SNP conference: Pushing Labour out of the nest

Nicola Sturgeon Image copyright EPA
Image caption SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has challenged Labour

From a Labour perspective - I stress, from a Labour perspective - the latest offer from the SNP anent post-election collaboration must seem somewhat like a cuckoo coalition.

That is because - again, from a Labour perspective - the prospectus involves the SNP moving in upon territories in Scotland which Labour has, hitherto, regarded as its fiefdoms.

It involves the SNP occupying the Scottish Labour nest, pushing the reluctant incumbent aside - and then arguing for a co-operative deal with the party across Britain.

From an SNP perspective, the initiative makes perfect strategic sense. Yes, Nicola Sturgeon genuinely seeks to influence the choice of the next UK government. Politicians are in business to effect change.

However, it also works long before that post-election choice arises. It works for the election campaign itself in that the offer is designed to place pressure upon Labour now.

Consider the three "red lines", set out by the SNP with an eye to collaborative talks from May 8. They are...

  1. More powers for Scotland, beyond Smith
  2. An "end to austerity"
  3. And scrapping the update of the Trident fleet.

These are bargaining chips in that, for example, Ms Sturgeon would not necessarily insist upon the precise detail of her economic plan (an increase in public spending of 0.5 per cent per annum in real terms, while still reducing the deficit.)

But they are also designed to challenge Labour now. In front of the voters. While those voters are making up their minds. They are designed to influence the outcome of the election, not merely to anticipate discussions which might attend upon a particular outcome.

Ms Sturgeon is saying to Labour's Jim Murphy. So you reject further powers for Scotland? You favour austerity? You want to spend billions upgrading Trident?

These are, of course, simplistic versions of the debate which will take place on the hustings. But elections tend to generate simplicity - although there is anecdotal evidence that the prolonged referendum has sharpened the inquisitive tendencies of the Scottish electorate.

Equally, Mr Murphy will have his own questions to pose in return. About the Scottish government's own record: not up for election now but, he will argue, legitimately open to challenge. About full fiscal autonomy.

Progressive opinion

Here, at the SNP conference in Glasgow, Nicola Sturgeon has taken her message a step further. Addressing 3,000 delegates at this quite remarkable event, she said that the SNP would provide the "backbone and guts" for Labour in office.

Beyond this decidedly physical detail, Ms Sturgeon had a psychological message. She calculates that most of Scotland remains resilient to the appeal of the Conservatives. She is broadening the challenge to Labour. Given the choice, she questions, would you work with the SNP and "lock David Cameron out of office" - even if, as I established with sundry interviewees, the Tories have more seats than any other party?

That is her way around the argument - familiar from the past and adduced now by Mr Murphy - that voting SNP against Labour simply helps the Conservatives in a UK General Election.

In essence, she equates the SNP with broad Scottish opinion - and now with what she styles progressive opinion across the UK. In effect, she then places Labour and SNP votes together in a collective anti-Conservative basket, while arguing that the SNP contribution to the mix is to strengthen the Scottish perspective.

As one conference speaker noted, the SNP aim at this election is to replace Labour in Scotland - and then be prepared to work with Labour in England.

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