Leaders: Sturgeon wise to shift away from constitution

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: Getty
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: Getty
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SNP leader must tread fine line to appease the new recruits

Election weary Scots may baulk at the prospect of Nicola Sturgeon today firing the starting gun on next year’s Scottish Parliament vote as the SNP gathers in Aberdeen for its autumn conference. The past year and a half have seen voters called to the polls for European election campaigns, the landmark referendum on independence and the dramatic UK general election where the SNP enjoyed unprecedented success.

And it’s this wave of popularity that the First Minister will be trying to build on as she urges Scots from across the referendum divide to back in her in next year’s Holyrood vote. It’s a tactic which proved successful four years ago when the SNP won its first historic majority at the Scottish Parliament. This was something which the voting system was supposed to preclude. But Alex Salmond deployed a deliberate tactic of urging Scots to consider his own top team, including Sturgeon, John Swinney and Kenny MacAskill. The then Labour leader Iain Gray’s shadow top team struggled by comparison in the judgment of Scots who backed the SNP. And significantly about a quarter of SNP voters in the 2011 election were not backers of independence, but trusted the SNP to run the devolved set-up in Scotland.

The trouble Ms Sturgeon faces on this occasion is keeping the enthusiasm of almost 100,000 new members – who flocked to the SNP following the referendum defeat – under control. With a number of recent polls suggesting Scots are now spilt down the middle on independence, the appetite among new recruits for a return to the polls will only intensify. One last push, they will cry.

Ms Sturgeon must know she has a fine line to walk. There is likely to be limited enthusiasm among Scots for a quick-fire return to the constitutional question. And the SNP won’t return to the polls again unless they feel confident they can win. This means a lead of at least ten points over a consistent period of time. This is still some way off.

And so the political focus will switch to the domestic Scottish agenda. Opposition parties will hope recent woes over the Michelle Thomson affair, Police Scotland and the schooling gap between rich and poor will give them the opportunity to make inroads on the SNP popularity. But Labour’s new leader Kezia Dugdale, despite impressive displays at First Minister Questions, remains an unknown quantity to most Scots and faces a colossal task eating into the 30-point lead which Ms Sturgeon’s party enjoys over Labour in the polls.

Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader, has won plaudits after an impressive referendum and UK election campaigns. But there has been little sign so far that she can transform this into votes for the party which still struggles to shake off the “toxic” label in Scotland. The Lib Dems show little sign of escaping a repeat of the electoral disaster which befell them in May.

So the SNP will use this weekend’s conference to focus on the drive to solidify its position as the party of government in Scotland. And, of course, Ms Sturgeon will want to secure her own legacy, with next May presenting voters with the first opportunity to endorse the SNP leader as First Minister.

Abortion power poses dilemma

The decision to hand Scotland control over abortion law is fraught with grave moral and practical questions. On the face of it, the move tidies up of the current devolution package where Holyrood is responsible for health issues. Nicola Sturgeon has already indicated that she won’t change the 24-week limit on having a termination and Scottish Women’s Aid have welcomed the decision.

The issue has never ignited the same way in this country as it has in the US, where “right to life” groups have carried out attacks on clinics and individuals involved in carrying out abortions,

It nonethless remains an matter of contention here. Both Alex Salmond and the former health secretary, Alex Neil, were known to back a tightening of the current limits.

Even south of the Border, Maria Miller, the minister for women and equalities in the last coalition government, wanted to see the current limit cut to 20 weeks. It raises the uncomfortable spectre of abortion tourism emerging between the two countries.

This shows it could quickly become a source of controversy and Christian groups were already last night calling for a debate in Scotland about whether it has the right law.

Perhaps this is why Labour came out against the changes, with a warning that it could undermine the right of women to make their own choices.

With more 11,000 terminations - about one sixth of all pregnancies - carried out in Scotland last year, this issue affects a huge number of people.

Politicians must ensure full consultation is undertaken with women’s groups and be ready to think again if it proves a minefield to awkward to negotiate.