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What do the SNP have to do to stay in office?

At their conference in Glasgow this weekend the Scottish National Party faithful are doing their best to keep their spirits up. Everything to play for.  Polls ambiguous. Alex will see us right.  No one thinks Iain Gray is a leader.  Perhaps not.  But the SNP is up against one of the greatest challenges in modern political history.  How to break the link between Labour and the soul of Scotland.  The Scottish Labour Part my be bereft of ideas, lost for leaders, out of touch and fearful of office.  But almost inspite of themselves, Labour still look like being the favourites to win the Scottish election in May.  The bond of sentiment is just too strong with the Scottish voters.  When the Tories are in office in Westminster, Scotland just votes Labour.

What do the SNP have to do?

There’s a sense of hurt among SNP ministers as the opinion polls pile on the agony on the eve of the last SNP conference before the Scottish Parliamentary elections. Last month’s ipsos/mori poll, suggesting that the nationalists had reversed their opinion poll slide certainly looks pretty roguish, now that two further polls, from Yougov and the TNS-BMRB poll in the Herald have restored Labour’s double digit lead.

It isnae fair! The SNP believe they have by far the best leader, in Alex Salmond, and strength in depth on the ministerial front row. Didn’t John Swinney send the opposition parties home to think again over the Scottish budget last month? Haven’t the SNP been in the lead in calling for a fuel-price stabiliser, saving jobs at Campbeltown wind turbines? Where have Labour been in the latest row over football sectarianism?

The SNP are particularly peeved about Iain Gray’s dramatic U-turn last week on tuition fees. The Labour leader cheekily challenged Mr Salmond at the weekend to “back Labour’s commitment to free higher education”.

Yet only a few months ago, Labour were saying the present system of tax payer-funded higher education was “not sustainable” and that a financial contribution from graduates was inevitable. Not any more. Labour realised that losing a couple of hundred thousand student votes in May was even less sustainable. They have now declared themselves the belated champions of the democratic intellect by ruling out any “price tag on learning” for the duration of the next parliament.

Salmond will make free higher education a centrepiece of his speech to the SNP conference this weekend in Glasgow – but this is no longer looking like the vote-winner it was. The SNP will also make big play on the other core election issue: health. Haven’t the SNP just honoured their key manifesto pledge and abolished prescription charges? They’ve promised to increase health spending in real terms for the life of the next parliament, again receiving little thanks from the media or the general public. Ungrateful lot.

It’s the same story with the council tax freeze – a promise honoured and a commitment given to keeping a lid on local taxes. It wasn’t their fault – complain the SNP – that they weren’t allowed to introduce their local income tax, after they were out-voted in Holyrood by the opposition parties. And yes there have been lost promises on abolishing all student debt (possibly the daftest policy in any recent party manifesto) and cutting class sizes.

Then there was the non-event of the referendum on independence. But since no one in Scotland is particularly interested in independence right now, that’s hardly a big loss. As for Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi – the issue that some commentators said could lose the SNP the election – well the boot is now on the other foot following the revelations about Gordon Brown’s dealings with Colonel Gaddafi.

So, the SNP are feeling pretty sore about the fickleness of politics, and rapidly falling out of love with the electorate. They’re not quite at the point of dismissing the Scottish voters as “90-minute patriots” as their former deputy leader, Jim Sillars, famously did 30 years ago. But they do feel that they should be getting more credit for what they’ve done – that they’ve given real leadership and demonstrated that Scots are quite capable of governing themselves. What more could they be expected to do?

Now, I don’t expect any of this tetchiness will actually surface in the SNP’s election campaign that effectively begins this weekend. Despite a couple of bad polls, the Nationalists reassure themselves that there is still “everything to play for” since there remain large numbers of undecided voters.

They console themselves that Salmond is still the most popular leader. But it is difficult to think of what else they can do now to claw back votes.

There will no doubt be many more businesspeople and celebrities, such as David Murray, giving testimonials to the SNP’s performance in office. They have Brian Souter’s money and probably the best organisation on the ground.

But there is a sense that things are slipping away. The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, is preparing to make a big play for votes in Scotland in the coming weeks and months. In this Holyrood election, Labour’s strongest hand is the UK connection – a complete reversal of the Blair years, when Scottish Labour’s link to London Labour was a huge negative in Scotland.

Labour will focus on the threat from the Tory cuts and the need to provide a challenge to the “Con-Dem” coalition. This may seem bizarre in a Scottish election where the Tories are a marginal force, but the appeal to the old anti-Tory sentiment of the Scots is a strong one. When Tories are in power in Westminster, Scotland votes Labour.

Since the failure of the SNP’s referendum bill, the steam has gone out of the constitutional issue. Labour have helped fill the void by promoting – in last week’s Scotland Bill committee report – a kind of blueprint for ‘fiscal federalism’ between Scotland and the UK. Yes, this is a Conservative-Liberal Democrat Bill, but Labour launched the Calman process and Ed Miliband is keen to adopt anything that will make his party seem more Scottish in Scotland, so important is this Holyrood victory for the new Labour leader’s own fate. He needs to win this election.

If the proposals for new borrowing powers, the ability to raise money through bond issues, joint authority over the Inland Revenue and even a new deal on corporation tax are approved by Westminster, the SNP’s case for fiscal independence will look a lot weaker. However, it’s much too early to write off the SNP. Polling day is a long way off.

The SNP can legitimately claim that, had it not been for them, tuition fees would have been restored, there would have been no Calman or the Scotland Bill, prescription charges would still be high and council tax even higher. But politics isn’t fair, and the voters have the last word. And right now, it looks like they seem minded to snap back to their default position, and put their faith in Labour again.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


20 thoughts on “What do the SNP have to do to stay in office?

  1. loudmouth Aex Salmond(how many times has the microphone been switched of on his aggressive rants) and the snp being booted out of power seems very! very! fair to me.Perhaps they should have a summit to discuss Alexs aggressive manner at Holyrood and its effect on those who watch his antics.

    Posted by Mr. Mxyzptlk | March 12, 2011, 1:26 pm
  2. Contd from above:The Support for Mr Gray from Milliband et al only serves to show that he is not his own man and the fact that he needs such obvious support only serves to underline his weakness as a leader. And of course Labour’s great shibboleth, Mrs Thatcher, will be invoked at every opportunity. What would Labour do without Mrs Thatcher? But all that needs to be done is remind everyone that if Labour had got back into power in 2010 they would have brought in greater cuts than anything Mrs Thatcher did whether real or imagined.As to the Scotland Bill the wheels are already coming off that one already. This week the UK Parliament has watered down the clause in the original Bill about devolving power over airguns to the Scottish Parliament and that is before the UK Parliament has even received the report from the Scottish Committee. So what hope for any of the recommendations in that document? The Scottish Bill is more about taking power back from the Scottish Parliament and the emasculation of any powers that remain than it is about devolving powers to the Parliament.The SNP can legitimately claim that:-Council Houses built ~2500-3000 – in some places the first council houses for 30 years.-Stopping 'right to buy' to keep council houses in public ownership-Road Transport Equivalent on Ferries e.g. to Western Isles – always promised by LibDems but never enacted when they were part of the Scottish Executive.-£168 million pound skills package (£68 million from EU) to fund community based projects accross Scotland to improve the employability of those young people with no formal skills or qualifications.-Delivered an extra 1,000 police officers-Crime in Scotland has fallen to 32-year low-Scottish knife crime at a ten-year low-Gun crimes falling to a ten-year low-Keeping open local accident and emergency units as promised-Prescription charges cut dramatically and about to be abolished-Waiting times reducedLevel of infections in hospitals reduced.-Removed the tolls on all of Scotland’s roads and bridges-A record number of modern apprenticeships-Reversed a decade of decline in international educational comparisons-Increased payments for free personal and nursing care-Helped small and medium sized businesses by removing them from paying, or reducing their business rates. -Oh and of course frozen the council tax for the last four years.

    Posted by CWH | March 12, 2011, 1:59 pm
  3. Sorry this bit should have come first: “”How to break the link between Labour and the soul of Scotland.”” Perhaps it would be more accurate to say: "How to break the link between Labour and the media, both print and broadcast, in Scotland.Today's Herald is a prime example of how the SNP is written out of the picture and any proposal or initiative by the Scottish Government is distorted – half a page to the Scottish Secretary vs one column to the SNP Conference is but one example in today’s paper.Mr Gray’s Damascene-like conversion on the issue of tuition fees is more ‘flaming heck’ then ‘flaming bush’ and seems to have taken his own party members by surprise including his shadow Education Minister. But this is Mr Gray – rule by diktat. He announces, out of the blue, a policy decision such as this and his earlier announcement that Labour will bring in a single police force if elected all without costing, consultation or a coherent plan for implementation. Do you really think students are stupid enough to fall for what is the just a piece of naked political expediency? One moreover that the Labour leader has not costed or given any indication that he has any idea how to pay for it. Or will students remember that it was Labour who introduced tuition fees in the first place and their abolition in Scotland was at the behest of the LiDems when they were part of the Scottish Executive coalition. Or do you think that students will remember the last time such promises were made to them ahead of an election and what happened afterwards? I have no doubt that if Labour win they will renege on their promise and blame it on the SNP and claim that they left the finances in a mess. After all Labour has form when it comes to reneging on manifesto commitments. In the 2007 manifesto they, as well as the SNP, included a commitment to reduce class sizes in their manifesto. Yet as soon as they went into opposition they ridiculed the policy and derided and obstructed the Scottish Governments attempts to enact the policy. Yet in a Parliament of minority parties it would have been possible for Labour to co-operate with the Scottish Government to make this work. Afer all the majority of people who voted in the 2007 election voted for Labour and the SNP who had this policy commitment in common. Yet the Scottish Government persevered with the policy in the face of obdurate opposition and have gone further along the road to reducing class sizes than might have been expected from a minority government.

    Posted by CWH | March 12, 2011, 2:01 pm
  4. Ian Gray as first minister what a nightmare

    Posted by Conway | March 12, 2011, 3:40 pm
  5. I suppose if Labour do get in ,they will find that unless the Scots parliament gets complete control of all tax revenue in Scotland that Labour will be tarnished with the Tory Lib dem cuts.And as much as they may wish to believe Scots are not willing to pay more in taxes.

    Posted by Conway | March 12, 2011, 6:55 pm
  6. But as we all should know, the method of "weighting" applied to the polls give the lie to the so called slip in popularity for the SNP. If you don't know what I'm talking about, please find out for yourself. The results are fascinating

    Posted by The Laird | March 13, 2011, 11:44 am
  7. This is an odd article Iain which appears to be based on opinion and little else. As far as I know no-one is trying to, "keep their spirits up", and what evidence have you got that Scottish ministers have a, "sense of hurt", or believe that the SNP have taken over the divine right of Labour to rule Scotland and are, "falling out of love", with the electorate? There is some confusion in the article here as well, on one hand the polls are ambiguous on the other the opinion polls are piling on the agony. Which is it?"It isnae fair", "feeling pretty sore", "rapidly falling out of love with the electorate", "90-minute patriots", "tetchiness". The phrases you use here appear to be an attempt to make the SNP look bad tempered with a sense of entitlement to power and the thrust of the whole article is to throw a damper on the SNP conference

    Posted by DougtheDug | March 13, 2011, 11:44 am
  8. Does UK Labour not realise that their worse nightmare is looming with a return to government in Scotland?Folk are fickle if nothing else and when these Westminster cuts start hurting the benefit recipients who form their main voting base in Scotland – their game's a bogey for evermore!Any logic would tell them to leave well alone at Holyrood. Labour in Scotland are insulated by their opposition role and the SNP government is doing a good job in coping with Westminster's cuts, which means the wrath of their dependent voters is being avoided.Labour are in no position to form effective government in Scotland and the whole shooting match will kick off big-time by the ineptness surely to come crashing down about them.Luckily for Labour, the bookies are normally not a million miles out!

    Posted by Barontorc | March 13, 2011, 2:16 pm
  9. 'What do the SNP have to do to stay in office?'Exploit the moment. The events unfolding in Japan is yet again a timely reminder that the question marks hanging over nuclear power generation are real and will not go away as long as the proof of our collective and individual fallability in the areas of plant design and operation are so graphically demonstrated on our TV screens.A timely reminder on the one hand however may be an opportunity on the other.The Scottish government is opposed to any expansion of nuclear power in Scotland. Let it re-state its reasons and argue the alternatives.PS As a country we no longer have the capability to design, manufacture or build a nuclear or conventinal power station. PE Dec 2010.

    Posted by Anonymous | March 13, 2011, 3:44 pm
  10. "What do the SNP have to do to stay in office?" -I would have thought the answer was very obvious.They need the Media, TV, radio and trash newspapers to stop being biased towards Labour.It's not rocket science.

    Posted by Anonymous | March 13, 2011, 11:11 pm
  11. The SNP would be ahead in the polls if the Scottish media wasn't little more than a media relations branch of the UK Labour Party. I listened to Salmond being interviewed on GMS this morning and once again Gary could barely hide the contempt in his voice. He barked questions that were more to do with rhetoric rather than journalism, and talked over the answers. What do the SNP have to do to stay in power, Iain? They need journalists to be journalists and not propagandists; they need to continue with the positive method and message that got them into government and carried them through.

    Posted by Rolf | March 14, 2011, 12:04 pm
  12. Even the Guardian in an editorial directed disparaging remarks at our First Minister by calling him a political opportunist and that the then New Labour government should call his bluff and hold a referendum on Scottish independence.The same paper went on to nail its colours to the Lib/dem mast at the general election; all of whose leaders turned out to be blatant liars.The friends some people keep!

    Posted by Anonymous | March 14, 2011, 8:49 pm
  13. Rolf."Gary" was doing his job. If/when he subsequently gives Iain Gray a softer interview, then complain.Oh, and thank your lucky stars he wasn't interviewed by the Jo Coburn.

    Posted by Allan | March 15, 2011, 7:23 pm
  14. 'More for less?'The coaliton government at Westminster have indicated that GPs under the proposed NHS changes will be in for cash bonuses if they spend less than what was originally allocated to them for patient care.Peter Carter, CE of the Royal College of nursing, among others agreed that 'profits made by GP consortiums should go into…improvement in patients services and not the pockets of GPs.' (Guardian w/e 5th March 2011)The SNP government should be highlighting the potentially serious consequences to the delivery of healthcare in Scotland should the contagion threatening the English Health Service spread north of the border.Which is very likely under a unionist party led government; given that their first loyalty is to their party leaders in Whitehall and not their scottish constituents.

    Posted by Anonymous | March 16, 2011, 4:05 pm
  15. This is the response I sent to the Herald following the appearance of this piece in the Herald on the 10th of March:-"Iain MacWhirter expresses his bewilderment at the apparent failure of the SNP to make progress against Labour in the opinion polls (What else can the SNP do to claw back votes?, The Herald, Thursday, 10th of March, 2011) in the context of the many accomplishments of the SNP Government over the past four years."It pains me to point out that there remains a perception, particularly in the west of Scotland, that the SNP have been incompetent in government and that the Labour opposition have worked zealously to protect the working people of Scotland by opposing the plans of the SNP."This perception may depend on careful analysis of facts gleaned from independent objective sources, but I doubt it. In my view it is far more likely that it is due to the fact that traditional Labour voters are bombarded daily with anti-SNP propaganda from their tabloids of choice and look to no other source for their political opinions."On another page of The Herald we have Michael Settle acknowledging the extremely low profile of the leader of the Labour MSPs, Iain Gray, but finding the cause elusive. Anyone who has observed Mr Gray’s performance at First Minister’s Questions or witnessed him being interviewed on Newsnight Scotland should understand why the Labour Party insist on him keeping a low profile. Then again, what proportion of Labour voters would be interested in watching a programme about Scottish politics?"On the same page, your Health Correspondent Helen Puttick reports on Nicola Sturgeon’s defence of the Scottish NHS, finding space to refer to last year’s “damning” Nuffield Trust report comparing the Scottish NHS and the English NHS. As your Health Correspondent, Ms Puttick should also be aware that this report was severely compromised and discredited due to its failure to compare like with like by attempting to shoe-horn Scottish statistics into an English data model."Should the democratic will of the people of Scotland be to elect a Labour government in May then I look forward to the raising of the profiles of the many stars on Labour’s front bench. I particularly look forward to a new Labour Health Secretary explaining her caffeine hypothesis to the rank and file of the Scottish NHS."Too long to stand a chance of being printed but it made me feel better.John Jamieson.

    Posted by Anonymous | March 16, 2011, 4:41 pm
  16. Nye Bevan talked of having to "stuff their mouths with gold", to get them to agree to serve in the embrionic national health service (NHS) they never wanted. That was back in 1948.Now we are being told that under the NHS reforms being pushed through by the Tory/lib coalition GPs in England could be earning £300,000 a year, five times what they were earning in 2004.This at a time when medical breakthroughs owe more to technologists, chemists, physicists and the like rather than GPs or the doctors who insist on wearing their badge of status around their neck in the form of a 19th century invention called a stethoscope – even in the hospital canteen.But to return to the subject of renumeration a recent survey showed that average earnings in the nursing profession was below the national average for the country as a whole.In Scotland doctors are demanding a 25% increase to bring them into line with doctors working in the English NHS. Its time we took them on full square. Doctors are stifling the prospects of caring motivated nurses from achieving their full potential. That has to change. I want the next Scottish government to bring the SNHS into the 21st century.Based on the premise that delivering healthcare is a 24/7 occupation. Expensive equipment cannot be allowed to lie idle because doctors determine their own wages and working conditions.

    Posted by Anonymous | March 17, 2011, 12:15 pm
  17. if labour get back into power in May it will be an absolute travesty. they have no policies except the ones they have u-turned on and stolen from the SNP after voting against them for the last 4 years. they have no credibility because of this also. they are going to make sure A & E's stay open! FFS the only threat the A & E's were under was from the preivous lab/lib executive!! Student fees??? Labour introduced them! Council tax? Moaned about by labour and voted against by labour (as recently as 4 weeks ago) and now suddenly it is policy?It will be a sad day for Scotland if mr gray becomes First Minister. I hope the undecided make the right decision in May.

    Posted by Anonymous | March 18, 2011, 10:38 am
  18. I am agree with you on the fact of the Scottish National Party,they are doing their best and trying everything to keep the confidence level up and over and mainly to keep the spirits a live,and i think that they will done it and they can proves to be strong and united by working hard and with the full effort.

    Posted by Dissertation | March 19, 2011, 6:48 am
  19. "Our experiences of the NHS are woven into the fabric of our lives – and our fiction.Our babies are born into it, the elderly leave this world through it.It is a brilliant and beautiful construction, yet now – extraordinarily – we seem to be on the brink of losing it."signed: Margaret Drabble, author. (see Guardian 19th Mar 2011)Clearly Margaret feels that, should that happen, the biggest losers will be women. Just as in 1948 when it was formed women stood to benefit the most, if for no other reason other than the biological one.However, to assume that we in Scotland can be protected from the contagion infecting the body politic south of the border, would be a mistake.In Scotland we have our own home grown unionist fifth column at the heart of Holyrood.Politicians whose first loyalty is to their party leaders in Westminster, not their Scottish constituents.The SNP, like them or loathe them, are beholden to no one from the home counties.However sceptical one may feel, their assurances on health and education have a constancy and credibility which contrasts with the recent vacillations of the unionist party leaders.

    Posted by Anonymous | March 20, 2011, 12:20 pm
  20. Some reassessment of the foregoing may now be in order.

    Posted by Am Firinn | May 7, 2011, 7:16 pm

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