NICOLA Sturgeon yesterday made a dramatic pitch to working class voters as she sought to cement the SNP’s dominance over Labour in Scotland.
The First Minister declared that the SNP was a “left of centre social democratic party” as she announced a series of measures to help those struggling on low incomes.
Closing the largest ever SNP conference with a rapturously received speech, Sturgeon said Labour was going “deeper and deeper into the political wilderness” under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
Making her appeal to what was once Labour’s core support, Sturgeon unveiled plans to ensure that every nursery in Scotland’s most deprived areas will have an additional qualified teacher or childcare graduate by 2018.
She also announced proposals to use the top-up welfare benefits coming to Holyrood as a result of the Scotland Bill to increase carers’ allowance to the same level as jobseekers’ allowance. Under her plans, the cash received by carers would go up from £62 per week to £73 – an increase that will cost an estimated £40 million per year by 2020-21.
Sturgeon also confirmed her plans to give children from the most deprived backgrounds access to quality early education to reduce the gap in attainment between the poor and the rich.
Acknowledging that she had “put my own neck on the line” with her personal commitment to closing the gap, Sturgeon said there would be a “revolution in early years education and childcare.”
“By the end of the next parliament we will double childcare provision to 30 hours a week for all three- and four-year-olds and vulnerable two-year-olds,” the First Minister added.
Less than a fortnight out from the Scottish Labour conference, Sturgeon indicated her determination to win more people over from the party that once dominated Scottish politics.
“They can’t agree whether to move leftwards, rightwards or go round in circles. As a result, the only place Labour is going is deeper and deeper into the political wilderness,” she said.
“I know where we stand. We are a left of centre social democratic party – standing up for the values, interests and aspirations of mainstream Scotland – and that’s what we will always be.”
Sturgeon made no mention of the Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale in her speech, but claimed Corbyn was failing to change the Labour Party in the way he promised to.
“Labour’s failure to meet even the basic requirements of an effective opposition – to be united and credible as an alternative government should make them deeply ashamed of themselves,” Sturgeon said.
At the end of a conference that saw the SNP leader questioned relentlessly on the timing of a second referendum, Sturgeon claimed Labour’s disarray would persuade more Scots that independence is the only way to dislodge a UK Conservative government.
“Their [Labour’s] disunity threatens to consign the UK to another decade of Tory government. That’s a tragedy for people all across the UK,” Sturgeon said. “But for more and more people in Scotland, Labour’s inability to mount a credible challenge for government will bring into sharp focus this fundamental truth: the only real and lasting alternative to Tory governments that we don’t vote for is independence for our country.”
With the SNP’s opponents lining up to attack the party on its performance in government ahead of next year’s Holyrood election, Sturgeon mounted a defence of her record.
“I am determined that we will win a third term in office,” she said. “Over the past nine years we’ve laid strong foundations. I want us to build on them. The other parties say they want to fight the election on our record. Well, I say ‘good’ – because so do I.
“Our record in government is one of delivery and achievement. It’s not perfect – of course it’s not – but make no mistake, it is a record I am proud of.”
Last night Labour responded to the speech by saying that it was keen to take on Sturgeon on her record.
Labour’s public services spokeswoman Jackie Baillie said: “After eight years, Nicola Sturgeon says that the SNP should be judged on their record. We welcome that and it is exactly what we will do. We want people across Scotland to have the world beating public services that they deserve, but the truth is that under the SNP standards in our schools have been slipping and our NHS is struggling.
“The gap between the richest and the rest in our schools has persisted and, despite what the First Minister says, Scotland has the lowest proportion of university entrants from state schools anywhere in the UK. That’s not surprising, given that you are twice as likely to get an A in your Highers if you are from a well-off background.
“Last winter, our hospitals saw long waits at A&E and last week, before winter bites, nearly 1 in 4 patients at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital waited over four hours to be seen at Accident and Emergency. We welcome any investment that will support our NHS, but the SNP Scottish Government have lagged behind even the Tories in investing in our health service since 2010.
“The SNP are starting to make the same mistakes Labour used to in government – people will judge the SNP on their own experiences of schools and hospitals, not the First Minister’s rhetoric.”
Nationalists revel in their relevance
With more than 3,000 delegates and exhibitors passing through the cavernous hangers of the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre for the SNP’s annual three-day gathering, the contrast with days gone by could not be greater.
Banished to distant memory are the hame-knitted affairs of two decades ago, when a couple of hundred nationalists would descend on Rothesay or Dunoon for a bit of a shindig.
The doughty veterans who have been on the road with the SNP on its journey from the fringes to the political establishment were amazed by the sea of new faces amid the “Stronger for Scotland” branding and slick professionalism of a modern SNP conference.
But for a party with so many members (more than 114,000 at the last count), so much would appear to rely on Nicola Sturgeon.
Sturgeon was a ubiquitous presence throughout, from her opening speech to the euphoric reception she received at the close of her keynote speech last night.
By contrast, her cadre of ministers played a far more low-key role, making very few serious policy speeches, despite the proximity of next year’s election. There was little to dispel the notion that the party takes the view that their figurehead is their greatest asset and is in danger of becoming a one-woman show. Even Alex Salmond was reduced to just a couple of minutes on the conference platform.
In the interests of party unity, the potentially difficult question of the timing of a second independence referendum was dealt with in Sturgeon’s opening speech in an attempt to move the conference on to other matters.
Admittedly, the leadership had to deal with a rare rebellion when the current proposals to shake up land ownership were rejected on the grounds that they are not radical enough.
But the SNP’s remarkable unity was in evidence when delegates toed the line on fracking, backing the leadership’s plans for a moratorium despite many wanting an all-out ban.
But as the applause rang out, perhaps the most obvious display of that unity was in the grassroots belief in their star performer upon whom so much depends.