Can the SNP Win?

Kirsty Hughes asks if the SNP can rise from its recent troubles to win enough hearts, minds and votes at the general election to keep it a powerful Westminster force. Europe, she argues, can play a defining role in the party’s strategy.

This article was first published in Kirsty Hughes’s substack: https://kirstyhughes.substack.com/p/can-the-snp-win.

May 23, 2024

Just days before Rishi Sunak’s bizarrely soggy general election call, the latest YouGov poll gave Labour a lead of 39% to just 29% for the SNP. That would decimate the SNP at Westminster and let Keir Starmer claim to speak for Britain (if not the whole UK). But it’s only one poll. Can the new Swinney/Forbes leadership team, plus Stephen Flynn at Westminster, change the dynamics in the next six weeks or is the SNP’s time up?

Some of the omens are not good. In the same YouGov poll, 58-62% of voters “have little to no confidence in the SNP to make the right decisions on the economy, health service, schools, police and climate change”. And the distinction between reserved and devolved policies, or whether issues are for the Scottish parliament or Westminster, doesn’t stop voters prioritising them in their choice of party in a general election. But other polls are less discouraging – Labour and the SNP were still neck and neck in mid-April polling.

Taking Labour On

John Swinney has only been in post two weeks but now he must get into top gear. Reassurance and stability after the SNP’s recent and older woes will not cut it alone, that minimal pitch can be left to Keir Starmer. Nor was Swinney’s immediate reaction to Sunak’s election call compelling: a focus on beating the Tories, putting Scotland first, is not going to divert potential SNP voters from turning to Labour. The SNP will have to face Labour straight on. The better news for the SNP is that there’s plenty of ways to do that.

Yet, in his first pronouncements as First Minister, Swinney said the Scottish government would now be one of the ‘moderate centre-left’. This curious phrasing needs looking at. Was Humza Yousaf not moderate – he was hardly a revolutionary. And the Scottish Greens may look ineffective or worse but recycling bottles is not exactly extremist either (and the SNP owns the gender recognition reform fiasco).

The real problem with this ‘moderate centre-left’ phrasing is that it appears to signal a shift to the right – underlined by the right-wing economic views of deputy First Minister, Kate Forbes (on which, now is really not a good time to be pushing for deregulation – leave the Brexiters and Tory remnants to still yearn for Singapore on Thames). And the last thing the SNP needs, now it’s election time, is to be converging towards the centre-right (or further right) space that Labour already occupies. It needs to widen, and emphasise, the gap between the two in policy and outlook.

The SNP should set out its own five or six top priorities for Scotland that can show how weak Labour’s six pledges are (they’re not exactly hard to demolish).

Broad Election Pitch Vital

John Swinney has already set out a welcome emphasis on ending child poverty. But an election pitch will need much more. There is plenty to say on the economy and social policy, a green new deal, the EU and Brexit, wider foreign policy issues – notably Gaza, and, of course, on independence. On Gaza, it was notable this week that it was left to cabinet secretary Angus Robertson to back Norway, Ireland and Spain’s plan to recognise a Palestinian state – neither Swinney nor Forbes tweeted on the issue. Yet Gaza distinguishes the SNP strongly and positively from Labour. Still, on several of these topics, the SNP already has well worked up policies.

Migration

This is notably so on migration, where the Scottish government has argued in detail and persuasively to devolve aspects of migration policy, as well as underlining the benefits to the Scottish economy of returning to free movement in the EU – not least for the NHS and social care staffing but also for sectors from agriculture and tourism to research. So, migration can cut across key issues and arguments that will come up in the general election – and across the constitutional status quo and independence scenarios.

Independence in the EU and Brexit: a Challenge to Labour

Re-joining the EU and the negative, continuing impacts of Brexit are obvious ones for the SNP. Yes, focus groups may say that voters are concerned about the economy, cost of living and the NHS. But zooming in on Brexit, even short of re-joining/independence in the EU, can resonate widely. A large majority across the UK sees Brexit as a failure. And the UK-wide European Movement (and its Scottish counterpart, the European Movement in Scotland) will be campaigning to keep Brexit on the agenda in the coming six weeks. The SNP can pick up on that.

The SNP also needs to take a good look at its key arguments for the election on Brexit. Labour’s putative policies to improve EU-UK relations are weak.  It doesn’t want to talk about Brexit’s costs. There could be a good intermediate pitch here on re-joining the EU’s Customs Union (even without re-joining the single market or EU as a whole). It’s specific and can put Labour on the spot. It would reduce costs, help with the cost-of-living, and not least help smaller firms’ exports (a priority of Kate Forbes).

The Scottish government also, belatedly, produced a fairly good paper on re-joining the EU as an independent country at the end of last year. There are some key soundbites that can be scooped up from that paper and used. Free movement and the EU can also be brought up in every discussion of the challenges facing the NHS, given staffing problems.

A new European Parliament will be elected in early June, during the UK campaign. Yes, the far right may do well but the far right is also splitting even as campaigning goes on. The new European Parliament will still have a broad majority made up of centre parties from left to liberal, green and centre-right. Member states the size of Scotland will all be represented here. The EU is expected to open accession talks with Ukraine at the end of June – another hook to pick up during the UK election campaign. EU enlargement is under way, no longer stalled.

And the broader independence arguments, beyond the EU, will need to be made – with energy. The latest YouGov poll put support for independence at 46%. But at the end of January it was 53% and in early April, it was 51%. There’s plenty to argue for, but does the SNP under its leadership team have the confidence or dynamism to pull it off? Support for independence is especially high in the 25-49 year old group – the group with the highest support for the SNP in the most recent YouGov poll. That’s a key age group to speak to.

Green New Deal

Green issues are vital too. We’ve not yet seen whether the Swinney/Forbes duo will row back on climate commitments. Kate Forbes’ instincts appear to take her towards instant economic benefits over green steps vital for the economy and climate and biodiversity crises. John Swinney has though emphasised climate issues including wind energy and ports infrastructure. Labour has already stepped in here too, this week, with plans for ‘renewables-ready ports’ in Scotland and around the UK. Some of the devil will be in the detail here and who’s really on top of the arguments.

The SNP has an open goal, if it uses it well, with Keir Starmer’s abandonment of Labour’s one big hopeful policy – the planned, now dumped, £28 billion a year for green investment. But Labour will major too on its plans for a Great British energy company based in Scotland. This naming seems as clumsy as the Tories clunky UK government building, union jack down the side, by Waverley.

But the SNP needs to be sharp here: what does it want such a company to do, what consultation does it demand, what powers does Holyrood have here and how will it use them, and, crucially, what will the financial benefits, including jobs, be to Scotland. And more broadly, what is the SNP’s preferred green industrial strategy or green new deal – and how is it bigger and better than Labour’s. It’s time now for answers not just broad brush headlines.

Labour’s Fiscal Neo-liberalism

The SNP is, of course, never going to be in power at Westminster. This gives it some advantages – both in pitching that Scotland needs a distinct voice in the House of Commons but also on specific big economic policies. Labour has wrapped itself not only in the union jack but also in neoliberal macro-economics, promising tight fiscal controls that look damaging and unnecessary. There are clear arguments for a broader, more expansionary fiscal policy that will contribute to a real green new deal and just transition, and that will tackle the collapse of public services. Labour is, surely, about to form the UK government but it can’t find the money, it says, to even abolish the two-child limit. The SNP can be bold on critiquing Labour’s fiscal policy – and its arguments will be challenged, but it’s not going to trouble the markets (the SNP unlike Labour has no need to run scared of Liz Truss comparisons).

Labour Has Wind in its Sails

All this is well and good. But there is a question of political mood and energy. Labour has the winds in its sails. The SNP is looking battered, split, with low morale, lacking in confidence. It’s had a rough, wobbly year and it’s not bouncing back. With a cautious, centre-right Labour party offering six lukewarm pledges, any confident, pro-EU, pro-independence, social democrat (if the SNP still is) party should be moving ahead not sinking in the polls.

Can the SNP move back ahead of Labour? It can. But will it: not if the SNP doesn’t even believe in itself or have the energy to project its case. Will 4th July be the antithesis of independence day, for the pro-independence party? That’s the risk unless there’s a rapid, high energy turn around.

Picture credit: Scottish Parliament