Nine months after the dramatic Scottish independence referendum the Scottish National Party (SNP) could once again become a headache for Westminster politicians. The May 7th general election is looking to be one of the most uncertain in decades, with another hung parliament widely predicted. A poll released on Monday puts the SNP on 41%, 10 points ahead of Labour and set to win around half of the seats in Scotland, a conservative estimate compared to some forecasts giving the SNP nearly all Scottish seats. With 59 Westminster seats north of the border and a hung parliament likely, the Scottish Nationalists will be a much louder voice in London on May 8th.
What will a larger SNP contingent in the House of Commons mean after the election? The party is positioning itself to the left of Labour and they are modelling themselves as an anti-austerity force in British politics. The influence and impact the SNP will have depends entirely on the makeup of the next parliament and whether or not they would be in a Westminster government.
Having ruled out working with the Tories the obvious question is would they join a Labour government? “I wouldn't rule out a coalition with Labour, but it's perhaps not the best option,” said Nicola Sturgeon. The First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP was at University College London in an election speaking tour of London. “It's more likely to see the SNP support a minority government on an issue by issue basis, what's known as confidence and supply,” she continued.
Why the party would rather remain outside of a coalition than take cabinet posts and titles stems from their own experiences and their interest in drawing a line between themselves and Labour. In coalition politics traditionally the smaller partners fair poorly, which is true of the Liberal Democrats in the current government. “My experience of four years in a minority government is one of negotiation and compromise." It is precisely the element of compromise which the SNP wish to pursue with Labour who they regard as too "slavishly attached" to austerity. "We might have more chance to achieve things outside of a formal coalition.” She speaks of a "progressive alliance", naming the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens as a supporting cast to a Labour minority government over a rainbow coalition.
With a supply and confidence arrangement of nationalists backing up a Labour government we would certainly see more devolution to the regions. "Short of independence we'd like as many powers for Scotland as possible." On the question of English votes for English laws, a slogan that UKIP and Tory supporters have been using to refer to the old West Lothian question, Sturgeon dismisses the idea that some laws pertain only to England. She said the SNP would vote on laws "that affect England, but also impact Scotland financially."
“The Scottish government has balanced its budget every single year,” she remarked with sincerity to be followed with the quip “because we've got no choice!” Sturgeon is desperately trying to present the party to the British public as a responsible party who has a history of being in government arguing that with the experience the SNP have in maintaining balanced books “brings fiscal responsibility.” The SNP wish to strike this balanced tone of fiscal responsibility and champions of equality.
The party wants to bring about a 0.5% year on year reduction in the deficit, a word which Sturgeon claims the Westminster parties are obsessed with. “We could manage the deficit without destroying the social fabric that holds us together.” She calls for "infrastructure investments that promote growth" and cites the high speed rail line HS2 as an example of the SNP vision of investment that also provides for Scotland. "High Speed rail won't benefit Scotland unless it comes to Scotland." One potential sticking point in any deal with Ed Miliband will be the £100 billion renewal of Trident. The SNP are insistent on not extending funding for the UK's nuclear fleet based on the river Clyde.
One audience member questioned if “we are seeing the soft-core Nicola in contrast to the bad cop Alex [Salmond]?” And while the First Minister quickly laughed away the remark by joking: "but don't we make a great pair?" the question may hold some truth to the party's general election strategy. Sturgeon, who is to the left of Salmond, is attempting with a great deal of charm and humour to prepare the English electorate for the idea of a strong SNP hand in national politics. Alex Salmond, who stood down as party leader immediately after the referendum defeat, is standing for the Westminster seat of Gordon and is regarded as much more adversarial and less media friendly than his successor. Thus , though she isn't standing for Westminster, it is Sturgeon laying the foundations.
In the cold, outside the UCL chemistry faculty next to the cameras awaiting the First Minister's departure stood a young Tory in a pinstripe suit wearing an Ed Miliband mask and holding a banner saying “Come Join Us”. The Tories recent election strategy against the Labour has been to claim a vote for the party is a vote for putting Salmond in government at Westminster (Labour is pursuing a similar line of attack against the SNP, by claiming voting for the party will lead to a Tory government). Their recent posters have depicted a picture of Ed Miliband with his arm around Alex Salmond outside number 10 Downing Street. But this strategy negates that voters are more comfortable with the idea of multi-party politics and hung parliaments. Something the Lib Dems have been trying to hammer home as part of their raison d'etre over the past five years.
During Prime Ministers Questions yesterday David Cameron accused Ed Miliband of being unable to go to Scotland because he was “toxic”. While that may be a touch hyperbolic the notion could be applied to all top Westminster politicians looking for support north of the border, which is a point Nicola Sturgeon is trying to drive home. When the three main UK parties joined forces behind the Better Together campaign against independence it provided the SNP with the ammunition to fashion an 'us vs. them' rhetoric. When questioned on her anti-Westminster tone she replied "can you blame people for being negative [about Westminster], when you have an elite that supports tax dodging?" By playing on public concerns over austerity and a remote and corrupt political elite the SNP are making space for themselves on the left, a softer Syriza. The SNP are looking to be a major force in the next parliament. But how much of their commitments to end austerity and empower Scotland they achieve depends entirely on their relations with Labour and how they pick their battles.
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