The First Minister’s popularity across the UK could aid the ‘In’ campaign, writes Andrew Whitaker
The SNP’s approval rating with voters appears to be going from strength to strength as the weeks and months go by, in a way that looks like being a fact of political life for the foreseeable future.
Much the same is true of Nicola Sturgeon’s popularity, with the SNP leader probably now the most popular politician to hold the post of first minister in the 17 years of devolution.
Such high levels of popularity seems certain to boost the support the SNP gets in May’s Holyrood election, with many non-nationalist, left-leaning voters perhaps inclined to back Sturgeon as their favoured candidate for first minister.
Her predecessor deployed a tactic of “re-elect Alex Salmond as first minister” to massive effect at the 2011 Holyrood election, when the SNP not only secured its desired aim of a second term, but also won an overall majority in a parliament whose electoral system was specifically designed to prevent such an outcome.
But it is Sturgeon’s broader appeal – not being such a “Marmite” figure in the Salmond mould – that may see her play one of the most significant roles of any UK politician in the In-Out referendum on European Union membership promised by David Cameron.
It’s already clear that the SNP will have its own party campaign in favour of staying in, just as Labour already has its own pro-Europe campaign led by former cabinet minister Alan Johnson. Johnson has a folksy campaigning style that will serve the pro-EU side well in the run-up to the vote when it finally comes.
But aside from the obvious appeal Sturgeon has in Scotland, and the bounce she will give to the pro-European camp north of the Border, the First Minister may also emerge as a major asset to the UK-wide campaign as a whole.
It’s worth casting the mind back to the televised leaders’ debates in the run-up to last year’s general election, when Sturgeon put on a very strong showing that saw her receive plaudits from across the UK – particularly from anti-Conservative voters.
It’s arguable that the SNP in government has not always lived up to its own billing and publicity as a supposed champion of social justice, such as when the party’s MSPs voted against extending the living wage to all workers employed by those in receipt of public sector contracts. There are also the ongoing cuts to local council funding, and SNP ministers also face claims that they have starved the further education college sector of funds. Such criticisms are at the very least a chink in the armour of the SNP’s self-styled left of centre social democratic platform.
The suggestion from some SNP supporters that legions of voters south of the Border yearned to vote for their party on the back of Sturgeon’s TV performance were overstated. However, Sturgeon is undoubtedly a left-of-centre politician who holds similar positions on progressive taxation, welfare and employment rights to many Labour politicians.
Her performance in last year’s TV debates, when she repeatedly stated the SNP would help “lock the Tories out” of power and an avowedly anti-austerity stance, mean the First Minister is viewed as a progressive anti-Tory politician by voters north and south of the Border.
While the polls suggest that Scotland is inclined to vote decisively to remain in the EU, there are fears among some on Labour’s pro-Europe wing that many people in some of the party’s strongholds in big cities such as Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle may be tempted by anti-EU rhetoric or perhaps may simply not vote at all in the referendum, making a Eurosceptics win more likely.
It’s in the making of a case for a reformed “social” Europe that promotes employment rights and minimum standards over key areas such as welfare provision that Sturgeon could prove key in speaking to such constituencies.
There is a genuine prospect that pro-EU Labour voices could end up singing from the same hymn sheet as those of the SNP when it comes to articulating such a vision of Europe, rather then the pro-austerity version put forward by David Cameron and George Osborne, that some see as representing a model that imposed unprecedented cuts on Greece.
With parts of the UK-wide left tempted to back a “Brexit” on the basis that the EU is used an instrument to impose austerity, Sturgeon could also prove pivotal in the social justice case for staying in, which the largely pro-EU trade union movement is also signed up to.
Sturgeon, like Johnson, could promote an alternative to what may come to be seen as the largely pro-business and centre right leadership of the Britain Stronger In Europe campaign, which is chaired by former Marks & Spencer chairman and Tory peer Sir Stuart Rose.
The SNP leader and Johnson could well emerge as the star players in the pro-EU camp, with the pro-Europe Liberal Democrats, vastly weaker numerically in the Commons, still tainted in the eyes of many for their five years in coalition with the Tories.
The “Stronger In Europe” group in Scotland is likely to have a more progressive leadership than that at UK level due to the appointment of former Labour MP Frank Roy as campaign director, with the SNP’s former communications boss Kevin Pringle also taking a key role.
In a sense the situation could represent a reversal of last year’s election, when the Tories successfully managed to scare sections of the electorate in England with an aggressive campaign that warned of a disproportionate SNP influence on a Labour government.
It would then be an ironic twist if Sturgeon’s popularity among English voters helped swing the referendum in favour of staying in the EU – the official position of both the Labour and SNP leaderships.