George Kerevan: SNP cannot write off Labour yet

MP John P Mackintosh had a revolutionary response to an impasse over Scottish home rule. Picture: Joe Steele

MP John P Mackintosh had a revolutionary response to an impasse over Scottish home rule. Picture: Joe Steele

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The Nationalists should be realistic over what can be won if they hold the balance of power at Westminster, writes George Kerevan

TIME to speak truth to power. Or at least inject some reality into the SNP’s plans to capture a majority of seats at the coming UK general election. All talk of winning 40 or so seats in the Commons is woefully premature. The party needs to start damping down expectations and concentrate on actually selecting some candidates – it has none in place as we speak.

It is certainly true that recent polls can be read as suggesting the SNP is well ahead of Labour in Scotland. Professor John Curtice, the nearest thing we have to God when it comes to reading the electoral runes north of the Border, says: “If voting took place now, the SNP would be favourites to be the third-largest party at Westminster.”

If so, the SNP could hold the balance of power. That would take us back to the 1880s, when – in similar circumstances – the Irish Home Rule Party led by Charles Stewart Parnell found itself in a position to extract concessions from the warring UK Unionist parties. At the 1886 general election, the Parnellites won 85 seats in a hung Westminster parliament.

However, there is one obvious difference between then and now. Parnell’s group dominated Irish politics outside of Ulster, and even returned 62 candidates unopposed. Scottish Labour, on the other hand, will contest every seat to the death.

The latest polling by Populus, based on a big internet sample, shows the SNP ahead of Labour for Westminster, which is novel by historical standards. Voters are punishing Scottish Labour for its opportunist alliance with the Tories in the Better Together campaign.

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However – and this is crucial – the SNP leads Labour by only three percentage points. That is a wafer-thin margin which could disappear quickly in an election in which the UK media relegates Scotland to a footnote. Taking the immediate Populus polling results at face value, Scottish Labour would retain around 28 seats – a drop of 13. But they would still emerge with the largest block of Scottish MPs. Above all, returning a solid (if diminished) team of Labour members from north of the Border could ensure Ed Miliband enters Number 10.

Personally, I am not convinced that Labour is off the hook in England regarding Ukip. The final three months in the run-up to the 7 May poll will be dominated by the immigration issue (allied to quitting the European Union). If Miliband starts talking tougher on immigration to fend off Ukip, while refusing an EU referendum to placate big business, he will create a perfect storm in which Labour could lose more popular support in England.

Alas, the rise of Ukip will not necessarily benefit the SNP. On the contrary, it might make Scottish working-class voters return to Labour “to keep the Tories and Ukip out” (though that didn’t work the last time). An additional complication is that the SNP is vulnerable in a UK election in which the television every night is dominated by discussion of immigration. We saw this in the European elections earlier this year, when Ukip won its first Scottish seat.

Conclusion: the SNP had better start being pro-active on immigration –pro-active in the sense of explaining that the immigration debate is a diversion from real economic and social problems. The SNP should say so constantly. The party has to seize the anti-austerity agenda with a vengeance and not let Labour tar it as being interested only in the constitution. At the same time, the SNP has to attack the Labour leadership’s tendency to retreat before Ukip – remember Gordon Brown’s disgraceful call for “British jobs for British workers”.

There is no reason – even if the polls narrow, as they must – why the SNP cannot double its representation at Westminster, and more. Even with 12 to 15 seats, this would represent the largest block of Scottish Nationalists ever returned at a general election. What would be risky is if the party’s expectations about seat gains are talked up out of all proportion to what is possible. The subsequent loss of morale would be dangerous for the Yes movement as a whole. In politics, perception is what counts.

If there is a hung parliament – still the likely outcome – the SNP will be in a good position to demand concessions for Scotland. But demands should be concrete rather than abstract; eg, for Scottish control over welfare and pensions, and the tax powers to pay for them. Again, the SNP should not exaggerate what can be achieved by holding a theoretical balance of power at Westminster. In 1886, Parnell and his Irish MPs failed to win home rule within the UK. They were thwarted by an unprincipled alliance of anti-home rule Liberals and traditional Tories, who united to block the democratic wish of the Irish people to run their own domestic affairs. Alas, this intransigence ushered in a generation of needless civil violence until Ireland walked out of the Union altogether in 1922.

Let me quote the late, great John P Mackintosh, a former Labour MP for Berwick and East Lothian. A convinced Scottish home ruler, Mackintosh was appalled when Labour backbenchers killed the first Devolution Bill in 1978.

Fearing yet another constitutional impasse at Westminster, he conceived a revolutionary response. Mackintosh called on “all those Liberal, Tory and Labour members who favoured devolution” to collaborate with the SNP to achieve “a federal solution”. How? Mackintosh proposed that Scots MPs of all parties “trade their votes in Westminster” with “whichever government was prepared to co-operate”.

I suspect the John P Mackintosh of 1978 is still too radical for the Labour Party of 2014, which is why he would have voted Yes at the referendum. The truth is that Labour’s Scottish backbenchers at Westminster will always prefer self-preservation and the pleasures of the London life to making way for a genuine home rule parliament in Edinburgh. This is precisely why the SNP must not count its Westminster seats before they are won.

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