trade union movement are grounded in two different types of activism.
The SNP has had, long before it delivered spectacular electoral results, a justifiable reputation as a very effective electoral machine. Above all in the old SNP and even today, activism is equated with preparing the ground for the next election, anything that diverts from that prime directive tends to be frowned upon.
This attitude had consequences for the wider development of the SNP in Scotland’s civic institutions, particularly out with the areas that would, in the past, be viewed as SNP heartlands. It also led to the development amongst many though not all, of a bunker mentality, an assumption that civic Scotland was a wholly owned, even monolithic sub section of the Labour Party.
I well remember the first morning of my first attendance as a delegate from my trade union to the Annual Congress of the STUC in the early nineteen nineties. As someone who had decided that my primary political activity would be through my union, not my party, the SNP, it was quite a culture shock. I felt that I was at one at the same time “at home” yet almost an orphan. Surrounded by people who, I assumed, belonged to a political party I had battled with in many elections and bye elections in the eighties and early nineties. They were at one and the same time “the enemy” and anything but.
A year or two later, during the 1997 General Election campaign, I recall the look of puzzlement on the face of Nicola when I suggested she forgo an afternoons Sunday canvassing to spend the time, with her SNP rosette on of course (she was already developing a profile amongst the activist community of progressive Scotland if not the wider public) strolling through the tents and amongst the stalls at the 1997 Glasgow May Day on Glasgow Green.
Ten years later things had moved on somewhat. The 2007 Glasgow May Day March took place four days after the 2007 Scottish Parliament Election. In the crowd behind the SNP Trade Union Group banner were a clutch of unknown newly elected SNP MSP’s some of which are now Scottish Government Ministers. The fact that not one speaker on the platform made any reference to the electoral events of the previous Thursday was the subject of great amusement in the pub afterwards and a straw in the wind about the gradual decline of Labour’s connection to Scottish society.
Paradoxically it was advent of an SNP Government that brought the Scottish trade union movement, with a degree of trepidation, knocking on the door of the SNP. To the surprise of many of Scotland’s senior trade unionists they found that the Scottish Governments door was wide open, that they had in fact, stumbled upon a level of access unheard of during previous Labour/Liberal Democratic coalition.
We now have Labour’s apparent annihilation and the prospect of more of the same at next year’s Holyrood election.
It is at this point that I suppose I am meant to consider the prospects of Labour’s recovery or otherwise or maybe consider what are the prospects of the Scottish far left, a term, I wish to emphasise, I do not use pejoratively, in the lists next May.
These points are of course worthy consideration but I would suggest that the future development of the SNP’s relationship with the Scottish Trade union movement will be, from the perspective of the overwhelming majority of Scottish trade unions members and not an inconsiderable number of activists, of more immediate concern.
Consumers of political commentary, even the sophisticated readership of Bella, do not naturally warm to discussions around matters organisational. However if one is to understand the baselines from which any grass roots development of the SNP’s relationship with Scottish Trade Unionism is to take place then some consideration of these realities are necessary.
Earlier today the headline that the SNP Trade Union Group had over 15,000 members was repeated on the BBC. During the same piece it was revealed, by of all people, the political editor of the Daily Record, that this was probably over twice the membership of the Labour Party in Scotland. A number of factors underpin this impressive figure.
First of all the results of the referendum and the General Election are in part due to the laser focus of the SNP, as an institution, on the electoral effort. Of course the results of both are down to much, much more that the SNP, particularly in relation to the referendum where the SNP normally winning election strategy alone resulted in a year of flat lining.
It is only now, during the period of “peace time” between GE 15 and the 2016 Holyrood campaign that the SNP is really in a position to start to develop its relationship with Scotland’s grass roots trade unionists.
On the 20th June in Stirling University the SNP Trade Union Group will hold its first post referendum meeting with its wider membership. https://www.facebook.com/snptug
In a sense no one yet quite knows what the SNP Trade Union Group of over 15,000, as opposed to the pre referendum Trade union group of a few hundred will actually be and will actually do.
Bear in mind that TUG membership is triggered by two things, joining the SNP and ticking the box on the membership form that one wishes to be considered a member of the Trade Union Group. With this a small portion of SNP membership fee of the member is allocated to the TUG. The decision of the Party to facilitate this arrangement represents a significant investment, both political and financial in the TUG by the SNP.
We should not be surprised that the range of trade union experience of the new TUG membership varies hugely. Some have joined thinking that it is actually a trade union and the range of experience goes from party members who are union members but not active in their union, to full time officials.
Due to the more politically pressing activities of the last two years it is only now that the new SNP and it much enlarged Trade Union Group can start to properly organize. The Trade Union Group itself as is well aware of the organisational challenges that lie ahead.
Some in the Scottish trade union movement, notably the Secretariat of the STUC itself, are positioning themselves to take cognisance of the new situation. Speaking to an STUC Conference last weekend the General Secretary of the STUC was at pains to point out that it was not affiliated to any party. That only a proportion of STUC affiliated unions, although most if not all have political funds, have a funding link with Labour.
Some unions would be advised to start to think through how it develops a positive relationship with the SNP rather than whether Kezia Dugdale or Ken MacIntosh ends up leading Labour’s Scottish rump.
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