Daily Archives: April 20, 2015

The SNP general election manifesto (part 2): What can the SNP hope to negotiate?

See also The SNP general election manifesto (part 1): don’t forget how quickly it all got weird

The SNP is thinking meaningfully, and perhaps for the first time in its history, about what it can hope to get from negotiations from a Labour government. We can put these demands into four categories.

  1. Assurances that have already been made, plus a bit more. When the Scottish parties talk about protecting Scottish public services, such as education and the NHS, they are taking part in an artificial debate. Similarly, when parties make reference to maintaining Scotland’s financial position or delivering the Smith Commission agenda on further devolution they are trying to take credit for something agreed by all the main parties. The SNP is no exception. However, there is some scope for more devolution, driven by SNP pressure and Labour’s desire to look like it delivered ‘home rule’ – particularly in areas, such as social security, where the main obstacle for additional reforms seemed to come from ministers, such as Iain Duncan Smith, that would no longer be in post.
  2. A little push in the right direction. You would expect most SNP success to come from pushing Labour to do things it already wants to do. For example, both want to maintain a ‘triple lock’ on the state pension and abolish the ‘bedroom tax’, there is little ground between the SNP’s call for a minimum wage of £8.70 by 2020 and Labour’s ‘more than £8’ by 2019, and they both make similar noises about abolishing an unelected House of Lords and increasing the representation of women in public life (while the SNP specifically says ‘We will push for 50:50 representation on public and private boards’). Both parties want to find the right form of words to claim that they are cutting the budget deficit without cutting important public services, while investing for the future and avoiding austerity. So, it could be in their common interest to come to a vague agreement on a plan to boost the economy and jobs.

Most remarkably, the SNP has published (on page 5) a list of Labour policies that it is happy to vote for: ‘the reintroduction of the 50 pence top tax rate, a tax on bankers’ bonuses, a bank levy, a mansion tax, a crackdown on tax avoidance, the abolition of ‘non-dom’ status and reversal of the married couple’s tax allowance’. In other areas, the wording of each party commitment leaves the door open for agreement, including: the SNP’s opposition to a child benefit cut and Labour’s proposal for a temporary cap; and, the SNP’s opposition to an EU referendum and Labour not planning to hold one.

  1. Likely Scottish influence on English policies (or reference to devolved areas). In some cases, party agreement extends to policies that refer primarily to England but with some knock-on effect for devolved budgets. For example, both want to boost NHS spending and limit NHS ‘privatisation’ (Labour to fund English hospitals and the SNP to get the ‘Barnett consequentials’) and reduce tuition fees in England (which would boost Scottish Government funding if the shortfall comes directly from UK Government spending).

In other cases, things get confusing because the SNP: effectively supports Labour’s commitment to 25 free hours of pre-school childcare in England while reminding people about its existing commitment to 30 hours in Scotland; wants to boost Labour’s UK house building target (from 40000 to 100000 per year) while maintaining a more limited aim in Scotland; and, will ‘continue to support a moratorium on fracking’ (there is one in Scotland, not England).

  1. Less influence, more red lines? The biggest bone of contention in the manifestos is Trident: the SNP wants to abolish it (the Conservatives want to renew it) and Labour wants to talk about it as little as possible (its manifesto describes a ‘minimum, credible, independent nuclear capability’ but not renewal). Much depends on how the renewal policy is pursued: if primarily through the budget, it will be tricky to secure SNP support for the overall budget; if via legislation, Labour could rely on Conservative support. Much also depends on Labour’s ability to put the issue off, to reflect the fact that many of its MPs would rather not renew.

Other issues may also need to play out before we know what will happen: the SNP has called for a return to an entitlement for non-EU students to work in the UK temporarily after graduation (Labour’s emphasis is more on curbing bogus student visas); and, there is a common desire to tackle the big energy companies, but with a separate SNP aim to challenge the UK rules on transmission charging.

Finally, I don’t think full fiscal ‘autonomy’ or ‘responsibility’ is the red line that Labour makes it out to be. Before the SNP published its manifesto, the debate resembled two childish tactics playing out simultaneously: the SNP relying on the ‘but you said’ argument, to criticise the main UK parties for not delivering devo max (which they did not promise); and, the other parties daring the SNP to keep asking for the fiscal autonomy it was not being offered (Scottish Labour in particular sees it as the thorn in the SNP’s side).

Now, the SNP is talking about fiscal autonomy in the long term, highlighting how long it has taken to deliver far less ambitious further-devolution plans so far (the Calman review process began in 2007, to produce a Scotland Act in 2012), and pretty much saying that it is prepared to see it delivered over more than one parliamentary term. As such, it has removed the most important red line.

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The SNP general election manifesto (part 1): don’t forget how quickly it all got weird

If you read the SNP’s manifesto, don’t just conclude that it looks as dull as the rest: remember how quickly British politics got weird in the run up to its publication. Context is everything, and there are three pieces of remarkable context to consider.

First, it has been a long time since the SNP had to worry this much about a UK general election manifesto. In Scotland, Labour has dominated the number of seats for decades, and the last and only time that the SNP reached double figures was in October 1974. Even after the SNP became the biggest party in the Scottish Parliament in 2007, it secured only 6 (20%) MPs in 2010. Now, suddenly, we are expecting the SNP to follow up its landslide Scottish Parliament victory in 2011 with a large majority of Scottish seats in 2015 – and the leaders of the UK parties (not just their Scottish leaders) have to respond in a meaningful way.

Second, this will happen even though the SNP lost the referendum on Scottish independence and is not pushing for a second. For the casual observer, equating the SNP with little more than a single aim, it will be difficult to work out why the SNP’s membership surged after the referendum and why it has not reinforced the SNP’s determination to try again quickly.

Third, it is possible that the SNP will form some kind of non-trivial relationship with a UK Labour party of government. For observers of Scottish politics, this is almost like a Labour-Conservative agreement in the UK. Even though Scottish devolution in 1999 came with the promise of new, less partisan, politics, the SNP-Labour relationship has generally been adversarial.

One reason why this outcome doesn’t seem quite so weird is that the SNP has proved to be a professional party which has thought about its short term message and long term strategy. Its aim is independence in the long term, but it won’t push for a referendum unless it knows it can win. Nor will it push for further devolution at all costs. Rather, it is looking for way to balance its long term aims with a way to make its policies relevant to every possible election. In 2015, this means occupying ground to the left of UK Labour while doing what most parties have done in Scottish politics for decades: opposing ‘the Tories’.

See also: The SNP general election manifesto (part 2): What can the SNP hope to negotiate?

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