Leader: Tactical trap lies ahead for SNP in General Election

Nicola Sturgeon described the news as heart breaking. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA
Nicola Sturgeon described the news as heart breaking. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA
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Poll indications of a further weakening of the Labour vote in Scotland would seem to present the SNP with an open goal.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon appears to have little to lose in stepping up the rhetoric as the only party in Scotland capable of fighting “Westminster austerity” and spending cuts.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is on the ropes, fighting to avert his party’s worst election defeat in a generation with Labour trailing up to 20 points behind Theresa May. A weekend poll by Panelbase had the Tories on 33 per cent in Scotland and the SNP on 44 per cent and Labour flat-lining on 13 per cent, pointing to a humiliating defeat for Labour in what was once its solid heartland.

And Ms Sturgeon, sensing Labour’s acute vulnerability, has moved in for the kill. She has ramped up the rhetoric, positioning the SNP as the only credible opposition to the Conservatives, who, she declared, “want to crush any opposition. The bigger the Tory majority the more they will think they can do anything to Scotland and get away with it.”

But there is a tactical trap here for the SNP. While it looks on course to retain a majority, it is highly sensitive to the charge that any weakening of voter support would be seized upon as evidence that the SNP tide is on the ebb and with it support for a second independence referendum. And it is from the Conservatives, not Labour, that high profile SNP figures could find themselves vulnerable to challenge.

Looking at the poll findings and other anecdotal evidence, there seems little more disillusioned Labour support that the SNP can scrape from this already well-stripped carcass. And while the strident anti-Tory rhetoric may play well in seats that the SNP has already captured from Labour, it carries less persuasive appeal to the broader electorate. The dilemma for the SNP is that its strongest appeal is when it presents itself as a national party, capable of representing a broad range of opinion. When rhetoric swings strongly to one side of the spectrum or another, that appeal is compromised. In tactical terms there may be more to be gained by a more nuanced address that seeks to win over and hold footloose voters in the middle ground than in banging yet more nails into a Labour coffin that already looks already well sealed.

And there is a case for the SNP to answer on its overall stewardship, and in particular its competence in devolved areas of responsibility such as health, social care, policing and not least economic management. The increase in business rates, which will inevitably accelerate the decline of many of our town centres, begs searching questions as to whether the party has a focused economic strategy to speak of, as distinct, that is, from trying to out-shout Labour on austerity and spending cuts.

Full judgement must be reserved until the formal party manifestoes are unveiled and voters can gain a better view of the more positive and practical policies that the SNP and others intend to pursue. For Scottish voters as a whole, this election has to be about much more than sectional support.