Andrew Whitaker: Just how left-wing is the SNP?

SUGGESTIONS that former Labour stalwarts are deserting the Murphy camp merit some scrutiny, writes Andrew Whitaker.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon unveiled the SNP's manifesto on Monday. Picture: Getty
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon unveiled the SNP's manifesto on Monday. Picture: Getty

Whether it’s the suggestion that Jim Murphy will lose his East Renfrewshire seat to the SNP or support for the Nationalists in the polls surging above 50 per cent, the crisis facing Scottish Labour just goes from bad to worse.

Just when the party leadership thinks the situation could be calming down, it seems a fresh impending disaster is waiting around the corner, whether in disappointing poll figures or the plaudits for the TV debate performances of Nicola Sturgeon.

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Speculation is rife among journalists, politicians, pollsters and assorted opinion formers about just what exactly is going on.

There’s a view among some of those with Nationalist leanings that the seemingly unstoppable surge in SNP support represents a political movement following on from last year’s independence referendum that will sweep all before it.

The SNP has at various times managed to roll out numerous and varied former Labour members either backing the party or at least the Yes campaign.

But it was a conversation with a close and much-respected friend several days ago which strikingly brought home to me the inescapable meltdown Scottish Labour may be facing on 7 May.

Here was an extremely thoughtful and principled Socialist, someone who was active in the Labour politics for decades and who, in the first ever conversation with me some years ago in an Edinburgh bar, without prompting identified herself as having once been involved in her local Labour Party.

Despite having formally resigned her Labour membership over the Iraq war, this was someone who remained solidly Labour and continued to vote for the party even during its disastrous 2011 defeat, as well as still broadly identifying with it despite voting Yes in last year’s referendum.

Yet this former Labour stalwart told me when we met that she now intends to vote SNP for the first time, on the basis that she views Ms Sturgeon’s party as occupying ground she once associated with Labour – and because that this election is, in her view, a continuation of the pro-independence campaign.

Despite a follow-up remark that she would never join the SNP and actually wanted Labour to win her back, her declared intention to vote SNP was unshakeable.

Of course, the views expressed by one person do not provide an instant explanation for the whys and wherefores of Labour’s electoral meltdown in Scotland and the rise of the SNP.

But the resolve of this left-leaning Labourite, who I viewed as having the party in her DNA and who I know still has a real scepticism about the SNP’s brand of nationalism, suggests to this columnist that the polls probably are as bad as they look for Mr Murphy’s leadership.

But just how much of a party of the Left is the SNP, and will people eventually be disappointed with the SNP in the way they have been with Labour governments?

There is a large contingent of people on the Scottish and wider UK Left who have the view that one day a new Socialist party to the left of Labour will rise from the flames like a phoenix.

Such a view goes back decades and was widespread back in the late 1960s, when disillusionment with Harold Wilson’s Labour government led to a big exodus from the party into various left-wing splinter groups.

Many such people did return to Labour in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when politicians such as Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone started to exercise influence in the party.

There have been other false dawns for people leaving Labour and throwing in their lot with an embryonic party of the Left in the relatively recent past.

Think of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) – the left-wing breakaway from Labour launched and still led by former miners’ union leader Arthur Scargill in 1996.

There’s also George Galloway’s Respect Party, which was created by the former Glasgow MP not long after his expulsion from Labour over his opposition to the Iraq war.

There have at times been principled reasons for people leaving Labour and trying to go it alone or throw in their lot with another party.

But Socialists, or one-time natural Labour supporters orientating towards a nationalist party, may lead to tensions.

Such people may also find themselves at odds with the structure of the SNP in terms of the iron-like discipline associated with its organisation, such as the requirement that all SNP candidates sign up to every aspect of party policy. The SNP’s policy throughout the referendum campaign was that an independent Scotland would cut corporation tax – a policy that has only been abandoned by the party in recent months.

There’s also the approach the SNP has at times taken in government, including the controversial no-strike deal ministers presided over with the Scottish Prison Officers Association, a deal that was the first of its kinds under devolution and which saw workers giving up their right to strike in exchange for a £2,000 pay-off.

True, there are SNP policies such as free NHS prescriptions that most people on the Left are instinctively supportive of, but the Nationalist government resisted a Hillsborough-style inquiry into the convictions of striking miners during the 1984-5 strike in Scotland, and also blocked a Labour proposal to make all government contractors pay their employees the living wage.

It’s also probably true to say that with Labour policies such as increasing the top rate of income tax, introducing a “mansion tax”, taxing bankers’ bonuses, and limiting the use of zero-hours contracts, the difference between Labour and Tory policies is greater than at any point over the past 20 years.

However, the SNP’s commitment to scrap Trident in contrast to Ed Miliband’s and Mr Murphy’s plan to renew it is clearly a critical example of Ms Sturgeon’s party outflanking Labour on the left. But on most other issues, such as redistribution, the living wage or public ownership, it’s hard to see what’s more radical about SNP plans than Labour’s.

However, it may be that the momentum of the Yes campaign, the strength of Ms Sturgeon’s personality and all-round effectiveness represent a sea change that just mean it’s a fact of political life that the SNP will dominate Scottish politics for years to come.