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Calling Her Bluff
Change is coming and the SNP won't be part of it. Nicola Sturgeon's old general election strategy is weak in a world where Labour is headed for power.
Recent general elections have had a similar strategic shape. The two main parties have been close in the polls, with the Conservatives ahead, and so Labour has appeared to need the support of smaller parties, specifically the SNP. Nicola Sturgeon exploited this expertly.
She knew that talk of her party working with a minority Labour government helped prevent former Labour voters in Scotland from switching back to their old party. The SNP claimed they would make Labour a better, more radical government. She also knew that, across the UK, the idea of a Labour government propped up by the SNP was deeply unpopular. The more she talked about a Labour-SNP government, the less likely that change in government became, pushing voters who want change towards supporting the nationalism cause. It was lose-lose for Labour and win-win for the SNP.
As John Rentoul writes in the Independent today:
“she is trying to create the impression of natural inevitability about Labour and the SNP working together in a hung parliament. She cannot admit it, but it is in her interest for the Conservatives to revive the image of Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond’s top pocket. She wants them to photoshop Starmer in her top pocket. It is in her interest for the Conservatives to continue in government, to continue to generate the anti-Tory sentiment that fuels the SNP charabanc, now stuttering alarmingly.”
However, with less than two years to the next election, the terms of the political debate are very different. Labour is now routinely polling higher than Tony Blair’s party did ahead of their 1997 landslide while the Tory numbers are lower than John Major’s was then. In this context, Nicola Sturgeon’s interview with the Newsagents this week where she tried to resurrect her old strategy felt really weak.
The First Minister made it clear that Labour would never need such a deal:
“I will always have the SNP vote in a way that locks the Tories out of Downing Street…I would sort of reverse that though: is Keir Starmer in that position going to not take the opportunity to get the Tories out because he won’t talk to the SNP? And I think that is a ridiculous position. “
At this point, the interviewer Lewis Goodall did what Starmer would do in such a situation. He called her bluff:
“But if you just said that you would always vote to get the Tories out, then you’ve got no bargaining power with Keir Starmer, because Keir Starmer will say well you’ve just said that.”
She is holding a terrible hand and he knows it. Sturgeon’s response is to suggest that she will block Labour legislation if Starmer doesn’t capitulate on independence. This is significant: she is saying the SNP will place itself on the same side as the Conservatives, even if she won’t put them in Downing Street. As Rentoul writes today, that option probably won’t be open to Sturgeon anyway as a bruised Tory party will be unwilling to bring down a Labour government and force an early election until they have gotten their act together anyway. A conservative opposition will seek to thwart, not topple Labour. So for no gain, Sturgeon is placing herself against change in alliance with the Tories. That is the only way that Sturgeon can wield the balance of power as she claims.
In any event, with polls pointing to a substantial Labour majority, the Labour Party simply won’t have to ask for such a deal. Labour across the UK should be confident in their poll lead and ignore Sturgeon’s attempts to prevent their victory and make the election all about her. Labour in Scotland however should take Sturgeon at her word and amplify her threats to block the change that voters so desperately want. Will she block the budget with massive green investment? Will she block the legislation on new workers' rights? Will she stand in the way of change unless she gets to re-run the referendum? To do so makes independence the blockage of change, not the route to it.
Nicola Sturgeon says that an SNP opposition to a Labour government will do what SNP oppositions to Labour governments always do: vote with the Tories to stop change.
The prospect of a Labour government challenges Sturgeon’s tired general election message in another important way. For Scottish voters who want to see a different kind of economic and political model, the message was that voting SNP would push Labour to be bolder. Sturgeon’s threat to block change undermines that before the election. After the election, the fiction that the SNP are more socialist than Labour will fall apart completely.
We’ve only started to see Labour’s plans for government, and they are already far more radical than anything the SNP has ever proposed. Imagine an energetic Labour government dedicated to fixing public services; putting power closer to communities; focusing on productivity to grow the economy; and investing in green jobs. Now imagine the contrast that will provide with a tired SNP government running down our public services; centralising power and slashing funding for communities; overseeing a stagnant economy; and allowing green jobs to go overseas.
Rather than the SNP making Labour more radical, that relationship would work the other way.
A Labour Government in Westminster will make the SNP Government in Holyrood better.
In Case You Missed It
A shaming report by the Health Foundation examined health inequalities in Scotland. It found:
There has been no significant improvement in the poverty-related attainment gap for primary school and secondary age pupils - the First Minister’s supposed “personal defining mission.”
Infant mortality rates in the poorest areas were 2.6 times higher than those in the richest areas.
There was a 24-year gap in the time spent in good health between people living in the richest and poorest 10% of areas in Scotland.
The overall rate of drug deaths increased from 6.2 per 100,000 in 2001 to 25.1 per 100,000 in 2020.
Meanwhile, the SNP cut drug funding again.
It’s an inauspicious start for the SNP’s new Westminster leader as:
he loses his chief whip over a botched attempt to emulate Wagatha Christie.
he repeats conspiracy theories from the fringes of nationalism to explain away the importance of our trade with the rest of the UK.
he readmits Patrick Grady to the SNP group, despite Nicola Sturgeon’s promise of zero-tolerance for sexual harassment.
Keir Starmer has shown he’s serious about tackling climate change with a pledge that no new oil or gas licences will be issued under a Labour government. A move that contrasts with the SNP-Green Government’s own reticence on this issue.
Chris Deerin wrote a stinging piece in the New Statesman wondering what has been the point of Nicola Sturgeon’s time in office.
The journal of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research has published a review by Prof Ronnie MacDonald of the currency options for a separate Scottish state.
Culture Corner: If You Could Go Back
Yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day. This year’s theme invited us to contemplate the ordinary people who facilitated that genocide through action or omission of action. I particularly like this year’s theme as it asks us to question what we would have done in their shoes if genocide happened in our time. Of course, genocide has happened in our time - and is happening today to Uyghurs and other Muslims in China.
It’s easy to say never again and to imagine you would be on the side of justice when you’re talking about a historic event. A conceit that Peep Show neatly addressed. We may wish we had the moral fibre of Selma can de Perre. but when so many of us do nothing in response to atrocities committed around the world today, even though speaking out comes with no personal cost, we should perhaps show more of Mark’s self-awareness.
I was thinking yesterday of the poem “If You Could Go Back,” by Danny Bryck which reminds us that the point of this historical reflection is to shape our actions today. We need people’s bravery in the face of crimes against humanity to be contemporary and real, not imagined and historic. The poem ends with a call to action:
is when we need you to go back
and forget everything you know
and give up the things you’re chained to
and make it look so easy in your
grandkids’ history books (they should still have them, kinehora)
is when it will all be clear to them.