Why the SNP is sticking to attacking the Westminster system in this general election campaign

The SNP’s attack line accusing Labour of continuing austerity could help the party hold onto some of its seats.

The polls are not looking great for the SNP, but the election is far from over.

Several polls are predicting Labour will take up to 30 seats from John Swinney’s party at next month’s election – but with a lot of those balancing on a knife-edge between the two parties, the SNP will feel a lot of seats are still up for grabs.

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The SNP has managed to shake the Michael Matheson fiasco that overshadowed the first two weeks of the general election campaign. The SNP leader has found a good line and is sticking to it.

SNP leader John Swinney (left) and Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar, clashed over austerity in a BBC Debate Night election special (Photo by Jane Barlow/PA Wire)SNP leader John Swinney (left) and Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar, clashed over austerity in a BBC Debate Night election special (Photo by Jane Barlow/PA Wire)
SNP leader John Swinney (left) and Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar, clashed over austerity in a BBC Debate Night election special (Photo by Jane Barlow/PA Wire)
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Labour still has questions to answer over how it is going to pay for its plans if it forms the next UK government. Sir Keir Starmer has ruled out tax rises and hasn’t completely answered how Labour stops a continuation of austerity. Labour insisting there will be no austerity and squeeze of public services does not mean that is what they will deliver.

Crucial to that plan is growing the economy – alongside measures like imposing VAT on private schools. Cracking down on tax evasion and closing loopholes on nom-dom tax status is expected to raise more than £2 billion of extra money a year – if you believe Labour’s plans.

But that pledge to grow the economy is crucial, Labour claims, to move away from austerity. Economically it is a gamble and the SNP have jumped in with two feet.

John Swinney. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA WireJohn Swinney. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire
John Swinney. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

The fact Labour cannot say at this stage what its spending plans will be in government, a pretty unfair ask before any administration has entered Downing Street, plays into the SNP’s narrative.

When Mr Swinney was named SNP leader and First Minister, he didn’t expect to be taking his party into a general election quite so soon. Speaking in Glasgow during his first keynote speech on the economy, Mr Swinney acknowledged Labour was not the same as the Tories, suggesting he appreciated that an incoming Labour government could take a different approach to public spending.

But that take by Mr Swinney has been binned off, with the SNP dusting-off a well-trodden path of warning the Westminster system will not protect Scotland’s interests, no matter who is in Downing Street.

It makes perfect sense for the SNP to do this – given that Labour has made no secret of targeting those who voted Yes at the 2014 independence referendum. In those marginal seats, the SNP just need to put enough doubt into people’s heads over Labour’s blueprint that if could be enough to hold onto some of their MPs that are at threat of losing their jobs.

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Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer launches his party's manifesto at Co-op HQ in Manchester (Photo by Stefan Rousseau/PA)Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer launches his party's manifesto at Co-op HQ in Manchester (Photo by Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer launches his party's manifesto at Co-op HQ in Manchester (Photo by Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Mr Swinney has clung to a warning from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) that whoever forms the next government at Westminster, if they sign up to the fiscal rules used by the Conservatives, will have to make between £10bn and £20bn of cuts to public services. One Scottish Labour insider told me Labour signing up to the Tory fiscal rules was “a Swinnyism” and it wasn’t as simple as that under the plans set out by Labour shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves.

That IFS warning is based on the latest forecasts set out in Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s autumn statement last year – so Labour is claiming that if it grows the economy as it intends, then more funding will be available for public spending. But with that strategy, there is less confidence that austerity won’t be around the corner if we suffer a so-called fiscal event or global matters outside the UK government’s control crash the economy.

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar told The Scotsman earlier this week the “desperate attempts” from the SNP was them simply using “big, scary numbers … in order to create fear and drive them towards a divisive agenda”.

But Mr Swinney has gone gung-ho on the line that Labour will continue austerity – and it could prove critical to the SNP’s campaign. In Tuesday’s BBC Scotland Debate Night election special, Mr Swinney relentlessly pushed the Labour austerity card – almost to the point of harassment.

Mr Swinney made a point on becoming FM that he wanted a nicer brand of politics at Holyrood and called for an end to the hostility that has plagued Scottish politics since the independence referendum. But looking at how Mr Swinney and Mr Sarwar have approached each other and squabbled over the past week, it leaves no other conclusion than the gloves are firmly off once again.

A big part of the SNP’s pledge to voters is the Westminster system is broken – it has given us the cost-of-living crisis and that austerity it claims Labour will continue and only the SNP and independence can solve that.

That narrative the Westminster system is broken is quite an effective one on an emotive level. Some voters will look at Brexit and the cost-of-living crisis and want an alternative. The SNP believe this is independence and therefore people should vote for them. Labour think that change Scots are seeking can be achieved by voting in a Labour government at Westminster.

When so many key seats are a toss-up between Labour and the SNP and there are question marks about Labour’s fiscal strategy, this is a card worth playing. The SNP will almost-certainly lose some seats at the general election – but it could cling onto some MPs across the Central Belt if that message cuts through to enough voters.

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By implying there is nothing to get excited about with an incoming Labour government and claiming Scotland could suffer more funding cuts, the SNP could sway enough people to salvage something from what looks set to be a pretty dismal general election.

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