The SNP Finally Has an Election Pitch. Is It Too Late?

Left of Labour, but not exactly transformative.

by Adam Ramsay

20 June 2024

John Swinney speaking at the launch of the SNP's Westminster election manifesto.
Leader of the SNP John Swinney at the launch of the party’s Westminster election manifesto in Edinburgh, 19 June 2024. Credit: Lesley Martin/Reuters

For the first half of this election campaign, the Scottish National party struggled to find a message. The party has been through its second leadership change in just over a year, and neither Humza Yousaf nor John Swinney was ever the selfie-attracting celebrity that Nicola Sturgeon had been since 2014.

Picking up the pieces after a bruising break-up with the Greens, the new first minister would have hoped for a little longer to assemble the party into some kind of coherent picture.

But he didn’t get it, and, ever since Sunak surprised everyone by calling the vote months before he had to, the SNP had failed to make much of a case about why Scotland’s centre-left majority should stump for them over Labour. Largely, they seemed to fall back on their tired “standing up for Scotland” schtick which, if you live here, starts to sound a little like a tipsy friend telling the same old story again – one that wasn’t very interesting in the first place.

When the party released its election broadcast at the start of June – a gentle chat with Swinney and his controversial deputy Kate Forbes – it felt like a funeral home trying to sell you their bronze package.

With its manifesto launch yesterday, the party has developed a clearer message. Swinney trailed the document by saying it would be “the most leftwing” of the so-called major parties.

Speaking to Sky News on Tuesday, he added: “The SNP is a moderate left-of-centre political party, it always has been, always will be.” He also attacked Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves, saying: “The Labour party has essentially accepted the discipline of the Conservative approach to the economy. And that’s going to constrain them in all that they can do.

“We already know that there’s going to be spending cuts that the Tories have put in place, which the Labour party is going to accept.”

The document itself continues in this theme: the introduction promises “moderate left of centre policies to make the lives of the people of Scotland better”.

At the centre of the SNP’s argument is Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis that suggests Labour (and Lib Dem) promises to sign up to Tory fiscal rules inevitably mean billions of pounds more in cuts.

The SNP propose, on the one hand, a rebalancing of the Treasury’s batshit fiscal rules to allow for more borrowing to invest in public assets, and devolution of various taxes – windfall taxes and national insurance are named explicitly – so the Scottish government can continue to follow the approach already taken with those income taxes which have been devolved, and raise them on the wealthier.

Perhaps reasonably, since Swinney’s party aren’t suggesting they will be the Westminster government, and this isn’t a Holyrood election, they don’t give specific figures for these tax rises, instead saying “SNP MPs will stand firmly against the Westminster consensus on continued cuts, and demand increased investment in our vital public services”.

Similarly, the party promises to oppose NHS privatisation, including with a bill to protect the health service’s status as a public institution in any future trade deals, and to reverse the various anti-trade union laws in recent years. There are pledges to push for an end to the bedroom tax, the two-child benefit cap and resultant ‘rape clause’. At the launch, Swinney’s criticism of Labour for its failure to promise the cap was trenchant: “It’s a simple test: are you in government to help kids out of poverty?”

Elsewhere there are pledges that, in Westminster, seem radical: to scrap Trident nuclear weapons, abolish the House of Lords, end arms sales to Israel and recognise Palestine immediately, decriminalise drug use, defend migrants including by expanding the right to vote to numerous immigrant groups, and take Scotland back into the EU.

The manifesto doesn’t set out a social transformation on the scale we need. It doesn’t float large scale nationalisations, as the Green manifesto does, and the tax rises are implied rather than spelled out. It has a lot to say about the climate emergency: just transition and driving renewable energy, but ultimately doesn’t go nearly far enough – suggesting, for example, that new oil and gas licences should be granted on a “rigorously evidence led case-by-case basis through a robust climate compatibility assessment”. In reality, climate justice requires an outright ban. Instead, the manifesto pedals wishful thinking false solutions, like carbon capture and storage, and hydrogen.

Moreover, having led on trans rights, here the party carefully avoids the word, promising to “protect and enhance the rights of LGBTI people,” but otherwise stepping back from a ‘Terf war’.

It is, though, largely what it says it is – moderate left, at a time when Labour is running to the right.

If there is a second leg of the document – and the campaign – then it is an explicit pitch for independence. “If the SNP wins a majority of Scottish seats,” it says, “the Scottish government will be empowered to begin immediate negotiations with the UK government to give democratic effect to Scotland becoming an independent country”.

It’s a slightly odd wording, presumably intended to leave various routes to the party’s ultimate goal open. But what it seems to mean in reality is that if the party gets more than half of Scotland’s seats – that is, 29 MPs – it will feel emboldened when it reminds the new prime minister of the mandate from the 2021 Scottish parliament election to hold an independence referendum. I doubt Sir Keir will take much notice.

In practice, thousands of independence supporters in Scotland have responded to the stagnation caused by Westminster vetoing another vote by giving up on the idea as a short-term prospect, and the SNP are desperately trying to persuade them to go to the polling station at all – and, if they do, not to vote Labour (or Lib Dem in the north).

Now they finally have a half-decent pitch, they have two weeks to endlessly repeat it to those people until – they will hope – it is heard.

Adam Ramsay is a Scottish journalist. He is currently working on his forthcoming book Abolish Westminster.

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