Labour’s recent surge in the polls presents the SNP with new challenges.
First and foremost, the prospect of a Labour victory undermines a key SNP message. SNP spin doctors were always quick to highlight polls showing the Tories ahead of Labour. This showed, the SNP claimed, that Labour could not win, that Scotland was destined to permanent Tory rule without independence.
The SNP is struggling to find a coherent and convincing message now that Labour is well ahead. One response has been that independence is the only one way to remove the Tories “forever”. Another is to argue that Labour is no different from the Tories.
The SNP needs a Tory recovery. But it is very difficult for the Tories to regain a reputation for economic competence after losing it so spectacularly. Many SNP voters, especially those who previously voted Labour, would prefer a Labour government in Westminster and doubt the SNP’s doom-laden message of eternal Tory damnation. A key argument for voting for SNP and independence has lost credibility.
We may see the SNP lose support to Labour, even if only marginally, rather than the other way if voters believe there is a real prospect of change at Westminster.
But the bigger challenge for the SNP will arise on the other side of a UK election that returns a Labour government. If Labour emerges as the largest party without an overall majority, the SNP will have little choice but to support Labour. Bringing down or undermining a Labour government would leave the SNP in the political wilderness for a long time, as veteran nationalists know only too well.
The 2015 Tory election campaign poster showing Ed Miliband in Nicola Sturgeon’s pocket was a travesty of what would have happened but proved effective in scaring a section of the English electorate. The reality is that SNP MPs would be in Keir Starmer’s pocket. The SNP might hope to win the odd concession but they would have little, if any, leverage over a Labour government.
The SNP will have no choice but to support Labour proposals to reform the dysfunctional UK constitution, to abolish the Lords and create a Senate of Nations and Region. Nationalist MPs would be forced, perhaps through gritted teeth, to support measures that would strengthen the union by addressing the union’s obvious weaknesses.
It is little wonder that SNP politicians and spin doctors suggest that Labour will not embark on a programme of constitutional reform, noting that Labour has long been committed to such reform but never delivered. But support for reform of the UK’s central institutions has been growing across the whole of Britain. Debates on reform are further advanced in Wales and parts of England than in Scotland where we have seen little other than constitutional trench warfare between the Tories and SNP.
The creation of the Scottish Parliament was described by the late John Smith as the “unfinished business” of a Labour government. Labour dealt with this as soon as it returned to power in 1997. Labour today has other unfinished business, the business of reforming the House of Lords but also reviewing the experience of the range of constitutional reforms introduced when it was last in office. It has the chance to present a package of reforms that would ensure that all parts of the UK would have an authoritative and effective voice regardless of who was in Downing Street.
The very prospect of a Labour government intent of major reforms requires a major rethink by the SNP or it is in danger of being left on the sidelines, its moment having passed at least for some time.
James Mitchell is professor of public policy at Edinburgh University
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