Craig McAngus reviews Nicola Sturgeon's speech, writing that the Scottish First Minister is trying to convince those on the reformist left that a sizeable and effective SNP presence in the House of Commons would be a positive development. This blog originally appeared on LSE British Politics and Policy.
One would be forgiven for thinking that the SNP were on the winning side of the independence referendum in September given their commanding position in the polls in Scotland at the moment. If the election were held tomorrow, few would be surprised if the SNP won over 40 Scottish seats. The Scottish press have been commenting on this for months, but the English press appear to have woken up to the idea of the SNP as a potentially significant parliamentary force. The Conservatives have jumped on the opportunity to portray Ed Miliband as a possible hostage to the Alex Salmond and the SNP and Miliband has subsequently ruled out the possibility of a coalition with the SNP, however unlikely such a scenario was in the first place. The SNP have themselves ruled out propping up a Conservative government, so any possible deal short of a coalition is going to have to happen with Labour. It is for this reason that, for the purposes of interested audiences in England, Nicola Sturgeon made the speech that she did at the LSE on 16th March.
There are two very deliberate reasons for this. Firstly, the Conservatives remain deeply unpopular in many areas of Scotland, and any sign of the SNP doing a deal would likely usher their voters back towards Labour. Despite backing the SNP in the 2011 Scottish election and currently in the run-up to the 2015 general election, many in Scotland still ‘feel closest’ to Labour despite not voting for them or currently supporting them. For whatever reason, Labour is not currently reflecting Scotland’s electoral soul.
The second, perhaps more important, reason for the SNP lining themselves for some form of deal with Labour is more ideological and strategic. Indeed, the SNP’s strategy can be discerned from Nicola Sturgeon’s speech. This speech used the Chancellor’s upcoming, and perhaps final, budget as a central theme to tease out two strands of thought woven around, firstly, a distinctive left-wing route to easing social and economic problems in the UK over the next parliamentary term, and secondly, institutional reforms that could ‘improve’ how the UK is governed.
Sturgeon’s left-wing analysis of the state of the UK focused mainly on two policy areas: welfare and the economy. In terms of welfare, Sturgeon argued that the bulk of welfare reform has fallen on the backs of disabled people and women, and that even those families who are in work are not sheltered from poverty. She called on the Chancellor to announce a rise in the work allowance in order to help boost the income of those earning the least. On the economy, Sturgeon advocates a shift away from the austerity agenda currently being pursued by the coalition government, arguing that limiting spending increases, as opposed to cuts, by 0.5 per cent each year would boost the economy and help address the fiscal deficit more effectively. The SNP’s well rehearsed opposition to Trident is also highlighted, as is the money that could potentially be saved from scrapping it.
On institutional reform, Sturgeon points to how the budgetary process works in the Scottish Parliament where, rather than the budget being revealed at the last minute, there is a lengthy scrutiny process which opens up greater opportunities for monitoring and input by the Equality Budget Advisory Group, for example, so that policies can be properly assessed in terms of their impact on equality. This process is by no means perfect, and the Gender Budgeting Group, for example, has argued that there is a lot of room for improvement when it comes to gender mainstreaming the Scottish budget. However, there is a sense that the processes of the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government are relatively transparent and open to input and engagement from civil society and the third sector, even if the actual policy output is sometimes disappointing. In short, engagement does not necessarily mean output. Sturgeon is deliberately pointing to a situation where things are done somewhat differently and are more conducive to actors from civil society and the third sector who are advocating women’s, disabled people’s and children’s rights, to name but a few. Moreover, that example is within the UK.
So why did Sturgeon focus on these broad themes in her speech? The simple answer is that she is trying to convince those on the reformist left that a sizeable and effective SNP presence in the House of Commons would be a positive development for those on the reformist left. Indeed, the SNP has been fairly quiet on the issue of independence recently, preferring to point out how the Scottish electorate have voted to stay in the UK and that the SNP aims to keep the UK Government honest on its promises for further devolution. Sturgeon is painting the SNP as the party that will be the catalyst for reform in the the way that the UK is governed and that their presence in parliament is actually an opportunity for the left rather than a threat to the integrity of the UK itself.
Of course, it is unlikely that the Labour party will pay much attention to Sturgeon’s overtures, at least at the moment. However, if some on English left do begin to view the SNP as a catalyst for institutional and constitutional reform then there is always the possibility that some Labour figures may begin to see the SNP as a moderately left-wing, anti-establishment party rather than simply as a threat in the form of Scottish independence. Significant policy differences obviously remain between the SNP and Labour, Trident being one of the major ones, but there are a number of commonalities too. Nevertheless, the SNP may provide an opportunity for Labour to shake-up the institutional framework of the British state that, arguably, makes the pursual of a progressive left-wing policy agenda more difficult than current alternatives.